Sweet Music

An indie fights the big labels -- and wins

A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that Freddie Records, an independent record label in Corpus Christi, Tex., is merely having a hot year. At this year's Latin Grammys, three of the five albums nominated for Tejano music -- a blend of Mexican polka and American pop -- were released by Freddie. Two of the five norteño nominees, who sing in a less assimilated style, are also Freddie artists. Michael Salgado, a gravel-voiced singer who bounced around larger labels before joining Freddie, credits Freddie for his nomination. "If it takes an indie from Corpus Christi to do it," he laughs, "well, so be it."

While other Indie labels in South Texas were crushed by the majors in the late '80s, Freddie fought back. By 2002, Freddie had opened a state-of-the-art $4.2 million headquarters and recording studio. "I wanted [the artists] to walk in the door and know that they're not in a dentist's office," says President Freddie Martinez Jr. He makes sure all his artists have his cell-phone number. "I don't think Tommy Mottola can say that," he says. Revenues at the 26-person company are up 8% over last year's $7.4 million.

Freddie Jr. and brothers John and Mark divvy up responsibilities on an artist-by-artist basis. Freddie Jr. acts as producer and writes a few songs, recently receiving a Grammy nomination for a song he wrote for norteño artist Ramon Ayala.

Tejano singer Freddie Martinez Sr. founded the label with $400 in 1969. By the time Martinez Jr. joined in 1986, Freddie was Tejano's biggest indie, releasing 50 albums from 20 artists. It released the first album by Selena Quintanilla -- yes, that Selena -- partly because Martinez Sr. and Selena's father were old friends.

Back then, the independents sealed deals with a handshake -- making them easy pickings for the majors. Capitol Records snared Freddie's biggest-selling artist, La Sombra, in 1989. "We had done 14 or 15 albums with them, and there was nothing we could do," says Martinez Jr. "We said, 'We're not going to roll over. This is where we get aggressive."' He hired until there were two dozen staffers in Texas and sales reps on both coasts. He diversified into norteño, which soon outsold Tejano.

By 2000, as it became clear that no new star was emerging to fill Selena's heels, the majors abandoned Tejano. With them went promotional dollars and a growing national audience. More than half the 100 Tejano radio stations switched formats.

Martinez Jr. didn't flinch. He doubled Freddie's release schedule and repackaged titles from its lucrative catalog. He also signed big-name artists stranded by the majors. "Freddie has a reputation for being honest," says Juanita Esparza, founder of the legendary Janey's Record shop in San Antonio, Tex. "They have a very good distributor and they pay their artists."

And they stick with them. Salgado says one reason he went to Freddie was the experience of his peer Ayala. "He has been with them for 30 years and recorded about 100 albums," says Salgado. After more than a decade on top labels, Jimmy Gonzalez y el Grupo Mazz signed with Freddie in 2000, as did La Tropa F in 2003. La Sombra, whose defection first inspired change at Freddie, recently called about a new deal. "We haven't made a decision yet," says Martinez, without a hint of told-you-so. Seems like some of Tejano's biggest acts are heading home.

By Mark Schone

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