Interview: Chris Bruni (Profound Lore Records)
Two questions have become unavoidable as music stretches farther into the realms of total independence: Do bands really need labels? What purposes do they serve? With major labels snapping up massive rosters only to ignore 90 percent of their acts for the 10 percent bringing in the most cash, it’s up to small boutique labels to put in the work. Over the last decade, Profound Lore founder and sole proprietor Chris Bruni has built his business from a small vinyl specialty label to a massively influential tastemaker, curating an eclectic stable of artists while keeping a singular vision. There isn’t one “Profound Lore band sound,” but much like the Hydra Head matchstick logo in the early ‘00s, fans of past releases are likely to nab a new slab branded with the PFL twin horn blowers sight unseen and sound unheard. In celebration of his 10th year at the helm, Bruni took a breather from shipping LPs and signing your new favorite band to do even more work by answering a few questions.
Profound Lore turns 10 next month. Are you planning anything to celebrate?
Nothing really of an actual celebration in itself or some sort of party or get-together or special show or event or whatever. Nothing like that really planned honestly, nor was it the plan to do anything like this. I guess the 10th year of the label will be celebrated simply by being its biggest and craziest year yet release-wise since this year will see the release of several key releases which will be defining moments for the label. Plus the release of the new Agalloch album pretty much falls on the 10th anniversary of the label, coincidentally. So it’s fitting in a way that the new Agalloch album is the release to represent the 10 year anniversary of the label.
How has your vision for Profound Lore changed since you founded the label?
It’s changed pretty much to fit a stronger aesthetic vision of the label. With every year I try to be more discriminative, every year I learn more and learn new things, which helps put things in different perspective, which in turn helps give a new definition for the vision of the label because sometimes there are new things I want the label to start being associated with and some things the label was associated with in the past that I want to leave behind and kinda not look back at. I think it’s one of the ways to evolve without stagnation, as long as the intent of the label’s vision doesn’t lose its ground and the integrity remains solidified. Which I think it always has.
You founded PFL with three partners who soon left for other ventures. Do you still run the day-to-day operations completely by yourself?
Pretty much. I still do and manage to do so (with the exception of having extra help to do stuff like graphics work, website maintenance work, and sometimes publicity work) because it’s just become so routine. I work a very flexible schedule and pretty much everything I do, even when chilling out at home or whatever, is all related to the label and work in some sort of way. You become used to it when it does become a regular routine.
PFL began as a vinyl only label, akin to more of a specialty imprint. You then took it the opposite direction when you began signing acts, releasing only CDs for a while. Is the reason for your increased vinyl distribution in recent years simply the demand for the format or because the label is in a better place financially?
A bit of both I guess since I am a fan of the format itself even though there’s quite a bit of stress doing a vinyl release. Sometimes the cost of a vinyl project can set me back a bit. There’s always something that goes wrong in whatever process the vinyl release is in. (For example with the last SubRosa vinyl release, I had at least seven packages of the limited edition version somehow go missing in the post and I had to refund all those orders. I mean if seven packages go missing in the post from mail order for an entire year I’d consider that too much, never mind a single period within the span of not even a month.)
With what you go through — how much it costs to do vinyl, the amount of work and actual labor that goes into it, and in the end barely seeing back any kind of return (because you want to sell the vinyl for a reasonable price without gouging too much because you want to at least cover your costs as best as possible) — sometimes admittedly I do question if it’s even worth it (in that case I don’t mind licensing a release to another label, one I trust and one that will act accordingly, of course, for the vinyl edition). And combine that with my never-ending stubbornness, then forget about it! But I do quite like releasing the format, will still want to release vinyl editions of at least my key releases if I can, and in the future would like to do some vinyl exclusive projects that would present a unique situation for whatever kind of release.
You mentioned licensing vinyl releases to other labels on occasion, as well as quite a bit of crossover between many of the underground labels. The last YOB LP being on 20 Buck Spin and then them heading to Neurot for the new album; Gilead handling the vinyl editions of the Krallice albums; even Slough Feg doing Animal Spirits before signing with Metal Blade. There seems to be a sense of collaboration rather than competition between the North American underground/extreme labels, oftentimes swapping bands between releases.
