During my interview with Rodolphe Plisson, the name of Pierre-Michel Levallois came up. I learnt that he’d been the General Manager of Universal Production Music from 2007-2016, and of Koka Media from 2003-2007, but prior to that he co-founded Disques Solid, a French Touch label responsible for albums by Alex Gopher and Étienne de Crécy. Having sensed the possibility for an interesting interview, I reached out to Pierre-Michel and was able to meet up with him for a chat at his offices, where we talked about his career within record labels and library music, and also discussed the nature of the French music industry.
– Hi Pierre-Michel. Thanks for meeting up with me. Can I start by asking about your earliest music experiences?
Sure. My earliest music memories are of listening to the radio at night, and many of my initial experiences were with disco. The first song I ever heard was “Y.M.C.A“, the first music video I saw was for “Sunny” by Boney M, and the first 7-inch my brother brought home was “Le Freak” by Chic. Once music videos and new wave music arrived in the 80s, we started listening to UK bands like U2 and The Cure, as well punk music.
– How did you go about obtaining records back then?
Versailles in the 80s was quite different from today. We had no record stores in the city, so you had to sacrifice an afternoon by taking a train to Paris if you wanted to buy records. But without the right contacts to show you were the stores were, you still wouldn’t get very far. Once the 90s arrived, I discovered places like BPM Records and Rough Trade, which were near Bastille, and I remember Techno Import as well. The CEO of Kitsuné, Gildas Loaëc, also had a small record shop in the center of Paris called Street Sounds, and that was about it. You could count all the stores on your hand because they were so few.
– What kind of city was Versailles in those days, and what was the music scene like?
It used to be a pretty conservative Catholic city where not much happened. My friends and I were often bored and we hardly saw any action; no bars, no music venues, and we had only two cinemas in the whole city. So my friends and I often had little to do, but when we learned that certain people in Versailles were making music, it opened up a new world for us. For example, there was a guy in my neighborhood who would play drums in his apartment and I’d hear him every time I walked in front of his place. I found out years later that it was Michel Gondry, who later become a famous director, but he started off as a drummer in a band called Oui Oui and would practice at home. Things like that inspired the rest of us to take music seriously.
Étienne de Crécy and I became best friends after we met in high school and we formed a band with our peers that was named after Étienne’s dog, Louba (laughs). We soon realized there were other bands around, so we all started hanging out. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel from Air were a part of that group, and so was Xavier Jamaux from Bang Bang. We later got connected to bands like Les Satellites and Mano Negra, who were playing gigs in other cities, but since we didn’t have the same touring opportunities as them, we tried hosting out own concerts in Versailles by asking for empty spaces from the Catholic churches. But their response was, “Why are you talking to us about rock music? We have nothing to do with that “. The Protestants were more open-minded and offered us an space that we could use if we cleaned it up, which we did. So we built a stage there and used it for our concerts until we found gigs in Paris and other cities.
– Did you ever meet the guys from Phoenix when you were growing up in Versailles?
No, we never meet them. They were five years younger than us, which is a huge gap when you’re fifteen to twenty years old. I moved to Paris for university before we could cross paths, but I did know some of their older siblings.
– How did you end up working in the music business?
The Versailles scene eventually split up as people left for university in other cities, whilst Étienne and I decided to pursue a degree in sound engineering. But in order to qualify for engineering school we first had to complete a science program, and Étienne soon realized that it wasn’t working for him, so he dropped out. He chose to work odd jobs until he found his own opportunity in the music industry. I continued with my studies, but later realized that being an engineer wasn’t my thing – listening to the same track for twelve hours without getting any sunlight wasn’t for me. I’d much rather be a facilitator who connected people, secured financing and got projects off the ground, which was a rare skill in those days. So I decided to get a Masters in Business Administration instead, and went to work at a distribution company called Média 7 in 1993. I always saw their name on the back of Parliament and Maceo Parker albums, and my friend’s dad knew the company owner, so I got his number and went to see the him. I told him, “I’m finishing my studies and need to do a six-month internship to complete the program. I can work for free if you’ll let me do it at Média 7 “. He said “Really? You’re hired. Work starts on Monday and you’ll be in the export department “. So that was my first job in the industry.
