On a scorching hot mid-August day, six of the seven members of Grupo Firme file into a hidden hacienda in Spring Valley, Calif., a small town just east of San Diego. “Buenos días,” they greet the staff of this boutique hotel, making their way toward the shade of the pool area. Wearing basic T-shirts and jeans or gym shorts, they look like the literal boys next door. Still, the staffers struggle to keep their cool — this is the biggest Mexican group in the world, and they’re all fans. (Later today, they will get their photo taken with the band.)
Eduin Caz, the group’s charismatic 28-year-old founder and frontman, is the last to arrive. He apologizes, explaining that he drove from his home in Tijuana, Mexico, and it took four hours to cross la línea, the Mexico-U.S. border in San Diego. That’s longer than usual for a seemingly uneventful Tuesday, but the Baja Beach Festival took place over the weekend in the town of Rosarito — where Eduin joined Maluma onstage to sing their Regional Mexican Airplay chart-topping hit “Cada Quien” (“To Each Their Own”) — which could explain the traffic returning to the United States. “Aquí estamos a sus órdenes” (“We’re here, anything you need”), Eduin says with a shy smile and joins his bandmates, who don’t seem to mind his late arrival one bit; they’re just lounging around, catching one another up on their weekends.
Clowning around together by the pool, speaking entirely in Spanish, they remind me of my rowdy cousins who constantly poke fun at one another but clearly have an unbreakable bond. And while Grupo Firme may have skyrocketed to stardom over the past two years — playing sold-out stadium shows and becoming the first banda ensemble to ever perform at Coachella — that bond has been in the making for nearly a decade.
“When we were first starting, we played every single day,” recalls Eduin, who officially assembled the act known as Grupo Firme in 2014 (minus his brother Jhonny Caz, who joined in 2019) and is the band’s de facto spokesman. “But on a day that for some reason we didn’t have a gig, instead of saying, ‘I’m going to rest and relax,’ we’d call each other and plan a carne asada [barbecue]. We have a lot of fun when we’re together. We’ve built a solidarity between us that has been key to our success.”
The fun they have on those day-off hangouts suffuses every aspect of Grupo Firme’s presence, especially the music videos that put the band on the map during the coronavirus pandemic. Though their aesthetic was DIY — pretty much just capturing the group hanging out, eating, drinking beer, taking shots straight from a tequila bottle and serenading their friends with banda classics — the YouTube clips offered an escape for the fans who watched them religiously while stuck indoors and, in the process, garnered hundreds of millions of views (over 407 million for the most popular).
The success of those virtual “shows” translated to big real-venue bookings once touring restrictions loosened. “No one but Grupo Firme was selling tickets during the pandemic,” says Nederlander Concerts Latin talent buyer Eddie Orjuela. “The show they were supposed to have at the Microsoft Theater in 2020, which kept getting postponed because of the pandemic, sold out. At the rate they were selling, we took the risk to move it to the Staples Center, and eventually, seven shows came out of that decision.”
Until very recently, playing those kinds of crowds was not the norm for Grupo Firme. Comprising lead singer Eduin; Jhonny (vocals); Abraham Hernández (vocals and tuba); Joaquín Ruiz (bajo sexto guitar); Christian Gutiérrez (bass); José “Fito” Rubio (drums); and Dylan Camacho (accordion), the band was first a popular local act, playing corridos and norteño music in its native Tijuana, usually seven days a week, at nightclubs, birthdays, quinceañeras and weddings, earning around $150 to $200 an hour. “Whenever the phone rang, that meant we had a gig, and we’d say, ‘Ya picó’ ” (“We got it”), Hernández says. “We were really hard workers,” adds Eduin proudly. “We never said ‘no’ to anything, and sometimes, we’d play 15 hours a day. Imagine: If we only worked five hours, that’s $1,000 that we would have to split between all of us. It’s not a lot. That’s why we worked so much.”
All those “yeses” paid off. In two years, Grupo Firme has gone from local live favorite to recording and social media phenomenon, expanding its repertoire to include banda covers such as “Perdóname” (“Forgive Me”), “Juro Por Dios” (“I Swear to God”) and “Cada Vez Te Extraño Más” (“I Miss You More and More”) and collaborating with superstars Maluma and Camilo in an effort to reach a more global audience. The group has accumulated 1.5 million U.S. on-demand streams, according to Luminate, and became the third regional Mexican group ever to score an entry on the Billboard Hot 100 — with “Ya Supérame” (“Get Over Me”) — as well as the first banda ensemble to do a U.S. stadium tour — a feat only a select number of Latin artists, including Romeo Santos, Bad Bunny and Los Bukis, have accomplished. Last year, Grupo Firme performed seven back-to-back shows at Los Angeles’ Crypto.com Arena (the former Staples Center). Only Adele has done more, with eight.
