As the first woman President of Rostrum Records, one of the most prominent independent record labels in the U.S., Erika Montes is unwavering. At every step of the way, she takes the challenge with resolve, never giving up. It’s a mindset instilled by the one person who nurtured her. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the most important woman in my life, my mom,” Montes tells Remezcla over a Zoom call. “Despite all the challenges in the world, I think [the reason] why I pushed through [everything] was because of her.”
Born in Queens, NY, and raised in Guayaquil, Ecuador, until she was seven, Montes’ compass always pointed towards a love for music. And when she moved back to the U.S., that affection eventually turned into an avenue that allowed her to unveil some of the most valuable lessons. Her first professional stride then happened in the Latine music world as an A&R assistant at PolyGram Latino. At that point, one could say stars aligned with her resolution to broaden her horizons.
From traversing a fruitful, decade-long trajectory at Def Jam Recordings to moving to Fuse TV and later becoming SoundCloud’s Global VP for Artist & Label Relations, Montes has committed to a mission of creating opportunities—especially for women, because she understands that sorority is essential to put a dent in a male-dominated industry. It’s a mission that makes her a Major Mujer. Now, the journey shifted again, and her new position as the head of a label adds another layer to her growth and provides a platform to keep building change.
A few days into Women’s History Month and to celebrate Latinas helping transform today’s music landscape, Remezcla had the opportunity to talk with Montes about the highs and lows in her career, breaking the glass ceilings within the industry, and her goals at Rostrum Records.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When was that one moment or turning point in which you felt you were in the right space?
Honestly, when I got the job at Def Jam, I felt like I had made it. To me, it didn’t get any bigger than that. I got the job at Def Jam around June 2001, and Jay-Z was bringing out The Blueprint album. It came out on 9/11. The actual 9/11. Back in the day, we used to pre-tape BET’s 106 and Park on Mondays for the Tuesday show because 9/11 was on a Tuesday. And one of my bosses at the time told me, “Hey, come with me to see Jay for his 106 and Park taping,” and I thought, “Oh my god, cool. I’ve never met Jay-Z before in my life.” It’s Jay-Z, and he was Jay-Z back then already. So I went to 106 and Park, and my boss, for some reason, had to do something, and Jay-Z called me into the green room, and he asked, “What number am I on the show?” And—because 106 and Park was a countdown—I said, “Oh, you’re number one,” and he was like, “Okay, good.” Then he goes, “Who’s number two?” And I said, “Well, why would I care who number two is? You’re number one and my priority.” I remember he nodded his head, and he was like, “Yeah, you got it. You got it.” And I was like, “Jay-Z just approved of my answer.” That was probably one of the highlights that felt like, “I belong here. This is where I’m supposed to be.”
Now, the other side to this story is the next day was 9/11, and it was probably the worst day of my life to date, but also one of my biggest lessons in the music industry. I was in New York [City] and had to be evacuated. I lived in Jersey, but I was already in the office when it happened. Def Jam got us a hotel, and they were trying to keep us moving to somewhere that wasn’t a high building. As all this was happening, I heard someone say, “Oh, I wonder what this will do to Jay-Z’s sales.” And I just remember thinking, “We might all die, and this is what you’re thinking about?” When you’re in, it sounds crazy, but I also understood that someone has to have a business mind. The calm mind while we’re all feeling like the whole world is caving in on us. But I learned that day my life is my life. I love music, but my life has to be my life. It can’t be intertwined. I love my job, and I love what I do, but you have to separate in order to be the best person you can be for everyone around you. I had the greatest day the day before thinking, “I belong here.” And then the second day, it was like, “Okay, yes, but you’re a person, and you have to maintain that the entire time because it’s going to make you a better person for everybody else.”
So often, we see people advancing in their careers or making “big moves” on social media, but it’s rare we hear or see those introspective moments in which a person considers quitting or transitioning — did you ever have a moment like that and how did you overcome it?
It was Aug. 1st, 2001, and I remember because I was working in the video promo department [at Def Jam], and I used to work with MTV, BET, VH1, and all those channels. It was [going to be] the 20th anniversary of MTV, and I had only been working [at Def Jam] for a month and a half. I remember that one of my bosses was being extremely hard on me, and it felt like she was trying to haze me and really test me out. I remember going into the bathroom that evening and just crying my eyes out because I was like, “I cannot take this, I cannot do this. This sucks, and she doesn’t want me to be here. Am I cut out for this?” A lot of people used to say at that time you have to have thick skin, and I mean, shit, my mom told me that too. But then I got myself together, and I was like, “You’re gonna cry this out, and you’re gonna cry this out today. That’s it. Se acabó. We’re done after this. You’re gonna push through, and you’re gonna prove her wrong.” I remember crying my eyes out and getting back to work. But I did go that night to get a tattoo that said “Faith” because I had to hold on to it. I knew that [job] was for me.
Were there any mentors or other women that inspired or helped you get to where you are now?
