After years of gathering dust, the legendary salsa music label Fania Records is back and revamped under new owners—a private equity company looking to make a mint on classic Latin music. As Fania turns 50, we ask: what future lies ahead for the label once known as the “Motown of Latin music?”
“We gonna take you back to what we were doing in 1986,” says boogaloo star Joe Bataan from the stage.
In 1968, Joe Bataan was in East Harlem recording boogaloo tunes for an upstart Latin music label called Fania Records. Today, Joe is performing in a Staten Island park as part of Fania’s 50th anniversary celebrations happening all summer long around New York City.
A native-New Yorker crowd of all shades has turned out. They’re sitting back in fold-out chairs, dancing, and soaking up the nostalgia. Tony Lopez puffs on a cigar, looking like he’s having the time of his life.
“We’re big time Joe Bataan fans from way back in the day,” says Lopez. “I was a kid when he came out with his music. It was off the hook man.”
The people gathered here aren’t just fans of Bataan. They’re fans of Fania itself, because Fania isn’t an ordinary record label.
The Motown Of Latin Music
Fania records was founded in 1964 by two classic New Yorkers—Johnny Pacheco, a Dominican immigrant who led the hottest Latin band in the city, and Jerry Masucci who was a street-smart lawyer and ex-cop from Brooklyn. They decided to team up and start a record label that could beat-out Alegre Records, the top Latin label at the time.
“They were two dynamic guys, really ahead of their time, and they just captured the industry,” says Joe Bataan.
Fania really exploded in the 70s, when it became home base for an exciting new musical movement known as salsa.
“A whole new world opened up with salsa, and all of these artists were brought to different levels that they never thought they would achieve,” says Bataan. “The bandleaders were taken out of their leadership roles in the individual bands and put into the Fania All Stars, which became a world wide name.”
Footage from the famous Fania All-Stars concert of 1973 at Yankee Stadium.
Fania recorded just about every great Latin artists of the era: Bobby Valentín, Hector Lavoe, Ray Barretto, Larry Harlow, Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz, and so-on. The label was grossing $5 million a year and commanding 80 percent of the market. But it wouldn’t last.
By 1980, Fania was in serious financial trouble. The label crashed due to a perfect storm of changing music tastes, bad business decisions and interpersonal conflicts. For years, the catalog essentially gathered dust.
Fania Rises Again
In 2009, Fania’s assets were bought by an investment firm called Signal Equity Partners, operating under the name Codigo Group. According to their website, Signal Equity specializes in “leveraged buy-outs, roll-ups, and restructurings.” It was an unlikely match— before Fania, they were buying up rural telephone exchanges. But a guy named Michael Rucker convinced the investors that there was money to be made in classic Latin music.
Rucker is now the chief marketing officer for Codigo group. “There’s this huge opportunity to go out and look at Latin music and Latin catalogs and to roll them up, archive them, treat them with respect, and then to collect on that respect,” says Rucker.
The company bought not only Fania, but 14 other Latin catalogs from the same era, including West Side Latino and Kubaney Records. They now own almost 3,000 records by 200 artists. Taken together, it’s a major chunk of Latin music history.
They fished the master tapes out of old storage units and got the records up on digital services like Spotify and iTunes. They also pressed up new “Best Of” albums, and began selling t-shirts bearing art from classic Fania album covers.
“It’s been working really well for us,” says Rucker.
“This Is Gone Forever”
Meanwhile in the Bronx, things haven’t been working very well for Mike Amadeo, owner of the famed Casa Amadeo salsa record store. The store has been in continuous operation since 1941. But it might not last much longer.
“Business is lousy,” says Amadeo. “Nobody in the music business is going to tell me after 64 years in the music business that this is going to be like it was before. It will never happen again, this is gone forever.”
Amadeo says that in Fania’s heyday, records flew off the shelves—he made $7 thousand dollars a week, more than three times what he takes in today. He says there used to be over a hundred ballrooms with live bands in the Bronx alone. Today, not one is left. And if you ask him about the new Fania owners—let’s just say he’s not pleased.
“Let them buy an American record company, for the English speaking people that know what the hell they doing. They don’t know what the hell they doing,” says Amadeo.
Amadeo was once a shot-caller in the salsa industry, back when everybody involved were friends and extended family from the barrio. He and other old-timers say they feel neglected by the new Fania. Amadeo, for example, says the new owners never once called him up to try to learn from his decades of experience selling music to the community. He says the stuff they are putting out doesn’t make sense.
“What Fania is doing right now is killing the industry. The few people that are left that go to the stores to buy records, they want the original recordings as they came out,” says Amadeo.
Reinvent, or Die
The new Fania isn’t particularly interested in reaching the people that go to the stores to buy records. For Michael Rucker at Fania, there’s a different audience in mind.
“Now we look forward and we say –how do we take this to a younger audience today,” says Rucker. “Because at the end of the day, if you aren’t reinventing, if you’re not going to find new listeners then ultimately you die. And that’s exactly what we don’t want to happen.”
In an attempt to reach younger audiences, Fania is has been working with DJs and putting out remix albums that sample their catalog. For some members of the salsa community like Mike Amadeo, this amounts to sacrilege—a watering down of a rich musical history. But Joe Bataan, for one, isn’t so sure.
“If you sit on history, it dies. So you got to lift yourself from your seat, let history breath, and pass it on, and then you’ll have a chance with the music,” says Bataan.
It’s unclear whether the new Fania will succeed in reaching the youth— the label won’t share sales numbers, so we don’t know how well they are actually doing. But, says Bataan, at least they are trying, and giving the next generation a chance to decide what Fania means to them.
For a complete list of Fania’s 50th anniversary events, visit www.fania.com
All photos courtesy of Codigo group.