Incredibly, Grupo Firme has done all this as an independent act, and, since signing with independent label Music VIP five years ago, it has leaned into social media to power its success. Eduin, who ran the group’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, literally studied how to leverage multimedia platforms: He majored in marketing at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California. Initially, he posted about shows on his personal Facebook page. But he didn’t get the engagement he hoped for, so he opened a public fan page, geotargeting his posts and paying to boost them. “Digital marketing [now] is a thing, but back then, it wasn’t,” he says.
Hernández jumps in: “I remember whenever we’d get paid after a gig, Eduin would always put some money aside to invest in our social media accounts.”
“We don’t have to do that anymore,” interjects Eduin. “Everything is now organic.”
While Sinaloan bands like Banda el Recodo and Banda MS have found success, none in recent memory have moved the masses like Grupo Firme. As Pepe Garza, head of content development and A&R for media company Estrella Music Entertainment, says, that’s in part because “the niche group of people that listen to regional Mexican has grown exponentially” over the past few years. “But I also think that every generation chooses the artist that will represent them, and this generation chose Firme,” he adds. “What makes them so special is that they’ve prioritized the quality of their concerts. That’s the area where they stand out from the rest.”
A Grupo Firme concert is, indeed, an experience: expect fireworks, outfit changes (from vaquero to urbano fits), folkloric dancing by Eduin and Jhonny (who join a troupe of dancers from Tijuana), many tequila shots downed onstage and beer-soaked scenes that could be straight out of the band’s videos. “They’re just so raw and real,” says René Contreras, the Goldenvoice talent buyer who booked the act for Coachella’s 2022 edition after seeing just one of its live shows. “It feels like a kick-back party,” he says of those performances. “The way they interact with people makes fans feel part of the party onstage. When I saw the group, I felt like I was just hanging out with my friends and family.”
For Eduin, who grew up watching artists like Larry Hernández, Gerardo Ortiz and Jenni Rivera command stages, putting on that kind of show is personal. “They always found a way to entertain their fans, and not just by singing,” he says of his influences. “Watching them perform, I realized the type of artist I wanted to be. I knew I didn’t just want to be a singer — I wanted to be a star.”
Isael Gutiérrez was at Las Pulgas, a popular nightclub in the heart of Tijuana’s bustling downtown, when he first saw Grupo Firme. It was 2017, and the then-manager of a few regional artists was mesmerized by Eduin’s energy and personality onstage. He requested a meeting, and the next day, they talked business over Cokes and peanuts, deciding shortly after to simply start working together — no official contract needed.
From the start, Gutiérrez (no relation to band member Christian) made two suggestions: that the group pare down its performance schedule, shifting its focus to recording music and videos, and that it expand its repertoire from just corridos to include norteña and banda ballads. “There’s so much more to Eduin’s voice that’s full of color. He can hit all the high notes, which is totally the opposite when singing corridos,” says Gutiérrez. “So I suggested he start singing other genres to help them expand their audience. We also started recording covers because we’re fans of older bands, but we also wanted to connect with people, and you can do that by singing songs they already love. And the new generation that hasn’t heard those songs discovered them through Firme.”
Gutiérrez started in the music industry in the 1990s, working at his father’s recording studio in Guerrero, Mexico. He’s a superstar in his own right; fans ask him for photos and autographs as much as they do Grupo Firme’s members. But before he became a hotshot manager and label executive, he hustled for many years developing regional Mexican bands like Los Buitres de Culiacán Sinaloa through his indie label, Music VIP, that he launched in 2007. “It was the lack of opportunities for regional artists that motivated me to start my own company and really focus on helping them grow on social media to promote their music,” he says. “The internet was really the only resource we had as an indie label.”
When Grupo Firme first started working with Gutiérrez, Eduin gave the executive an album of mostly original songs the band had already recorded, hoping he would release it on Music VIP. “ ‘What a good album,’ ” Eduin recalls Gutiérrez telling him. “He said, ‘I want you guys to record a music video for “Perdóname.” ’ I was like, ‘What do you mean, “Perdóname”? That’s a cover. Why not record one for an original song?’ And he said, ‘You tried to do it your way and it didn’t work, right? Now let me try my way.’ Since then, everything Isael tells us to do, we do. If he wants me to wear a red shirt, I wear a red shirt. If he says, ‘Don’t go onstage,’ I don’t go onstage. I trust him unconditionally.”
