In 2006, Lisa Roth forever changed the children’s music game when she found a way to make lullabies appealing to both kids and their parents, co-creating the Rockabye Baby! franchise. The sister of Van Halen rocker David Lee Roth — and a former nutritionist and advisor to artists and music executives — is now vice president and creative director of Rockabye Baby!‘s parent label, Los Angeles-based country and bluegrass CMH Label Group, which includes Vitamin Records, home to the Vitamin String Quartet.
Roth has helped issue more than 85 Rockabye Baby! albums with child-friendly, instrumental tributes to everyone from Metallica to Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, The Clash and Kanye West. A Beastie Boys edition is slated for release April 27, with a vinyl version for Record Store Day. Even though the records are heavy on the glockenspiel, “it’s a series created for the adults as much as the babies,” says Roth. “I think that we accomplished both very well.”
Billboard caught up with Roth to discuss what goes into crafting a baby-friendly version of Black Sabbath, the label’s upcoming release schedule and how they have adapted to survive in a streaming-dominated music industry.
What are some of your upcoming releases?
Are there any new genres that you’d like to branch into?
We have pretty much covered everything, from country to hip-hop, rock, and pop but are very open to all genres. Maybe EDM next? This company is staffed with 22 music lovers and people who are extremely knowledgeable about music and everybody has their own taste. EDM is right up there, so I dare say it’s only a matter of time before we do it.
What was the hardest album to pull off?
The one that always comes to mind is Black Sabbath because there are so many minor chords, and producing minor chords using a palette of organic instruments is very difficult. Holding a chord using a wood block is no easy task. Kanye West was tricky as well. There is more of a beat and a rhythm and very little melody in particular songs, or the rap has a rhythm to it but no melody. With those, we have to be creative about how to fill that in and make it recognizable. When you create a lullaby version of a song, you want it to be soft and cute and relaxing for the baby. But at the same time, you want to retain the original intention of the artist for the adult listener. Finding that perfect balance is a little bit of an art form.
What have been your best sellers?
Some of our best sellers have been bands like The Beatles, Coldplay, Queen and Journey. And then some of our newer artists that sold amazingly well right out of the gate are Adele, Beyonce and Taylor Swift. One surprise was that Blink-182 was huge. And our soundtrack of Hamilton did really well digitally.
How has streaming impacted business?
Like everywhere in the music industry, streaming is becoming the mode of listening and we definitely see it in our company. It’s moving ahead of physical sales of course. For instance, in 2017, 59 percent of our sales were via streaming. And to date, we’ve had 315 million streams, sold 400,000 album downloads, 2 million tracks and 1.8 million physical sales. But the very interesting thing about our Rockabye Baby! series is it not only has us in the music industry but it’s put us firmly in the baby industry. In this day and age in the music business, it’s nice to have a foothold in another very strong industry. People are still buying a lot of physical CDs to give as baby gifts. So compared to most brands, we are probably doing very comparatively well in physical sales still.
Who else earns money from these sales?
Our job is to get a mechanical license from the publisher of the compositions, and we pay such royalties to the publisher, and they in turn share a portion of those royalties with the songwriters. We actually don’t need to pay a fee or royalties to the artists’ who made the compositions famous originally, except in cases where those persons wrote or co-wrote the compositions, in which case they’ll receive royalties from their publisher as songwriters.
Have any copycats cropped up?
When we first released the series in 2006, The New York Times did a big story on us. It crashed our website because there was nothing like it and it kind of told us that we had a really great idea. Shortly after that, we started seeing competitors popping up and they have proliferated ever since. But that’s a compliment right? Trying to stand out ahead of the pack really isn’t my motivation. I hardly ever think about it and, in fact, I should probably think about it more.
How have you broadened the franchise beyond the music?
We are approached quite often and we pursue sync licensing for placements in films and televisions. We were just in a T-Mobile Super Bowl commercial this year. We have music on a really cool modern baby monitor from Project Nursery. We have merchandise like onesies on our website. We’ve talked about doing a concert series with people who do that type of thing. It’s hard to know how to make it entertaining and cost effective but I feel like something live is definitely in our future.
Where do some of the unique sounds, like the glockenspiel, that you use on these projects come from?
The producers use various libraries of samples and the glockenspiel is one of those samples. These libraries were never created for this use so the producers have to manipulate and sculpt and ultimately create new sounds from these libraries and that is where the artistry and the time goes into it.
We have a handful of producers that we’ve been working with for years — Leo Flynn, Andrew Bissell, Steven Boone — and we assign them an artist and a track list and they begin the process of deconstructing each song and putting it back together using the Rockabye Baby! palette of instruments like marimba, xylophone, bells, wood blocks. My listening partner James Curtiss and I listen to each and every note of each song and send back comments. The producers make their fixes and we go back and forth like that until we get what we want. Our production process can take anywhere from 4-12 weeks to perfect.
Which artist was the most excited about having their songs turned into a lullaby?
Elton John mentioned us in the press several times and that was very exciting. Steven Tyler’s people approached us to do a lullaby Aerosmith version. Joe Elliott from Def Leppard contributed liner notes. I read an interview where Kurt Hammett of Metallica mentioned our brand…. Jimmy Fallon periodically sings some of his guests’ songs with his guests like Adele or Ed Sheeran playing classroom instruments that sound suspiciously like our albums and I’d like to think we had something to do with that. He has talked about our series on air.
How do you decide which artists to pay tribute to?
We keep our audience in mind always when we are creating our release schedule, the parent/music fan who has a sense of humor and who wants to share the music they love with their babies. Of course, the greater the irony an artist’s name brings, the better — lullaby renditions of Jack Johnson doesn’t quite have the same impact of say, lullaby renditions of Metallica. And then we poll people on social media. Our label is populated by music fans so we poll internally.
Who is on your bucket list?
There are estates or artists that just don’t grant licensing to anyone for anything and one of those is one of my idols, Jimi Hendrix. I would love some day to be able to tribute him. He, to me, was the most authentic cool cat on earth so that would be a dream for me.