Interview with BENJY GRINBERG, president of Rostrum Records and A&R and manager for Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller - Oct 17, 2011
“[Mac Miller]’s going to be one of the biggest artists in the world. I really truly believe that.”
At a time when lack of investment in artist development is one of the most common gripes in the industry you could say that it’s encouraging to encounter, in Rostrum Records, a label where the patient development of homegrown talents is its chief focus. But given that the first fruits of its labours are Wiz Khalifa (US No.1, UK Top 5), whose debut single topped the Billboard Hot 100, and now Mac Miller, whose debut single has attracted over 30 millions YouTube views to date, “encouraging” seems too feeble an accolade – this is an astonishing testimony to the power of brilliant artist development.
HitQuarters speaks to label president Benjy Grinberg about his first encounters with Wiz and Mac, what their development has involved, and how Rostrum will soon prove you can do major label numbers as a small independent.
What were your original motivations behind setting up Rostrum Records?
I had been working at Arista Records and wanted to be able to develop my own artists and do it my own way, and so started Rostrum in 2003.
I felt like music executives needed to be patient with artists and let them develop over time, and so our focus with the label is artist development - finding artists early, and then putting a lot of time and effort into developing the artist across the board, from their shows to their music, their songwriting, their style … everything.
How did your experience at Arista help inform the direction you took and how you did it?
I learned a lot at Arista. I got to see how to run a good record operation and how to treat artists. I learned from watching what the staff did, and took those lessons and applied them to a more homegrown situation - where Arista had 200 employees we had just a few of us, who did as much as we could with what we had.
Have the connections you acquired while working at a major proven helpful in furthering your label’s cause?
They’ve been vitally important. Ultimately it comes back to the artist and their talent, but to have a strong network of executives, producers and songwriters all comes into play, and helps the artist’s progression.
What does an independent label have to do in order to not only survive but thrive in today’s music industry climate?
You have to be very knowledgeable as to the most economical ways of making the records, and then the best ways to exploit the recordings, in terms of marketing and promotion.
You need to understand where the money is in this day and age and where it isn’t. You can use ‘where the money isn’t’ to help promote ‘where the money is’. There are a lot of free things you can do that you might not make money on but will help you find that money elsewhere. So, for instance, if you put out a lot of free music and gain all these new fans, you can then sell them t-shirts or concert tickets. It’s all about knowing which pieces to move and which to keep in place.
You’ve said that it’s important for labels to listen to their artists. Can you give any examples from your experience that highlight the importance of that attitude?
When we were about to release ‘Rolling Papers’, Wiz [Khalifa]’s debut album through Rostrum/Atlantic, Wiz suggested we put out a mixtape (‘Cabin Fever’) literally two weeks before the album was due to come out.
From a strictly business standpoint it seems counterintuitive to flood the market with ten new free songs when in about a week or two you’re going to want to sell an album that you’ve spent a lot of money and time making. But Wiz knows his fanbase better than we do - he’s their age, goes to the same places they go, consumes music the same way they do - and so we decided to listen to him and try it.
What it did was create even more attention for the main album than we had anticipated. Instead of being a diversion, it ended up being a good move.
Pittsburgh is a relatively unfamiliar name on the music map of the US. What is the music scene like in the city and how is it developing?
It’s not a huge scene but there is a scene, and local artists like Wiz or Girl Talk or Mac are setting examples for other artists in Pittsburgh to follow. They are representing Pittsburgh. They show you can stay in Pittsburgh, develop yourself in Pittsburgh and become a household name across the world.
Those artists coming out of Pittsburgh are also helping develop the scene here in a way where there are now more people interested in managing, promoting, and actually creating the backbone for a really thriving industry. You can’t just have artists, you need the people that surround them and help them get from A to B.
How did you first meet Wiz Khalifa and what impressed you about him and made you want to sign him to Rostrum?
I met him in the fall of 2004, a year and a half after starting Rostrum. I was living in New York at the time. A friend of mine (Chad Glick) had been hanging out in a Pittsburgh studio (ID Labs) started by his friend (E. Dan) and he’d met Wiz there and a couple of other artists. He gave me a mixtape with all these different Pittsburgh artists on it and he mentioned Wiz and a few others. I said, “Who is this kid (Wiz)? I want to meet him the next time I’m in Pittsburgh.” There was something about the way he wrote his song and the way that he was rapping that made me really interested in him.
When I met him I immediately knew I needed to work with him. He was 16, an amazing lyricist, and even though he wasn’t all the way developed you could just tell that he was a diamond in the rough, and that with some polishing, guidance and backing he could become something special.
We’ve spent the last seven years developing, and over the last year it’s really blown up. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of grinding to get to where we are, but we both have a lot of loyalty to each other.
What things do you look for in new artists and what kind of things impress you in terms of what they’ve achieved on their own?
For me it doesn’t come down to achievement, but for them to have a true vision for themselves and their art. That way I can really get involved and share in that vision and help take it there.
If they don’t really know who they are, where they want to go or what their voice is, then it makes my job a whole lot harder.