Gutiérrez’s enthusiasm for Grupo Firme’s covers hasn’t limited its output; he has also brought in renowned songwriters like Horacio Palencia to collaborate on originals. “He explained that the guys were big fans of mine, so I invited them to my home in Mazatlán [Mexico] to see if there was a way I could support them,” recalls Palencia of when Gutiérrez first reached out to him in 2018. “As a songwriter and producer, I’m not only looking to see if a new artist has potential, but I’m paying attention to their attitude. I like working with talented people, but they also must be humble. When I met them, I didn’t think twice.”
Palencia has since become one of Grupo Firme’s biggest supporters, penning hits for it like “Ya Supérame” (a co-write with Edgar Barrera and Nathan Galante). “Eduin almost didn’t record this song,” Palencia says. “The live shows were just returning, so he was focused on that. But I told him, ‘You have to make time to record new songs because you make a living off music.’ Eduin understood and shared an a cappella version of it on social media. People went crazy, asking when the song would come out. They recorded the song, a music video, and the rest is history.”
By early 2019, the group had released four albums, toured Mexico and built a solid enough following there that it could turn its attention to the next territory to conquer: the United States. The band obtained a visa in February of that year. After playing big venues like Auditorio Telmex in Jalisco, Mexico, it at first seemed like the act would have to downsize to the kind of rooms where it had started: Its first U.S. show, at a San Diego nightclub, drew all of 40 people. But by November, it pulled 9,000 to L.A.’s Pico Rivera Sports Arena; two years later, each of its individual sellouts at the Staples Center doubled that number. Those Staples shows were part of a tour that, over 25 dates, grossed $27.4 million and sold 279,000 tickets, according to Billboard Boxscore, and was aptly named Nos Divertimos Haciendo Lo Imposible (We Have Fun Doing the Impossible).
“This isn’t the ‘traditional’ touring path for a regional Mexican group that typically starts out in nightclubs, then radio festivals and theaters. It’s something we’ve never seen in regional Mexican,” says Tony Larios, founder of Grupo Firme’s distributor, TuStreams. “What normally takes [those] artists 10 years to achieve in touring, they did it in two years. We work with a couple of acts that did arenas last year and now want to do stadiums. If it wasn’t for Firme, I don’t think the possibility would’ve been there. They tell us, ‘If they can do it, we can also do it.’ ”
In May, Grupo Firme made history as the first Mexican banda act to launch a U.S. stadium tour, stopping at storied venues like Levi’s Stadium in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and Yankee Stadium in New York — and, like everything else the group does, it did so with little outside help. “To this day, we’ve produced arena and stadium tours in-house by Music VIP and Grupo Firme,” says Gutiérrez. “One of the best decisions we’ve made is to make deals directly with the arenas and stadiums in Mexico and the U.S. We oversee every single detail, and that has been key. I mean, it’s healthy to have partnerships, but it’s very cool to do whatever we want. We don’t have to ask anyone for permission or their opinion.”
Someday, Gutiérrez realizes, he may have to consider “a strategic partnership [with a major label] to reach new fans and take Firme to the next level.” He says he has already “sat with all of” the majors and turned down some offers; when the time comes, he’s willing to “sit with them again and hear them out.” But for now, “We want to do this on our own. Not because we’re greedy, but so that we can say we did this on our own. That’s priceless and gratifying.”
He did make one exception to that rule. Over the summer, he signed a deal with Creative Artists Agency for the company to represent Grupo Firme worldwide in all areas of business (including touring, though Gutiérrez will continue to execute certain deals on his own). “More than anything, they’re an important partner because they’ll help us with sponsorships — that’s really what they’ll focus on,” Gutiérrez says, calling it a “key alliance” for that reason. CAA agent Rudy Lopez Negrete, a member of Grupo Firme’s new team there, vividly remembers his first meeting with Gutiérrez — at his Anaheim, Calif., home. “We sat there for three hours, drank tequila and talked about life and his vision,” says Negrete. “Then we brought him into the agency, and we did the speech about what we do and who we represent, like Beyoncé and Harry Styles.” It wasn’t until a third meeting — one that took four hours at a pizza parlor, with Gutiérrez’s entire family present — that the manager said, “ ‘OK, I want to work with you guys. This makes sense to me now,’ ” Negrete recalls.
“Rudy and I are both Mexican and speak Spanish, so we were able to identify with him culturally and understood where he was coming from,” says CAA’s Omar García, noting that Grupo Firme’s deal can encompass anything from launching a beer to doing a TV series or a film centered on the band. “We’ve never had the opportunity to work with something so unique when it comes to Mexican music at such a massive level. As an agency, this is an opportunity for us to move on to the future.”