– What was Étienne doing during that time?
Étienne was still working odd jobs, but later enrolled in an audio course that suited him better than university. Fortunately, the lead engineer at the program was offered a job at a commercial studio and told Étienne that he could be his assistant. It ended up being Studio Plus XXX, a place that was recording great albums for the likes of Alain Bashung, Juan Rozoff and MC Solaar. In fact, the team on MC Solaar’s first album consisted of Philippe Zdar as the engineer, Hubert Blanc-Francard as the producer, and Philippe Ascoli as the A&R for Polydor. Étienne joined the crew as an assistant and soon became Zdar’s roommate at a time when raves became popular in Paris, so they attended a lot those parties. I could have gone too but I stayed away because I couldn’t stand the loud volume.
After I finished my internship at Média 7, I worked for EMI as a financial controller, but it turned out to be a miserable job and I left after a year.
– Can you tell me about the early days of the French Touch movement after your time at EMI?
The 90s marked a transition point for the French music underground. The indie rock scene of the 80s was a bit disorganized because of things like slow communication and elitism; whether it was rock, reggae or punk, the different scenes were competing against each other for bookings and attention. But all of that changed with electronic music in the 90s. The explosion of the club scene in places like London and Ibiza created a new culture of shared experiences, and communicating became easier because of the Internet and cell phones. Additionally, samplers and Roland drum machines spread throughout the whole scene and people were suddenly able to make music at home. More importantly, it allowed a scene to rise which didn’t require front-men. In order to be an artist in the 80s, you also had to be a performer; someone had to grab the mic and sing to keep the crowd energized. But home studios allowed us to make music for both the clubs and for listening at home, without needing to be on stage. I remember Zdar saying to me, “We need a downtempo version of club music, but with the same vibe and funkiness. House and techno is for partying, but there has to be an equivalent for when you’re at home relaxing “. He was right, and that’s what eventually happened thanks to albums like “Entroducing” and “Sacrebleu” by DJ Shadow and Dimitri from Paris respectively.
– At what point did the major labels get involved and support the scene?
Major labels in the mid-90s didn’t have a clue of what was going in the underground or local scenes, at least not in France. They were making so much money from CD sales that profits were ridiculous. This was at a time when everyone had to repurchase their vinyl as CDs so they could play them on modern stereos, and the majors were making a lot of money from that. In fact, the profit margins were so huge that one of the label executives said to me, “We don’t need to develop artists anymore. From now on we’ll make tons of money just selling compilations “. This was when every major label had a Special Marketing department that would repackage back-catalogs and chase after hit singles like “Macarena“, which made them millions. So they stopped paying attention to local scenes, although there were a few exceptions like Virgin France, which is why executives like Emmanuel de Buretel and Philippe Ascoli had success with the French Touch movement. They did a lot for the scene because of how artist-driven they were in their approach. Marc Teissier Du Cros was another guy who was like that; he was an A&R at Source, and later founded Record Makers.
– You said that the spread of samplers and drum machines was important because it let people make music at home. So who were the first people in Paris to have home studios that allowed them to build a career?
I’d say Alex Gopher and Nicolas Godin from Air were some of the first. Source was putting together a compilation album called “Source Lab“, and Marc Teissier told Air to submit a track for that. He even suggested they use samplers to make something similar to trip-hop, so Air sampled Gil Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” and made “Modulor Mix“. But they came to me and Étienne to get help with the final stages; Étienne mixed the track and made edits so it sounded more compact, whilst I handled the executive production and rented all the gear. We had a Yamaha 01 mixer, a Lexicon reverb and a GML 8900 compressor, which we set up in my parent’s attic on a ping pong table. We did the mix there and finalized it at a commercial studio. A few months later, Étienne made his debut album, “Super Discount” in his kitchen with the Yamaha 01, a sampler and a ghetto blaster. He probably checked his mixes at Plus XXX, but the rest was done at home.
– I believe you were involved in getting Air signed to Source. What was that process like?
