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Interview: Chris Bruni (Profound Lore Records)

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After a long break from heavy music, in summer 2009, I decided to do my homework and acquaint myself with the underground’s new releases. I quickly discovered the closest thing to a “summer blockbuster” in the metal world: YOB’s The Great Cessation was a mammoth comeback record that announced not only the rebirth of one of heavy music’s most formidable bands, but also, at least for me, the rise to prominence of their new label Profound Lore and its mastermind, Chris Bruni.

Since 2004, Profound Lore has brought “high integrity” and “extreme music” into a level of association never seen before: from the aforementioned YOB album (along with their most recent, Atma (review_), Cobalt’s Gin to Dark Castle’s Surrender to All Life Beyond Form, Salome’s Terminal to Agalloch’s Marrow of the Spirit, the label’s roster reads like a who’s who in the current heavy music underground. Profound Lore’s releases have garnered accolades from NPR and The New York Times, and have routinely been featured in Decibel‘s Top 10 albums of the year. I got the chance to speak to Mr. Bruni about his label’s ascent, and how he manages to keep his standards so high.

— Mike Simpson

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Profound Lore has gained a formidable reputation over the last few years as one of the most high-integrity labels for extreme music. What do you attribute to helping you achieve such high regard?

I think first and foremost the label has gotten its reputation solely by releasing unique product of a high quality and just remaining consistent in that aspect, by releasing many bands of a different nature but somehow making it work and keeping a strong aesthetic in place. It definitely hasn’t grown because of stupid marketing plans or wasting money on big advertising campaigns or whatever.

How did you involve yourself in heavy/extreme music before you started Profound Lore?

[I] did some writing for several metal publications in the past. And from that, I guess that’s how I would eventually make connections within the scene, with labels and bands, respectively.

What made you want to start a record label? Had you ever run distros or been involved in label-related activities in the past?

I had some money saved up, with not much else going for me (aside from plans of going back to school and doing post-grad work) and decided to try the label thing as a hobby, so I pooled some of my money in with a few partners. [I] never ran any distros or [was] involved with any label-related activities in the past (aside from dealing with label publicists consistently), but I, like I’m sure many others involved in the scene, always thought it would be cool to work for a metal label, let alone start one.

Did you model Profound Lore after any labels past or present?

The labels I’m most influenced by, I’d say are the early Peaceville years, Misanthropy Records, Deathlike Silence Productions, the early years of Avantgarde Music, Earache Records (from ’89 – ’91 only), Southern Lord, and non-metal labels such as 4AD, Mute, Sub Pop, and AmRep.

How did you get the label off the ground? A lot of Profound Lore’s earlier output was re-releases/remasters or vinyl releases of albums by established bands, like Agalloch. Do you continue to do things like re-releases and/or vinyl editions of releases where the CDs are handled by another label, or vice versa?

I’d say doing the vinyl releases from reputable bands in the beginning definitely helped establish the label’s name, and now I’m literally releasing full-length albums from some of these bands I’ve worked with when the label started off, like Agalloch and Leviathan, as opposed to doing just a specialty-like release of theirs where I had to get permission from another source (i.e., the former labels) to work with them. For the most part, though, it seems that usually I’ll do the CD version of whatever kind of release and another label will most likely handle the vinyl.

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Leviathan – “Her Circle Is the Noose”
from True Traitor, True Whore (out Nov. 8th)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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You’ve mentioned Asunder’s Works Will Come Undone as being a pivotal release for the label. What are some more recent releases that come to your mind as being important genre-influencing records? What about releases that have helped raise the profile of the label as a whole?

Definitely YOB’s The Great Cessation was a big turning point for the label in taking it to a new level of recognition and more recently, of course, Agalloch’s Marrow of the Spirit, which to me is their masterpiece (and I’m saying this objectively as someone who has followed the band since the beginning) and was a huge turning point in raising the label’s profile. And releasing Marrow of the Spirit was also a very personal turning point in my life likewise. And, of course, any of the Portal and Cobalt releases are always pivotal turning point releases for the label, and the new Leviathan album True Traitor, True Whore is destined to be a turning point release for the label, and, again, for me on a personal level.

