Los Producers

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

While Santander peddled his services elsewhere, funny things began to happen to his royalty statements. A new bookkeeper found that by some fluke, Santander had never been charged the company's standard administrative fees for songwriting. He was docked $63,000 retroactively in June 1999 and $75,000 more on January 1, 2000. The day before, an additional $75,000 came out of his songwriting royalties from FIPP to make up for losses that Estefan Enterprises claimed on his producer account; but his songwriter contract carries no provision for that kind of deduction (what's known in the biz as "cross-collateralization"). As for the royalties from all those hits he'd produced for Gloria, those were trickling in by the hundreds of dollars.

Estefan Enterprises president Frank Amadeo called Santander in for a special meeting. Staring into the distance at the enormous blue circle painted on the building opposite Amadeo's office, Santander listened to the list of expenses he owed. He listened to a lecture about his participation in the company. Estefan did not attend the meeting. Instead, passing by the conference room, he hugged his former protégé and told him that he was looking for new songs from him. Then he walked away.

As of the year 2000, Santander was no longer active on the Estefan roster. There were no more production jobs, no new songs placed. Whether his departure was by choice or as punishment is a matter the courts will decide, with a trial not likely to begin for another eighteen months.

Are the Chirino Sisters commercial? (Angie, center); Juan Zambrano (below) thinks so
Are the Chirino Sisters commercial? (Angie, center); Juan Zambrano (below) thinks so

In the meantime Santander and his brother Gustavo have been busy building an empire of their own. To the four production companies Kike has incorporated in Florida since 1994, the brothers added last year Orbital Enterprises, Inc., and, for songwriting, Clear Mind Publishing. In addition to Santander's lucrative relationship with Cristian Castro, the producer has a number of new artists in development and is rumored to have been tapped for a collaboration with rock legend Carlos Santana.

The real battle will be waged from the rivals' respective recording studios. It's not clear who will win. "One of them has the resources and the charisma," says a source close to both Estefan and Santander. "The other has the talent. I don't know if that will be enough."

If the conflict with Santander was essentially a struggle over artistic integrity, the dispute with the Chirino Sisters seems to arise from the capricious exercise of power. When Estefan founded a record label named after his studio in a joint venture with Sony, among the first groups signed was Willy's singing offspring: Jessica, Nicolle, Alana, Olgui, and Angie.

The Chirinos made their professional debut in May 2000 at the prestigious OTI Song Festival in Acapulco, where the sisters entered a Spanish-language lament, "Hierba Mala" ("Poisonous Weed"), written by Angie, Olgui, and Emilio Estefan. Dressed in shimmering jewel-hued dresses, the Chirino Sisters delivered an ode to self-destructive love. "You please me/And you frighten me," Angie wailed. "Your soul is dark and dangerous." Her sisters responded with gorgeous gospel harmonies.

Not everyone in the audience was pleased when the Cuban Americans beat out representatives from nineteen Latin-American countries; boos greeted the second group from the United States to win in the OTI's 28-year history. The nine-member international jury included Kike Santander and Charlie Zaa, a Colombian crooner who had recently recorded with Estefan. Although the sisters assured members of the press their victory had nothing to do with Estefan's connections, when they accepted the award they made sure to give special thanks to their patron.

Under Estefan's supervision the sisters selected songs for their first disc and began to work with a staff producer, Juan Zambrano. Crescent Moon president John Doelp monitored the project closely. A few months in, Doelp says he heard the first tracks and was pleased. "They sing like angels," he offers.

Estefan had already been working closely with Angie, the eldest sister, as a producer and songwriter. He doted on his young charge, taking a personal interest in her career and even baby-sitting her little girl. One day, when Chirino came to the studio abuzz with the news that she had placed a deposit on a dinette set, Estefan tracked down the store and purchased the furniture outright as a gift.

Such fatherly behavior had its limits. On July 1, 2000, as the sisters put in long hours at the studio, Angie completed the third year on her publishing and production contracts, a time when Estefan Enterprises had the option to keep her for another year or let her go. The company opted to hold on to her as a songwriter but to drop her as a producer, cutting her guaranteed annual income in half, from $50,000 to $25,000.

As a songwriter she'd had hits, including Marc Anthony's huge, Grammy-winning "Dimelo" ("I Need to Know"), but royalties roll in as swift as molasses. Her little girl needed day care; Chirino needed money now. When she approached Estefan, he offered to advance her $5000 in anticipation of her earnings from the following year. The gesture was actually generous, Stetson points out, because the company was not getting anything for this money that was not already its due.

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