Spotlight: Commission Music Co-Founders on Breaking Lil Dicky & MadeinTYO, Being Bigger Than an Indie Label

Nabil Miftahi 
Doug Neumann and Anthony Martini 

"We're an independent record label with management DNA and it's very apparent in how we run things."

By Commission Music founder and CEO Anthony Martini's estimations, if Lil Dicky had signed with a major label three years ago he might never have even come out.

"This nerdy white kid comedian rapper, it just didn't make sense on paper but there was something unique about him," says Martini, who was managing Lil Dicky at the time, along with Tyga and others. "There was interest, but I'd seen with other artists in the past how that goes -- where they're like, 'Alright get in the studio, you need your single, you need a hit, you don't have a hit yet, keep recording.' So we took matters into our own hands and I just said, fuck it, let's do it ourselves."

From what started as a "necessity," as Martini puts it, with Lil Dicky's 2015 debut LP, Professional Rapper, developed into career paths for both -- it launched Commission as a label and Lil Dicky's pathway to a-typical hip-hop stardom. The set debuted in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 and topped the Comedy Albums chart, while "Save Dat Money" featuring Fetty Wap and Rich Homie Quan would go on to become multi-platinum and hit No. 14 on the Hot Rap Songs chart. Says Martini, "All of a sudden we were a real label." 

Still running Commission on his own at the time, Martini recruited his former Crush Music colleague, Doug Neumann, who had been working as the management firm's general manager and was looking to strike out on his own. Neumann brought operational strengths to Martini's creative vision, helping to build the company from the foundation his new partner had established, while making sure, he says, "all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed." The two now share president and CEO titles, as Martini jokes Neumann keeps him from going to jail over accounting errors and the like. "I love the creative side of things, I love finding artists and doing all that kind of stuff and ideas," says Martini. "I just sort of go numb when I get into the mechanics and the back end, which ends up becoming a problem if you don't pay attention to it."

Both men agree timing has been key to their label's success, rolling out just as streaming started to take hold of the industry -- specifically with hip-hop -- and make the record business profitable again. That has allowed them the opportunity to run this business on their terms, more or less as the anti-major label, says Martini, pinpointing their flexibility and direct conversations with artists as proof. "There's no lag," he says. "We're an independent record label with management DNA and it's very apparent in how we run things. We, between the two of us, have close to 30 years of management experience."

The key to their working relationship, says Martini, is Commission's openness to its artists' creativity and unique journeys, rather than forcing them to adhere to any sort of standardized expectations. With Lil Dicky, for instance, the rapper has relied largely on music videos over radio to build his following during the past three years, balancing wit, comedy and quirk with an impressive flow and aptitude for branding. It has all built up to his latest single, "Freaky Friday" featuring Chris Brown, peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, topping the Hot R&B Songs chart and hitting No. 16 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay. This recent success has helped set the stage for an international fall headline tour and a new television series pilot order by FX, produced by Kevin Hart and Dicky's manager Scooter Braun, and co-written by Lil Dicky and The League co-creator Jeff Schaffer

Elsewhere, over the past two years, Commission has struck platinum twice with MadeinTYO's 2016 singles "Uber Everywhere" and "Skateboard P," having only so far released mixtapes and EPs. As well, success on radio has also helped push Derez De'Shon's "Hardaway" to platinum status after hitting No. 11 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart this spring, while the Atlanta rapper's "Fed Up" follow up is currently spending its third week on the chart. "We do look for those songs that we can take to radio and we're not afraid to spend money going to radio to build the artist profile and therefore elevate the rest of the music and all the future releases coming out from that artist," says Neumann, giving props to head of promotions Lionel Ridenour. "It's still a key part of our rollouts for the most part."