As for recent Profound Lore releases being important genre-influencing milestones, the ones that would immediately come to mind are Castevet’s Mounds of Ash, Dawnbringer’s Nucleus, Mitochondrion’s Parasignosis, Krallice’s Diotima, Altar of Plagues’ Mammal, and Loss’ Despond.

How do you discover new music or artists that you might be interested in working with? Do you spend a lot of time on blogs and reading magazines, or do you go off of recommendations from people you know?

A lot of times it’s usually referrals from artists I either know, or artists/musicians I’m familiar with contacting me saying that I should check out the new band from so-and-so, or check out this new band they know, etc. And usually I will, because the people giving me the heads-up on stuff like this, I respect their taste and trust their intuition. So it’s like a snowball effect of referrals, mostly. But I definitely spend a decent amount of time browsing blogs and leafing through magazines (well, at least the ones that get sent to me anyway). So it’s a bit of both.

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What qualities do you look for in artists who you choose to work with?

Basically I look for an aesthetic that I can relate with, no matter what kind of band I work with (which I think goes a bit beyond just liking their music). And that the band has some sort of artistic integrity to them. Also it’s important that I’m able to develop some sort of relationship on a personal level with the artist as well, too, a relationship that has some sort of a unique quality to it.

Sometimes, though, I boil it down to specifics, especially when releasing death metal, because when it comes to death metal, I look for very specific qualities in a death metal band that need to fit my picture of what I think death metal should encompass.

Do you accept/listen to submissions?

I try to listen to everything I get as best as I can, especially if it’s from a new project or band featuring a musician I am already familiar with. Mostly I get a lot of solicitations from bands, and if the email begins something like, “We’re a melodic progressive death metal band” or, “We’re a symphonic black metal band” or, “We’re a thrash band” , usually they’ll immediately get deleted.

Do you feel there is still room in today’s industry for a label like yours to “discover” and/or “develop” an artist?

I think there is still room in today’s industry for smaller labels to discover and develop artists and bands. But it’s hard and it can be quite the growing process that takes quite a bit of patience until anything actually blossoms, especially if the artist doesn’t have any buzz around them, and considering that there are a shitload of bands out there trying to find a break.

And that doesn’t just go for new bands, but even bands who have been around for a decent amount of time, or have somewhat reputable musicians in them. Even though they are still caught in that growth process, their development and growth is still that, a process, one that could still be an uphill climb, and one that needs patience for it to come to realization and awareness. Sometimes such bands who have been around and are not exactly new to the scene will sometimes fall off people’s radar, or many people will just have not heard of them. And sometimes when reality really hits, they need a new lease on life, because they will still be a new band for many and need to get their name back on the map and within the scene. Again, this is a process that definitely takes time.

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Even if you choose not to ride the wave of particular trends, do you find it important to keep yourself informed on what styles of extreme music are receiving attention at any given moment? Have you ever felt the desire to shift the stylistic focus of the label, like what Southern Lord has done in recent years?

I personally don’t model the label after what styles are in because I don’t really fully concern myself with what’s going on in the scene, aside from the few things that interest me with what some other bands and other labels, the ones I have a personal relationship with anyway, are doing. If I feel like releasing whatever, and as long as I can connect with it and connect with the artists creating the music, then so be it.

If there was anything on a conscious level, admittedly I do want to bring in more death metal into the label. But, of course, I’m meticulous of what kind of death metal bands I want to work with. The resurgence of old-school death metal is thriving right now. It’s cool to see all these bands revel in it, even though a shitload of these bands follow a pretty standard template, and it’s even getting to the point where a lot of these bands go in one ear and out the other.

It started way back when I released Portal’s Seepia when the label started, and before anyone really cared or gave Seepia the time of day. I didn’t care, though, because it was something I heavily connected with – the aesthetic, the art, and the individuals behind the band. But the death metal bands I release (Portal, Antediluvian, Mitochondrion, Vasaeleth, Impetuous Ritual, Stargazer, Disma, etc.), I make a personal connection with, and these bands are in their own separate league, anyway, and hold their own ground against whatever death metal trend is currently surfacing. And I think it’s important for people to realize that the future of death metal lies in these bands as well as such bands as Grave Miasma, Cruciamentum, Weapon, Dead Congregation, etc.