Étienne and I were co-producing Air, and we negotiated their first release with Philippe Ascoli, which was a challenge. I remember that he wanted “Modulor Mix” to be exclusive to the “Source Lab” compilation; all the other tracks had the freedom to be relicensed except that one. It was the same with Air’s “Casanova 70” on “Source Lab 2” – the label wanted that exclusively. But it didn’t take long for them to offer Air an exclusive artist deal and buy out their contract from us, which we thought was fantastic. Hardly any electronic acts were signed to big labels like Virgin back then, so it was clear that Source was keen on Air from the start – the work and the money they invested in them was massive. They even understood the importance of branding and visuals, which is why they hired Mike Mills to do all of Air’s early videos and album covers, and they put together a strong press kit too, which was something you’d see in the UK and US but not much in France. A lot of French artists in the 90s were content to be local names, but the ones who found global success, like Daft Punk, Laurent Garnier, and later David Guetta, were the ones who had no limit to their vision, and their labels helped encourage that.
– Other than the artists themselves, what was the most important aspect to the development of the French Touch scene in the 90s?
Well, if you think about it, “French Touch” as a musical phenomenon was around long before the 1990s. Erik Satie and Claude Debussy were the French Touch of the 1900s, along with Maurice Ravel. Then came musicians like Olivier Messiaen, Michel Legrand, Vladimir Cosma and Michel Mange. So the talent has always been there, but since talent alone isn’t enough, I’d say one of the important aspects was to have an ecosystem of people who were ambitious about spreading the music. It’s the same in other industries – what would Yves Saint Laurent have been without Pierre Bergé as his patron and business partner? Sure, Saint Lauren and Pierre Cardin were the French Touch of fashion, but around them were a group of people who had the vision to make their work possible.
Another important thing was the mindset of those supporters. I can’t tell you how many times the media has written stories about the “small French guys” who pursue global business ventures beyond their reach, as if it were something overambitious – give me a break. Don’t you think The Beatles felt like the “small guys” from Liverpool in the 60s? Going to London for them was just as intimidating as it was for a rural American to move to New York. The Beatles even had to build up their music skills in Hamburg first because of how tough the London scene was. So being a “small guy” is nothing remarkable, and success has a lot to do with self-believe, which executives like Philippe Ascoli and Emmanuel de Buretel had. Even the French producers of the 70s and 80s, like Henri Belolo and Jean-Michel Jarre, had that mentality as well. They never let the “small guy” label stand in their way, and that was a reason for their success.
– Since the major labels generally weren’t interested, who were some of the indie labels that supported the 90s French Touch scene?
Laurent Garnier and his label, F Communications, was one that led the way, along with Bob Sinclar’s Yellow Productions. There was also DJ Gilb’R, who owned Versatile Records and signed I:Cube. I came along later with Disques Solid.
– Tell me about Disques Solid. What led you and Étienne to set up the label?
I got excited when Mo’ Wax put out an EP by La Funk Mob, so I encouraged Étienne and Alex to release their music as well, but they were always hesitant to play their records for the labels. I guess some A&Rs were known for being nonchalant when listening to demos and sometimes didn’t understand the music, and it was still early days for Source so they weren’t signing that many artists yet. So I took a loan and we used it to press the “Gopher EP“, which was the first release on our own label, Disques Solid. We later formed a publishing company called Tong Publishing and also set up our own distribution company called Disco Spliff. Not long after that, we started getting compilation requests from labels like F Communications and PIAS, and once Eric Morand signed us to an international distribution deal, things took off for us.
– Why were other labels requesting compilations from you when they could have made the albums themselves?
Requesting compilations means they only have to deal with one label, rather than all the artists on the album, and it’s less hassle for them. Additionally, it’s more expensive for them to assemble a compilation on their own because they’d have to pay each artist. So they asked smaller labels like us to do it; Disques Solid would release a compilation and a bigger label would license it, which made them look like a forward-thinking supporter of the new scene.
– Is it true that Philippe Zdar encouraged you to release CDs instead of vinyl?
In a way, yes. We were having a conversation in 1995 on a rainy evening at Place De Abbesses, in the doorway of a bar called St James. He was brainstorming out loud like he usually did, and said that electronic music needed to progress from vinyl to CD so you could listen to it at home or in your car. Since I was running Solid, his words resonated with me and I said, “Wow, that’s true “, and kept what he said in mind for our future releases.
