Making Cuco Happen
Omar Banos found fame streaming angsty pop songs from his bedroom. Now he’s a model for how musicians can thrive, unsigned.
On the summer solstice, Cuco was shooting the video for its next single, “Summer Time High Time,” in a chain-linked backyard in East Los Angeles. It’s steadily becoming a back-sweat kind of afternoon, and Mu$ty BoYz, Cuco’s broed-out film crew, are shouting directives from the sidelines. “I said no squirt guns near the cameras!” Crop-top-wearing teenagers spill out of this prototypical East L.A. party scene: red cups, skateboards, hip kids playing with Lotería cards on a plastic tablecloth, off-duty Nativity lawn décor collecting dust in the storage corner, a rusty barbecue, two chattering Chihuahuas. It’s a Gen Z, beer-soaked wonderland sprouting from the highest-percentage Latinx neighborhood in the country.
This all orbits around Omar Banos, the barely 20-year-old unsigned Chicano singer-songwriter from Hawthorne, California, on a stunningly fast track to stardom. It was only a couple of years ago that Omar graduated from high school when — this was spring 2016 — a single moment of viral fame catapulted his career with such pure teen power that it has awed even the most industrially jaded. The two years since have generated a constellation of buzz-confirming milestones, all achieved independently, including his inaugural run through the major festival circuits. Now it takes only about a week for a new video of his to reach a couple of million views on YouTube. On his Instagram are selfies in front of Apple Music billboards promoting his EP, Chiquito, in New York and L.A., with his caption, “Jeez that’s big.”
The video shoot is like a real-life page of Where’s Waldo?, or in this case, Where’s Omar?, a cartoon world crammed with brown teens in mom jeans and dad caps, slouching in mismatched plastic patio chairs, waiting around the grill for pollo asado tacos. They spring up when Mu$ty BoYz call action, launching beach balls above bouncing heads of neon hair as a couple dozen kids jump along to the chorus, splashing beer on one another.
I finally catch a glimpse of Omar among his crowd, in his retiree-blue velour polo and short gold chain. He’s dancing or laughing or screwing around with bandmates, his glasses jostled to a tilt. For a moment, he looks like the star of the show, as though he’s landed on this world he made around his music, a planet populated by kids proclaiming it all a bop.
Then the song fades out, and Mu$ty BoYz yell cut. Omar disappears into the swarm of kids just like him.
June 2016 marked many major milestones for Omar: his 18th birthday, his graduation from high school, and the untimely death of a beloved pet cockatoo. He listened to a lot of oldies that day, as the timeless songs “correlated with the feeling of loss.” Omar recorded a 30-second video, a cover of 1959’s chart-topping hit “Sleepwalk” by Santo & Johnny, with a metal guitar slide. It’s not just a, but probably the iconic instrumental anthem of teenage wistfulness.
Omar was already posting videos of himself doing “technical shit on guitar,” which normally would get thrown up on his Instagram, but this time he posted to his moody Twitter account, @icryduringsex. For reasons explained only by digital hordes of nostalgic teens and a bump from Miami rapper Pouya (who noticed Omar was wearing his merch), it racked up retweets. Omar’s face isn’t in the frame; it’s just his torso, a guitar across his lap, and a teenage boy’s bedroom in the background. Essentially anonymous, shy, brooding — an introduction to Cuco’s emotional headquarters.
The video was suddenly 20,000 retweets deep. Many of those folks would end up on his page, looking for the kid behind that “Sleepwalk” cover, and find Cuco’s original music. Conveniently pinned to the top of his feed was a SoundCloud link for his track “Lover Is a Day,” a seven-and-a-half-minute love song about Polaroid romance, his self-worth instantly developed when exposed to the light of love: “Will you love this part of me? / My lover is a day I can’t forget.” It’s the sound of a teenager (at least thinking about being) in love.
