This upcoming weekend is a big one for Gil Gastelum and his crew at Cósmica Artists as three of the L.A.-based company’s artists will perform together at the Levitt Pavilion at MacArthur Park: Fernanda Ulibarri, Sol Pereyra and Grammy nominee Gustavo Galindo. The company’s profile has skyrocketed over the past few months thanks to a slew of positive developments including Galindo’s nomination and La Santa Cecilia’s and Carla Morrison’s Latin Grammy nominations.
So how did this small company led by Gastelum and a handful of dedicated employees strike gold? I met with him at a Tex-Mex joint, Nick’s Taste Of Texas, where he discussed his long climb to the top, his early work with El Vez (The Mexican Elvis) and director Robert Rodriguez, and the rifts created by the politics in his home state of Arizona.
What exactly is Cosmica Artists? Is it a label? A management group?
It’s a little of both. Originally it started as a management company working with people like David Garza. I’ve worked with him prior to Cosmica even existing. I’ve been lucky enough to have him as a client since 1999. Then around 2004 with this boxset [A Strange Mess Of Flowers], David approached me with this idea about putting out all his old stuff that had gone out of print prior to him signing with Atlantic Records. He gets dropped and all his stuff is gone, but the retail atmosphere changed quite a bit. So his thought was, “Let me condense it all into a cheap box set.” That’s how the record thing started.
Everybody said, “you’re crazy!” We had to spend $25,000 off the bat just on manufacturing. And people were like “you’re never even going to make half that money back.” As of today, we still get a check for a couple of thousand dollars from the sales of this box set: four discs, the dvd and a 70-page booklet. Who starts off a record label putting out a box set?!
So it started off as management and it evolved to also a small boutique record label. From that, it’s also evolved into marketing and label services. I don’t just put out records, I don’t just manage somebody. You gotta promote them sometimes. You gotta book them.
What were you working on before you founded Cosmica? Were you working for other labels or were you in a completely different industry?
I kind of went up the hard way. The first record industry job that I had was — I was still going to University of Arizona in Tucson where I’m from — at a record store called Discount Records, which unfortunately is no longer around. I got a chance to meet a lot of people from the sales part of the record labels. As I was moving along, I was helping out some local acts, booking shows, getting their records in stock so I was always involved.
I moved to Los Angeles working with El Vez, The Mexican Elvis. I was his assistant for about a year and a half. During that time, I moved to L.A. and I started helping other acts. In that time, because of my record retail experience, I was interning at MCA Records when they still existed and I worked my way up from an intern. One of the bosses that I had had come over from A&M Records and said, “There’s an opening at A&M Records. I think you’d be great for it” as an assistant in marketing, an assistant product manager. I applied and luckily enough, I got the job and moved up to product manager eventually and worked with a lot of developing acts.
TO BE A PART OF ALL [ THE COSMICA ARTISTS] PROJECTS, TO GET THAT KIND OF
RECOGNITION, IT WAS A DREAM FOR ME. HONESTLY, WINNING [A GRAMMY]
WASN’T EVEN THE POINT. IT WAS TO HAVE THESE ARTISTS THAT I’M WORKING WITH
HAVE THAT KIND OF RECOGNITION AMONGST THEIR PEERS.
I helped run a label that was run by Robert Rodriguez at one point. They were called Cockroach Records. They had Tito & The Tarantulas who are in his films. I eventually moved to Austin to work with a friend of mine that I had known since my college days, David Garza. I went to go help him just on a day-to-day basis as a personal manager. As it turns out, he gets rid of his manager and hires me within a month of being in Austin. That set the wheels in motion. After 9/11, the bottom fell out on the industry and I ended up moving back to L.A…and I decided that I needed to start managing more acts. Doing that, I came into contact with more acts that couldn’t get signed or were getting dropped and it was like, “this is something I feel like I can do.” I got the word [Cosmica] from “la raza cosmica,” which is a concept from the Mexican writer [Jose] Vasconcelos where everything is going to come together and create one, big cosmic race. That always stuck with me from the conversations that my grandfather and my dad had back in the day.
How do you choose which artists to represent? Do you search for artists on your own? Are they recommended by friends and A&R heads?