I mean you see it all the time where bands move onto different labels, whether they would be moving up to a bigger label, shifting over sideways to work with another label, or sometimes even taking a step down to work with a smaller label who would give them more attention than a bigger label would. So that’s a constant, I guess, that helps keep things interesting in a way to see these bands get a new experience of sorts and dealing with new people, some of whom the bands are real close friends with (such as the case with YOB now working with Neurot with their next LP). But yeah, I think with the more underground labels it’s more of a collaboration because we all share the same kind of ethics and even aesthetics when it comes to underground music. But of course having quality control is still important.
As of a 2012 profile, Agalloch’s Marrow of the Spirit was your best selling album. Does it still hold that spot?
Indeed it does, currently with Pallbearer’s Sorrow and Extinction being the second best selling release.
What is a normal day like for you operating the label?
Pretty straightforward and routine with the hours being flexible throughout the entire day. Usually get up as early as I can, work on customer orders and get that out of the way first thing, and then start taking care of all other things as they come along during the discourse of the day. As of late, usually there is a lot of down time early afternoon and not much goes on admittedly if I’ve gotten all the chores from earlier completed, so that gives me a window of opportunity to run whatever errands I need to do, and then around late-afternoon things start to pick up quite a bit again and I deal with all this for the rest of the day/evening. For the most part, if bands get in contact with me, they tend to hit me up really late at night after I’ve gone to bed.
What has been your biggest triumph since founding the label?
Simply that this thing is still going 10 years on and creating this identity of sorts separate from everyone else, pretty much without compromise, and without adhering to whatever industry standards I’m supposed to apparently attest to. It’s kinda like hanging out in my own corner over on one side of the room while everyone else is mingling and having their get-togethers or whatever on the other side. Also one of the things I can be proud of, over all these years, is never addressing that I have actually “signed” a band. Personally I think that term is stupid anyway and I’ve never felt comfortable with it, or saying that I have “signed” a band because I would feel weird when actually proclaiming something like that. I’d rather see it as myself working with a band and friends, whether it’s more on a long-term basis or just a one-off situation, as a collaboration between all parties involved in helping to bring awareness to this art. And to see it as an extension of what I do in all aspects of my life, professionally and even personally.
Conversely, what was your greatest disappointment?
There really hasn’t been a singular disappointment in a way that I can pick out, as in something like I could have worked with this band, or could have gotten this distribution deal, or why did I deal with this band or this person, nothing really like that. But just a series of many experiences during the discourse I’ve been running this thing that have become learning experiences along the way. Ones you can kinda look back at and, at times, ones you can just simply bury in the dust and put behind you. And that’s exactly what they are, experiences that occur when caught up in the moment since almost everyday is something different with a new experience that’s handed to you. And just from these learning experiences alone, you tend to become more and more discriminative every year on how you operate.
What would you say is the most significant threat to independent record labels today?
Well obviously things like albums leaking online and illegal download torrents, etc. is just one piece of the greater picture, but I think one of the other main threats is the general overall lack of quality control on pretty much a lot of things, which in turn creates a massive flood in the market. It seems like it’s becoming harder for independent labels to create, and even maintain, an identity of sorts in order to simply stay relevant in this market that is ever-changing, always uncertain, yet always in motion. That’s why sometimes you see identities and references slightly change when trying to adapt, which does become more of a challenge every year, I think. In a way sometimes that can be good because there’s nothing wrong with being associated with something new, as long as it fits the label’s aesthetic and as long as the initial intent doesn’t get betrayed and that everything still makes sense within the true vision that was initially set and built upon.
What advice would you give someone starting their own record label?
Don’t start one. Kidding. Basically as long as that person knows what they are getting into and hopefully they are getting into it for the right reasons. They would need to know the scene they want to be involved in, how it works, and, of course, a good pedigree of notable contacts always helps to get the initial foot off the ground as opposed to starting from a completely clean slate. People should be aware that they probably won’t make any money, will lose money most likely, and will struggle to break even. But if the cards are played right and that timing works out in your favor, it can work out, I guess.