Unfortunately, we lost Zdar last year. I hadn’t been in contact with him for a while, but I managed Cassius for a short time and negotiated their first contract with Virgin, so we used to see each other a lot during the late 90s. The overall reaction to his passing was a reminder of how influential he’d been for the French music scene, which really can’t be understated, and he was certainly very inspiring for me.
– What kind of influence did Daft Punk have on the scene once “Homework” came out in 1997?
Daft Punk obviously influenced a lot of people, including Étienne, but they weren’t that famous in the late 90s. There was a lot of buzz around them in 1997 but they were known more as guys that didn’t show their faces in the press, and they didn’t become superstars until after the release of “Discovery“. But I remember having a meeting with Pedro Winter and Thomas Bangalter when they came to check out our offices. Étienne played them some of his music and I could see Thomas listening closely, so I think everyone influenced each other. We even invited him to play at one of our parties in London and it was a great experience.
– How many copies of Étienne’s “Super Discount” did you guys sell?
We sold over a 100,000 copies, which wasn’t bad. Étienne never attached his image to the album and preferred being the brains behind a faceless brand, which wasn’t an easy thing for me to market, but the album had a huge influence nonetheless. I remember reading a review that Fatboy Slim did for Mixmag, where he said, “I was feeling a bit unsure about continuing with music, but “Super Discount” made me find my way back to it again. I played it at a gig last Saturday and everyone went crazy “. That was a big thing to read back then.
– If I mention a few names of people who were involved in the French Touch scene, can you tell me your thoughts about them?
Saint Germain: He had a huge impact with his first album, “Boulevard“. It had a chilled-out vibe and was big in London because it fit the mood people wanted there. But despite his influence, Saint Germain was a bit apart from the French Touch scene. I’ve met him once or twice and he’s pretty a reserved guy. But he continued to have success with tracks like “Rose Rouge“, which came out a few years later and helped him achieve quite a bit of mainstream success. You still hear it all the time in documentaries, ads and TV shows.
Laurent Garnier: He was one the scene’s first leaders, and his main goal was to campaign for the recognition of house and techno as legitimate genres. Electronic music in general had a negative reputation for being mindless music made for lazy people, and Garnier was the biggest voice in France against that. He had a residency at The Haçienda in the early 90s, which was a legendary feat in itself, but he also played a lot of raves in France that ended in fights with the police when they’d try to shut them down. He did shows at mainstream venues too like the Olympia, and his work really helped spread the scene in a forceful way.
Mr Oizo: It’s funny how a guy who worked as a video director and only made music as a side project could create something as quirky as “Flat Beat” and still go #1 in the UK. He was like a comet that came out of nowhere and suddenly became famous with Flat Eric and the Levi commercials. This was in the late 90s, when something amazing was dropping every three months, whether a track from The Chemical Brothers, a new French Touch artist, or an album from Massive Attack or Basement Jaxx, and Mr Oizo was a part of that wave.
I remember that he came to speak with us after the success of “Flat Beat”. I think he was looking for a new label after his time at F Communications, but he ultimately signed with Ed Banger.
Pedro Winter: He was a part of Daft Punk’s crew and became their manager before creating Ed Banger. He understands music better than most people, and was one of the first guys to develop global connections in the industry. I remember him speaking highly of Pharrell Williams as early as the late 90s, and he later said to keep an eye on N.E.R.D because of how clever they were in combining genres like RnB with funk and rock. A lot of people think he’s just an entertainer, but he’s a lot more than that.
Demon: He was another guy who contributed to the wave of amazing releases that dropped every few months in the late 90s, and “You Are My High” was one of those. We knew him well at Solid because we shared our distribution and design contacts with his label, 2000st, and we did remixes for them too. That track was amazing, and so was the video, which was quite radical for its time.
– Demon and Alex Gopher did an album together called “Wuz“. How did that go?
