Tony Sal: Building a Music Empire [Interview]
Ottawa, ON – For almost a decade CP Records has been working hard to create not only a movement, but to also build a legacy for themselves, their artists, and the Canadian music industry. At present day, a much diversified CP Records is home to Juno Award winning rap artist, Belly a.k.a. Rebellyus, R&B artist Danny Fernandez, and Chris Labelle, the first rock/alternative addition to the roster.
Starting the label in 2002 with Massari and Belly as its two first artists, Tony Sal was always looking at the bigger picture. “I believed in them, I thought they were great and I know business so everything was a go since 2002 and on,” says CEO Tony Sal. In 2003, Belly and singer Massari released their first collaborative single; a track titled “Spitfire” to local radio station HOT 89.9. The record built anticipation and by 2004 CP Records had already gained a solid fan base, which encouraged Belly and Massari to begin recording as solo artists.
With his self-titled album debut in 2005, Massari reached gold, had two #1 singles on MuchMusic and was nominated for 7 MuchMusic Video Awards as well as a Juno award. For many he was, and still remains an icon not only in Canada, but abroad as well. This led to his album release in over 40 territories including Australia, the UK and the Middle East.
Belly, on the other hand, who was in his late teens when the Spitfire EP was released, took some time working on his craft before releasing his full-length debut. Following the Spitfire EP, he released three mixtapes: Death Before Dishonor Volume 1 hosted by DJ Kool Kid, Death Before Dishonor Volume 2 hosted by DJ Kay Slay, and Death Before Dishonor Volume 3 hosted by DJ Big Mike. In 2007, Belly released his debut album THE REVOLUTION, a double disc which in June of 2007 premiered at #1 in the rap/hip-hop charts across Canada and was been nominated for over 10 MuchMusic Video awards (taking home Best Rap Video in 2007). That same year Belly was also given the opportunity to tour the country alongside Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube, for their cross-Canada tour.
The year 2007 also brought about some unexpected changes for the label. Early in the year, Massari and CP Records came to a mutual agreement to dissolve their relationship. The agreement aroused awe and shock amongst media and fans, leaving many people wondering about the future of the label, and of Massari as an artist. Seeing the success that an R&B/Pop artist could bring to the table, CP Records began to look for someone new to follow-up with Massari’s sensation. In late 2007, CP signed Danny Fernandez, brother to Canadian icon Sean Desman. Danny released his first single “Curious” featuring Juelz Santana earlier in the year, and is now getting ready for the release of his album debut.
Encouraging a family type environment, the staff at CP engages in more than one aspect of each artist’s career on a national platform. The label wants to create something for the artists that their fans can identify with all over the world. “We want to change Canadian artist’s careers and how they’re embraced everywhere,” says CEO Sal. With national distribution through Fontana North/Universal and international licensing and distribution deals in the UK, U.S., Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Middle-East and Asia among others, the label has sold over half a million records on its first two releases. Launching CP Asia Pacific and CP Middle East in 2007 has created a new platform for CP Records to showcase Canadian artists globally, and has also opened doors for future signings with international acts. “We are not limiting ourselves with only hip-hop/R&B,” says Sal. “Canada is so multicultural and we want our roster to reflect the diversity we embrace musically. For 2008, we have opened our ears a little more to just good music overall; in all genres.”
As a successful entrepreneur, HipHopCanada believes Tony Sal has all the knowledge and experience many industry heads would appreciate from a man in his position. We got Tony on a lengthy phone call that had him going back to when it first started, not just for CP Records, but also for him as a person. It was inspiring to say the least to hear the advice, the trials and the success stories he had to share with us.
HipHopCanada: So Tony, when was CP officially formed and who put it together?
Tony Sal: Officially, as a label it came together in 2002 but before that it was just Massari and Belly. Belly was the person that came up with the name. It was more of a dream then. But Belly and Massari, I believed in them, I thought they were great and I know business so everything was a go since 2002 and on.
HipHopCanada: Did you think at the time that creating a record label in Canada was going to be a good investment?
Tony Sal: I owned another business not music related. I was a wholesaler for a lot of different items and I was doing very well for myself. I opened my first business in 2001 and by 2003 it was a muli-million dollar business. Basically that’s what made me invest into CP. When I first started, Massari was an old friend of mine from high school, and Belly was with me every day. Once I was 20-30 grand deep, I had to figure whether this was going to be a good investment, or whether I had to stop there.