In the fall, Omar started community college. By starting community college, I mean he drove to campus, and that’s about as far as he got. “I’d be in the parking lot making beats. Both my parents would go to work, and sometimes I’d just go back to the house and work on shit in my studio,” which was first a desk in his bedroom but is now a well-furnished setup in his parents’ garage. (These days, he finds the label “bedroom pop” tired, or that it doesn’t describe his actual sound, though most of his music was, in fact, produced in his teenage bedroom, for the teenage bedroom.) He posted his next song, “Wannabewithu,” on SoundCloud and was beginning to establish his songwriting palette: lovelorn lyrics that toggle between Spanish and English, 808s and heavy reverb, and the melancholia of long trumpet notes, referencing both his childhood influences of the boleros románticos his parents played around the house and the middle school marching band he joined to escape PE.
His streams racked up into the thousands, seemingly overnight, before he had even played a single show. Between fall 2016 and spring 2017, Omar performed his first gigs in basements and backyards. These shows were unusually crazy because the fan base — mostly Latina teenagers, who, perhaps for the first time, had found a house-show heartthrob in this nonthreatening, dorky-cute Chicano boy, to whose songs they could sway and sing along to in Spanglish — was already crystallizing. It was a direct digital growth: He posted online; kids posted up.
People were traveling for these shows, remarkably — not only across L.A. and Orange County, but from places like Salt Lake City. It helped that these gigs cropped up in a robust Latinx indie underground in Los Angeles and its suburban outskirts. But this scene of small-scale rappers and garage bands hadn’t quite seen a single pop artist cause this much concentrated attention before, online or off.
Enter Doris MuÑoz, then 23 with twee bangs and rosy cheeks. She was repping a “very white Swedish major-label pop artist at this time,” she says in a deadpan that suggests that wasn’t exactly her passion. She discovered Cuco online, and her managerial senses tingled. She started scrambling. DMs and emails were sent, with no response (“I only recently got into the habit of checking my email every few days,” Omar admits).
She tracked his next show to a house in Commerce in February 2017. Just two days earlier, she’d bought a domain name to establish her own company, mija mgmt. She had her eyes on her first marquee artist and was getting anxious. It looked like Steve Lacy and Kali Uchi’s team had their eyes on him, too. In a go-time effort to get in front of Omar, Doris pulled an impressive feat of freeway pilotage: She went early to the house show in Commerce (“Sorry, Cuco isn’t here yet!”), jetted 20 miles to the Roxy in West Hollywood for the Swedish artist’s gig, showed her face (professional obligation), then sped back to Commerce to just barely catch Cuco’s last few songs. The sprint, and this scene, left her breathless — “200-plus Latinx teenagers singing every single one of his lyrics … coming out of a garage? This is wild!” — and bolstered her intuition. She felt that this, not the industry show at the Roxy, was her scene. Or, maybe, she wanted to make this scene the one that gets invited to the Roxy.
She convinced Omar to get lunch the next day at a taqueria. They didn’t even eat. Instead, they talked for hours over aguas frescas about how she noticed something special was happening here and that she wanted to manage him. They instantly got along, but how did Omar know Doris was legit and not all talk? “Two days after I met her, we’re at the Columbia Records building” meeting with Doris’s friend in A & R.
It’s not only that Doris loved Cuco’s music and that Omar dug Doris, it was that their childhoods were also uncannily alike. “Me and him kinda went through similar things, where I was the only natural-born citizen in a family of undocumented folks from Mexico, and both of his parents came here from Mexico undocumented as well,” Doris explains as she turns to Omar in the window seat of their favorite family Mexican restaurant in Hawthorne. “How old were you when your dad had to leave and come back? How long was he gone?”
“I was, like, 15, 16. It was, like, three, four months.”
“His dad had to go back to Mexico in order to fix his situation, and it was just him and his mom.”
“We didn’t know,” Omar said. “It could have been less time. It could’ve been more time.”
“It’s things that typical privileged white America will never have to fear: that one day their entire family will be ripped apart by ICE. Or, him not knowing when his dad was going to come back. Having that fear that your mom is gonna be cursed out by this white lady because of her broken English. Or little shit like that. You’re used to those fears because you’re an immigrant kid. You see your parents breaking their fucking back, working night and day, to just put food on the table for you. He lived in a garage for a minute. How long were you guys living in the garage for?”