But aside from that, overall, there really is no conscious decision on shifting the label’s stylistic focus, because in my world, anything goes, and there’s no middle ground whatsoever.

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Antediluvian – “Scions of Ha Nachash (Spectre of the Burning Valley)”
from Through the Cervix of Hawwah (out Nov. 22nd)

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How important is it for you to stay engaged with your label’s audience by utilizing social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook?

Very important – more and more these days, especially, and they are both good platforms for any kind of label announcements that need to be made. And it’s also a fun way, too, to engage with the label’s audience by using such social networking sites. I’ve definitely seen over the year, especially, how vital a Facebook page is, since the official label Facebook page was only created earlier this year, and it’s interesting to see the level of interest people take to whatever I post on it concerning whichever artist or band. Sometimes that will serve as a pretty good indication on what will do well, and I monitor such activity closely.

A lot of labels in the past existed around documenting a particular sound (i.e., AmRep, Earache) or the scene of a particular locale (Dischord, etc.). Profound Lore doesn’t follow either of those templates. Do you think that in this current day and age, the “niche” label is outmoded?

I don’t think it’s outmoded, and I think niche labels are necessary in helping their respective particular scenes they are involved in grow. But at the same time, it’s almost inevitable that you see these niche labels sometimes reach out to something out of their comfort zone. I think that it’s important for them to sometimes take a chance on something a bit different for them.

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Do you think audiences of extreme music are more willing/able nowadays to accept a broad range of releases? Are fans of Portal also into checking out Dawnbringer or YOB?

I think they are (I guess to a certain extent), and I think this aspect is one of the main aspects of the label’s growth and success. I mean, if you put SubRosa and Portal next to each other, I personally don’t see any conflict, and I’ve seen diehard underground death/black metal fans freaking over the SubRosa album. Worm Ouroboros next to a band like Mitochondrion, I think that’s a pretty cool pairing, too. But I think my core audience has learned to appreciate this wide spectrum of extreme music I’ve released, even though admittedly there are a few bands that even I consider a bit outside of my spectrum that have been a bit of a hard push, even to the label’s core audience.

And there are a few releases as well, of course, that the label’s core audience simply don’t get or just flat-out think is crap. And in turn, that release will suffer a bit, even if it gets a decent amount of good press. At the same time, though, if you take a polarizing band like Portal where there is no in-between whatsoever, this has worked to their advantage. And in turn, Portal are one of the label’s higher-selling bands, even though in the beginning, it was a struggle to get people to even care or take notice of them.

Do you think the visual aspect of extreme music is more important now than before? I’m thinking about the fact that your label places a lot of importance on the packaging of your releases.

I definitely think so, and it’s cool to see that extreme metal fans also appreciate good artwork to complement a release, especially today with CD sales supposedly being at an all-time low. And with people downloading, you have to do whatever you can outside of the box to make a physical product (that’s not vinyl) appealing and do your best to make that physical product have that personal connection to the person buying it. I think along with the music, complementing it with nice packaging and nice artwork (or more specifically, fitting artwork), and selling the product for a very reasonable price is the key to attracting people who listen to extreme music to actually buy CDs. I think this is more of a solution than trying to gouge people by having three to five different versions of a release at different prices and different packaging for people to choose from.

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Agalloch – Marrow of the Spirit (vinyl package)

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Is PL’s emphasis on physical releases the reason why you haven’t set up a digital store on your website? What are your feelings on digital releases? Do you think online stores like iTunes or subscription services like Spotify are relevant to labels like Profound Lore?

I’m currently in the process of building the label’s Bandcamp page, where several of the label’s releases will be posted (not all though) to stream. It’s there and active, even though I haven’t officially launched it. But I haven’t made an official announcement yet, and it’s quite the process to upload all these releases, since it’s a painfully long process to upload tracks.

