Janko Nilovic was the foremost library musician in Paris during the 60s and 70s. His music was featured in numerous media and survived well into the 21st century thanks to being sampled by producers like The Beatnuts and No I.D. As someone with an interest in library music, I took advantage of my stay in Paris to ask Janko for an interview, which he agreed to. Below you can read about his career, some of his albums, and being sampled for Jay Z’s “D.O.A (Death Of Autotune)“.
– Hi Janko. Thanks for talking to me. Can you tell me about your experience growing up and how you got into music?
Sure. I was born in Turkey to a Greek mother and a father from Montenegro. He worked at the French embassy in Istanbul for 35 years and passed away when I was a teenager. My oldest sister saw how upset I was after that and suggested I start playing the piano to cope with the grief, which is how I became a musician. But prior to that, I already enjoyed listening to classical music by the likes of Schumann and Beethoven.
I became a professional musician at sixteen and started playing clubs around Istanbul with different bands. One of them focused on jazz and Latin music inspired by Miles Davis, Perez Prado and Xavier Cugat. Others would cover 50s RnB songs by Little Richard or Fats Domino. By the time I was seventeen, I’d become famous in the city and was making more money than my family, but for some reason I felt the urge to move away. It could’ve been because my sisters had already left – one went to Montreal, the other to Lebanon and another to Montenegro, so I was alone with my mother. I decided to move to France in 1960 because my wife was already living in Paris and the language wasn’t an issue since I’d learned French at school.
– What was it like in Paris when you arrived?
I spent the first three months doing odd jobs like washing dishes at restaurants. Once I became more familiar with the city, I went to a club in Champs-Élysées and got a job playing piano there. Rock n’ roll hadn’t established itself in Paris yet, so jazz and Latin music were the only things being performed in clubs and I already knew how to play that. I eventually graduated from the clubs to playing at hotels and piano bars, and made about €2000 a month doing that, not counting the tips. There were days when you could make €200 in tips, especially if you had an attractive singer with you.
(Below: A young Janko Nilovic)
– And how did you start working as a library musician for Montparnasse 2000?
That happened by coincidence in 1969. My wife and I were living in an apartment and our neighbor was a guy called Louis Delacour. He was a brass musician in a Latin band, but to be honest, he wasn’t any good – he played saxophone like a duck. But he approached me one day and said, “Someone told me you’re a piano player. Would you like to play in my band? “. I took it as a joke, but he also said he was the director of a publishing company called Montparnasse 2000. They had only released a few tracks and needed composers like me to help expand their catalog, so I said “Why not? “. I’d already released an album on Tele Music in 1968, but it wasn’t my best work and I knew I could do better. So we arranged an interview with the label owner, André Farry. He was a club and restaurant owner, although he made money doing other things too. I said that I’d only sign with him if I was allowed to compose whatever I wanted, and he answered, “Sure, why not? “. For André, music was just a commodity, like toilet paper, so he never dictated what his artists should do, which worked fine for me. I agreed to sign with Montparnasse, but unfortunately, the contract Louis offered implied he would take 50% of my publishing royalties, even though he never composed a note for the label in his life. But I signed the deal because I was young and wanted the opportunity.
– Tell me about your first album on the label.
“Psyc’ Impressions” was the first album I made for them, and I got the vinyl back two weeks after doing the recordings with my jazz band. I was driving home from the studio one evening when I heard the opening track, “In The Space“, playing on Europe 1, the biggest station in France at the time. I stopped the car and listened in disbelief as they played the whole album. It was soon sent to multiple radio stations and became a big success. I was able to buy my first house from the royalty payments alone and would sign a twenty-album deal with Montparnasse because of how well the album performed.
– I thought library music was meant for TV, film and commercials. So why was your album being played on the radio? Was that a normal thing in the 70s?
Up until 1985, radio and TV could play library music for free as long as they paid out the publishing royalties afterwards. But they didn’t have to pay any upfront fees, which is different from how it is today.
– And what albums did you release next?
I think the second one was “Pop Impressions“, where I combined jazz and funk with classical chamber music. That was a success too, and I was able to buy my first car with the royalties from that. The third and fourth album also went well and I honestly never thought the success would end.
(Below: Janko Nilovic in the 70s in front of his first car)
– Did you make any albums for labels other than Montparnasse 2000?
I recorded some albums for a Belgian label called Selection Records. “Balkan Impressions” was one of them, but it didn’t have the same success as the ones released on Montparnasse 2000.
– Tell me about the group you assembled called “Janko Nilovic Band”. The album you recorded with them was later re-released as “Rythmes Contemporains“, correct?
Yes, that’s right. Back in the 70s, the best musicians were paid the same rates as the mediocre ones, so I stuck to working with the best guys I could find and assembled the band in 1970.
I have no clue why the label didn’t keep the original album name though. It was initially called “Giant” because there were 45 members in the group, so I still call it that.
– Who were some of the musicians in the band?