“Till I was, like, 8.”
“That’s how you had to grow up.”
“It makes you feel like the minute you start fucking up, it’s like, holy shit,” Omar says, eyes down. “If anything goes wrong in your life, it’s a bitch to get back.”
I ask him what those pressure points are, and he responds with a refrain he’s already repeated a couple of times. “Being able to stabilize my parents is the main thing I’m trying to do. Give them financial stability, pay off their mortgage. Once we get that distribution money from AWAL.”
AWAL, or Artists Without a Label, touts itself as an “alternative to the traditional record label for independent artists,” a service that essentially gives musicians a la carte tools that a recording contract would typically promise. They handle distribution, while the artist retains ownership of the music, and offer direct connections to streaming services and placement on discovery playlists. In a typical recording contract, access to all of this is baked in, but the label owns the music, imposes a timetable and production quota, and leaves marketing and promo to in-house teams that may or may not be as invested (in budget or excitement) in the record.
While Omar has found nascent success through independence, he remains pragmatic. “I’m just making music. At the end of the day, if it works, it works,” he says, “and if it doesn’t, you know, it’s not the end of the world. I can do so much aside from being an artist, like be a producer. My foot’s in the industry, so it’s not impossible for me.”
“You’re not going anywhere anytime soon,” Doris assures him. She is determined to make Cuco capital-H Happen. “I didn’t have a Cuco when I was a teenager. These kids have it, though,” she says. When she was younger, she was called “whitewashed” for being into indie rock. “Like, why is that” — whiteness — “synonymous for having an alternative music taste?” She’s cognizant of Cuco’s potential to break down those kinds of micro-marginalizations. Plus, her for-the-culture drive keeps Doris pushing. “I was in the pop system, but what he’s doing is so unique and pure to our community. So it’s like, OK, how can I utilize the resources I was able to build while working in this system and try to amplify this in a genuine way? ”
Shortly after their aguas frescas meeting, Doris was let go from her job, and along with it, her boss’s promise to pay for her parents’ legal fees so they could apply for citizenship evaporated. Her mother had been petitioning her visa for 20 years, and her appointment for status adjustment was up. So Doris put together a benefit show at the Hi Hat, a 300-cap venue in the gentrified Latinx enclave of Highland Park in Los Angeles. She called it Solidarity for Sanctuary. Cuco headlined the show — its first one in a proper venue — and sold it out, covering half of the costs that Doris needed to raise (it’s now a recurring event series that Doris hopes to turn into a regular emergency fund for families like hers).
“2017 was a blur, dude,” says Doris. “I feel like I blacked out.” A video recap on YouTube of a show at the Echoplex in L.A., of hundreds of kids jumping and chanting in unison to his music, included a post-show comedown recap with Omar in disbelief. For fans to line up around the block, pack the room, and sing along to all the words at an artist’s first few shows is, obviously, not that normal. At first, “he was like, ‘Is that too crazy, too fast?’ ” Doris recalls. She and Omar side-eye each other at their old expectations.
As “one hundred percenters,” with no samples, no other producers, and no other writers, Cuco receives all streaming royalties in full. Those famously pitiful fraction-of-a-cent plays finally start to work out when you have several tracks streaming by the millions. Doris attributes part of this to Omar’s self-incubated musical gifts — she doesn’t need to pay an engineer if Omar’s the one cutting the track with his own tools, and she doesn’t need to pay studio fees if the studio is the garage of his parents’ home. They’ve also bypassed the need for a contract as a jump-start, since his audience grew without marketing from a label.