Of course, I’ve accepted the digital realm more and more, and that sales via iTunes and other channels are, of course, essential. [I’m] not sure if services like Spotify would help the label. I mean, it seems like an amazing service, one where you can legitimately and legally listen to a mass library of music online for pretty much nothing. But I’m essentially a small underground label that depends on sales of CDs and digital outlets to survive, and if I didn’t depend on these outlets, then the label would probably be in the gutter. And luckily I’m a label who at least caters to an audience (of all ages) who appreciate buying physical product. I mean, it’s not like I go overboard or whatever in pressing an astronomical amount of CDs per release. I project and just press what I feel would be the right amount suitable for whichever artist to run the tide for their album, to the best of my ability in order to recoup costs and get bands their royalties.

So why should I support such statements where people are saying Spotify will be the service that will serve as the deathblow to the physical CD product and even online retail outlets, which of course is essentially the label’s lifesblood in order for it to survive? And, admittedly, it’s hard for me to project if a service like Spotify would help the label in finding a new means of revenue. I mean, I do want to continue doing this for as long as I can and keep it consistent as long as it can. And I think keeping the quality releases intact (or what I think is quality, anyway) will be the key to keeping this thing consistent. Don’t get me wrong, I do have fears on how the axis of the music industry is shifting (which will affect bigger and more major labels and artists), and I do worry about losing momentum (like several underground labels from the mid-late ’90s have, labels in which I used to buy and look into every release of theirs in their heyday). But at the same time, if this momentum continues, I’ll always be able to sell enough CDs to cover costs and bring in a somewhat reasonable revenue, like I do at the moment.

Of course, there are two sides to this argument, but again, I’m a small underground label – call it boutique or whatever – where only a certain number of my bands actually tour (and do well for themselves, for the most part on the road) and are not involved in these huge mass markets where they can find other ways to make a comfortable revenue.

So as of now, Spotify is not much of a concern for me, whereas Bandcamp, which I think will help out underground labels and bands more than a service like Spotify, will be more of a focus and priority.

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Do you find that people who follow your label and its releases usually buy physical product, i.e., vinyl? Do you see vinyl as being an expanding part of the profits from your sales?

I definitely get requests for certain releases of mine in the vinyl format on a consistent basis. and I’ve been slowly getting back into this since a goal of mine was [that] if I were to release vinyl, it [would] only be vinyl of my releases. And right now, there are vinyl projects in the works of my releases that I’m currently undertaking. The Dawnbringer and Agalloch vinyl releases have been a good start to get the vinyl thing going again. And as of now, I’m working on the SubRosa vinyl, along with having priorities to do Cobalt’s Gin on vinyl, as well as Altar of Plagues’ Mammal, and eventually the new Leviathan album. I guess it’s just a matter of how it will fit in the budget and schedule. But at the same time, I have other labels who do approach me to license some of my releases for vinyl, so in a way it seems like a good portion of my releases will see the light of day on vinyl anyway.

I wouldn’t say it will be an expanding part of the profits though. Far from it, actually, because [with] selling vinyl, I essentially just draw even, anyway (if it sells out, of course), most notably because of the ridiculously high Canada Post shipping costs and the expense of manufacturing vinyl. I mean, even though we pressed a pretty decent amount of Agalloch vinyl for their last album, and since it’s a pretty expansive package in itself with no expense spared, I’m just drawing even on them to pay off its massive bill.

Do you think there is room in today’s recording industry for new/start-up labels, specifically “boutique” extreme music labels like yours, to be sustainable and/or profitable?

I think if there is any kind of window of opportunity for this, it seems to be closing more and more. It was hard enough back when I got into this to be sustainable or profitable. I think I just barely squeezed through to actually make it, and I can only imagine now it’s that much harder to do so. Especially because the situation with the recording industry has gotten worse, and times have gotten more desperate, it’s harder to find that breakthrough. I think, though, if you come into this today, and already have a good network and somewhat of a backbone at your disposal, then there is at least a possibility of sustainability.

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