The drummer was André Ceccarelli. He’s an amazing musician who toured with some of the best players ever and my American friends still ask me for his number when they’re in Paris. Antonio Rubio was on bass and Jean-Louis Chautemp was on sax, with Michel Barrot on trumpet. We even had a choir that was made up of singers from the French version of the musical Hair.
– It sounds like a great group of musicians. Do you have any interesting stories from your sessions together?
Well, we were rehearsing at a studio in Paris when one of my friends came by to visit, and he brought someone with him. The two of them stood in a corner and listened to us play, and I noticed that the stranger had a trumpet case with him. After a while, the music became so exciting that the stranger took out his trumpet and started playing along with us. It turned out to be Arturo Sandoval, who’s the best trumpet player in the world. He could play five octaves worth of brass instruments, from trombone to the flute, and he played it all by ear without the help of sheet music. Even Dizze Gellispie used to joke, ”After me, Arturo is the best in the world ” (laughs).
– Do you remember which studio “Giant” was recorded in?
Yes, we made it at Studio Des Dames, and no multitrack machines were used. We recorded straight to two-track tape from the console. The engineer was Jean-Claude Charvier, and I remember him complaining, “But if you make any mistakes, we can’t edit it! “, and I said ” It doesn’t matter. That’s what happens during a concert anyway. Let’s record it like that “.
– Why did the band only do one record?
We had to break up because André Farry didn’t want to keep paying 45 musicians – you can imagine what it cost, and like I said before, he was a businessman not a musician. So we played five concerts together and then broke up. But I reformed the band some years later, minus the choir and string quartet. The new version had 25 members, but we had to break up again because of commitment problems – French musicians in the 70s didn’t tour as much as their American peers, so they had to rely on paid gigs and session work for their income. So asking them to attend unpaid rehearsals at 10am was difficult, and only 12 out of 25 members would show up because the rest had paid gigs to do. Money was a big motivation for music in Paris, which is why it’s hard to name any French funk or soul musicians that achieved international success from back then. We saw it happen with Germans, Italians and even Yugoslavians like Duško Gojković, who played with Duke Ellington, but hardly with anyone from France. When a lot of my French peers retired, they stopped with music altogether. When I run into them nowadays, they talk to me about their tennis practice or their gardens, rather than music, which I find unfortunate.
– Why did you part ways with Montparnasse 2000, given all the success you had with them?
After I delivered my twenty albums, I heard that Louis was leaving and I recommended one of my friends as the new director. But it ended up working against me because our relationship changed once he got the job. He only gave deals to his other friends and I was left with nothing. So we had a falling out and I left the label in 1979. I went back to the piano bars, but I also became a piano teacher that billed €40 an hour and had 33 students, so money wasn’t a problem. But my composing career was essentially over. I hardly made any money from my library music until The Beatnuts sampled me on “Take It Or Squeeze It” in 2001. I was happy to learn that my old records still live on, and it encouraged me to set up my own publishing company, Janko Nilovic Projects, which I run today with my son.
– Do you remember how many albums you sold with Montparnasse 2000?
The label only made money from publishing rights, not by selling records, which is why they gave my albums away for free. They pressed out around 1000 vinyl records per album and 500 were given to TV and radio stations. The rest were handed out on the street to whoever wanted them and I was paid my royalties when the music was used in the media. In fact, we gave away so many albums that I sometimes didn’t have any records left for myself. Now I have to buy back my own vinyl on Discogs, where an album like “Giant” cost me over €250!
– What a shame. But don’t you have the master tapes for your albums? You could just repress the vinyl from those.
There’s a funny story behind that: Montparnasse 2000 didn’t always file the proper paperwork for the label’s earnings, which became a problem when the French laws changed. Record labels were suddenly required to provide signatures of each musician that worked on an album in order to prove that everyone received their publishing payments. I won’t say any names, but someone at the label panicked and threw all my master tapes into the fire. It was terrible! They were scared the government would come after them for back-taxes if the tapes were found since the income from my albums had never been declared. Thankfully, I was able to save the tapes for “Giant” and “Balkan Impressions”, but everything else was destroyed.
– What eventually happened to Montparnasse 2000?
André sold it to a guy in Germany who then sold it to Belwin-Mills [now owned by Alfred]. Belwin sold it to EMI, who finally sold it to Universal, who I’m negotiating with to get back 50% of my publishing rights. My old records haven’t made me any money in over 20 years, so if the talks are successful, it would allow me to finally earn something from album re-releases.
– But I noticed that five of your most popular albums have been re-released already and are available on Bandcamp. Why is that?
Those were put out by Maxime Peron and his label, Underdog Records. I was initially approached by labels like Vadim Music, Cosmic Sounds, and Velvetica Music about re-releases, but the deals fell through. Thomas Jamois from Velvetica was the one who told me about Maxime’s interest, and Underdog was the first to offer me a contract. But since Universal owned the album rights, Maxime ended up re-releasing them illegally, which I found out about later. I was never someone to chase down a business partner over a bad contract, so I just left it alone, and I don’t really deal with Underdog anymore.
My latest albums were released on Broc Recordz, such as a re-issue of “Rythmes Contemporains” and “Un Homme Dans L’Univers“, as well as new albums like “Supra Hip Hop Impressions” and “American Singer“.