Cuco’s is a poster-child narrative for going unsigned in the age of streaming: bypass the hassles and risks of traditional models, assemble your own entrepreneurial team, record on your own timetable. But in the music business, independence isn’t entirely synonymous with freedom, as streaming services now dictate much of how an unsigned artist (or any, for that matter) becomes popular. Recent moves by Spotify, which is now inking licensing deals with unsigned artists, and Apple Music, which launched a global music publishing division in 2018, indicate that the streaming giants are trying to directly compete with, if not replace, the major-label system (in which three labels — Warner, Universal, and Sony — control 80 percent of the industry).
Maybe that future of a new kind of “unsigned” existence allows more flexibility for artists at pivotal points in their careers; maybe it further consolidates power in the industry to an even smaller cabal of gatekeepers, simply replacing one group of corporate behemoths with another. For now, these newer pathways toward unsigned pop stardom are working out for Cuco and Doris. At the very beginning of their partnership, Doris got Omar into A & R meetings, to be greeted with lukewarm enthusiasm about how to market an indie-pop Latin artist. Too niche, the labels said. As Cuco’s profile grew and its market became palpable, the majors started coming to Omar with offers. Doris, though, saw only short-term appeal.
“The cute check from a label before Christmas would be tight,” she says, “but is that necessary?”
As Omar puts it, “We kind of made whatever the label system was gonna give us, you know?”
In 2017, Omar released a mixtape, Songs4u, and followed it up with his biggest hit to date, “Lo Que Siento.” Doris claims it was his real breakthrough, with a rapid-fire accumulation of seven-digit streams on SoundCloud and seven on Spotify, outplaying his other tracks by a few million clicks.
The song is a lovebird dedication of warbly guitars and singsong rap verses, where Omar swaps Spanish verses and English bars. Today, one could take sensitive boys in hip-hop for granted, assuming that the SoundCloud wave of underage emo rappers plus Drake would have cleared the way for Cuco. But Omar still gets some flak. “It’s very normal for me to be expressive and emotional because that’s the music I listen to,” he says, listing off the emo bands of his youth, like Being as an Ocean and Capsize (with whom he was in the studio, thanks to a Twitter exchange of mutual fandom). “As a guy, especially being Mexican, machismo is a thing, and they don’t always want you to make romantic music because that’s not manly of you, or whatever bullshit.
“I think, now, people are starting to be more open to my music because they are starting to understand that it’s not just the music, but it’s also the representation I’m trying to give, the total opposite stereotype that exists. I’m going against that,” Omar says and then shrugs. “I made the beat in, like, 20 minutes.”
Doris gleams. “It was the song that changed everything.”
Shortly after Songs4u dropped, Omar went on the air at L.A.’s indie radio station of note, KXLU 88.9 FM. All three phone lines rang off the hook before, during, and well after the show, accumulating 78 missed calls — a record. The ones that made it through were tearful teen girls in disbelief — “Oh my God, is this Cuco?” — and boys thanking him for being sensitive and vulnerable on tape. “This isn’t just indie fame,” host Mukta Mohan later told her friend Rene Contreras, promoter of the Viva! Pomona festival, urging him to pay attention to this bubbling feeling of potential celebrity.
Contreras gets a lot of local credit for establishing a space for Latinx and Spanish-speaking bands in the indiesphere, a homogeneously white sector of the L.A. music scene. “Five, six years ago, the idea of Spanish music was very much rock en español, which is Spanish rock music,” he explains. “It’s not a bad thing; it’s just outdated and unrelatable to younger generations that speak Spanish.” When a trip chauffeuring a band to a music fest in Tijuana exposed him to an indie scene like the one he was part of in Los Angeles — except it was full of young, creative Mexican kids — “it opened a whole new portal of ideas for me.” He brought that inspiration home to Southern California and started Viva! Pomona to fill the “huge void for Latinx voices in these communities.… There wasn’t a place for kids to identify with being, like, both a rock fan and a Mexican person.”
His booking strategies — let’s fly in this cumbia band from Chile, or have this bilingual local rapper co-headline with a white rock band from Seattle — had a percolating influence. He now books Coachella’s Sonora stage, featuring up-and-coming acts, mostly local and Latinx groups. It was a no-brainer to invite Cuco to headline Viva! in 2017, realizing this kid was the symbol of much of what he was working toward. “He went viral on the internet, but he also stays true to understanding the DIY ethos and Spanish-speaking upbringing, living in the United States,” Contreras says.