Artists develop over time and the road ends up having twists and turns that you never expected musically and otherwise, but to start with a true understanding of yourself makes it very attractive for me, because it gives me a clear guideline of where we need to go.
So how can new artists actually attract Rostrum’s attention?
We keep our roster very small because of the attention that we pay to each artist.
The best way is not necessarily to send in a demo or any of the standard ways, it’s really to do your thing on your own, and if it’s good we’ll hear about it, and if it’s something that we feel we can share a vision of and really work with then we’ll reach out. First thing you can do is build your own little scene or your own little fanbase.
We get dozens of emails and submissions every day and it gets numbing just to try to listen to all of that and understand who each artist is.
Artist development is key to Rostrum and a driving force behind your success. Can you explain what the development work with Wiz Khalifa involved?
When we first started working together he loved writing verses and being as lyrical as possible but didn’t write hooks very often. Sometimes he would just let the sample play during the chorus. So the key for me was to really force the issue of creating a full song - helping him to understand song structure, arrangement, and how important it is to write a great hook.
Over the course of time, he started writing the hook even before even any lyrics were written, and then he started coming up with these full visions of songs. He has turned into the most amazing songwriter.
The main part of my job is to create the environment for the artist to thrive. So that might be in making sure that they have studios and the right people to work with, and making sure that they’re always comfortable and in that zone that’s going to bring the best out of them.
I can’t take all the credit – it’s a team effort. We have our hometown producers, ID Labs, and E. Dan, who’s the head of ID Labs, and they’ve been really integral in helping guide Wiz creatively. With each project all of us are together creatively taking it to the next level.
How much time do you take, need or even have to develop?
For different people it takes a different amount of time. I’ve been with Wiz for seven years. I’ve been with a band like Donora for four years, and they’re still just getting off the ground. With Mac [Miller], whom I signed only fourteen months ago, it’s gone a lot faster.
I’ve never dropped an artist from Rostrum and that’s why I keep my roster small. If we commit to working with you, we’re going to work with you until you don’t want to work anymore, because we’re not going to be the ones to stop. That’s how seriously we take it and how committed we are to our artists.
As an independent label with a new rap artist like Wiz Khalifa or Mac Miller, what would your plan be in terms of introducing them into the music market?
We first have to make sure that the material is worth the public’s ear. Sometimes you create a lot of music and don’t release any of it until you start getting to the level that you really want it to be at.
Once you’re at that level, a lot of it is internet and social networking-based. You can do a lot with blogs, and with Facebook and Twitter.
We’re known for getting our artists on the road early. So before many people knew who Wiz really was, we were doing shows for small crowds in the region around Pittsburgh, whether it’s Ohio or West Virginia or wherever. In a lot of cases we treat our rappers like indie rock bands. It’s like, ‘get in the van, and let’s go!’
Through that process the artist develops as a performer and as a songwriter because they can see first-hand how people are reacting to the songs that they are writing. It really helps in taking their artistry to the next level.
Wiz Khalifa is signed to both Atlantic and Rostrum. How did that deal come about and how does your relationship work with major labels?
Wiz was already signed to Rostrum and so in order for Atlantic to be involved with him, they had to do a deal with Rostrum. Together we work out the distribution and marketing and all the other aspects. They’ve been a great partner for us, they really understand Wiz and our way of working, and we’ve been very, very happy there.
In each case it’s a different scenario. For Mac we’re totally independent and have our own distribution through INgrooves on the digital side and Fontana [Records] on the physical side. We’re going to release Mac’s first official retail album worldwide in November, and we’re doing it all on our own.
So in each artist’s case we have the flexibility of doing what we feel is appropriate for that artist.
How did you first discover Mac Miller and what level was he at when you started working together?
I’ve known Mac for a while. Mac, Wiz and I are all from the same area and all went to the same high school, but in very different years - I’m ten years older than Wiz, and Wiz is four years older than Mac.
When I was recording with Wiz at ID Labs Mac would be there recording as well. And over the course of time I would give Mac advice and guidance from afar. We weren’t working closely together, but I would give him a little hand along the way.
Then when he started working on his K.I.D.S. mixtape I noticed a maturation in his sound and approach to his music. All of a sudden it made me really interested in what he was doing. So I decided that instead of having this arm length relationship I really wanted to work with this kid and help take him to the next level.
At the same time he was getting different offers from different people, but being the hometown label and with him looking up to Wiz, he really wanted to work with Rostrum. So last year we formalised the relationship and released K.I.D.S.
It’s just insane how fast it’s been growing. He went from 30,000 Facebook friends last year to 1.2 million this year.
Before you signed Mac Miller to Rostrum you said you were advising him on the label deals he had been receiving. For artists in Mac Miller’s position that are approached by labels, what are some important aspects to bear in mind and watch out for?
Well, there are a lot of terms in the deal you have to understand and be knowledgeable about, but the first key is to have a good lawyer.
Secondly, you have to know something about the company. You have to know about their approach to their artists. Are they the type of company that is just going to sign twenty artists in the hope that one or two of them take off, or are they more selective and detail-oriented? You should talk to the other artists signed to the label to get an understanding about whether they’re happy and how supportive the label is of their careers.