On the night of April 15, as Eduin rode the elevator to the Coachella main stage, he closed his eyes tightly. He feared the worst: that no one would show up to see Grupo Firme perform.
“Tickets go on sale without announcing the artists that will be performing. So people can’t really say, ‘Oh, Grupo Firme will be there, let me buy a ticket.’ Regardless of who had bought tickets — Americans, people who don’t speak Spanish or know our music — we’d have to go up and sing,” Eduin explains of his worries. “Not being able to control who was buying tickets was terrifying.”
But when he opened his eyes, he saw a sea of people covering every inch of grass — cheering, waving Mexican flags, some even wearing cowboy boots and tejanas to show their Mexican pride.
René Contreras, who booked Grupo Firme for the festival, wasn’t surprised the band could pack the main stage. In 2021, he had seen it perform in Fresno, Calif., where the group had invited him onstage and immediately handed him two beers. “I saw the crowd from that perspective, and everyone was just so happy,” he says.
He pitched the act to Goldenvoice president Paul Tollette, who called booking the band a “no-brainer,” says Contreras. Like the CAA agents, he, too, had to travel to Anaheim to talk business with Gutiérrez. “He invited me to his house, and personally, I had never been to a manager’s house. I met his whole family there because they had a party going on. They even invited me to dance in la rueda [the middle of a dancing circle].” Bringing Grupo Firme to Coachella was, he says, a big statement. “Artists of that genre have never had a stage at a general-market festival. Firme just chain-sawed a door open,” he says. “That moment proved to the music industry that we can blur the line between different markets and opportunities. Grupo Firme elevated Mexican music in general.”
Today, Grupo Firme’s mission goes far beyond globalizing its genre. It’s creating a space within it for a new generation of fans, one that embraces outside collaborations and applauds the band’s modern fashion choices, which don’t always include traditional vaquero suits. “Who said that regional Mexican artists couldn’t wear gold chains? Who said we can only dress a certain way?” asks Eduin, incredulous. “We’ve been trying to break those stereotypes and barriers slowly.”
The group is also breaking down a different kind of barrier: creating a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community within a realm of Latin music that hasn’t always felt welcoming to it. Jhonny, who was a schoolteacher before joining Grupo Firme (the “mean type,” Eduin adds with a laugh), is openly gay and, in fact, proposed to his boyfriend onstage at one of the band’s concerts late last year.
“I never imagined that expressing my sexual preferences would have such a huge impact on our genre,” he says enthusiastically. “You can go to one of our concerts and see rainbow flags, trans flags — something you’ve never seen at any other regional Mexican concert. Seeing everyone dressed however they want, living as they are and enjoying the show like everyone else is special. It’s a message to the industry that no matter how you want to live your life and how you express yourself, we all enjoy music the same way: We’re all there to sing and dance, we all have happy moments, we all suffer, and we all like to drink.” Eduin jumps in, reminding Jhonny of “that one girl” in Texas. “Oh, yeah,” Jhonny continues. “At one of our shows, this woman came onstage with us to be able to tell her family that she’s gay. She was able to build that courage to come out because she felt so safe and protected by us.”
That’s just one reason that the group sees itself as the future of not only its own genre but, more broadly, of Latin music — and is setting goals accordingly. “Becoming the first Mexican group to perform at a Super Bowl is our next big goal, and we’re already working on that,” says Gutiérrez, who is also expanding Music VIP’s roster to include non-regional Mexican acts. (Grupo Firme remains his primary focus.) Whatever comes next, though, “I will never make a decision without consulting with Eduin and the rest of the members,” he says. “What we’ve created is magic. It’s something that broke all barriers and paradigms in the music industry and showed others that it’s possible.”
With that kind of success comes more responsibility and pressure, of course. “We’ve achieved so much that now we’re just trying to up that last accomplishment, and people are expecting more,” says Eduin. “As indie artists, we can’t just show up and sing — we go to the venue to make sure the sound system is up, that we have police permits. We handle everything. But the reward is unlike anything else.”
He pauses, imagining what the next goal posts might be. His bandmates have a few ideas. “To perform in Europe,” says Abraham Hernández.
“And more international festivals,” Jhonny adds.
“To be able to grow old together and reminisce about old times, drinking coffee instead of tequila,” offers Christian Gutiérrez. They laugh, but it’s clear they hope that one day, it’ll come true. Finally, Eduin speaks up.
“I’ve been dreaming of doing 360-style shows at stadiums,” he says. “But also to keep collaborating inside and outside of our genre and keep opening doors for other groups. It’s not about working alone and being selfish anymore — that’s out of style. We can all have a slice of the cake.”