“Wuz” was supposed to be a four-month side project that ended up taking eighteen months. It was frustrating for me as a manager because I wanted Alex to do a follow-up album to his debut, “You, My Baby and I“, which had gotten such amazing reviews and feedback. Tony Hoffer was mixing Phoenix’s second album in LA, and the guitarist, Laurent Brancowitz, told us that “You, My Baby and I” is what he used to relax his ears after working for long periods, second only to D’Angelo’s “Voodoo“. That’s how much regard Alex had as a producer; his credibility was so high that he could have collaborated with anyone back then, but he wanted to do “Wuz” instead and it took a long time to complete. Maybe if I’d acted like an aggressive manager who pushed his client to make the best career decision, things would have been different. But we were friends and I couldn’t do that.
– How much did “Wuz” sell?
Probably between 5000 – 6000 copies, which was a tiny amount. That was a moment when I saw what our limits were as a label, and I was annoyed at myself for being unable to change the course of things.
– Are there any other people you’d like to mention who were influential in the scene?
We never mentioned the important visual media guys. Charles Petit ran a studio called Le Village, and was the first producer to work with Michel Gondry. He was a big help to Disques Solid; we’d bring him our video projects with a budget of around €4500 and he’d help us get more money through government subsidies. He was an important contributor to the scene.
Georges Bermann at Partizan was another important guy. He worked with some famous American directors and also ran a media company in London and LA, so the international scene was pretty open to him. I remember him saying that he could call Roman Coppola to get help directing one of our videos, which was a big deal. Just being able to call people in LA sounded fantastic to us back then.
I’d also like to mention Eric Morand, who was the Label Manager and co-owner of F Communications. He worked part-time as Head of Music at PIAS and he helped open doors for people like us. For example, he signed Mr Oizo, who went on to have huge success.
– Can you tell me why Disques Solid eventually shut down?
It was a combination of things. Our albums started getting delayed and we didn’t sell enough of the previous releases, which led to revenue problems. Also, as Étienne’s and Alex’s careers grew, I was handling more and more of the label work. So after the releases of “Wuz” in 2001, I realized things had to change and I asked them be more involved as A&Rs. I had to wait several months to get an answer, but I was secretly hoping that one of them would produce an album that would save the label. So I waited throughout 2001 and into January of next year, until I got tired. They finally told me they preferred to focus on their careers, and even though we had some final discussions about relaunching with help from a major label, it was too late because the scene had changed. The Internet bubble had crashed and Napster was already a threat, so the majors didn’t want to take risks anymore, and most of excitement had vanished from the indie scene because everyone wanted to make money from hits. French Touch was dying and RnB was on the rise, along with a revival of rock music thanks to bands like The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes. Étienne, Alex and I were also in our 30s with kids, so I understood that they prioritized their careers over the label, and we decided to the split up in 2003 with a gentleman’s agreement that I’d have a percentage of their albums and they’d keep the masters.
– What did you do after Solid?
Once the French Touch wave had passed, I found myself in a hangover period that lasted about a year. The ride with my friends was over, and I was like, “What now? “. I needed a job and started to ask around at record labels, and had a meeting with Thierry Chassagne at Warner Music France. He was an executive who started at Sony and became President of V2 Records before talking charge of Warner. His approach was different from the label heads who had international ambitions, like Emmanuel de Buretel. Thierry was ambitious too, but he preferred to focus on the local market and supported a lot of French acts, which is why Solid signed a licensing deal with V2 to release their albums in France. He also had a great team of people around him, like Armand Thomassian and Sophie Zannettacci, and I owe him a lot for the help he provided us. Anyway, I went to see him at Warner in 2003 and told him that I needed a job. His answer was, “I can offer you a Product Manager position, but you’re too qualified for that. However, if I give you the Head of Marketing job, are you ready for that? We’re releasing Hélène Ségara’s album in six weeks, and her manager has high expectations for us. The previous album shipped a million copies so we need to sell even more with this one. Can you handle that? “. To be honest, I wasn’t ready, and marketing that kind of album wasn’t my strength, even if Hélène Ségara is a great artist. It was a wake-up moment for me, and I had to face the reality that I was trying to fit into an industry where I couldn’t make a real contribution. So I thanked him for the talk and continued my search elsewhere.
– So how did you end up working with library music?