Mostly it’s word-of-mouth. A lot of times they’re referrals from a musician I already have. Carla [Morrison] has referred me to Torreblanca and Sol Pereyra, people that became her friends and she got to listen to their music. Her and David Garza are my best A&R reps. They’re my artists but they’re also my A&R reps. I trust their ears. Every once in a while I’ll get something from out of the blue that’ll blow my mind and a lot of stuff lately that will hopefully see the light of day next year.
How does it feel to have a Grammy nominee and two Latin Grammy nominees on your roster? They were all announced as nominees within three or four months of each other last year.
Well, Gustavo’s on Universal and La Santa, I couldn’t even begin to take any credit for those. I know that Gustavo’s managers at the time lobbied hard for him on the Latin Grammy front and the Grammys. Their hard work paid off. I co-manage [La Santa] with Sebastian Krys. He’s a big producer in the Latin world and they’re on his label. He lobbied for them hard. He created awareness for them. And with Carla, that was a lot due to her hard work and the hard work that we had done together for the last, up that point, two years. To be a part of all those projects, to get that kind of recognition, it was a dream for me. Honestly, winning wasn’t even the point. It was to have these artists that I’m working with have that kind of recognition amongst their peers.
You’re from Tucson, AZ but you also have a strong connection with Texas. Those three years in Austin working with Garza must’ve left quite an impression.
That all stems from my father. My dad is a self-taught button accordion player and, so I grew up with what’s now known as regional Mexican music. Back then, it was just called norteña music and also the conjunto music. I grew up with music that came from Texas. I moved to Austin back in ‘99 and I lived there for three years working with David Garza…and I came back, post 9/11, to L.A. to work after he got dropped and the money ran out. I came back to start again…and people that I met that I was friends with knew I was in Austin but, they thought I’d gone back home to be with my folks to regroup. To this day, I still have this thing where people think I’m from Texas but it’s because it’s the music I listen to and the food I eat and the places I come to.
I’ve always had an affinity for the music especially the conjunto music coming out of there and the alternative music coming out of there, whether it’s the artists I’ve personally worked with or if it’s somebody like Grupo Fantasma, if it’s a conjunto guy like Sonny Sauceda. I feel like it’s criminally underrepresented outside of Texas.
I’m very proud of where I’m from. There’s a lot of things wrong with Arizona, obviously, without having to even get close to getting into it, but at the end of the day, I’m very proud of where I’m from, Tucson, the friends and family that I have there. I should say, most of my family. Some of my family, I think, have lost their way culturally. Some of my family that live up in Phoenix, I think, they need to find their way back. It’s caused a rift between us and them. I don’t subscribe to the conservative policies of the state and some of them do and it’s sad. But, I am proud of where I come from and I’m very proud of where I’ve lived at.
Is your family originally from Mexico? How far back does your Arizona heritage go?
My family originally have been in that area of Arizona since it was Mexico, so the border crossed my family. You don’t see that all that often out here. Both sides of the family, my mom and my dad, is the same situation. They were there on the frontera when it was Mexico and, when it changed, they stayed. It hasn’t always been easy. There’s been a lot of discrimination where I grew up in for many years but, regardless, the community that I come from will never be broken. We’re from there. We were there before anyone else other than the Native Americans.
It’s a tough thing. When that SB1070 started, my dad owns race horses and he was driving back from Prescott and he got stopped and questioned. It happened to me before there was a SB1070. I got stopped for speeding and my family was in the car. The sheriff had him give me my license…less than a minute later, Border Patrol comes and they question my entire family. There’s stuff that happens out there that’s not fair. When you’re living there, it’s part of life unfortunately. There’s always gonna be a struggle but, they’re never going to be able silence us.
It’s hard to say where I’m from sometimes but I’m very proud of my upbringing. I’m proud to say that I’m from Tucson moreso than saying I’m from Arizona. Tucson is sort of like Austin in Texas; it’s the black sheep of the state. There’s a small but creative community in Tucson and the Mexican-American community in Tucson has always been very strong and I have no doubt that they’ll get the Mexican-American Studies reinstated at the unified school district.