– You’ve released music under different pseudonyms, like “Andy Loore”. Why didn’t you use “Janko Nilovic” for everything?
The pseudonyms were always my publisher’s idea. They used to say, “You’ve released a lot of albums and people will get tired of seeing ‘Janko Nilovic’ on everything, so let’s do your new material under a different name “. I had pseudonyms like Emmanuel Orti, which was used for albums released in Italy, and other names were Alan Blackwell and Johnny Montevideo. It was a dumb idea that was suggested by executives who’d never composed music a day in their lives, all whilst they sat back and collected royalty checks. I went along with it so my albums could be released, but if you paid me €100,000 to use a fake name today, I’d say “Sorry, keep the money “.
– Can you tell me about your experiences with Tele Music, which is one of the most well-known library music companies?
Tele Music was certainly big name, but I recorded only two albums with them because the owner and I didn’t get along. He made a lot of enemies because of his attitude, and I can’t work with people like that. The reason I stayed at Montparnasse 2000 for a decade was because André let me do whatever I wanted. Even when someone pulled him aside and said, “Look, the cost of making this new album is going to be pretty high “, he’d just say, “Never mind that. Let’s just do it “.
Out of all the popular labels, I would have liked to work with KPM. They were very ambitious for a library company and would even record classical orchestras, which I always thought was cool.
– How did you become involved in The Library Music Movie?
Shawn Lee sent me an email about that, requesting an interview. It was similar to when David Hollander called me about his book, Usual Sounds, and I participated in that as well.
– Your popularity was reignited in 2009 when one of your tracks was sampled for Jay Z’s “D.O.A (Death Of Autotune)“. How did that happen?
I received a call from someone called “Shawn Carter” in 2008, asking for sample clearance for “In The Space”. To be honest, I didn’t know who he was, so I referred him to KapaGama, the publisher that manages my album rights for Universal. But the KapaGama had no clue who Jay Z was either, and didn’t even bother to Google him. So their Director called me and said, “There’s a guy called Jay Z who wants to sample one of your tracks, so I asked him for $5000 “. Obviously, it was completely stupid in hindsight; he could’ve asked for anything from $50,000 to $100,000, but never bothered to research who the artist was. But at least I have my name on the Grammy (laughs).
– I saw that another one of your tracks was sampled on Dr Dre’s “Compton“.
Yes, that’s right. Focus is an Aftermath producer who sampled “Underground Session” for the track “Loose Cannon“. But Aftermath assumed that Universal owned the master recording as a part of Montparnasse’s catalog, which was incorrect; I own the masters for “Giant” because of a deal I made with EMI in 1995, which allowed me to re-acquire some of my albums. So “Loose Cannon” was initially released without my permission, and I had my lawyer notify Aftermath to get the proper clearance.
– As someone who’s music is well-known in certain circles, do you get booked to play any festivals or shows?
Yes, I used to play in France and places like Serbia too, such as the BELEF festival in 2008, but I was hospitalized two years ago and had to stop playing shows. My health is better now, but I’m still recovering, so I don’t do any gigs at the moment.
– Tell me about your music setup at home. And what kind of instruments do you play?
In addition to the piano, I used to play the guitar, double bass, trumpet, and percussion. But that was 30 years ago; nowadays I only play piano. Steinway is my favorite brand, followed by Yamaha, although their keys can be a bit heavy. Petrof is a Czech brand that I also like and I think Faziolis are good too. But I have a Yamaha CP-80 at home that I use for composing, which I bought in 1985.
– And how do you compose music nowadays?
I don’t write music directly at the CP-80 because it gets tiring at my age. I prefer to compose in my head when I’m in bed or driving, and then I write the sheet music later. Afterwards I can play it on the piano. I sometimes joke that if someone wanted to commission an album of ten songs, just give me four days and you’ll get all the sheet music in the mail (laughs).
– Really? Do you have any interesting stories about commissions you’ve received?
Sure. Back in the 90s, a composer from Switzerland contacted me about a classical music festival he was scheduled to play in France. He said, “The world premier of my symphony will be in three months at this festival. I’ve composed the first two movements but can’t finish the third and I have no ideas. Can you do it for me? “. I agreed to write it for €500, but he needed the sheet music as soon as possible so he could rehearse with the orchestra. So I said, “Okay, give me one week “, which sounded crazy to him. I think he was expecting a month. A week later I sent over the music and his premier was saved. He came to see me after the concert and said the reception to the first and second movements were lukewarm, but the third one got a standing ovation (laughs).
– Thanks for talking to me Janko. It’s been fun to learn about your career. What’s next for you?
Time passes so quickly nowadays that I feel the need to work constantly. I’m writing a piano concerto for Daniil Trifonov, who’s arguably the best player in the world, and I’ve also written a musical called “Soul Vibrations”; the arrangements, lyrics and the story are all complete, so the next step is to find a company that wants to partner with me to produce it. Other than that, I still do commissions for composing and I hope to receive more of those this year.
(Below: Janko Nilovic)