It’s not just Omar’s dream to be Cuco; it’s lots of folks’ dreams to help make Cuco possible. Especially, of course, Doris’s. “Omar’s putting out his debut album this year, and when he played me some of it, that shit just gave me chills,” she says, her eyes becoming saucers. “Man, this kid deserves everything. When it comes to 2020 awards season, I hope he knows he has a real-ass shot.… There’s no reason the momentum should stop.”
At Mi Zacatecas, a family Mexican restaurant in a strip mall across from Hawthorne High School, Omar’s pushing around beans and rice on a plate that he regrets ordering, since his mom had made him food before we all met for lunch. We’re on his home turf but talking about the road, about whether touring has provided any revelations about what this career is actually like.
He sighs. “Fuck yeah, dude. Dude, I dread my life, when we get back to the hotel from the venue at, like, 2 in the morning, and we gotta be up at 4. We gotta be in the van, and then we have to drive.
“I’m finding funny ways to manage touring and all that shit. Having my girlfriend on the road definitely helps a lot, but she’s going back to school this fall, so I need to find another coping mechanism.” He corrects himself. “Not coping mechanism, but I gotta figure out a way to keep myself more mentally sane, because touring is …” he yawns, “fucking crazy. I don’t know. Dealing with everything that’s going on in my head, I’m too prideful to go get help, which makes it worse, so I don’t know how to deal with the things going on with myself.”
There are moments on tour when it feels like a massive road trip with your best friends, where you play music to packed rooms of adoring strangers. But those moments round out to a few hours a day. The rest of it is a grind of gear-loading, sound-checking, van-napping, little privacy, early wake-up calls, last-call nights, booze, and fast food. Doris talks about how Omar could easily get “lost in the sauce.”
He might not be a natural fit for this part of the job, but he has authentic support. His family is close, and Doris gladly assumes the caretaker role on the business side. “I don’t wanna burn this kid out. We’ve talked about this.” When opportunities present themselves, she asks, “Are you sure you wanna do this? Let me know — are you really sure?”
“Being a phenomenon scares him,” Doris says. “He’s learned to be more accepting of this happening to him.” Accepting, as opposed to embracing? “In certain spaces, onstage, he embraces it. Offstage stuff, how do you navigate it? Who teaches you how to navigate it?”
Despite touring’s slog, his live shows manifest what Cuco means, culturally. “When we went to Texas for the first time, or the Bay Area,” says Doris, “I felt like I saw the same community of kids no matter what city we went to. He made it very clear, every show, with this spiel of how tight it is to see a sea of brown kids and that all sexual orientations and gender identities are welcome as well, and this is your space. This is for us.” Except for Cleveland. That, they profess, was a lot of white people.
Omar vacantly gazes past my shoulder, neglecting his frijoles, visibly drained by the topic of tour. Doris comforts him, cooing, “Guess what? The next real tour will be a bus.” He perks up.
“We can afford that now?”
A few months later, Omar and his band were on the last leg of touring for 2018. En route to a show in Tennessee, a tractor-trailer slammed into their tour van, causing injuries of varying severity to everyone in Cuco’s crew. Omar spent the following weeks tweeting depressive realizations about the fragility of life. The rest of 2018 found him essentially under house arrest for his injured leg, giving him the time to re-record the material he lost in the accident. Remarkably, he is still on track to self-release his debut LP this year. The band canceled the rest of the fully booked fall tour, which would have taken them across France, Spain, and Mexico.
It was a huge and terrible learning experience — perhaps one in maintaining backup hard drives, but mostly about the vulnerabilities and risks in this volatile job — for someone only two years into his music career. For every argument that Omar is some kind of pop prodigy, there’s an equal and opposite reminder about his youthfulness. Last summer, I saw him at the Shrine Auditorium near USC — 6,000 seats and, apparently, the “largest proscenium stage in North America.” Cuco was opening for Portugal. The Man, a veteran group with a Grammy and a multiplatinum record, who blew through a finely tuned, professionally produced two-plus-hour rock spectacle.
