Los Producers

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

New blood and old would meet at regular meetings to discuss current projects and divvy up duties. "The coordination is incredible," explains Estefan. "What we do is draw a map. You record the drums, I do the strings." Meanwhile the songwriters pulled together, sharing credit as freely as they shared ideas for song hooks. "I give credit, because I want credit," says Blades of the prevailing ethos. But the publisher's most prolific writer did not play that game. "I called Kike to write with me several times," remembers Blades with a hint of resentment, "but he never called me to write with him."

The one-man band was a bad fit in Estefan's sound machine.

When Thalia returned in 1997 to record Amor a la Mexicana (Love Mexican-Style), she found a much bigger operation. "I've always felt that it's a big family," Thalia observes. "Everybody is in it together. Emilio was there supervising. Whatever I propose to him, he makes it happen." (Estefan even set up Thalia with a marriage proposal from the chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, by introducing the couple. Keeping business in the family, the Estefans will soon have Mr. and Mrs. Tommy Mottola as next-door neighbors on Star Island.)

Sometimes Estefan made the music happen by long distance. When, also in 1997, Santander wrote and produced Mexican ranchero star Alejandro Fernandez's break-out ballad debut Me Estoy Enamorando (I'm Falling in Love), Estefan phoned in frequently to check up on the project, while he accompanied Gloria on a European tour -- picking up a production credit in the process.

On the album's smash single, "Si Tu Supieras" ("If You Knew"), Santander's guitar gently caresses Fernandez's vocals as the singer begs his lover to return from afar. It stayed on the Billboard Latin charts longer than any other song in the chart's history and, in 1998, won a Grammy. In those happier days, Santander broke down the division of labor at Crescent Moon for a Miami Heraldreporter as follows: "Alejandro Fernandez is now a hit for two reasons: my music and Emilio's vision and capacity to market it."

As Santander continued to churn out hit after hit, winning award after award, that division of labor looked less and less attractive. It rankled him that his less productive peers appeared to be getting the same deal as him. He also began to wonder about Estefan's "supervisory" role, especially because it seemed as though the supervisor often took credit for his underlings' work. It must not have sat well that the 1998 Billboard Latin Music Awards named Santander composer of the year, but ranked him second as a producer, behind Estefan.

Around this time Santander says he approached Estefan, asking for some kind, any kind, of special recognition. "And Emilio made him feel like he was a dime a dozen," claims Santander's lawyer, Richard Wolfe.

"Kike never asked for a renegotiation of his contract," clarifies Estefan's outside counsel, Karen Stetson. "Maybe he had this resentment building up; we never knew."

It is very likely Estefan did not know, or that he did not notice. From where the mogul sat, Santander looked like one of many songwriters and producers he had nurtured before and since. If the jingle writer was doing especially well, it must be because Estefan Enterprises had given him the resources to do so. "We invested a lot of time in him," confirms Estefan.

Besides, the mogul's mind was on other matters. He had restaurants to run, a hotel to manage. He signed a reported $15 million deal with Universal TV to supply Latin programs. Sony hired him as their president of artist development, and he was already working hard on this thing that would be called the Latin Grammys.

The great man's many occupations, Santander remembers, led him to announce at a production meeting in 1999 that he would be spending less time in the studio. While the enterprise would continue to provide projects, Santander says Estefan suggested the producers could start drumming up work on their own.

Another producer recalls Estefan saying, "You're all full-fledged producers now; you're going to be calling your own shots." But the producers were not children Estefan could push out of the nest; they were in fact paying Estefan Enterprises a fee for services. "That really marked a turning point for me," Santander recounts. If he was to seek out artists on his own, Santander must have wondered, what did he need Estefan for?

That year Santander built a state-of-the-art studio in his own home and recorded what he considers his first outside job, Cristian Castro's blockbuster, Mi Vida Sin Tu Amor. Estefan Enterprises contends that Santander could not have made My Life Without Your Love without Estefan. "Cristian came to Emilio first," says Stetson. The lawyer claims Santander hijacked the sensitive singer and then refused to pay the 25 percent cut of his earnings he owes the empire for hiring out his exclusive producer services. Or is it 25 percent of the total production budget?

How you read the contract matters. Let's say, making up figures, Castro pays Santander $400,000 to deliver a record and it costs $350,000 to make it. Santander earns $50,000. If he pays Estefan Enterprises 25 percent of his profit, he's left with $37,500. If he forks over 25 percent of the total budget, he's in the hole by $50,000. Santander says Estefan Enterprises demanded the latter. In any case, Stetson points out, the profligate producer never paid his bosses anything at all.

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