If it were easy as fishin’ you could be a musician. —Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “Takin’ Care of Business”
DIE-HARD ROCK AND ROLLERS SNICKER at this example of hallowed rock lyricism, yet—and this is a phrase I never thought I would use— BTO has a point. It’s not so easy when your job is playing music. It might seem so; you can quickly pick up the basics of an instrument. Memorize a few chords, recruit some friends, practice some changes, and you’ve got a band. Careers have been built on less. Ask BTO. Most groups, though, are not so lucky. It’s hard enough to find a unique musical voice, let alone make a living.
These days, bands trying to succeed basically come in two models, proactive and reactive. Reactive bands play a couple of gigs, then sit around and whine because Rolling Stone, Interscope Records, and the Robert Palmer video girls (I’m really dating myself here) aren’t showing up at the door. Proactive groups realize that no one is going to do anything for them, at least in the beginning, so they read, ask questions, and learn how to put together press kits, work the phones, make recordings, and persuade indifferent club owners to give them gigs. They may not have business-school aspirations, but they understand that they’re smack in the middle of a cutthroat business environment where only the wily survive.
So it’s exciting when you encounter an act like Austin’s Grupo Fantasma, a young, unsigned band with great music and a head for what to do with it. Musically, Grupo is nothing short of thrilling: lock-tight rhythms, punchy horns, dual guitars, and sizzling percussion backing a charismatic singer, all in a ten-piece, infectiously upbeat cross-cultural dance machine. Their funky and smart streetwise cumbias (slowed-down Latin grooves with an undeniable backbeat) are packing clubs with wildly diverse audiences. And though anyone in the industry would tell you that their do-it-yourself business model—supporting a large working band without the help of a manager, lawyer, booking agent, or label—is impossible, they seem to be bucking conventional wisdom.
How? They build their fan base by playing—a lot. Grupo just wrapped up their third national tour and in all have played upward of eighty gigs in the past year, including their second packed South by Southwest showcase. They’ve made, and sold, their own CD. They’ve turned up on a compilation record, Mexico: The Greatest Songs Ever, alongside such established California vatos as Los Lobos and Ozomatli. They have a song in the upcoming John Sayles film, Casa de los Babys. All this has attracted the attention of big record labels and at least one star producer, but the band is showing remarkable restraint.
“We’re not dumb about this kind of thing,” explains Adrian Quesada, one of the band’s guitarists and its de facto business manager. I’m sitting in a quiet Laredo hotel restaurant with five members of the group on a tranquil, hot Sunday afternoon in March. As drinks flow and our volume increases, the few tourists who straggle in shoot some furtive glances our way. Quesada is discussing label offers. “We’d rather not take a huge loan and have to pay it back. We don’t mind working hard, and we don’t need to be babied.”
Record companies try to entice groups with large cash advances, to cover studio costs, along with things like vans for touring (Grupo still rent theirs), expensive musical equipment, and of course, pocket money. The temptation often proves impossible for impoverished musicians to resist, and few acts really think it through. Virtually everything a label spends on a group is applied against its future earnings. Many bands launch their major-label debuts already hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Unless they get lucky enough to score a big hit, they’ll never see the end of the red ink, and before they know it, the record company has dropped them, and their reputation is poison.
Quesada is only 25, but he and the rest of the band, ranging from 23 to 38, understand this. They’ve all been at it awhile. By their early teens, bassist Greg Gonzalez, drummer Johnny Lopez, guitarist Beto Martinez, and vocalist Brian Ramos were playing in a Laredo band that came to be known as the Blimp, before moving to Austin in the mid-nineties. There they met Quesada, who is also from Laredo and who was in a squonky jazz-rock quartet, the Blue Noise Band, with a Long Island saxophonist named Dave Lobel and a percussionist from Iowa, Jeremy Bruch. The Blimp and the Blue Noise Band began playing regular gigs on different nights at Austin’s Manor Road Coffee House. Soon the bands were mixing it up, sitting in with each other and playing funk jams at campus parties.
Influences crept in. Lobel and Quesada had played fluid rhythms in Afro-beat and Caribbean ensembles. In the early nineties Gonzalez and Martinez had ventured past the tourist traps of Nuevo Laredo (now teaming with Spider-Man and SpongeBob piñatas) into the clubs to hear the imported driving beats of cumbia colombiana. “We didn’t take [the music] seriously until we started seeing those bands,” recalls Gonzalez.
It all came to a head one night. “We were loaded, sitting around listening to cumbias,” Martinez recalls, “saying, ‘Man, we can play that.’ The next night Adrian called and said he booked a gig. We had, like, seven songs. We made it last two hours.” The first Grupo show, at Austin’s Empanada Parlour in November 2000, drew a hundred people. The second was a stone sellout.
Though the band’s lyrics are in Spanish, fans from all races and backgrounds have been coming ever since, which is good when you operate with Grupo’s kind of overhead. Transportation, housing, and meal costs add up quickly, so it takes a lot to make an out-of-town show profitable. They book their shows themselves, so there’s no agency fee, and on lower-paying gigs, they go for the promotional value, hawking their T-shirts and CDs. They released their eponymous debut CD