The Latin-American music industry would not be where it is today without the help of Tommy Mottola. Growing up in the Bronx, the former recording artist and Sony Music executive felt like the melodies and rhythms that echoed from his neighbor’s window would become an essential component of American pop culture. After signing the young and vivacious Gloria Estefan to Casablanca Records in the late 80s, Mottola started a movement in the industry that would ultimately give birth to the “Latin explosion” we’re witnessing today in America and throughout the rest of the world.
The man who helped launch the careers of Latin American icons like Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin has teamed up with HBO for a new documentary, The Latin Explosion: A New America. In the film set to deliver a “timely story about the Latin culture and demographic” through the power of music, Mottola gathered protégés Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Shakira, his wife Thalía, Pitbull, and actors like George Lopez and Sofia Vergara to discuss the impact Latin music has had on mainstream America and pop culture overall. The unprecedented feature couldn’t have come at a better time as the country is witnessing a tipping point for U.S. Latinos, knee-deep in political issues such as immigration reform.
“Timing is everything in life, and the timing is certainly better right now,” said Mottola. “With HBO’s excitement, enthusiasm, and certainly all the rhetoric on television about all the candidates and the issues of immigrations and Latinos, the timing couldn’t be better.”
The film is days away from its grand premiere and already it’s being praised by elite members of the Latino community. The Latin Grammys, who endorsed the film, plan to host a special screening the night before the awards show in Las Vegas. Sony Music also backed the movie by curating its official soundtrack.
VIBE Viva sat down with Mr. Mottola about his early ventures in the music business and how he helped build a musical empire that Latinos would come to cherish and call home.
VIBE Viva: Your foray into the music industry was as a recording artist. Why wasn’t that successful for you?
Mottola: Music has always been a passion in my life. Starting at an early age being a musician and being raised in the Bronx, I was listening to all kinds of rhythms whether it was pop music, music of the time, or Latin music that was coming from the windows of the neighborhood. Having all of those influences and carrying that into the early years of playing instruments, then playing in local bands and actually making records and recording for Epic Records, which later on in life I went on to run. But I decided to never release my own records; they weren’t that good. [Laughs] I just thought that feeling the way I felt and having the ambition, drive, and energy, I would be able to accomplish more and use my background and my passion to do it vicariously through music artists, develop their careers and still be intricately involved with music.
You went on to work for publishing powerhouse Chappell Publishing and eventually co-founded your own record label. Would you say the millennial artist still needs the label today? Why or why not?
The answer to that is yes. You really do with the clout of one of the majors to help pile and consolidate all the social media, the airplay, everything under one roof. All the marketing, all the promotion, all the publicity; No one can do that as well as the record companies, even though there’s only two of them today compared to six or seven ten years ago. So yea, you really need the support of a record label in order to take something and really bring to a major level of success.
In your book “Hitmaker,” you describe the peak of your success at a time when the music industry was changing. How did you survive and adapt the digital takeover?
We worked on lots of different things. We were the only company [that] was trying to come up with our own digital platforms. We actually had a deal with Apple on the table where we could have become partners with them, although the bosses at Sony Japan really felt that since they were a manufacturing company, they didn’t want to do that. It would have been a whole different ball game. Looking back on it, the industry should have embraced Napster and made Napster their own and they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in today. There were so many great periods and genres of music that we had an opportunity to deal with, while I was at Sony. Certainly, Latin music was an important piece of that puzzle for us.
A lot of your greatest protégés are some of today’s most prominent Latino figures in music and entertainment. What inspired you to work closely with that demographic?
Well, being raised where I came from, I was part of those sounds early on in life. They were in my neighborhood, coming out of my neighbors’ windows. I was so exposed to it then, through my years of being a musician and manager. When I took over at Sony, Latin music was such a big part of the company and we dominated the Latin music market for 20 years with all the best stars who were starting out. When I first started at the company, taking on Gloria Estefan as the first artist under my wing and helping to develop her career. Fast-forward to the mid-90s, when I signed Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez , Ricky Martin and Shakira, all of a sudden, all of that emerged as big, global, pop music, but all coming from the Latin world to create this massive explosion. It really had a huge influence on music.
Speaking of exploding, your documentary sheds light on the prejudice and racism Latinos more often than not had to endure going into the music industry. How would you say things differ today?
People who are going to be prejudice will always be prejudice. That’s something you can’t change. We’ve lived with that over the years. I certainly feel that there’s more recognition now of the contribution of Latinos for what they are in our society and the importance of this culture and this demographic. The people now who are serving you in the restaurants and taking care of manicuring your lawns and doing all the odd jobs that people won’t do whether its construction or whatever by 2025 are going to become your new doctors and lawyers. Certainly, by that time or little bit after that, there will be a Latino president. There will be a Latino in the White House without a question of a doubt in my mind. People are recognizing that.
What was the ultimate goal of the documentary?
The point of the documentary is to tell a much bigger and very, very important and timely story about the Latin culture and the demographic, but to do it in a different and exciting way through music as opposed to having this boring documentarian sitting there discussing the facts. I mean, we talk about politics, immigration, all of these important subjects that are going on and so timely right now, certainly for this next election for sure. Latinos can help swing the vote one way or the other. It’s a fact that Latinos are spending $1.3 trillion a year, which is more than any group or demographic in this country. I mean, that much money and that much spending is actually the 15th largest economy in the world. When you think of facts like that, that’s stuff that I think is important for everyone to know. Hopefully we are able to tell an interesting and exciting story through music about all of this information.
Artists like Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin seemed to very successfully and almost seamlessly attain crossover appeal. What would you say helped them make that possible?
What I did was observe their success in the Latin market. People like Marc [Anthony] and Ricky [Martin] were selling millions of albums for Latinos in Spanish language and selling out tens of thousands of tickets in concerts singing in Spanish. So I thought, ‘Hey half of these people in this country are second and third generations, let’s just start with that.’ So if we make the same records like pop records with them, in English and Spanglish, I think we can have global success. Sure enough, it worked. We started with Marc and then of course Ricky with “La Vida Loca” when he broke through. When we took on Jennifer [Lopez], all of the records on her album were in English, but she also had three records in Spanish. Then we urged Shakira, who didn’t speak a word of English when she first started recording, to make an album in English. She did and it sold 20 million [copies] worldwide. The appetite for those rhythms and that music from those stars was way beyond anyone’s expectations.
How important is Jennifer Lopez’s presence in music and entertainment? What does she represent to you?
She’s an iconic person at this point. She’s gone from being “Jenny on the block” to being a pop culture icon in every area of entertainment, whether it’s fashion, music, or film. But to me, she’s just a friend. I’m happy for her success and happy to have been a part of it.
And what about the future generation of Latino artists?
Hopefully the film helps inspire and motivate them. The film says the future is yours. Certainly, if you look at the statistics, [Latinos] will represent 25 percent of the population in a very short period of time in the United States. The power is going to be there. The base is going to be there. So the music that is created by Latin artists and whatever fusion they decide to make it, more hip-hop, rock or pop, is going keep getting better and bigger.
What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d give to anyone who aspires to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t go into the music business. [Laughs] I’d like to say follow your dreams, but everybody says that crap. The thing is, you got to believe in something. You got to have conviction. You’ve got to be motivated and inspired to do it. No matter what it is. Don’t be afraid of hard work. If you look at the end of the movie, Pitbull says, “First we worked in the restaurants, now we own the restaurants. First we cleaned your houses, and now we own the houses. There will be a time, soon, where we’ll be in La Casa Blanca, baby!” That says everything.