One of my colleagues offered to introduce me to a library music company called Koka Media, which had just been acquired by BMG. I’d never heard of it, but I accepted the offer. The address was in a run-down part of the 10th district in Paris, in an alleyway filled with trash and rats. As I knocked on the door, I thought, “Either these people are living in the past with no idea about the modern age, or their office is like a secret spaceship that hardly anyone knows about “. When they opened the door, I realized that I’d found the spaceship (laughs). The inside of the building was like another world; they were working in a huge open space with flat-screens computers, which in 2003 was like a device from Star Trek. That’s where I met Frederic Leibovitz. He was an aesthete who enjoyed modern architecture, design and music, and we spent an hour talking about everything from industrial furniture by Jean Prouvé to my work at Solid. He came across as a very passionate guy, and proceeded to tell me about his company.
Koka Media sold library music all over the world and generated usages in places like Australia, China and South America, but in spite of their success, the rest of the music industry considered library music to be the B-side of the business. It was seen as uncool and cheap, and I saw a chance to help improve that perception. Also, there was something fascinating about a big media company that was both international and underground at the same time, which was similar to how the French Touch scene had been. So I was hired as the General Manager, and had a great time working there until Universal Music bought BMG in 2007.
– Tele Music is a library label that had some great releases in the 70s, and was acquired by BMG in 2018. What do you know about them?
Tele Music was an amazing label that released a lot of great music, but the founder, Roger Tokarz , had a mixed reputation. He was one of the guys who put French library music in a tricky position in the 80s and 90s because of his business practices. There was some controversy back then about how certain labels got their music placed, and the way they demanded payouts from SACEM. Several people were involved and Roger Tokarz was one of them. But at the same time, he was responsible for one of the most amazing library labels of all time, which he deserves credit for.
His sons tried to develop the Tele Music catalog in the 2000s, but the library business had changed, and being an independent company was more difficult than before. Without an ambitious strategy and the right expertise, you’ll have a hard time. So they ended up getting bought by BMG.
– Once Koka Media was bought by Universal, you became the General Manager at Universal Production Music (UPM). What was that job like?
Working as General Manager was a job that really suited me because it let me use all my skills as a producer, publisher, entrepreneur and marketer. I’d already done everything that came with being young in the music business, having traveled around the world with the French Touch guys and being perceived as “cool”. Library music was different because it wasn’t concerned with being cool; it was about creativity and usability. Also, it didn’t have the politics that you typically encounter in the music business, so you’re free to prove yourself on the merit of your work.
Regarding the work itself, library music wasn’t something that many people understood in the 2000s – it was considered second-rate music because it was cheap and functional. Most people at the label were focused on finding artists and developing hit records, so they didn’t pay much attention to us. But there was a good team of people in my department, and I was able to reinforce the French staff with guys like Rodolphe Plisson, Vincent Nayrolles and Armand Thomassian. I was later added to the International Board that was led by Gary Gross in LA, John Clifford in the UK and Patrick Applegren in Scandinavia, and together we took the business from uncool to cool within ten years. Nowadays I hear people say that library music is a great source of revenue, as if the genre wasn’t here all along. So we filled a gap in the same way that Getty Images did in the 90s – they were perceived as very corporate and outdated, but turned themselves into one of the main players within visual media, and I’m proud that we achieved something comparable within the music business.
– What was it like working under then CEO of Universal France, Pascal Negre?
Universal France was a very entrepreneurial company in the 2000s, and Pascal Negre had a lot to do with that. I think it’s a bit unfair when you hear journalists say things like, “The music industry went from having making tons of money in the 90s to being late on the digital revolution, and it’s because the executives had no vision and just wanted to have fun “. Some of that is true, but I know for a fact that some people were very active in diversifying the business, and Pascal Negre was one of them. He was given the freedom to explore different revenue streams and had more success with that than any other executive in Europe, and maybe even in the world. By the 2010s, he was making half of Universal’s revenue from ventures unrelated to traditional label activities. For example, they launched an internal agency to promote artists as brand ambassadors, and were more successful in generating sync revenue than any other label – they even purchased shares in tech and merchandising companies, which turned out to be profitable. So the mindset of the whole company was very entrepreneurial, which is why I felt compelled to join them.
– How would you compare Pascal Negre to the current CEO, Olivier Nusse?