Last year, Commission signed a partnership deal with BMG that boosted capabilities of the label's six-person team in New York with supplemental staff, Neumann says. But most importantly, he continues, it allowed Commission to capitalize on a moment of "early success" it was having, meaning it could "grow faster than it would have otherwise." Noting the "long tail" of streaming revenue can prevent labels from signing the next hot act, he adds, "That gave us that ammunition to go out and do that."

So far this year, that deal has materialized its most notable successes with Lil Dicky and De'Shon, both of whom are gearing up to drop more music -- De'Shon's new project is slated for late August, while Lil Dicky will release a new album late this year or early 2019. Meanwhile, MadeinTYO will share a video for his latest track "Ned Flanders" featuring A$AP Ferg ahead of an October release of his debut album, 24hrs is working towards a new album for the fourth quarter and Atlanta-based 1PLAYY is building regional support with last week's release of his #YKWTFGO mixtape led by the single "NASCAR." 

Considering the challenge independent labels can face of keeping artists when major offers start coming, Martini is sure to qualify Commission doesn't "move like an independent label," noting "the main thing is to have success."

"If you do a good job and you service [artists] the way they want to be serviced and you're having success, they don't need to look elsewhere because we also give them a better deal. You're going to have a better deal with us than you would with any major," he says. "So if you're also getting platinum records and charts-topping hits, like, 'Alright, well why would I look anywhere else?'"

Adds Neumann: "The fact that we have personal relationships with the artists, you're not going to get that elsewhere. So I think that's something that the artists grow to really value and when they talk to their peers, the peers are pretty baffled by that: 'Oh, you speak with the head of your label every other day or you could just pick up the phone and call?' 'They come to your show?' Things like that. It is the personal relationship that really sets things apart and these artists won't get that in many other places."

SPOTLIGHT:

What's changed is artist development. No one wants to invest time or resources in it. Not Artists, not labels. A kid can make a song in an afternoon, drop it that night, shoot a $500 video and have million dollar offers in their email within a week. Technology has broken down the barriers to entry, but there are no magic bullets. You may be able to finesse your way in the door, but without a real foundation not even a Cole Bennett video will save you. [Martini]

When you're coming up it's easy to get career path tunnel vision without giving consideration to opportunities that don't fit perfectly into your plans. With this ever-changing climate, you are limiting your potential by not being flexible. I only saw myself in management and it wasn't until I allowed myself to consider developing a label that everything started to fall into place and allowed me to thrive in an entirely new role. [Neumann]  

The best advice I've received was from Lyor Cohen. At the time I was one foot in management and one foot in the record label. I knew I was onto something special with Commission, but I wasn't making any money. I felt like I couldn't let go of management because it was it my job. And with a family, bills and responsibilities you don't just quit your job. Lyor convinced me that if I focused all my energy into building the label, I wouldn't have to worry about a job. He may not even realize it, but that small insight changed the direction of my career. [Martini]

I've learned this industry shrinks significantly the longer you are in it. Never burn a bridge. What goes around comes around. I'm thankful to have worked with Jonathan Daniel for 12 years at Crush, who I watched give countless hours of his time sharing advice and guidance to anyone from unmanaged struggling artists to up-and-coming industry acquaintances to the heads of labels. He did this without wanting a thing in return but in the end, all that goodwill has come back around time and time again. [Neumann]

I knew I was committed to music when I turned down a scholarship to Princeton to go on tour and chase my dreams. My mom cried, but after years of touring and self-managing I gained more valuable knowledge than any classroom could've given me. I doubled down on that commitment to start Commission when I risked my life savings on a nerdy, white guy at an ad agency named Lil Dicky. You have to be all-in, if you have a fallback plan you're probably going to fall back. [Martini]

The easiest thing to do in business is blame others or circumstances when things don't go your way but we are all responsible for the outcomes of our work. Yes, some things will truly be out of your control but if you learn from them or turn them into a positive, you will be successful. Taking responsibility and learning from mistakes along the way are necessary to help get you to the top of your game, which is way more fun than throwing daily pity parties. [Neumann]