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Q&A with Felipe Alvarez: Indie Labels Are Better Than Major

Questions about the future of indie music and where it’s heading continue to boggle the minds of music connoisseurs, musicians, and music industry affiliates. One of these is whether an artist can survive as a stand alone indie artist, or if it’s necessary to jump under the wing of a major label to continue succeeding in larger realms. Of course this largely depends on the particular goals of that musician. Having a discussion with my colleague Martin Giraldo, who’s heavily involved in the debate about the future of indie music, introduced me to Medellin-native Felipe Alvarez, an indie label owner of Colombia’s Polen Records and music producer of Bomba Esteréo, Monsieur Periné, among many other talents.

Felipe was in New York for about two weeks to finish the production of Bomba’s upcoming album while the band was touring and made a stop in Brooklyn. We decided to grab Felipe for tea and a chat at Brooklyn’s La Esquina hours prior before returning to his work base in Bogotá to pick his brain about topics mentioned above. In this interview, we talk about the many levels an artist can leverage from his or her music, Felipe’s production involvement with said artists and those on Polen Records, and Bomba Estéreo’s transition from indie to major (which was still kind of a secret).

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We are interested in your opinion about the process of indie bands and how they work to distribute their music, as well for those who transition into a major label and the steps they take…just wanted to get some insight into that.

But first, how has the production process been so far on Bomba Estéreo’s upcoming album?

It has been crazy! We started recording each song, that was a continuation of the style they’ve carried throughout the years. Then we moved forward to a new sound, but when we found that, we had to go back to the old Bomba Estéreo sound, which was a bit far from where we departed from. It was also a bit difficult because the band was traveling all around, and we didn’t have a lot of time with the band. But I think in the end the result was okay.

So what is one of the main differences from the previous album to this one?

I think it’s a bit more electronic, although it has some folk references, maybe it’s not that folky but more electronic, although you can feel some champeta and some cumbia in the songs.

What’s your favorite track right now on this upcoming release?

Well, it’s crazy. The one that we did with Buraka Som Sistema, I think that’s my favorite. Although I like a lot—some chill songs, like “El alma y el cuerpo” — but, I think that one is the more exciting one.

You produce for Monsieur Periné too! You work with several artists. How do you know how to approach them differently since they own different styles?

Yeah, normally I work with bands, not solo artists. So my input is through their music, not that I impose you have to do this or that to help them deliver their sound. I think it’s a process which you create with them but departing from where they are, what they know how to do best, and take the best out of each member.

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WHEN [INDIES] MOVE TO A MAJOR, THEY REALIZE
INDIE LABELS ARE BETTER BECAUSE AT LEAST THEY CARE MORE ABOUT
YOUR MUSIC AND WHAT YOU’RE DOING.
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Talking about the industry, what do you recommend for bands, do you prefer for them to stay indie or to go to a major label?

Well, it depends a lot on what they are looking for in life. I think… A friend of mine has had this indie label for about 12 years; an indie record label in Brazil, I don’t recall the name. He told me one thing that I think is very appropriate. He said, “You know, they normally like indies in the beginning and then they want to move to a major, and when they move to a major they realize indie labels are better because at least they care more about your music and what you’re doing.” So if you’re looking to be real famous, in a way, then for sure a major label will push it forward. And at some point in the development of a band, maybe that could be the way to go. It depends a lot on not only a major label, but on who signs you. If somebody in the company is really into the project, and loves the project, then maybe you’re good with a major. But nowadays…

Do you think that an artist can leverage where he wants to be by just only using social media, for example YouTube, Basecamp, Twitter? Do you think that has the ability to push them on their own?

No. I don’t think. Of course in a way it does. Even though YouTube and all those digital media channels have become more and more popular and important. I think having at least an indie label helps a lot, because it’s a matter of credibility. Also, having someone who is willing to work your music, and push it forward; there’s some credibility issues there I think.

So how long have you been doing what you do with music production?

Ten years.

How has technology—you know because it’s been evolving like all the time—affected the music that you do, from when you started till today?

It’s crazy. Well, actually I started 15 years ago recording music with a digital 8 track recorder, and some analog work I did also. You have to be very precise and getting a good sound was not that easy. Nowadays with the laptop, you can record an album that is pretty good sounding. Not great sound.

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Me and Felipe having a chat at La Esquina

Exactly. You can do a lot of things with it and I think that’s very good because you don’t need like a hundred-thousand-dollar US studio to work on, like it was in the old days. On the other hand, there’s too much music now.

It’s true, it’s quickly done. What do you think, because we live in this digital age of information, and so much music gets lost in your iTunes for example, where do you think it’s going? How can music maintain vitality?

Well, there’s always good things and bad things about the transformation. Ten years ago, you recorded an album and the artist was so into that and maybe he or she received a phone call, cell phones were there, but people were more focused into things they were doing. Nowadays, you have like ten different things happening at the same time and so people get more dispersed.

Like multitasking?