I don’t care to compare them too much, but we all know Pascal was an amazing leader for fifteen years. Who else had a 45% market share of the French music business before him? No-one. He’s a guy that started as a radio promoter and went on to build Universal France into what it is today. But everyone knew that he didn’t fit into Vincent Bolloré’s culture anymore. Olivier Nusse is a different guy – I remember when he gave his first speech after becoming Managing Director of Mercury Records. It was at one of Universal’s yearly conferences, and he talked about his hopes for the label and things like that. One year later, he was giving a very different speech. He’d built Mercury into something that resembled a war machine, with a sizable roster and well-running operations. Everyone could see that he was very smart and would go far in the industry. So even though Pascal was great, the business has changed since the 2000s, and the CEO transition had to happen at some point. Sure, a lot of people have opinions on how he should run the company, but he was so successful with Mercury that his business acumen is unquestionable. So regardless of what anyone thinks of him, the numbers indicate that Universal is doing well under his leadership.
– So why did you end up leaving the company?
Well, UPM did pretty well for a while as the number one library label in France, but in order to stay on top we needed to adapt to the digital revolution and the rise of social media. During that process, I realized that Universal had become stuck in a model that was based on profit, rather than investment or risk, and the label could no longer innovate. Also, the traditional record label was their main priority, not the library ones. So overall, they lacked agility, didn’t want to take risks, and would compromise the library division to service to the main label. So I realized it was time for me to leave, even though I had twelve great years there.
I thought about moving over to Vivendi, but that didn’t work out. I met with their Head of HR, but I knew within half an hour that I had no future there. They have great companies like Canal+ and Havas, but their system was too corporate for me, and I wouldn’t have been able to contribute any value there. Vincent Bolloré is a very successful businessman, but to develop a successful entertainment company requires an agility and culture that often isn’t present at big companies. For example, Vivendi owns Dailymotion, and I went to a keynote talk given by their boss to see if I could do anything with them, but after ten minutes I could see that something was missing – the company wasn’t finding success and lot of it had to do with their vision. Perhaps their business model makes sense in Bolloré’s overall strategy, but in terms of the platform itself, there’s a gap between the ambition and execution. So I decided to leave altogether.
I eventually found an opportunity to work with library music again, but using a different model than at Universal. So I put together a plan, pitched it to an investor, and acquired a company called BAM Music Library, which I run today.
– What was the thought process behind acquiring BAM?
The goal was to buy an existing library catalog so I didn’t have to start from scratch, otherwise I wouldn’t have made any revenue for two years, and that’s a pain. So I went looking for some catalogs in France and the UK, and I found a good fit with BAM, which was owned by Nicolas Clergue, Bastien Deshayes, and Jean-Luc Daniel. Nicolas created the company in 2005 and opened an office Montreal a few years later. They were initially making bespoke music for clients, but Bastien suggested to focus on library music. So I bought it from them three years ago and we’ve since opened an office in London and LA, which is very exciting.
– From what I’ve heard, library music companies have two strategies to choose from: prioritize the growth of their catalog as the major labels do, or build a smaller catalog that more directly addresses the market’s needs. What has been your strategy with BAM?
As an independent company, I have to serve the market’s needs. It doesn’t make sense to prioritize catalog growth as an indie company because you end up filling a tank that’s already full. Clients only get overwhelmed when faced with a huge catalog, so what’s the point? Even your own sales team won’t know how to sort through all the tracks. At BAM, we earn money when we sell music to people, so we need focus on what our clients want. It’s different at a major label – they not only create value from their revenue, but also from their assets. So amassing more assets and getting bigger makes sense for them because they’re selling the stock market a promise of future profits, even though it’s unsure whether they can deliver on that promise.
– What would be the best-case scenario for BAM? Signing someone like Hans Zimmer?
That would be a game-changer, of course (laughs). But there’s only one Hans Zimmer, and he’s already involved with one of our competitors. Sure, we want great talent, but the key thing to provide your clients with isn’t a famous name, but a catalog that’s relevant and usable. When clients visit your website, they want to find a platform that isn’t polluted by years of back-catalog they don’t care about, which clogs their searches. For example, we’ve signed a two-year deal with Konbini, and they want fresh music, not old recordings from 2005. That’s why more than 80% of BAM’s catalog is less than ten years old, and our French catalog alone has almost 100,000 tracks.