In the stark light of comparison, Cuco looked exactly like what Cuco is: a group of boys barely in their 20s, softly bopping in place on a massive theatrical stage, reciting the tracks they rehearse in their garage in the afternoon. They did that well, but that stage was a much larger space to fill than a teen bedroom or a backyard. They looked swallowed by the size of their potential.
That night, I checked my Instagram Stories to see Doris’s pop up in my feed. It’s a side-stage snapshot from sound check with the caption, “dreams come true!” and a sparkle emoji.
All of the extras at the East Los Angeles backyard video shoot are sweating through their streetwear, competing for this one sliver of patio shade whenever the Mu$ty BoYz yell cut. Doris and I hide behind the cameras to claim a bit of it. It seems like we’re the oldest folks here, so taking the shade to rest while we work feels like cashing in a seniority card for us ancients in our mid-20s. I’m leaning in to hear her over the din of dozens of sun-delirious, partying teens.
She imagines what it’s like in Omar’s head. Doris locks in my gaze. “You’re in this place where you had to grow up really fast. Your career exploded in a year, and you have all these —” her eyes dart to the action behind me. I look over my shoulder to see a piñata of Omar’s face rising up on a rope from the roof of the garage. “Oh my God, this is so tight! I’m sorry, this is too cool!” She scuttles away to absorb the moment, squealing. “That piñata looks so good!” The director shouts action, and Omar, blindfolded and wielding a baton, bashes his own confetti face. His friends rush in, gleefully clamoring in front of the camera for falling Vero Mango lollipops.
Deserted by Doris, I mingle and spot Omar’s girlfriend, Jailene, jutting around with her iPhone getting prime behind-the-scenes shots. Her nail art is mauve with square tips and clear rhinestones at the cuticle; in a gothic font, one hand spells “OMAR,” the other “CUCO.” I catch her by craft services, which is a tarped-off table under the covered car park, scattered with empty bottles of soda and whiskey, Trader Joe’s snacks, and languid kids ripping bong hits around a box fan.
They’ve been dating for a year, and she has accompanied him on tour, selling merch and booking hotels. She loves it. She tells me he’s come so much more into himself over the past year of his life. He seems happier, more confident. Suddenly her phone buzzes — “Oh my god, so sorry!” — then she switches to terse teen talk in Spanish to her dad on the line. She hangs up, and he calls right back; she sweetly apologizes to me before shouting into the receiver, “Ask Chelsea. I’m not home. I don’t know where the keys are! Yes! OK! Bye! Love you.” Omar floats in through the tarp and right to Jailene and, as if I’m not there, asks her for a kiss. (Several weeks later, I see a video of Omar crying onstage at a Lollapalooza after-party while performing “We Had to End It.”)
I locate Doris again, who is also casually luxuriating in her element as a friend braids her hair under a tree. Breathing in this snapshot of Omar’s teen dream, I ask her about what’s next. “It’s crazy to even think it could even get that far, until we’re sitting there waiting to hear his name at the Grammys. I can imagine how Selena’s family felt when that happened. The fact that people always compare them, too. In every space we go to, they haven’t seen a crossover like this, like Selena. Obviously, it’s a very different spectrum of it all, but why hasn’t there been another person like that?
“Omar deserves a seat at that table,” she insists. “Who else would be in that lane with him?”
I sit back in the folding chair and scan the periphery. I spot Omar alone, curiously apart from the clusters of his chattering, Modelo-chugging friends in the only empty corner of the backyard. He pulls a lighter out of his pocket and holds it to the wick of a firecracker he seemingly materialized out of nowhere. He lights it, mumbling a curse as he burns his finger on the flame. Within an instant, it cracks the air with a loud pop, making everyone in the backyard jump with surprise. Even him.