Just doing your research and due diligence to get a better understanding about the situation you’re about to get yourself into, is very important.
At the time I was advising Mac I wasn’t yet interested in signing him. I was just giving him very straight forward, neutral advice, which was to make sure he understood where these people were coming from, to make sure that the deal wasn’t for too long a time period and to make sure that he really gets comfortable with the people before he signs any paperwork.
When I’m interested in an artist these days, one of the last things we do is paperwork. In many cases we’ll almost be done with an album before we solidify the relationship in that way. To me it’s much more organic, it’s much more about the relationship, and much more about understanding each other musically and having that sort of connection before I make an artist commit legally.
I understand how hard it is to sign a contract, I understand how uncomfortable it is to commit yourself like that, and being that I understand that first-hand and understand artists, it’s not something that’s on the top of my mind, it’s like, we’ll handle that when it’s necessary.
In what areas were you helping Mac Miller develop as an artist once you started working together?
Basically helping him with his song selection, and helping him bring out his musicality. He’s such a musical person - he plays almost every instrument on demand. So I was making sure he understood that it was okay to bring out that side of him - to get more musical with it and to really speak his mind.
We also got him on the road right away. After the K.I.D.S. mixtape he did the Incredibly Dope Tour, which did extremely well for a first tour. Every show was sold out - it was really unbelievable.
And then it was about seeing how great a performer he was developing into by focusing him on his stage show and on developing his production and song sequencing for shows.
No matter how far you get you’re always going to need that help because as the artist sometimes you’re too close to the situation and need someone watching from the front of the house to say, ‘Hey, when you do that song you should do it this way.” A lot of what we’ve been through with Wiz I applied those lessons to Mac 100%. That’s the only way we all grow.
Mac Miller’s single ‘Donald Trump’ was a breakthrough success. What was key to that?
It’s just an amazing song that people gravitated towards right away, and it has a great video.
DJs at radio stations started to play it on their own, and it just took on a life of its own. Even though it was available for free through his mixtape, we’ve still managed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of the song, which is a testament to how popular it really has become.
It really comes down to the song. It’s not necessarily anything special we did. It’s just that his fanbase really gravitated towards it.
And then of course Donald Trump himself made a video blog about the song and shouted out Mac and said how happy he was the song had over 20 million views. That was a pretty surreal moment.
Wiz’s brotherly relationship with Mac has obviously helped his development. Is that something you’ve encouraged?
Yeah, I encourage it, but I don’t force it at all. It’s important for both artists to have a relationship and it’s important for it to come from their heart. It can’t be like, ‘Hey, Wiz, why don’t you show him some stuff?’ It has to be Wiz providing a good example naturally.
So if Mac goes to one of Wiz’s shows and sees what he does, or they’re in the studio together and make a song, Mac picks up a lot of things from Wiz and applies it to his own situation.
I try to bring people together and if they gel and have a good relationship then that’s just amazing to me, but I don’t want to play matchmaker in any sort of way.
The network you’ve successfully set up with Wiz would also no doubt be inspirational for the path you follow with Mac Miller?
In the urban and pop music world, it’s a fairly small community, and so in developing Mac we’re going to talk to the same people at MTV, we’re going to talk to some of the same promoters in some of the same cities, we’re going to use a similar booking agent … those sort of things are just sort of standard.
We have a great booking agent in Peter Schwartz at The Agency Group, and he’s doing an amazing job for Wiz, and so I brought Mac to meet with him. But I didn’t say, ‘Mac, you have to use this booking agent’. It’s like, ‘This booking agent has been doing amazing things for Wiz. Do you want to meet him? He really likes your music, and I think you’d be good together.’ Then they meet, and then I leave it up to Mac. It’s always the artist’s choice.
How do you see Mac’s career developing in the future?
Mac’s career has grown at such a crazy speed that I can only imagine. But we’re going to create a lot of waves with this album we’re releasing in November. I think it’s going to do better than a lot of people are anticipating.
We’re then going to embark on another tour and start working on the next project. Over the next twelve months I really think it’s going to grow immensely. He’s going to be one of the biggest artists in the world. I really truly believe that.
What are your ambitions for the label?
My ambitions are for it to be a great home for artists. We have certain business ambitions but they really take a backseat to working with the artists that we really love and believe in.
The label selection of artists is really a reflection of my taste, and because my tastes are wide-ranging the artists on Rostrum are going to be wide-ranging. It keeps it really fresh and interesting for our staff to work with different types of artists and to learn different things from the different paths that the artists take. So we can apply lessons that we learned with Wiz to one of the rock bands or vice versa, and it keeps us on our toes and it keeps things really fresh.
As some of the major labels are letting go of staff and becoming smaller I see Rostrum growing, taking a slightly more independent route, and being able to compete with the majors. That’s what I’m setting up to do here. With this Mac album we’re about to release, we’re going to do major label numbers as an independent. We’re going to prove that you can be just as successful when you do it on your own.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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