Major corporations have historically only supported independent culture as a guise. They rely on targeted marketing, wherein cool points are gained and sales are generated. The strategy is inherently exploitative, but there are times when the underground can actually benefit from that often ethically murky exchange — especially if money is involved.
In 1998, when Ricardo Burgos wanted to launch a magazine dedicated to documenting underground Puerto Rican culture, he knew what high-level partnerships could mean. And he knew just how to sell the benefits. “We positioned ourselves [as] influencing the influencers and the early adopters,” he says. “So basically that’s how the brands saw us: They saw it as going after the influencers: the trendy, cool people that then would influence the masses.”
Triple-digit contracts with Banco Popular, Puerto Rico’s biggest bank, and Don Q, the island’s famous best-selling rum, plus outside companies with local interests (Dodge, McDonald’s, and more) became the financial supports for Burgos’ vision.
“There was no voice for the alternative creative class in Puerto Rico.”
Noctámbulo began as a guide to nightlife and entertainment, he says, but a background in events promotion – he played a major role in the island’s rave culture – naturally led him to underground-specific content. “Very quickly, because of our connection to alternative music and events…we found that there was no voice for the alternative creative class in Puerto Rico. Little by little, we started documenting them, and then the magazine completely became two main areas: One was the nightlife and entertainment guide, the other area was the editorial [side] about what was going on in the alternative scenes in Puerto Rico,” he says.
What Burgos and his team did with that platform was substantial. Obviously, these were pre-Internet days, but also a time when staple local news outlets paid little attention to fringe culture. Nobody was comprehensively cataloging the independent scene in Puerto Rico. Noctámbulo was the first, and for a full 10 years, it was meticulous in capturing every aspect, from hip-hop to electronic to punk and reggae. Artists of all mediums got a boost, too. Its 40-something pages showcased works of graffiti, photography, performance art, audio visual art, and everything in between.
Marcos Pechio is one of those artists once featured in Noctámbulo. He recently ventured into media and publishing with La Marginal, a print magazine and blog founded along with Gabi Sifre and Rima Ibrahim.
“This was the first magazine that was free, and it was everywhere. It was fucking everywhere,” he says. “Like, it was in bars, boutiques — mostly in bars. If you were a graphic designer or if you had a band, or if you were another artist, you wanted to have your shit here, because this was free, and it had that reach. Anybody could just pick this up and see your stuff.”
Spreading the good word of the underground didn’t end with the publication itself, either. Through the events division of its overall holding company (Mannon Group, founded by Burgos), the Noctámbulo crew also headed up events, most memorably the Feria de Cultura Urbana. The inaugural 2002 edition was held in the most conspicuous of places: A shopping mall. “That was very exciting, to see the shock of young people that didn’t know that independent…music was being produced in Puerto Rico. They were discovering bands they’d never heard,” Burgos recalls.
The following year was extra innovative, held at four separate train stations. In that moment, Noctámbulo was probably at its influential crest. At that time, they had a whopping 50,000 registered users on the website, Burgos notes.
Still, one year later, Noctámbulo was kaput. With digital media on the rise, its appeal waned. Even an incredibly thorough calendar of events lost its utility in the wake of blogs and social media. It just wasn’t the only one of its kind anymore.
“Times changed,” says Lorraine Rodríguez, who worked in design during Noctámbulo‘s latter years. “People were interested in other kinds of things. It wasn’t so popular at the end, la revista. Pero en su momento, fue algo increíblemente grande.”
Its first office was in Guaynabo, but Noctámbulo‘s second home was in Santurce — and to some degree can be linked to the district’s development as a stronghold for independent art.
For Ariel Hernández Domenech, a writer since 2001 who later managed the Frecuencia Rock section, one of the best things about Noctámbulo was its makeshift venue on the first floor parking garage. “I say venue entre comillas, because it was a garage,” he laughs. “But Friday nights, we would take out the cars and put a stage there, and noise artists from around the globe played there. Balún played there; several bands played there…We sold beers from a neverita. It was a cool experience.”
Cubo 1504, it was called — named simply for its shape and the address, Burgos notes. “[That space] created a platform for artists that had incredible proposals but they were not commercial at all — they were experimental most of the time — to have a venue that didn’t charge them to do their events,” he says. “With that, we discovered so many new talents that we didn’t have on the radar, then we exposed their stuff. Another thing that happened from that…in a way, the platform from which [massive annual arts fest] Santurce es Ley came out. Alexis Bousquet [Santurce es Ley founder] was my art director at the time, and he was producing these events with me. When he left and Noctámbulo shut down, he kept doing those events…on another level.”
Burgos is rightfully proud of that collaboration with Bousquet, as well as the way Noctámbulo‘s prowess in pushing independent culture was a springboard for so many others, like visual artist Sofia Maldonado or reggae icons Cultura Profética.
But Burgos somewhat laments having involved all those corporations. “That came with challenges,” he says. “Brands like Pepsi that wanted to put Daddy Yankee on the back cover of our magazine…and that gave us a lot of conflict, because our credibility was on the line of an alternative magazine that was very loyal to its core. The second time around, they had a Daddy Yankee ad, and I said no way. Basically it cost us a $150,000 contract,” he says.
Noctámbulo‘s end can’t be wholly attributed to uncompromising stances, though. As the financial crisis took hold, advertising budgets were being cut everywhere, period — and alternative media were the first to be axed. Burgos considered diversifying and adapting at first, but ultimately opted out. “It was a decision to close it down. We didn’t go bankrupt. We could have kept existing. I didn’t like social media,” he says. “To this day, I don’t have a Facebook under my name.”
He does keep alias accounts for work, though. Today, he’s got a multidisciplinary consulting firm, a nonprofit, and is also a government consultant for creative economic development. Burgos helped push a 2014 law that delegates $1 million from general budget funding to the economic development of creative industries. Two weeks ago, he saw that money in action in the form of a $100,000 grant, some of which was awarded to artists he’s known since the Noctámbulo days.
Burgos says that people still beg him to revive the magazine. More than likely, he won’t; Noctámbulo existed in a certain context, not a vacuum. But with its peerless influence on Puerto Rican culture still spreading, at the very least, it was worth all the effort.
Check out more photos from back issues of Noctámbulo on Instagram.
Update, 11/3/16, 6:20 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the year of the inaugural edition of the Feria de Cultura Urbana. It launched in 2002, not 2006. The post has been updated to reflect this change.