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Rostrum Records President Erika Montes on the Indie Label’s New Chapter: ‘If We Can Build, Let’s Build’

Rostrum Records, the Los Angles-based, Pittsburgh-born indie label that helped launch the careers of stars Wiz Khalifa and the late Mac Miller, is experiencing a rebirth.

The imprint has had a strong run since its founding in 2003. In November 2011, Miller, a then 19-year-old from Pittsburgh, and Rostrum made chart history when his debut album “Blue Slide Park” opened at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 as the first independently distributed debut album to have done so this century. To put that feat into perspective, Miller’s “Blue Slide Park” was in the company of juggernaut No. 1s from Adele (“21”), Coldplay (“Mylo Xyloto”) and Drake (“Take Care”). Looking back, however, the way Miller — who died of an accidental drug overdose in 2018 at the age of 26 — topped the albums chart without the aid of a typical breakthrough single, has played a huge role in the lasting legacy of Rostrum as a hip-hop haven.

In January 2023, label founder Benjy Grinberg officially handed over the keys to his music label to Erika Montes, formerly global vice president of artists and label relations for SoundCloud. It was the first move Grinberg made after deciding not to sell the storied label, and instead, expand it. Montes has hit the ground running in her first year on the job while Grinberg has shifted his focus to launch an entertainment group, Rostrum Pacific, the parent company of Rostrum Records.

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“Benjy is super open to my ideas and he feels the opportunity to grow the company — beyond what we’ve done so far– is wide open. If we can build, let’s build,” Montes tells Variety. The half-Ecuadorian, half-Argentinan New Yorker has spent the last year planting the seeds for what she hopes will start sprouting this year — starting with entirely new staff (six people have been added to the team) and a growing roster of promising new talent (“We’ve dropped about three to four different artists and signed a bunch of new ones,” she says without immediately revealing any names) in a step to consolidate and support a range of properties.

Rostrum Pacific has recently added indie hip-hop distributor and e-commerce retailer Fat Beats to its lineup and hired two former Universal Music Group execs — Kevin Engler and Bobby Israeli — to help steer the company. Rostrum Pacific also houses a catalog marketing arm, and is developing a publishing arm — and that’s just the beginning, according to Montes who says she’s been tasked to shift the course of Rostrum Records.

“After I left SoundCloud, I had my eyes set on something bigger. I needed to be challenged and was eyeing general manager positions but Benjy showed me I could and should shoot for bigger with this proposal. He later told me I was the only person he spoke to for the job,” she explains. “The day he decided not to sell [Rostrum Records] was the same day I sent out my goodbye emails from SoundCloud and… it just felt like divine timing.”

During her six years at SoundCloud, Montes prioritized monetization programs for independent artists, an idea she developed during her time in artist relations. Grinberg and Montes have known each other since she worked as vice president of music programming and development at Fuse TV. Before that, she held a post at Island Def Jam Music Group and was also a talent booker. She and Grinberg bonded over their shared goal to support great artists, “without having to kiss someone’s ass,” she jokes.

Below, Montes plots a few of the “points on the board” for her second year as president, including launching the careers of fresh faces like Chilean artist Alé Araya, who sings in Spanglish over electro-pop beats, and cementing the label’s long-term acts like Wisconson-born rapper DC the Don.

“Everyone is mixing genres these days and although Rostrum has a rich history of success in hip-hop and pop, I want people to know Rostrum Records in its entirety,” Montes says. “What it was and what it can be.”

What did Rostrum Records look like when you first joined the project?

It was really myself, Benjy, and Jonathan [Partch], who is now our Chief Operations Officer, who got together and just laid out the road map for where we wanted to do more and where we could do more. We have Wiz Khalifa’s catalog, we have Mac Miller’s catalog, and with the digital marketing space, you constantly have old singles that all of a sudden pop off. So, one of Benjy’s ideas was to start a catalog marketing arm. Our head of marketing at that time was moving over to take charge of that. We needed to hire someone to fill out that role and the role of head of A&R. It’s a small team but everyone was receptive and some members were moving up in the company so it was a perfect time for a reset.

Edith Bo, who joins you from SoundCloud, as head of A&R, is part of your all-woman team nowwhich is a change for Rostrum.

I always want to hire the best person for the job. I looked at hundreds of resumes and it just ended up being that the best people for the jobs were women. Edith is so on top of it, we are in excellent hands with her and she’s actually helping to create our publishing arm. When I’m hiring, I’m always trying to envision the possibility of growth because I don’t want to bring anybody in to just have them there.

When I was at Def Jam for 10 years I learned so much, but also it was great to grow. I grew from an assistant to a senior director of video promo. Obviously, times have changed, but my ultimate hope is that our employees grow with us.

How often are you signing artists?

I definitely set goals of how many artists I want to sign, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. My goal is to bring our total to 12. Ideally we’re looking for artists that have managers, but I have gone against that rule a couple times… when an artist has an interesting background, combined with great music — that becomes a story. They’ve had interesting moments, they’ve had interesting experiences. And that to me, is super important when signing an artist.

We’re being strategic with the meetings we’re taking — we want to be 50/50 with the artists. And we may not be giving the biggest advances on Earth but I want the people working with us to know their music and their story are valued and protected here.

Who are some of the artists you’ve helped bring on?

Fat Nick was someone I brought with me from SoundCloud. He’s half Peruvian, half Greek. He came to me last year and was like, “Hey, I know you know me for my hip-hop but I have this rock project.” It was great. And we’re releasing one rock song, one hip-hop song like two packs for the rest of the year. Alé Araya, she’s from Chile and has been singing in Spanglish and she’s such a special artist. She loves what she does and it shows… and if you love what you’re working with, it never feels like you’re selling something.

Later this summer, we are also gearing up to relaunch a historic label associated with Rostrum… that means more artists in the mix, and delving into a whole new space of sounds.

Independent labels have been steadily outpacing the wider market as the politics of digital marketing, streaming etc. have sparked change in the industry. What is your approach to responsibly advocating for your artists?

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all for this.

That’s the first thing I had to realize. I think the beauty of having something small — at this point, we have seven artists and I just signed two female rappers — is that we can easily tap into what makes them special and push that forward. When I am pitching an artist to a DSP, I want to be able to easily shine a light on what it is that makes them unique, someone that’s worth investing in. I’m heavily involved because I can’t help myself — that’s how much I believe in these projects.

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