Personal Approach: Rostrum Record's Eric Henry

While musicians focus on writing songs, marketers like Eric Henry of Rostrum Records work behind the scenes to hammer out a digital strategy that can catapult an artist to global stardom.

 

Among the major music labels, Rostrum Records and the six artists they represent are a small blip on the radar. But despite the Pittsburgh label’s size, it’s influence is palpable. Rostrum was the first label to offer Wiz Khalifa an album deal, and Rostrum currently holds the record for having the first independently distributed debut album top the Billboard charts since 1995 with Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park album in 2011. Though Miller and Rostrum parted ways on good terms earlier this year, the label continues to represent Khalifa as well as a hip-hop-heavy roster of up and coming artists.

The challenges of a small label representing one enormous artist and a handful of others who are headed that way are significant for Eric Henry, who heads up Rostrum’s marketing and digital initiatives. Moving to the job after working in Sony Music’s global marketing department, Henry is charged with creating a personalized marketing strategy for each of Rostrum’s clients and scaling it, both domestically and internationally, as the artist grows. The job requires a pastiche of marketing knowledge, music love, social media savvy, and the patience to conduct trial-and-error experiments over and over as fan bases slowly expand. Here’s how Rostrum markets Wiz Khalifa and five others trying to attain that status.

Get In Media: How do you decide what each artist needs to do in terms of building their fan base when you have a roster of artists that are all at different stages in their careers?

Eric Henry: It’s really difficult to juggle all that at the same time. Wiz Khalifa has [nearly] 35 million followers on Facebook [plus nearly 15 million on Twitter] and some of our other artists only have a few thousand. You can’t always just say for them, “Hey, look at what Wiz does, that worked.” You can’t do that because they’re at completely different stages in their careers, but you can give examples of what it was like when Wiz had 3,000 fans. If you know who the artist is and you know what type of artist they are and you know what type of fans they are supposed to be going for, if they have an identity, it doesn’t matter how many fans they have right now. You’ll be able to guide them in the right direction. You’ll be able to say, “You can’t really do this bigger Twitter campaign because this doesn’t make sense for an artist that’s only going to get a few people responding, but we can do this other campaign on Facebook because more people will be engaged, more people will respond, and more people will share it.” All the while you have to not be afraid to not have great numbers. If you’re only getting X amount of views on a YouTube video, you’ve got to be OK with that. You have to say, “Hey, we got that many views, let’s get 5 more next time” or “We got one retweet today, let’s get two retweets tomorrow.” It’s setting realistic goals for each artist.

Source: Wiz Kalifa, FacebookSource: Wiz Kalifa, Facebook

GIM: For an artist like Wiz Khalifa, who has made enormous career leaps in a relatively short amount of time, how do you scale up digital marketing efforts along with that artist?

EH: With Wiz, we have partnered with Atlantic Records and they’ve been a great partner with us. We’ve been able to use their resources and work side-by-side with them to push out on the scale that Wiz needs to be pushed. For an artist like Mac Miller, that’s one where we never worked with a major label. That’s an artist where it actually grew up a lot quicker than even Wiz Khalifa. It’s interesting; Mac is a really great artist in the sense of he always knew what was next. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He had a vision and it was, “I’m going to make it or I’m not, but I have no Plan B.” With Mac, he was able to share his vision with us and we were able to give him the support that he needed and sort of guide him in the right direction as his vision took shape. Wiz was exactly the same way. Wiz knows exactly what he wants. It just made more sense for us with Wiz Khalifa to get the help of a major label like Atlantic.

GIM: When you say that they knew exactly what they wanted, what specifically are you referring to? So many smaller bands have a general goal of making it big, but don’t have the kind of specific vision I think you’re talking about.

EH: When an artist says they just want to get big, that’s skipping steps, and you can’t skip steps in this business. For artists like Wiz and Mac, in the beginning when they didn’t have any fans, they still talked to however many fans they had. They talked to them as if all of them were super hardcore, that they wanted to hear everything. They talked as if they had millions of fans. It gave the illusion that it was huge already and these fans were like, “I need to jump on. I need to get in on the bandwagon and I need to get involved with Mac now. I need to get involved with Wiz now.”

Vali, she’s pop with sort of an urban lean. She’s fantastic. She’s beautiful. She has the look and she has the music and we’re sorting of grinding it out day after day to get the right song that’s going to connect with as many people as possible. Each time we put out a new song, we’re not failing; we’re getting more fans and we’re grinding it out until we get to that one song that’s really going to push everything much better. With Vali, she knows what the next song is going to be. She knows who she is. She has a vision and an identity and she says, “Hey, I just recorded all these songs. This is why I think that this should be the next song.”

