Long before the recent Latin music boom, Ralph Mercado became a pioneer whose passion for salsa and other tropical rhythms led to discovering a wealth of talent and raising the genre's profile.
Mr. Mercado's RMM Records ignited the salsa career of Marc Anthony. And its roster over the last 14 years has included both new and older tropical music stars -- Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Tito Nieves, La India.
But now he is in bankruptcy court, about to sell his record company and give up control of the label that helped define tropical music in the 1990's. In an interview, Mr. Mercado equated the court proceedings to ''seeing my life's work go down the drain.''
Both Sony Discos and the Universal Music and Video Distribution Corporation have made competing bids of more than $16 million each for RMM Records. The buyer will acquire a significant Latin music catalog of 300 to 400 master recordings by more than 130 artists covering a variety of tropical music styles, from salsa and merengue to Latin jazz and Latin rock.
The pending sale, prompted by a multimillion-dollar award in a copyright infringement lawsuit against RMM Records, has saddened some past and present associates of Mr. Mercado's who say they worry that the sale of his independent label will leave a vacuum in the Latin music market. Mr. Mercado, they say, helped make tropical music a valuable commodity, gave chances to new artists and allowed the kind of creative freedom difficult to find in major labels.
''Artists are on the map because of his label,'' said the Latin jazz and salsa pianist Eddie Palmieri, who was represented by Mr. Mercado in the 1970's and recorded four albums with RMM Records, including ''Masterpiece'' with Tito Puente, a Grammy winner this year. ''He took us to Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall.''
But in a notoriously tough business in which money disputes are common, Mr. Mercado has not been immune to controversy. Just as his eye for talent and genius for promotion enabled him to build the most important independent label in the salsa market, others said his way of doing business drove away artists and other associates who felt he was not sharing fairly in the riches of his thriving company.
''Ralph paved the way for a lot of people, including me,'' said Johnny Falcones, who worked for eight years for Mr. Mercado in artist management and marketing and is now chief executive officer of another salsa label, Viva Discos.