HipHopCanada: Judging on how the industry was going at the time did you guys think that it was going to be profitable to have a record label?
Tony Sal: Yes; especially in ’03 because we were getting a lot of love from people that were hearing the music. When we hit Ottawa’s 89.9 with “Spitfire”; the song between Belly and Massari, the response insured me that this was going to be successful.
HipHopCanada: Had you worked in or with something similar before and did you think you knew what to expect?
Tony Sal: I didn’t know what to expect at all. In 2004 we were in LA recording at Looney Bin studios and we were working with this record label from Chicago. Bumpy Johnson and everyone from the label were in the studio, as well as DMX. As we’re just chilling’, he looked at me and said: “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” My answer was “Yeah,” when it really should have been “hell no”. Now I know. He said “I hope you do.”
HipHopCanada: In the music industry, many artists form their own record labels under which to push themselves. In Canada, many artists take things into their own hands since there is no real belief that a major will come knocking. However, there aren’t as many successful independents as you’d think there would be. Do you think that’s partially because many people don’t know what they’re getting themselves into?
Tony Sal: What worked really well from my label was that I was very business oriented. I did business administration at Algonquin College so I’ve always been into business. What really helped us in Canada was our creative aspect. That had to do a lot with Belly because he has a lot of the creative input. Manny has a lot to do with the success of the label. Then there’s a lot of other staff that handles the day-to-day aspect of things. We are really there for our artists. Belly already knows how to be creative with his own projects and the people he’s working with. Manny is one of the greatest managers in this country and he’s always there for the artists. He goes above and beyond. Being aggressive made us stand out a lot. A lot of those little details made us stand out. Our lawyers were on point, our radio and promotions team was on point and me as CEO, I had to be on top of everyone to make sure that everything as a whole was running smoothly.
HipHopCanada: What are some general mistakes that you see other labels doing when they start up?
Tony Sal: We moved to the U.S. and it taught us a lot. It made me come back to Canada and I felt like I went to school there. I sat there and looked at everyone in the industry and decided to do something totally different and go against what everyone else was doing and it’s worked well for me. I’ll say the number one thing that harms Canadian businesses totally is when people depend on the grants. The grants are great, but they’re not there for you to sit on and depend on. There is no other country in the world that supports artists like Canada, but you can’t sit at home and wait for your grant to come in. You have to believe in yourself first and then everyone else will follow. I felt like that sparkling and good feeling in your heart, was missing in a Canadian business. That’s how I felt. Nobody has that itch and motivation to make it happen. Money is always good, but grants are not hard to get. Before we started the label we went on a road trip to cities like Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton and looked at the scene. We did our homework. It was important for us that CP Records focused on Canada as a whole and not just one city itself. Canada wants that; the one artist and label they can look to and identify with. A lot of artists look for the US approval. No, you have to be established in Canada and then go to the US. That’s our kind of strategy.
HipHopCanada: What was the biggest surprise when things did start to get serious?
Tony Sal: Winning the Junos. Now I’m more motivated than ever.
HipHopCanada: What did you think or still do you think you have to offer as a label with the image or the artists you bring on your roster?
Tony Sal: Direction for sure. Direction to me comes before all that. These days people have to fall in love with the artist, not just the songs. There are so many other artists to compete with, and you really have to be outstanding. Artist development is key for me, as well as the management side and booking side. We’re a power machine. Everyone knows that in the urban industry you can’t make money with the first album. We’re only 2 albums in and thank God we have Junos, MMVA’s, and Gold plaques.
HipHopCanada: CP is a very family oriented type label. It moves together as a team and everyone involved on the inside is like “family.” Do you think that with independent labels that type of movement works best, or do you suggest that entrepreneurs maintain solely business relationships with people they want to hire for work?
Tony Sal: Not with your key people. It is family no matter what, but sometimes you can’t mix personal and business together. But of course the main people are family oriented.
HipHopCanada: Recently you acquired Danny Fernandez and Chris Labelle as new additions to the CP roster. How do you decide about the artists you want to sign? What type of criteria they have to meet?
Tony Sal: I met Danny before we signed him and I saw it. I could tell he would be the next thing coming from Canada. He’s already an artist and to have a song out, there’s a lot of work that goes into that. When you see an artist that’s already doing it on their own, that’s amazing. That’s really good. It’s good to take that talent to the next level.
