5 Questions to Bob Lord (CEO, Parma Recordings) on PARMA’s 10th Birthday

PARMA Recordings CEO Bob Lord is a producer, composer, and bassist. Founded on the notion that the various services a record company can offer composers could be usefully consolidated under a single roof, PARMA’s labels include Navona Records, Ravello Records, Big Round Records, and Ansonica Records. On the occasion of PARMA’s tenth birthday, we’ve asked Bob five questions about the state of contemporary music on record today.

Years ago, a friend and I were debating how likely it might be, given the complicated cultural position and relatively small audience of new music, for a living artist to be someone’s favorite composer. What role does PARMA Recordings play in introducing listeners to the composers who might become their favorites?

What is so refreshing to about today’s musical environment is that it is absolutely possible for virtually any living composer who has a “product” (however one chooses to define it) in the market to be someone’s favorite.  I recognize the fact that loosening the constraints on access, creativity, and production has created a tremendous volume of content engaged in non-stop combat for our attention, and I understand that this situation is vexing to some.

But I love it, because I genuinely believe that anything is possible.  We are living in a reality that was practically unimaginable just 30 years ago, a reality where artists have more control and opportunity than ever before.  I’ve had experiences that I dreamed about as a kid, have seen my my most earnestly hoped-for musical desires come true, and have frequently found myself someplace – artistically, physically, mentally – that makes me stop and think, What a delightful twist that I’m here, doing this, experiencing this.

That is the starting point at PARMA.  10 years, a staff of nearly 30, and more than 500 albums in, a sense of wonder and passion has always been at the core of what we do.  Openness to new experiences, new ideas, and new concepts is at the foundation of every project.

PARMA’s work incorporates virtually every aspect of making music, from brainstorming to project planning to production and right to the market and beyond, and we take a global look at each phase of the process – particularly since essentially all of it is in-house.

This was the intent of the company from moment one: minimize the variables of production and enhance creative opportunity via a team of human resources, all focused on the integrity and effectiveness of projects as a whole.  What we seek to do is to find and develop projects and artists with a clear, compelling vision and something new, fresh, and different to say.

There are three general areas where our role is critical to introducing listeners to our artists.  The first revolves around project development and in-studio production, and in many ways those moments are the most important – everything we do is predicated on making a definitive recording, and also in being sure we are thinking through all the issues and questions both artistic and technical on behalf of the artist.  Is the interpretation by the ensemble on point?  Did we get the ritard exactly as intended?  Why the hell are we working together on a 30-minute double concerto in the first place?  Artist and listener alike can be assured that absolutely nothing we do is accidental.

The second area is the presentation of the material.  We work very hard to create the perfect artwork for a given project, to write the best copy, to pitch the right content to the right people, be they reviewers or music directors or licensing agents or conductors, and to think through all the angles of how to tell a story about the artist and the music itself.

I realize I’m the hair club president and all, but just take a look at our standard online label catalog pages – the listener is presented with all of the material one would get from a physical product and much more, including extended liner notes, videos, contextual information, and in some cases the score and parts as well.

The final area is a more nebulous one, but possibly the most vital: lowering the barrier to entry for listeners.  Why do we make music?  Do we intend solely for those who already appreciate what we do to continue to appreciate it?  We get a lot of guff from dyed-in-the-wool classical reviewers who are offended by the lack of a “War And Peace”-length booklet in many of our releases, but through digital means we are able to bring more content to listeners than ever before, and to do so in a way that allows them to consume the music when they want, how they want, through what they want.

Our goal is tell the listener a new story, about new music, with new names and faces and sounds, and to make it as easy as possible to access that experience.

The record industry has changed significantly in recent years. What strategies has PARMA Recordings developed in response to the changes, and how were they developed?

I’m about to turn 42 years old, and I grew up in an era of vinyl 45s, cassette tapes, mimeograph machines, and licking my own newsletter envelopes.  I learned how to type on a typewriter… the majority of my staff isn’t even old enough to have seen a typewriter in a non-ironic setting…

When I first picked up the bass as a kid and started performing and writing music, the general orientation of the musician side of the market revolved around the gatekeepers.  Back in the days of huge hair and bright colors, the big brass ring was getting signed to a record deal so that you could, you know, continue to not know a damn thing about the business and industry into which you so desperately wanted to go.

At that time the “make a demo, get a lawyer, shop it around, get a record deal” conga line was in full effect.  Looked at from one perspective, this system really enabled musicians to not grow up, to not understand and grasp the underlying assumptions of their craft, and can you blame them?  It is after all what we all wanted in the first place: to do the thing we love.

What has become increasingly clear to me is that over the last 10 years a general acknowledgment has developed amongst creators that, in order to protect that thing we love, we must understand it and ultimately be responsible for it.

PARMA has been a leader in this new model of production.  My experiences with the old system were like those of countless others: I too was bit by a problematic label deal, and I lost control of a master because I wanted someone else to do all the under-the-hood work and wanted them to pay for it.  In the end, I ended up paying much more in both financial and musical currency because of that decision.

The option to not be beholden to the gatekeepers is the best thing that has happened for musicians in a hundred years.  The composer Art Gottschalk frequently asks his students, “What have you done for your career today?”  This is a vital question.

In my own musical career I wanted all the control and none of the responsibility, and we actively try to make that a reality for all of our artists… but not to the exclusion of our curation, their involvement, or our mutual education.  It is their work, their expression, and we are the stewards, helping to navigate roads and avoid all the pitfalls we know so well, and hopefully to help our artists gain a greater understanding of – and standing in! – the musical world.  It benefits us all.

Bob Lord

Bob Lord

Do you find that recordings structured around the music of a particular composer or those featuring a single performer or ensemble performing music by several composers are more successful? Is one kind of release easier to market than the other?

In our experience we have seen that there is no one lone metric to determine success, we’re in an incredibly rich multi-dimensional market environment now and making sense of conflicting objectives and metrics is part and parcel to being a creator in today’s world.

Yet when you take a look at the overall landscape of our projects over the last decade, it is clear that the single most important indicator of effectiveness is active collaboration across all phases of production.  Everybody needs to be working together, everybody needs to be pushing, everybody needs to be engaged and in motion.

In the romanticized version of history, the solitary artist creates and the world listens, but this is not how it goes in our realm – it takes concerted, planned effort and structure, quite literally across time and space, to make it happen.  It is about harnessing the power of a team.

The release of a commercial CD is a career milestone for composers and performers; it signals the attainment of a certain level of accomplishment to granting organizations, tenure committees, and other institutional gatekeepers. Do you ever worry that recordings of new music might be credentializers first and things to listen to and enjoy second? If so, what would the solution be?

To whatever extent a project of any type is a credentializer or a commercial object or absolute art, the thing has to work in the first place.  Without that there is nothing.

I urge artists to question their reasons for creating.  It would be hard for me to explain just how little I care about the word “should” – how many times was I told I shouldn’t play bass guitar with a pick?  Or that I shouldn’t go on tour with my trio?  Or that I shouldn’t start a business at the absolute nadir of the economy during the financial crisis?

Every musician has, to some degree, a sense of what is expected of them, of what the internal pressures are, of what outside agents say they should do, and the need to attempt to balance all of these things.  Every step we take is on the same earth where Homer created his epics, where Mozart wrote his masterpieces, where Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer.  Lots of ways to measure one’s self, to be sure.

The important point to me is thinking about the end goal, the end result, the music itself.  What is the output?  What is the function?  Is there a function?  Does there need to be a function?  Any answer to any question could conceivably be acceptable provided the conditions are properly set, but I feel it is important to remember why we do what we do, and why we chose to do it in the first place.

Are there cemented things about the contemporary music situation in the United States that you hope will change—or, conversely, things likely to change that you hope will stay the same?

I want to see more disruption, more chaos, more upheaval. We’re still in the thick of it, but the gulf between this generation’s concept of making music and future ones will be smaller than this one and the preceding.

The nature of today’s music consumption is actively aiding the eradication of arbitrary (and now largely irrelevant) lines of genre and style, and I expect we will continue to see more blurring of these boundaries.  Those who opt to cling to the past need to consider the utility of rarefied air, and ask a simple question:  Are we still making music?

I know what my answer is.