…You can always tell when an artist says, “Hey, this is the one. This is the jam.” You can tell when they say, “All right, Tuesday I’m going to do a livestream because I want to X, Y, and Z,” and they’re not waiting for you to say, “Hey, why don’t we do a livestream? Why don’t we do another YouTube video? Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?” That’s having that vision. You can tell. You can tell when an artist is a superstar even though they’re not yet. I can see it. Because they can see the vision, I can see the vision.

GIM: You’ve spoken in the past about how networks like YouTube and Spotify have changed international release strategies now that everyone around the world can instantaneously access music. Would you mind speaking to how Rostrum decides on a release strategy in different countries?

EH: What’s so interesting to me about international is that each country is completely different. Obviously, everybody has Facebook. Everybody has Twitter. Everybody has all those bigger services, YouTube, but for example, Twitter is not the biggest social network in Germany. There are a few that are bigger than Twitter. Facebook is number one and there are a few local networks that do more than Twitter will in terms of reaching local fans. You really just have to know your market and understand what are the best outlets. I’m talking specifically about social media right now, [but] you can go into every other aspect. You can talk about MTV in Europe versus MTV in the U.S. You can talk about any of these startups that are out here. There are a lot of really cool tech startups that are trying to get into music that don’t really exist outside the U.S. A lot of those countries have their own startups that want to get involved and that want to create partnerships.

Each market is different. Regions can be somewhat similar, but when you look at Europe, all those countries, even though they’re as close to each other as states are in the U.S., all those countries are completely different. Major labels definitely have a one-up on everybody else because they have local teams there that understand the local landscape, and you need some of that expertise. …

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GIM: What the biggest challenge in your job?

EH: The biggest challenge is breaking new artists that you know have the potential to break. Obviously, the things I do with Wiz Khalifa and with Atlantic is much different from what we would do for an emerging artist that not as many people know about. We need to talk to the same partners but in different ways because they’re not going to give us the same editorial space that they would normally give [a bigger artist].

It’s really difficult when you’re trying to break new acts because that’s all you have. At a major label, they have a lot of very successful acts that make a lot of money and they can take a lot more risks on new acts. They can break one out of 10 or one out of 20 and that is a success. They can do that. They can take the time to do that. Here, it’s like we have five emerging artists that they all have the potential to be big stars at some point. One, how do we prioritize them? And two, we can’t get down on ourselves if a campaign that we run doesn’t do as well as a campaign for Wiz Khalifa. When Wiz puts out a photo on Instagram and he posts that photo to his Facebook page, he gets a million “likes” sometimes. [Going] from that to posting some amazing content for one of our smaller artists and only seeing 60 likes or only seeing five likes sometimes is difficult. You just need to power through it and say, “Hey, five is more than four and that’s what we got last time.”

GIM: Several of your artists have been mega hits across social networks. What do you credit that to? What makes Wiz Khalifa’s social networks so enticing to fans?

EH: I have to start by commending our team. We do a fantastic job of making sure that the fans know what’s going on. We make sure that they will always know that something is going on, and we’re consistent, which I think is extremely important. But I can’t pretend that it was us that did everything. One, Wiz is one of the most hardworking people I’ve ever met. And two, he engaged with the fans in the exact way that they wanted to be engaged. He told them all the little secrets to his daily life. He says the right things. He talks when he needs to talk and he doesn’t talk when he shouldn’t. He keeps them engaged. He’ll write back to them. He’ll retweet people. He’ll say something funny. He’ll post an interesting picture. He’ll do a Vine. He’ll do an Instagram video. He has always been real on Twitter, and Mac is in a very similar situation. Wiz and Mac on Twitter is really where they connected with their fans and then they had these videos on YouTube that just pushed them over. Being able to engage with them so easily on Twitter and showing them these amazing visuals, that’s really what converted these fans into hardcore fans. Honestly, it’s really about engaging with the fans and getting them to care, because there’s a lot of good music out there. It’s overwhelming sometimes. You only have so many hours in a day to listen to music. Music is an emotional thing and [fans] don’t want to just be connected to the song that they’re listening to. They want to be connected to the band that’s performing that song or the rapper that’s rapping that song. It’s a personal connection, and the best artists out there, if you look, you’ll see that they do an amazing job of connecting with fans.

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