HipHopCanada: What has an artist have to have accomplished in order to get on your radar?
Tony Sal: Honestly, where we’re at right now, talent is talent and music is music. I always take people seriously and I listen to what people send me. However, I do feel that when you send that demo in, you have to make it stand out. If you’re going to come to me in person, you have to stand out. When Chris Labelle approached us, he didn’t have the greatest demo, but he just made us feel like he’s the one. Sometimes it just has to feel right, and it has to stand out. You have to make sure you put the effort in presenting yourself the right way.
HipHopCanada: What about in-house producers. How do you find beats for the artists to work with? Do you go by names you have heard on other beats you like, or do you accept submissions?
Tony Sal: This is not really my department, but we are open to work with other producers as long as the production is hot. Most of the time that’s handled by Belly. Belly runs the whole music and production side of things, so it works well. We do the promo and take it to the next level. If the beat is hot, we’ll get at the producer for it.
HipHopCanada: What do you think the best way a producer can approach someone in your position is?
Tony Sal: In a million different ways. On Belly’s album, we had this producer, Bacardi from Montreal who approached us close to the wrapping of the album. He delivered nothing but hot beats, and Belly got in the studio and one of the songs made it on the album. As long as you have the product, you’ll always get someone’s attention in the music business. They should try to have their product out everywhere. The best way for them to send demos is to put the company name on the beat, or send a snippet. I advise producers to get the right managers who can make the right decisions for them.
HipHopCanada: Definitely. A good team is crucial. Let’s get a little bit into sales. As a label, where do you see your profits coming in? Do you expect great physical sales from your artists, or rather creating a brand?
Tony Sal: Our label deals with a lot of management and booking as well so the way that we are established is to promote the entire label. Sales have decreased, but iTunes and things like that are still available. They’re options we didn’t have 5-10 years ago. They are very helpful in making your artist popular and acquiring sponsorship, merchandise, touring etc. All these things kick in. The royalties start adding up. The music business is a business that makes a lot of money regardless.
HipHopCanada: I guess the responsibility falls on the artist [in this case their own label] to be more creative about their ventures, rather than just estimating all their revenue from album sales.
Tony Sal: Exactly, and if you think about it Lola, almost 10 years ago, labels had to spend TONS of money to promote records around the world. Now you put a video on YouTube, and next thing you know it’s the biggest thing in Japan. The digital world has both positive and negative aspects. As an artist and label you have to figure out what your goals are. It works a little different nowadays, and it depends on the artist also. With Belly’s “I’m The Man”, we sold bandanas more than anything. Their sale was pretty much the income of the song. It really depends on what your target it.
HipHopCanada: When you make your budgeting for each artist, what percentages go into what and why? Recording/packaging/marketing?
Tony Sal: Recording is a big part of the project from my concern as my label. A lot of people are concerned with just the one single. I believe in establishing an artist, not just a single. A lot of the budget goes on the entire album. You know our videos are over the top. Photo shoots and stuff like that go under album expenses. As far as packaging goes, as you said, the physical sales have decreased so a lot of people find it easier to go buy the tracks they like on iTunes or whatever. So we don’t spend as much money on packaging as we did before. We are doing something really different with Danny’s project though. It’s going to look like a really nice project.
HipHopCanada: Going into this industry, how did you evaluate the market? Did you compare the Canadian with the US, or did you just focus on creating your own formula to be successful?
Tony Sal: I wanted to create my own formula for Canada. A lot of stuff we learned from Canada, and the US, as well as the UK, Middle East, and Germany. We want to establish a CP Records on a big level in Canada and support any Canadian artist that is looking to go international and not have to worry only about the U.S. or the U.K. We want to be able to build a machine where we can help artists grow IN Canada, and then bring that on an international level. We don’t want them to be hot because they’re hot in another country… we want to establish that here.
HipHopCanada: I understand. Did you ever look at other artists internationally and say “this is how we’re supposed to do it?”
Tony Sal: Everyone gets their influences from what’s out there. My artists are natural; they’re themselves and they’re versatile. To do good music, you have to know music at every angle. That’s how I label music. Trying to copy someone else, won’t work because you have to have your own style. Have people done a lot of following? Yes! And that’s why we haven’t established “our own” thing and the ones that try, come out very repetitive. Look at any other markets; there are artists coming out every day: new stuff, new material, and new faces. Canada hasn’t had any new faces for a long time. We’re great at making rock music, but when it comes down to R&B, rap, hip-hop, I feel like it’s been the same faces for a LONG time. Don’t get me wrong, I love those artists, but we still need new stuff to come out.
