As major record labels drill down on signing and breaking as many artists as possible, CMNTY Culture — a 1-year-old indie label, founded by eight-time Grammy-winning songwriter Philip Lawrence, A&R exec Malik Rasheed, and marketing executive Chief Johnson — wants to do the very opposite.
CMNTY’s goal is to cultivate a small but potent group of artists who believe in, as the label’s name suggests, community. While many other music companies are billing themselves as artist-first ventures these days, CMNTY promises that it’s deeply invested in the concept: The label is completely self-funded by its three founders, all of whom are black. The label is essentially a startup with Lawrence Rasheed and Johnson as its only three employees. Lawrence is CMNTY’s CEO and chairman, while Rasheed is president and Johnson serves as chief marketing officer.
“It’s important for people to understand that despite our success within our own individual fields, we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” says Lawrence. “We believe not only in what we’re doing and the opportunities that we’re creating for artists, but we believe it to a point where we’re willing to risk some of our comfort it.”
CMNTY already has its marquee artist in RMR, who the label signed on a 50/50 profit split with Warner Records and has already sparked a viral hit with his Rascal Flatts-sampling song “Rascal.” CMNTY just signed its second artist, Black-ish actress Katlyn Nichol. Lawrence, Rasheed, and Johnson spoke with Rolling Stone about the dire lack of black ownership in the music business, as well as how the trio plans to make CMNTY a dominant force.
The three of you have been well established within your respective careers. Why, particularly during such uncertainty with the pandemic, do you start a new label?
Philip Lawrence: Our vision was born out of the relationships the three of us have. We’ve known each other for many years, and this is about the principles we’ve established within our brotherhood; being honest, being reliable, being family. We want to be people to call in a time of crisis or excitement. Having been to the business for a long time, we felt the need to bring some of those values and principles to the recorded business, to have a home and incubation for artists to experience those things.
Having been signed to Atlantic with Bruno [Mars], I saw some of the things I want to do differently this time around. Myself, Chief and Malik have that vision of creating an environment to allow an artist to thrive creatively, personally, and help support them in any area they want to be creative in.
What is it you feel is missing for artists right now, how do you go about creating that environment?
Malik Rasheed: We want to keep it linear. We’re a small label. Maybe that’ll change when we have fifty artists, but right now, there’s just two to three signings here and we plan to keep it like that so we can continue to offer this kind of personal investment. We don’t want to ever divest. We want to continue to pour to the artists.
Everything we do has to be a labor of love. For example, our first signing RMR, here in the pandemic, we needed to get RMR to Atlanta for a video shoot. This was early in, and there was a lot of different information going on for what was or wasn’t safe. We treat our artists like we’d treat ourselves, like our family. We’re not getting him on a plane, not getting him on a bus. The safest way was getting him a private plane to get him to Atlanta safely. There’s no charging, that’s what we do for a brother, for ourselves.
You’re a completely black-owned label, which isn’t common in this industry.
P.L.: I don’t think the industry has invested in black ownership like it should. There’s a time it was happening, the Roc-a-fella days, or with Bad Boy, but a divesting happened, and other people breached the culture and became gatekeepers, and we got to the outside looking in. Now it’s getting back to us owning our ship, owning the masters and the ideas. It’s been talked about, but I haven’t seen what I’d like to see after this whole Blackout day. I haven’t seen any new hires, but that’s beside the point. I don’t want to be hired. It’s about equity. Don’t give me a job, give me equity.
Chief Johnson: Historically within any business in general, whether that’s music or fashion or anything driven by black culture, it’s been a take take take idea. Enough to make it look like we’re getting empowered, but it’s never been about championing ownership or really growing hand in hand. It’s exciting to do it with Malik and Phil. CMNTY is about that, to provide a safe environment for artists to feel protected and to grow a foundation of longevity in their careers.
The industry is talking a lot about equity for black industry executives and workers as well as musicians. How does a black owned label impact the way you work with artists?
M.R.: When we walk into the room, because of our leverage and expertise, we’re going to get the artists a different deal. That was the case with RMR, and that’s not just to line our pockets with money. We’ll ask for less so the artist can have more. We don’t want an advance toward the label, we can put that in an artist’s pocket.
P.L.: The economics of that paradigm, it’s usually because there’s such a large wealth gap between the label owners and the artists, there’s a sense of desperation, and artists are willing to give their rights for an opportunity for a better life. What we’re doing as successful black men is reinvesting money we made into ourselves, our company and our artists so we don’t have to move that way, so we can be thoughtful with our artists.
Part of the challenge that we have in black communities is because there’s such a scarcity with wealth, there’s a lot of fear around reinvesting because we don’t know how long it’s going to last. We want to be examples for black men to say, hey, you make some money, let’s reinvest and let’s show you how we do that. We’re not in it for the quick dime, the quick hoorah. Like Malik said, if it means in the interim we make a little less and there’s greater growth in the long run, we’ll make that decision.
Phil, you’re best known as a songwriter for all your collaborations on Bruno Mars’s projects. Are you collaborating on songwriting with your artists?
P.L.: Man, I’m retired — I’m just an executive. Part of the idea behind this, especially for me as a songwriter, is giving the artists free reign. When or if they need me, I’ll be there. We just so happen to have two prolific songwriting talents who will run things by me but I haven’t needed to step in yet because what they’re doing is special already.
What are you looking for in a CMNTY artist?
P.L.: We’re trying to find an artist with a unique point of view, an artist of voice, an artist that has a story to tell and is and is not afraid to tell their story. We really want to try to keep quality over quantity and be very selective about who we partner up with. So we’re really just looking for artists that are as passionate as we are, but that can be classic in the sense where five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 40 years from now, people will still be talking about art that they create.