Yes, and I adore her to death. I go to her for everything, even when making decisions. Gabby Peluso. She was my boss and the one who made me cry that night. It took her a while to trust me and to really see that I can be counted on. When we started talking, and once I got to really work with her for a few months, I realized that she was just rough on the outside but really great on the inside. She just had this tough exterior for no good reason, but once I was able to break through, it was the best thing ever. She would always give me a realistic point of view and really solid, truthful advice, no matter what. She definitely was a tough boss, but in the best way possible.
What’s one of your favorite parts of where you are now in your journey?
My favorite part is to be in a position to elevate others. I get to call the shots now. I’m the president of the label, and I get to be like, “Oh my God, I know these really dope women artists. Let’s figure out if we can sign them.” Just elevate the people that I know are wonderful. I think that’s probably one of the best things at this point… and I think that’s been the biggest highlight of leveling up and making great friends along the way. On the personal front, which overlaps with the work front, is that I have built this incredible network of women. We always elevate each other in every way, and they’re there for all the great things and the not-so-great things.
We’re seeing more and more women artists and music creatives speak out about how their work went unprotected or their trust was abused in the industry — what has been your perspective on this, if any? Is this something you’ve seen happen?
It’s so broad to say and to form an opinion. Do I think that we’re overlooked? Absolutely. We’re still such a small number in this industry, [and we’re] overlooked in rooms even though you have all these amazing women, whether it’s producers, writers, execs. I still think it’s very visible. There’s not enough of us because you still see a white man at the top, or many of them.
There’s a lot to me that’s being overlooked. Our opinions maybe aren’t as loud, or our voices aren’t as represented in a room. Yes, it’s great that I can be heading up a label, and maybe that fills a number, but what matters is what I do with it. How many more women can I bring forth?
What do you feel can be done to make the music industry feel more safe and collective for women?
For me, the biggest responsibility comes from us. If you know you’re in a position of power, use that to make sure that we are elevating other women to be the next generation, and everything that you learned, make sure that you pass that on. And making sure that, if you’re the representation in the room, take that responsibility very seriously.
I’m happy to always be in the room, but I can’t just be in the room. I have to make sure that I’m remembered and that I get to bring more into the room, and I get to bring others with me. I think that’s the bigger thing. That’s the responsibility that I see and I feel because, then, what good is it? If we’re breaking those glass ceilings, as we say, make sure you’re pulling other women in them too.
Can you explain why a crabs in a barrel mentality is harmful to women? There is a tendency of when a woman gets ahead, other women may try to pull them right back down, based on the fact that society has often pitted us against each other or made us feel like there can “only be one.”
First of all, it’s just not a great mentality to have. We always feel that way because of this mindset of, “Well, if there’s five positions, there’s only going to be one woman.” And it’s like, “No! Let’s stop thinking that way.” I think that’s the mentality that, for some reason, we’ve been fed for so long. I mean, in all actuality, the way that I even grew up was like, “Don’t say too much, don’t be noticed too much, don’t do this or don’t do that.” Kind of, “Don’t disturb what’s happening because women are more about being seen than being heard.” And I just rebelled against that. I think the tides are turning now because, mentality and social media, everything has changed.
Now, you just realize that you’re like, “Wait a second, okay, there’s five slots. Women can fill all of those if we wanted to.” I like the way that today’s youth question a lot of things, like when we see artists being pitted against each other. For example, the famous Nicki Minaj and Cardi B battle. Why do we have to pick? They’re two incredible women who happen to rap. We have 50 different male rappers. Why do we have to fight it out for two women rappers? Why don’t they all belong? Why can’t we have 20 of them? We don’t question how many male rappers there are, but somehow, we question how many women there are. Why are we doing that to ourselves? Why can’t they both just be individually talented and amazing at what they do? I think that’s on us as a society in the way that we think. And to me, I’m choosing not to think that way anymore.
It’s very visible there’s not enough of us.
What’s a mindset that you’ve developed throughout all your years in the music industry that you will implement at Rostrum Records?
I think about this a lot because I’m writing about our values. I’m a Buddhist, and one of the biggest models within Buddhism is never give up. Period. You just never give up, and that’s something that I take very seriously. I really, really value my practice, and I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why I am here, is because if I would have given up, I probably would have never gotten past that bathroom when I was crying back in 2001. I almost gave up, and my life would have been completely different. We never give up. We don’t give up on our artists, and we don’t give up on ourselves. We don’t give up on our friends. Most importantly, we don’t give up on ourselves. That’s a big mentality for me.
What do you hope to personally change about the music industry, especially for the next generation of women in this space? Talk to us about your legacy of making space for others while on your journey.
One of the biggest things to me is just to be a freaking good person. Just be a good person to people. The music industry is such a place where you can get caught up in a lot of things, and the way that I’ve gotten through my career has also been just by being good to the people around me. People remember that. They really do remember if you make them feel good, if you make them feel like you care. And that’s the best that I could ever ask for… If we can maintain the goodness in people and just be very transparent with each other, and good to each other, we don’t have to go through all the bullshit of the music industry.