HipHopCanada: I totally agree. I did an interview with DJ Kemo of The Rascalz and I said “How come the guys were hot 10 years ago are still the ones getting all the love?”
Tony Sal: There is no hype. We need more excitement in the music industry. I think we do a good job with that. People talk about us a lot. [Laughing]
HipHopCanada: [Laughing] Yeah, HipHopCanada can vouch for that.
Tony Sal: Time will tell. You know some people don’t support us, and hate on us. It’s funny because the same guys who write and e-mail us the funny comments, or do the diss songs on Belly, are the same guys who come to us with their demo. I think people need to be more cool. They need to learn how to save and develop relationships instead of constantly ruining them. People need to stop the hate, and congratulate. Once you congratulate, then you can reach out to someone and when that person reaches back to you, you can make something happen. When Belly claimed the title as “Canada’s Godfather”, a lot of people didn’t like that. Instead of trying to find out why he calls himself that, and meeting him and getting to know him, they just want to hate on him.
HipHopCanada: What’s the most difficult thing about running an independent record label?
Tony Sal: Oh… cash flow. Cash flow and having the right team. Also no Sunday and Monday. If you know today is Sunday and if you know tomorrow is Monday, you’re not doing your job. You have to just work, no matter what day it is. When people know the days and hours, they’re not doing their job.
HipHopCanada: How much input does the artist have in their contract? Can they help in drafting it, or do you just present them with what you’re willing to offer?
Tony Sal: I have no problem sitting down and going through it with the artist, definitely.
HipHopCanada: So they can make suggestions?
Tony Sal: Yeah for sure. I like that. A good contract is one you sign, and you put away and you never have to look at again. We want the artist to be happy with what they’re signing.
HipHopCanada: How much leniency do artists usually have when negotiating? Is it fair to say than artist CAN get what they want in a deal?
Tony Sal: I mean it depends. There is a limit for things. An artist can’t be that demanding with a contract if they’ve never put a record out. In Canada, you’re not dealing with too many artists that have that option. For CP Records, we like to find new talent. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to work with artists who are already out there and they’re great. We’re always open to negotiate to make the artist feel comfortable, but we won’t promise too many things we can’t deliver. To an artist that’s not developed yet, we promise commitment, and with our history we know we can deliver that. We showed Canada what kind of commitment we give our artists; commitment that major labels sometimes are not willing to give. We’ve even paid for lawyer’s fees for artists before. We ask them to hire their own lawyer, and we’ve paid for the fee of the lawyer so that they can have the right legal council. There aren’t too many artists that can even afford lawyer fees for just looking over contracts.
HipHopCanada: How much does a lawyer cost to just look over a contract?
Tony Sal: Honestly Lola…I can’t even say. You can get someone from 500 to 1000 dollars, to 10,000 dollars. I advise anyone who is about to sign a contract to put aside at least 5000 dollars for lawyers fees and such. You have to make sure he spends time on you and gives you the right advice. I mean if a lawyer’s fees are $5000 and you’re only paying $1000, how much time and attention do you think you’re going to get? But when you are signing a contract for something like 4 albums, and it’s a big commitment, your label should be covering your costs because they believe in you and they will help you pay for them.
HipHopCanada: Do majors do that as well for their artists?
Tony Sal: I don’t know. I don’t think so.
HipHopCanada: What can a major offer (besides distribution) that an indie can’t?
Tony Sal: I can answer your question in reverse and talk about what an indie can offer that a major can’t, and that’s commitment. I’m not saying that a major can’t offer commitment, but a major does that for an artist who is already established; like a 50 Cent or a Kanye. New artists usually work with independents because they get the attention, the commitment and the time they need. They can actually have a meeting or dinner with their CEO. On a major, an artist sometimes doesn’t even have a chance to meet the people working his/her project and they get lost in that big machine. Majors still do a great job at what they do, but they are better when you’re already developed.
HipHopCanada: What do you think about artists signing single deals with majors? Do you guys offer that?
Tony Sal: Yeah, yeah we do. We started offering these things because the business changed. We provide other services as well. We can work out a single and a video for a low cost, but deliver a very effective project.
HipHopCanada: How can prospect label owners go about finding funding?
Tony Sal: You have to have a business plan, a company plan, and overall company structures. There are a lot of investors who are interested in new companies. We can actually advise people with all those things, and help them find investors for their projects. In my experience, cash flow is the most important thing. The only way you can make this as professional as possible is by having good cash flow. That’s the way we had to do it. I was giving advice to everyone. You have to have everything on pen and paper and actually believe in yourself first, and then go out there and find other people who will believe in you; whether it’s a bank or a private investor, or government. Once you have everything put together, you are turning the music business into a successful business. Successful entrepreneurs will always find a good investor. With good talent as well, you’re only bound to be going up.
HipHopCanada: Let’s talk about CP a little bit. Belly went Gold with The Revolution and just took home a Juno award. Many people have been wondering if the label made back the money they spent on promoting Belly and in the high budget videos. Can you speak on that?
Tony Sal: People look only at Canada. Artists in Toronto look only at Toronto, and artists from Montréal, look only at Montreal. CP Records is not thinking about Canada only. We have the Middle East to think about, Germany, Australia, Japan and other countries. We have labels established in the Middle East and in Australia that handle those markets, which have brought about some great licensing deals. Just in the deals with have done since January, we have retained over 400,000 dollars. If you’re going to ask me if we made all the money back within Canada, no we didn’t. But did we reach our goals? Yes we did. We just signed a deal for Belly in Latin America which is about 8 countries in total. People in Canada really live in a box and they need to look at the bigger picture. Even if you sell 100,000 in Canada, you will never make that money back. Even with Massari, we sold records but we didn’t make the money back only from Canada. We looked at the outside market. That’s why we shoot high budget videos; because we have to compete with what’s out there. They need to understand the business, and ask the right questions. A lot of people talk about how much money we spend on our videos, but they’re not actually the pen in my books, so they have no idea on how much our videos cost us. Our biggest budget videos were “Pressure” and “Ridin’”. All the other videos were very creative ideas. People need to worry about how to set up meetings, and how to send that demo and that package out, instead of how much our videos cost us.
HipHopCanada: Yeah, I know what you mean. I remember being in Amsterdam and seeing Massari’s videos on rotation at random coffee shops, as well as in London too.
Tony Sal: Yeah, for sure. “Pressure” was also a huge hit in Germany. We had a licensing deal for “Pressure” in Germany before the album came out. We have expanded ourselves in over 45 territories. When we are making our budget and figuring out the costs we can’t just focus on Canada. I don’t want to sell 100,000 albums. I want to sell 500,000 and up, and that’s not something you can accomplish just in Canada alone.
HipHopCanada: Being that both Massari and Belly have Middle Eastern roots, they had a strong support system in their own communities. Do you think this was partially the reason for their success and the ability to stand out?
Tony Sal: Of course, why not? We love it. If your own people don’t want to support you, then what are you good for? It is something to be very proud of. We are bringing something new to the business. At the end of the day people want to make excuses for others success. They just need to focus on doing well for themselves. Let me tell you something about me and CP Records, for everyone who likes to assume and generalize. I came to Canada when I was 15 and didn’t speak a word of English. I came to the Montreal airport by myself, and I didn’t even know where the exit sign was. So for all the people that talk about how we came up rich, or talk about hard work, come see me and I’ll tell you about hard work. I came to Canada, went to college, got my business degree and now I own one of the biggest record labels in the country. I lost a father, a brother and a sister and I didn’t let anything slow me down. I do this every day for them. So if people wonder how CP Records was built, this is it. It was built with a lot of passion and hurt. When you have a video like “History of Violence” come out, that’s coming out of our hearts. CP Records is a label that was established in 2002 and thank God we are doing great because of Canada and the people that support the label. I want to send a message to all the fans and the artists that are looking for a home. All they have to do is reach out to us.
HipHopCanada: Where can they contact you?
Tony Sal: We’re everywhere… Call our office in Toronto, (416) 761-5657. At the end of the day if you really want to get a hold of someone, you will.
HipHopCanada: Any last words?
Tony Sal: Danny Fernandez is dropping Intro in August. “Private Dancer” is the next single to be released. Chris Labelle will be releasing something by the end of the year. Belly is busy working on his next album and his upcoming mixtape Hate Me Now with DJ Whoo Kid.
HipHopCanada: Great. Thanks for your time Tony!
Tony Sal: Thank you very much Lola.
Written by Lola Plaku for HipHopCanada