We’ve all been there — you get the invitation to the baby shower, (are we already old enough for this?) and next thing you know you’re at that one store that you’ve passed a hundred times but never had reason to enter until now. There’s a million different versions of the same thing in shades of pink and blue, and you’re looking at the registry guide like it’s in a foreign language, probably on the verge of a panic attack, as you wonder what the hell a Diaper Genie is and what it’s for. Lisa Roth, thankfully, found a hole in the baby market 11 years ago, and started working with a team to fill the void.
Roth is one of the driving forces behind successful brand, Rockabye Baby – a collection of albums that are stylistically lullabies, but to the tunes of Metallica, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, and even Eminem. The idea was born when Roth found herself shopping for a friend who was expecting, and just couldn’t find anything that she would be excited to give – something for the parent and the baby – something with a good twist of irony. The result was Rockabye Baby, which has now released 78 albums and sold 1.6 million physical units. The latest is a collection of Iron Maiden hits.
We had the opportunity to talk to Roth about her interesting career path, the creative processes behind Rockabye Baby, her personal musical tastes, and, of course, her own lady heroes growing up.
I know that you were a nutritionist for two decades. Your family obviously has ties to music, but where do you personally make the jump from nutritionist to music industry?
There was a third career in between. I didn’t just go straight from nutritionist to music – although, I’m surprised you can’t see the connection. Nutrition, music [laughs]. I worked as a nutritionist here in New York for 20 years. It was wonderful, but when you’re dealing with people’s eating habits, you’re dealing with their core issues. If you want to get straight to someone’s most core foundational issues, ask them about their eating habits. It became exhausting after 20 years. I had always been interested in documentary film, and I thought, “I’m going to go work on documentary style television, and learn how to make documentaries.” I got a job as a segment producer for Discovery Network Programming and National Geographic Programming, and I did that for about five years. My father became sick, and I took care of him, and when I was finished doing that, I realized I didn’t want to go back to television, and I was introduced to the owner of this company, and his partner, and they eventually offered me a job. Never in a million freaking years did I have any desire to be in the music business. I can’t sing, unfortunately, my greatest sorrow, but here I am in the music business.
This is the first time I’ve ever really worked for someone. I was my own boss, or freelance my entire working life, but what I discovered very quickly about having a nine to five type job where you have to show up is that there is a paycheck waiting for you every two weeks without question, and it was a revelation, and it’s wonderful. My job here is pretty well-rounded. I get to be creative. I get to work side-by-side with the owner, and work on policy.
Because it is so well-rounded, what is a typical day like for you?
It is busy. The music business is going through shifts very rapidly. It always has, that’s its entire history, but it feels like it’s escalated in the past 10 years. You really have to be astute and stay flexible and keep your ear to the ground, and be able to move a huge ship around very quickly. We’re very busy, and constantly paying attention. A typical day – I don’t only deal with Rockabye Baby – we have other brands, like the Vitamin String Quartet that has been around for many years. It’s our string quartet versions of rock and pop. There’s a lot of work to be done with that. A thousand different areas need attention with Rockabye Baby – social media, marketing, creating new music, thinking of ways to merchandize, partnerships. It’s constant, and we aren’t just in the music business, we’re in the baby business, which is awesome given music right now, but it’s a whole other industry that we have to pay attention and learn about.
At least babies never go out of style.
Not a trend, sister!
I also have to say, I kind of laughed at the reference to Rockabye Baby as “anti-lullaby” music market.
I mean, when you have lullaby renditions of Black Sabbath and Eminem, it really is the anti-lullaby subject matter. The cool thing is there’s no lyrics. It’s instrumentals only, so the parents or the grandparents or friends can enjoy the music and get a kick out of the lyrics because they know them. It kind of kills two birds – music for the adults, and music for the little ones in their lives to enjoy.
So are the decisions based on the more inappropriate or edgy the lyrics in reality, the better the lullaby because of the irony?
Yea, that’s kind of more the point. That’s the biggest factor for choosing who we lullaby. The bigger the irony, the better. It’s more fun to say “Lullaby renditions of ACDC,” than it is to say, “Lullaby renditions of James Taylor.” The more irony the artist lends, the better. We also pull from our social media, we talk to the staff here, which is filled with music lovers, and keep an eye on what’s trending. I get to throw in a few favorites now and then. It started as classic rock and heavy rock, but over the years it’s branched out. We started to do some hip-hop and pop. I always say every genre has its rock stars. We’re choosing current rock stars.
Due to the diversity of the lullaby collections, I have to assume your personal music taste is pretty diverse.
