Rocanrol Heartburn

The Valley's unstable Latin rock scene leaves a bad taste in local promoters' mouths -- and keeps international acts away

Gerardo Montenegro, the Mexico-born owner of Phoenix underground record store Metal Devastation, is getting fed up with promoting his beloved rock en español, so much so that lately he's found himself concentrating more on metal en ingles.

"When I do shows with white bands, I don't have many problems. Everybody is on time, and they never ask for anything," Montenegro says. "They just want to play and don't act like rock stars." With a look of astonishment, he adds, "They ask me what they can do for me."

Montenegro's comments speak to what, in many ways, is a fractured and ineffectual support system for Latin rock bands and their fans here in the Valley. Perhaps more alarmingly, they also speak to a main reason international touring acts often ignore the area -- namely the behavior of the artists, their backers and the fans themselves.

The band plays but no one listens: Rocanrol strikes out at a Chandler gig.
Emily Piraino
The band plays but no one listens: Rocanrol strikes out at a Chandler gig.
So much for that strategy: Door charges as high as $20 keep fans away.
Emily Piraino
So much for that strategy: Door charges as high as $20 keep fans away.

"With Spanish [bands], sometimes you have to baby-sit them," Montenegro continues. "You have to go look for them; they show up late or not at all, or one member is missing. The bass player's not here. Can you jump another band?' That messes up the whole show for the other bands."

Promoters of traditional white rock shows, such as Will Anderson, booking agent for Nita's Hideaway, have a quick solution to that problem: "They just don't play. I may try to do something, but they need to be on time. I've heard of Latino shows going well past 1 a.m. because everyone was late, or they just kept playing and playing." Latino promoters, not wanting to cut off the band and knowing it'll all cost more money, usually let the chaotic time-management slide.

That situation might be more tolerable if the audience for Latin rock shows were stronger, something Montenegro says makes life even hairier. "If I make enough money, I can split it with the bands," he says, quickly noting that he's made a profit on only two shows in the past couple of years. He also mentions that a lot of fans try to get in for free. "As a promoter, if they pay me more, then I can bring bigger bands, which is what they want anyway. They don't want to pay. Oh, man, I'm your friend, let me in,' they say to me," Montenegro says. Reluctantly, he concludes, "Rock en Phoenix no se sirve. It doesn't work."

These difficulties may give Montenegro and other promoters headaches, but they aren't likely to empty wallets like dealing with an international touring act can, and therein lies the shame. Montenegro had the chance in October to promote a local show featuring Argentinean veterans Rata Blanca, a successful, old-school, theatrical metal band in the vein of Iron Maiden. The band asked him for $3,000, plus hotel rooms, food, and transportation to and from Los Angeles. Add in advertising and production costs, and there was no way Montenegro could recoup that kind of money at the door.

Jose Luis Botto, Rata Blanca's manager, explains that the demanded fee would help pay for travel expenses from Argentina and throughout the States, and that it was considerably less than the normal going rate for shows in Argentina and throughout Latin America. Even though the band ultimately refused to lower its asking price, Botto comments that, "For us, the music is not only [for] money. [It] is more important to show and discover new people. We like that the people [who] hear English rock can also hear the Spanish rock and discover new talents." He comments that, in stronger markets such as New York, Chicago and L.A., cities where the band performed sold-out shows, it was able to charge as much as it does back home. Of other cities, such as Las Vegas and Houston, where the band is playing for the first time, he says, "Practically, we are opening the doors to our music." He adds that the group did not find a promoter willing to pay to bring the band to Phoenix.

As a result, the band's tour wound up rolling through Los Angeles, San Diego and Gilroy, California; Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Chicago and New York. A Phoenix-bound Rata Blanca show, Montenegro laments, would have been great, but at the already-discounted fee of $3,000, it was just too much money to risk in an unstable market. Had he accepted the challenge, he knows that reaching a potential fan base would have been an uphill struggle. He says he feels trapped in a big city with a large Latino population that has no dedicated Latin alternative station. Alas, Valley airwaves are dominated by three Mexican regional stations, an adult-contemporary station and another that plays romantic ballads.

