Los Producers

The emperor's clothes are wearing thin, as both his top songwriter and the Latin Grammys leave the Estefan court

Estefan's personal touch turns songs into gold precisely because in contemporary pop, image often is more important than sound. Therein lies Estefan's genius. Gloria's long-standing triumph stands as irrefutable proof: Estefan has incredible command of the skills required to position an artist as a hot commodity. His image, marketing savvy, and influence in the industry have as much or more to do with making a song a hit as any work he might do in the studio.

The sheer volume of Estefan's activities prohibits him from devoting sustained attention to any particular project. Instead he creates the environment and recruits the personnel who actually make the music. Estefan oversees the process: He offers overall concepts, suggests ideas for songs, and dispenses advice on arrangements, performance, and mixing.

But does that make him a songwriter or a producer?

Santander likes it on his own
AP/Wide World Photo
Santander likes it on his own
From fun and games to the image game: Miami Sound Machine gives way to Thalia
From fun and games to the image game: Miami Sound Machine gives way to Thalia

Although the Copyright Act defines a musical composition as lyrics and a melody line, just what contributions count as songwriting is not clear. Many in the business acknowledge that a word change or a catchy concept can make the difference between a monster hit and a monstrous miss.

Exactly what a producer does is even more elusive. As Moses Avalon, Los Angeles-based author of Confessions of a Record Producer: How to Survive the Scams and Shams of the Music Business, points out, there is no legal definition. Rather, he says, recording contracts simply imply that a producer is "the person who has promised a recording to the record company." Just as top architects, chefs, and fashion designers hire assistants to do their dirty work, Avalon affirms, "If the producer wants to hire someone else to do the job for him, that's okay. Whether that person is entitled to any credit is only a matter of courtesy."

When Santander accuses Estefan of taking undue credit, he demands recognition for the hands-on work of songwriting and recording. "Artists tend to focus almost exclusively on their craft," observes Avalon. "The intricacies of big business tend to fall outside of their purview."

The terms producer and executive producer are often used in the industry to distinguish the person who creates the sound in the studio from the person who handles the myriad concerns surrounding the sound. However, one long-time Estefan Enterprises producer observes: "Here, there is no distinction. [Producer and executive producer] are one and the same thing."

Santander's attorney Richard Wolfe is more blunt: "The definition at Estefan Enterprises is that Emilio is the producer regardless of what he does or doesn't do." The attorney will try to set legal precedent by arguing point blank: "You're not in the studio; you're not the producer."

Wolfe will also argue that, according to the copyright act, providing concepts, ideas, common words, or common phrases is not enough to claim authorship of a musical composition. Whatever the criteria, Wolfe alleges, "Estefan simply puts himself down as a songwriter."

Very different understandings of what it means to write a song or produce a record put Estefan and his most prolific writer/producer on a collision course. One man guards his artistic integrity as jealously as the other man guards his image.

Estefan's creative contributions have long been called into question. Although Estefan is fond of recounting how he originated the so-called Miami sound, it was drummer Kiki Garcia, with a little help from Gloria, who wrote the Miami Sound Machine's best known songs: "Dr. Beat," "Conga," "1-2-3," and "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You." Bragging rights for the production of the biggest hits belong to a team known as the Three Jerks: Joe Galdo, Rafael Vigil, and Larry Dermer.

If Estefan was not exactly the originator of the Miami sound, he certainly was the prime mover. As his contemporary, salsa singer Willy Chirino, admits, "I am a little older than Gloria, and I tried to do what they did. When I tried it wasn't the right moment. There was no way in the world to penetrate the Anglo market at that time. I gave up and kept doing my Latin thing. In this business you have to be prepared for when that stroke of luck comes to you. Emilio and Gloria, especially Emilio, worked very hard. He was ready. He was really, really ready. He had a way of incorporating his music, and in the process he built this empire."

Ironically the protest against the participation of Cuban nationals in the Latin Grammys that drove away the event serves as a reminder of the source of Estefan's initial success; the U.S. embargo against Cuba allowed exiles in Miami to sell an Americanized version of the Cuban sound without any competition from the island. Much like Berry Gordy, the Motown mogul to whom he often is compared, Estefan built a musical empire far from the epicenters of Los Angeles and New York by packaging an ethnic sound as easy-to-digest pop.

According to Estefan lore, Emilio built the empire one album at a time, distributing promotional copies to radio stations and club DJs from the trunk of his car. "That's how I learned the business," he says. When a local independent label stiffed the band and kept the rights to the songs on the first two albums, Estefan learned a lesson he would never forget. In September of 1979, Estefan incorporated Foreign Imported Productions and Publishing (FIPP). "We decided it would be better to have control of the songs ourselves," he explains. Seven years later Estefan Enterprises was founded to maintain control over Gloria's tours and recording.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets