The German philosopher Georg Hegel once proclaimed that “Nothing great in the World has been accomplished without passion.” Those words have rung true for CP Records (formerly Capital Prophet Records) CEO and founder Tony Sal, whose successful independent record label and management company was born nearly 10 years ago from an unrelenting desire to succeed and passion for music.
In 2002, ‘Sal’ (as his friends and colleagues refer to him) saw a void in the Canadian music industry. He knew of talented, homegrown urban/pop artists but saw an absence of Canadian record labels promoting those artists. Sal and his high school chums saw an opportunity to create a channel for his then-unknown friends to publish and promote their recordings and also to change the tone of the Canadian music industry.
One of those friends was Belly, the now Gold-certified Juno award-winning rapper whose resume also includes being co-founder and part owner of CP Records. The other was Massari, the Lebanese born R&B singer whose self-titled debut album would later become CP’s first Platinum-certified record.
“When we started out, we were about music and passion and seeing each other do well,” Sal admits. “We didn’t know about the ins and outs of the business—the management, the publishing, the details—it was all about the passion.”
At 23 years of age, Sal paid no attention to his youth and limited music experience (in his words, “none”) and partnered with childhood friends Manny Dion, Amir “Cash” Esmailian and aspiring rap artist Belly to create Capital Prophet Records. As can be imagined, the trio didn’t get much—or any—support from industry insiders as they traveled from their home base of Ottawa, Canada to Toronto, Montreal, New York, Chicago and everywhere in between in search of a break that would propel their fledgling project forward.
Regardless, in true entrepreneurial fashion, the boys collected empty egg cartons from local grocery stores and soundproofed a closet to record Massari’s—and CP’s—first album.
“Producing it cost everything we had, but it was worth it,” Sal proudly claims.
That was the record the launched Massari’s career, and put CP on the map as an up-and-coming Canadian urban and pop music label.
The scene is a lot different for Sal now. In the private wine cellar of Yorkville’s Ciao Wine Bar (a step up from an egg carton-lined Ottawa apartment closet,) Sal sat down with Landmark Report for his first exclusive interview in four years to talk about CP’s unlikely success and the unique business model and philosophy responsible for it.
Now 32 years old, the Lebanese-born Canadian citizen heads CP Records, a Toronto-based label and management company that bills itself as the “Major Independent”. CP’s success comes at a time when most of the music industry has been in a downward spiral for several years. Sal attributes this to the talent on his roster, and the team he’s tasked with grooming and promoting that talent.
“Our label is structured to not have too many artists. Our specialty is that we get to pay attention to the artists we represent,” Sal claims. “We’re artist-focused.”
He pointed out that much of the resources that major labels have go towards promoting the Lady Gaga’s and Jay-Z’s, rather than the fresher acts. CP, on the other hand, has made its name building talent, not merely signing already successful artists.
Of course, when signing new talent, the challenge is finding a marketable sound in budding artists for an arguably oversaturated industry. Part of Sal’s ear for talent comes from his background.
“Lebanese people have been known to make music. Beirut has been called the Paris of the Middle East because in spite of the wars and politics, nothing can stop the people there from singing and dancing.”
Under CP, Massari brought his unique blend of Middle Eastern melodies with Western beats to create tracks that attained extraordinary success in Canada and internationally. The Palestinian-born Belly had similar success abroad.
From Massari’s and Belly’s Middle Eastern backgrounds to the French-Canadian, Spanish-speaking Mia Martina (whose single “Stereo Love” was certified Double Platinum) to the Portuguese Danny Fernandes to many of CP’s other artists, the roster is nothing if not unique.
In CP Records, Sal has built a company that supplements the sheer quality of talent its artists possess with a rare richness of background and character in those very artists.
“It’s deliberate,” Sal asserts. “As a person, I relate to people with backgrounds of struggle. As a business manager, I look for that sound that just makes me smile uncontrollably.”
Struggle is something that Sal knows better than most. Born in Beirut, Sal grew up in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war, and lost his father, brother and a sister at a young age. Though he lived with his mother and sisters in Canada, he decided to remain here alone at 16 when the rest of his family returned to Lebanon.
“I felt at home here,” he shares, reflecting on his adolescence.
His love for Canada left him sleeping on the floor in a bachelor apartment with little money to his name. To make ends meet while he went through school, he found himself working everywhere from a pizzeria to a hotel to a mechanical shop (where he admits he was completely out of his element). He later took a business course at Ottawa’s Algonquin College.
“Losing my father, brother and sister became a big piece of me being who I am today. I learned how to be independent and stand on my feet and be responsible.”
When asked whether he would be the same without those experiences, he had mixed thoughts.
“I think I’d still be successful because of my personality, but I wouldn’t be doing the stuff I’m doing now in music had I not come to Canada.”
When the time came for Sal to take the leap off the cliff and create CP, he had a condition: His friend Manny Dion had to come with him.
“I pretty much dragged [Manny] into this and said ‘If I’m doing this, you are too,”” he exclaims, laughing. “It’s worked out though. Wow.”
When explaining his vision to people in the industry, hearing ‘No’ was a common occurrence.
“I was never taken seriously as someone young. ‘No’ would get me angry, which isn’t the case now at all. I don’t blame people who didn’t give me the time of day, but the things I’ve had going for me are my passion, my work ethic, and my team. Those three things have changed everything.”
They say that ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ and those words have been lived by Sal.
“We don’t take no for an answer. I’ve never gotten in through the front door in my life. But I’ll go through a chimney or the basement if I have to,” he asserts. “I’ve always had to find the hard way and I always will, if I need to. My team shares that formula.”
His youth and inexperience wasn’t the only hurdle, though. Not only were Sal, Dion and Belly embarking on a mission to establish a record label with no industry connections, but Sal was a young Arab in a post-9/11 world dealing with prejudices he never would have imagined before going into the industry.
“Ethnicity was the biggest struggle,” he says. “When we were starting out, we’d go to an airport or try to cross the border and end up staying for hours. In Lebanon, I saw the war and lived through the war and moving to Canada was a blessing. A lot of people wouldn’t support me because of [the color of my skin] at that time.”
Like with all other struggles he encountered, however, he did what he had to fight, and even turned the experience into yet another reason he needed to succeed.
His commitment to his principles has translated to a personal and professional commitment to the artists he represents, and the staff he works with.
“Everyone who is part of CP is part of my family. When they win, I win. We’re on the same journey. If something positive happens to one of our artists, I’m the happiest guy alive. If something negative happens—even if it’s personal—I won’t ignore it.”
He only speaks of his work in the collective, and not deliberately. His commitment to CP’s family mentality has brought the business to a state where wins are sweetened and losses mellowed by the ‘family’s’ fortitude. Despite being at the helm of this successful business since its inception, Sal describes all of his accomplishments as things “We” did.
His removal of ego from the executive role is one shared by his partners, Manny Dion and Belly.
“We argue all the time,” Sal says. “That’s how we get the best decisions. We don’t want Sal to win or Belly to win or Manny to win. We want CP to win.”
Sal admits that he, Manny and Belly could not have been more opposite from each other in opinion and background on many issues, but the company has prospered from those (sometimes heated) discussions.
While CP receives hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions from aspiring artists each year, Sal personally reviews around 50 of these annually over a series of monthly meetings. The label only signs one to two artists in a year.
No matter how talented a performer is, Sal won’t even think of signing them unless there is a friendship present.
“For me to call my lawyer and say ‘Get a contract ready!’, I have to meet the person. I have to know the person and have a friend-to-friend relationship with them. None of the artists I’ve worked with didn’t have a good three-month relationship with me, or even longer.”
The rigorous—and highly personal—screening process has left the label with an extraordinarily dynamic and passionate roster of artists, however. Sal glows as he talks about the success of Mia Martina, who came to him as an intern before getting her shot behind the microphone, and Tyler Medeiros, the 16-year old cousin of Shawn Desman and Danny Fernandes (the latter of which is a CP artist) who recently signed with Flo Rida’s International Music Group.
Massari has returned to CP Records after a three-year stint with Universal, while Belly has remained as partner and signed artist since CP’s launch.
CP Records has gone through a lot of changes since its formation nearly 10 years ago. It’s relocated its headquarters to Toronto (Sal referred to setting up a studio in Ottawa as his “biggest mistake,”) and has launched CP Asia Pacific and CP Middle East, with other licensing deals established for all around the world. Additionally, Sal has added CP Management to the company to give him the opportunity to work with emerging artists such as Alyssa Reid and JRDN and share his management experience with artists signed to other labels.
CP Records & Management has sold over 1 million singles sold through iTunes and nearly half a million albums, but philosophy from the company’s humble roots has been left unchanged.
“The music speaks for itself. I would rather go into a meeting with the best song and not be able to say one word. The quality of our stuff has made us stand out and still does today.”
The company itself is fueled by a unique blend of efforts by 13 full-time employees and strategic partnerships with a number of international individuals and companies (referred to by Sal as only his “secret weapons.”)
“CP is built on a family. We’re still a small business and we’re family oriented. I always want to keep it that way no matter what.”