We’re not prepared.

So tell me what else you have your label, Polen Records?

Thank you. Haha. Mucho Indio, which is a really nice project that I will somehow deliver to you. It’s Teto Ocampo, former guitar player for Carlos Vives and Sidestepper among other bands; it was two years in the making—investigation for about two years. So, he was looking for Indian melodies all through Colombia in very, very deep parts. And he came up with an 11-song record with music that is traditional from native Indians of Colombia mixed with some electronica.

What is the tribe called?

Different tribes. There are Indians from La Sierra Nevada, from El Cauca—very very interesting—from Nariño.

That’s interesting, that whole movement incorporating traditional folkloric sounds with electronica.

I love it. I think that is where we are heading.

Yeah, like ConEctor. He did the same thing. Very interesting.

Yeah, because they are all into finding ancient knowledge, that’s what they’re looking for, I think.

So, what artists are you currently working with?

With Sidestepper. We released one compilation of 15 years of work, 15 tracks, and it’s called 15—only available in Colombia—and that was pretty good for us.

How close are you with the artists when you’re manipulating their sounds?

Very close.

They’re like involved the entire time with everything?

I like that. I like the artists to be with me almost every minute.

Going back to Bomba, what other artists collaborate on this new record?

We invited BNegão, who is a Brazilian MC, very good—and the collaboration was very good—and Burakas Som Sistema.

What’s next right now? When is their album out?

I don’t know because I will not be involved in releasing the album; probably a major will do it.

Ah, I see.

[Awkward silence]

But I also wanted to talk to you about a new project we have, it’s called Cero 39. I don’t know how to describe it to be honest, but it has champeta influences and it’s way more electronic than anything we’ve released in the past. We’re very happy with the album. It’s a bit dub-y, champeta, and reggaeton, a bit. But, we’re really happy with it.

Music changes so much every decade. What do you think will be the sound of the future?… if you could describe that.

It’s crazy. I think the evolution of what they call World Music 2.0 will be more and more present in the future. I think artists like M.I.A. opened a whole new era for sound, and I think a lot of new things in that kind of sound we’ll be hearing more and more.

Fusions!

Yeah! Balkan Beat Box, for instance. I love that sound.

I love that band.

I’m a huge fan. Probably we will make a collaboration, like a remix at least, with those guys for Bomba.

Oh my god, I’m so excited to hear that. That’s gonna be awesome.

I saw them live in 2006 and I said, “Fuck, this is the future!”

I saw them in 2009 here in NY.

Yeah they are based here in Brooklyn.

Yeah, they are like half Brooklyn—they go back and forth.

Yeah. Israel.

And then also Gogol Bordello, they are all in the same movement.

They’re the same family. Ori. Ori Kaplan. The saxophone player. He used to play with Gogol.

Oh okay. Yeah like I knew that they were kind of like…in the same family. So… then…. is Bomba Estéreo confirmed they’re going major?

Well, the major hasn’t signed but the intention…

Are they both going, or just Li Saumet?… The band? Cause I was actually wondering if she was going to go solo.

The band is going. No. Yeah, she released one track with her new alter ego.

About killing her boyfriend, right? I’ll Kill You.

Ex boyfriend. She’s nuts. But I love her. Next track, she said—she was probably joking—but she said next track of Leidi Li will be “Fuck You All.” Haha… I’m pretty sure that Leidi Li can come up with different ideas that maybe Bomba Estéreo won’t.

Exactly. It’s so different working with people and collaborating in that sense, than when you’re just doing your own thing, without getting the okay from the rest… just do it yourself.

[Martin Giraldo] At the end of the day Li was brought by Simon as a collaborator. So in that sense for Bomba, the creative centerpiece is Simon, right? I mean, they work well together, but the concept of the band is Simon’s idea.

You may be right.

[MG] Let’s continue on the debate of what’s happening in the music industry. Many times, we go without debating or exposing the importance that a fan has to a musician’s processes. Since you have an indie label with indie artists, above all, the one that grabs my attention is Monsieur Periné. In less than a year, they have over 20,000 followers. So, what three tips can you give a musician who is just starting out in how to relate to their fans?

I’m not the perfect person to answer that question. I’ve seen it happen. I wouldn’t be able to give that advise. I see how it happens, but it isn’t me who’s posting on facebook and reading people’s reactions. I do believe that the relationship between an artist and a fan has changed greatly. The fan is consistently commenting.

And it’s so much easier that way. Back in the day, you had to search for an artists fan-mailing address, write the letter, and for them to even get to it, read it, and possibly even respond… So the one who benefits the most is the fan because he or she has a direct channel with the artist.

And they complain! They’ll say, “Oh, that song is horrible!”, “I didn’t like your new album” or “It’s wrongly written.” And that’s very harsh for the artist, because they get overwhelmed by too much information.

They’re on the spotlight all the time.

Exactly. They used to be on the spotlight, they were protected. Only the critics were the only ones who could say those things.