"Regional Mexican [music] . . . pays the bills. It has a mass appeal," says Mary Hurtado, marketing director for La Nueva FM 105.9 and Amor FM 100.3/106.3. Hurtado says the ballad-driven Amor "may play Maná and Juanes but not rock rock, nothing too hard."

"Arizona sticks to what works," she continues. "Fans, radio stations and promoters in all genres keep going back to the same thing . . . anything else is a risk. For the little guy, there's not a lot of club support. If you're a nobody here, you can't expect to come in and get paid, especially when local radio stations don't support your format."

"We really need the radio," Montenegro says. "When we ask for a favor, they ask us for a lot of money. Those people don't know; they think we are doing a big show like Tucanes [de Tijuana, a popular norteño band] or something. They don't understand that we are trying to build a scene of rock in Phoenix." Even if stations wanted to help, the costs are usually too burdensome for smaller to midsize acts such as Rata Blanca.

And then there's the matter of the artist's rider, which, at a 2,000-seat venue like Celebrity Theatre, might not be a big deal, but for a smaller club could be a deal breaker. Gabriel Trujillo Palacios, a pioneer of rock en español in the Valley and also the Spanish voice of the Arizona Cardinals, explains, "Riders are very expensive for these bands. With sound and lights, it can be very high, around $3,500 to $7,500. It's too much." Palacios puts on occasional shows at Club Paraiso, where he is known as "Doctor Fiebre." He transforms the popular norteño club into a Spanish disco night every Friday night, attracting 600 young Latinos clamoring to hear and dance to their favorite Spanish rock bands. He also tries to host one major act every three months. "Out of 10 shows offered to us, we may pass on four because costs are too high." Acts of major importance that passed on Paraiso this year include La Ley and a reunited Fobia.

Some bands complicate matters with lofty expectations. They are essentially presenting themselves to U.S. audiences they are trying to capture, sparking the desire to put on grand productions like they do at home, where better ticket sales usually call for higher budgets. Thomas Cookman of L.A.-based Cookman International, whose firm books and manages acts such as Fabulosos Cadillacs, La Ley and Gustavo Cerati, has lived in and toured Latin America extensively with his bands, where he says the role of the promoter is to take care of the band's needs -- all of them.

"Everything you could possibly need is taken care of by the promoter," Cookman says. "Every moment you are in that town, you are like their baby. It's the promoter's job to take care of you." The treatment is similar to that of what a pop star would receive here in the States: rides from the airport, nice hotels, shuttles to and from interviews, etc.

"If a band has false expectations," Cookman says, "it's the promoter's fault for letting them have them. Everyone has to make money. A general market promoter will give you directions to nearby hotels and restaurants. Tell you what time load-in is and give you $6,000 and might say, Hopefully, there will be money to split at the end of the night.' For most Latin artists, taking a lower guarantee is usually out of the question. They won't do a split with a promoter [here] because they just don't trust them."

Latin bands sometimes have a simple goal of getting the most money possible from a promoter, sometimes hooking up with someone who is promoting his or her first show. Or they may demand the same fees from every city they play, not realizing that U.S. markets vary not only in population but also in size of the Spanish rock scene.

"To walk into Boston -- or Phoenix, for that matter -- and expect $40,000 and to find a promoter willing to pay it is bullshit, because you know he's not going to make it back." Cookman warns that, because it's a glamorous business, a lot of people with investment money get into it for all the wrong reasons. "You get people with money from a meat market and a travel agency, and that's crap," he says. "It leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth."

While the fate of rock en español in Phoenix is not determined by whether Rata Blanca's tour stops here, its story paints a daunting picture of the state of Valley rocanrol. Clubs like Paraiso will march on, and guys like Montenegro will still try to further the scene. However, a question remains: Will clubs, venues, promoters and media outlets come together with enough consistency to keep major touring acts from flying over Phoenix?

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