My taste is – okay, first of all, I make fun of myself here. I work at a record label – an independent record label that is filled with music lovers who are very proud to say they are music snobs. They know deep tracks by artists that I have never in a million years heard of, have looked for and can’t find. I admire them. My favorite music is like ‘60s, ‘70s R&B soul music. I’m so into the Four Tops, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye – I can go on and on. Mix in with that some good country; I love some blues, and rock. I’m just discovering classic rock working here because that was not my music of choice, but now I sit and deconstruct these songs, and I am learning about classic rock note-for-note.
Going into the technical side of it, you have to obtain licensing for these songs. Are you every met with any kind of resistance, or are most of the artists you approach open to it?
We contact the publishers and owners of each song and obtain a license before we start recording. That’s a must. I only hear positive things from people. Steven Tyler wrote liner notes for us, Joe Elliott from Def Leppard, Elton John talks about us. However, if there’s an artist who never grants licensing for anything ever, having nothing to do with personal dislike, there’s what’s called a compulsory license, which is available under the Copyright Act that you can acquire, so the artists still get paid, it’s just a different license. But, no, we haven’t run up against any resistance.
Lullabies also come across as being simplistic in nature, but I’m willing to guess the production process for these is more complex than one might think.
You do [think it’s simple]! You think, “Well, all you do is slow it down,” but you don’t slow it down. That is a huge mistake, I have learned. It is a little bit of an art form. We have a handful of producers that we assign albums to: Leo Flynn, Andrew Bissell, and Steven Boone. They’ve been doing this with us for a long time, and they really are artists. They deconstruct each and every song and start putting it back together using our pallet of instruments, and they send us back a first draft. We listen to every note of every song and we send back our comments. This goes back and forth 6, 8, 12 times before we strike the first mix. It’s not easy because our instruments are very organic – our xylophones, bells, wood blocks, things like that, and when you’re trying to hit a heavy minor chord with sustained using a wood block, it’s an art form. We have all the tricks up our sleeves now, thanks to these great producers, but it takes close to three months, if not more, to do these albums.
My main concern is also creating an homage to these artists, doing them justice, and never making fun of them. I’m very sensitive to that, and I take it very seriously. Plus, first and foremost we’re a record label that has been around for 45 years, so we treat everything we do, even our brands, as we would artists, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I wonder if any of the original Rockabye babies (who are middle school age) are really into Black Sabbath now.
That would be my dream! I hear from adults, from parents, that their kids study to these, they do yoga to these.
Rockabye is kind of an off-the-wall brainchild, in the best possible way because it’s something you think about, like you said, when you’re walking down baby aisles, but I’m not sure too many people would actually attempt to bring it to fruition. What advice would you give to people with that entrepreneurial drive who have an idea that’s sort of off the beaten path?
First of all, I want to clear something up. I’m not really an entrepreneur, and it wasn’t just me. A lot of people were involved in the creation of this. I say I’m not an entrepreneur because I was working at a record label. I had a company that already created stuff behind any effort, which was so awesome. Entrepreneurs I look at and bow to. My creative director, Valerie Aiello, was a big part of the creative process of Rockabye Baby, and she – let me back up – I went shopping for a baby shower gift. I didn’t see anything I would be excited to give, anything that was adult friendly. I told the owner of the company that we should get into the baby business. We can create something for the adults that’s also for the baby, like, “Baby’s First Sex Pistols” or something. We got into these creative discussions, and Valerie Aiello pitched the concept, and then the series was green-lighted. So Valerie was the primary artistic creator the first year and half, and then I took after a little over nine years ago, so shout out to her.
Cut to what I would say to an entrepreneur – I would say, if you have an idea that really resonates through you, figure out any first baby step you can. Surround yourself with people who you respect, who have answers. Ask them anything and everything, and let them mentor you. Pay attention to detail – that’s my main word of advice to everyone in life – don’t cut corners; pay attention to every detail, and every choice you make and thing you think. Ask questions, and never think you have to know everything yourself, and just listen. Be a student. Keep getting up and showing up, and when you fall down, keep getting up and showing up again. You feel like you have to make it happen on your own, which is ridiculous. Nothing happens in a vacuum.
Our publication is really focused on empowering women doing empowering things, so that being said, who are some of your personal lady heroes?
I was in grade school, junior high and high school during the ‘70s, a decade all about civil rights, equal rights for women, Roe vs. Wade and burning the bra. During the ‘70s, strong female icons were everywhere, and I looked up to many of them. Activist and educator Angela Davis was frequently on the news fighting for civil rights. Her image was so striking and her words were strong. Gloria Steinem came on the scene and released Ms. Magazine and changed the face of the women’s lib movement. Cher was a style icon for me. I wanted to look like Diana Ross, which was no easy task for a young skinny Jewish girl from the Midwest. Shirley Chisolm, the first black woman elected to Congress became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee — how powerful is that? Mary Tyler Moore played a single working woman on television. It was a powerful decade, and couldn’t help but inform my beliefs, my aesthetic, and much of who I am. And I still want to look like Diana Ross.