– When I interviewed one of your former colleagues, Rodolphe Plisson, he said there are essentially two camps in the music business: the creatives and the managerial types. The creatives are the artists, A&Rs and the label owners who take risks for the sake of delivering new and exciting music, whilst the managers are businessmen that are averse to risk and would rather stay on budget than over-invest in their artists. Have you noticed this division within the industry?
Well, you need both the creative and the managerial side of things, although most labels tend to swing too far in either direction. Amazon and Netflix were able to avoid that – they didn’t go the route of other companies who said, “We’re making so much money that we don’t need creatives anymore. From now on we’ll just focus on special marketing and compilations “; things like that bring nothing new to the market. Examples of executives who managed to balance the creative and managerial are Richard Russell, who signed The White Stripes and Adele to XL Recordings years before they blew up, and Jimmy Iovine, who not only ran Interscope, but was an engineer and producer that understood the technical side of recording. Not only did those guys have financial success, but they were able to manage the personalities of major artists, which is admirable. In comparison, many of today’s A&Rs get paid to be the artist’s best friend rather than develop them, and a lot of junior A&Rs don’t even know what mastering is, and have no clue about the technical side of music – their main concern is to find trends on YouTube and attend concerts to liaise with artists. I’m not saying that’s unnecessary, but it has its place, and I think artist development is suffering because that place has been forgotten.
– In connection to that, I also learned from Rodolphe that the atmosphere at major labels can sometimes be counterproductive to the industry. A lot of staff are more concerned with keeping their jobs than developing great artists, and the pressure from upper management to meet quarterly projections can be stifling. It almost sounds like there’s a hidden hand that steers how the labels operate, which is very different from how you’d expect it to work.
That’s just a feature of big corporations, especially the public ones. Being listed on the stock exchange means that the market expects certain results, and the goal isn’t just to be successful, but to live up those expectations. That’s how the stock market works: companies make projections for the quarter and their performance has to match that. The best-case scenario is when you meet your projections. A tolerable scenario would be to make a low projection, but at least live up to it. The worst-case scenario is when a company makes high projections and doesn’t meet them – that’s when the market freaks out and stock prices drop. So there’s always going to be pressure at big companies, and sometimes top management will demand that the company grows at a rate that might seem unrealistic to the employees on the ground. I saw it happen when BMG was sold to Universal – management wanted the company’s valuation to go up, and they said, “We’re gonna do XYZ results for next year “. So the Head of Finance has to ask the General Manager to outperform what he did the previous year – but he won’t tell him by how much. The required amount might be 4%, but that number is only known to the higher-ups. So the Manager gets pressured to forecast higher and higher profits until it matches the hidden number, and if he doesn’t play along, his budget won’t be approved. So it’s not a “hidden hand” at work. It might feel like that if you’re an A&R, but it’s all about financial goals. In the case of Universal, those goals come from Vivendi.
– But Vivendi is made up of people who hardly show their faces to the public, so the structure still feels kind of hidden.
From my position as a middle manager, I could see both the top and the bottom of the company, so maybe I have a different view on things. But still, we know who runs the company: it’s Lucian Grainge for the label and Jody Gerson for the publishing. We know who runs Vivendi too – Vincent Bolloré is the CEO and there’s a committee that reports to him. It’s all very visible for those who want to know. They have official meetings about what to strive for each year, so it’s not like there’s a conspiracy going on. Someone who doesn’t know how big companies operate might think there’s a shadow agenda that controls everyone, but it’s not like that. Yes, there’s gap between sales teams and top management, but if someone wants to know how a corporation works, they just have to Google it – blaming it on a “hidden hand” is silly. Things like that might be present in international politics or at intelligence agencies, but not in the corporate world.
– I’ve heard that the higher up you progress at a major label, the less freedom you have to take your own initiative. Is this true?
Yes that’s true, and it’s the reason I returned to being an entrepreneur. Running your own company requires more effort and likely earns you less money at the start, but it’s also less stress in some ways. I went through some anxiety after my time at Universal, thinking I’d reached the middle of my life and might be stuck without enough money to care for my kids or pay off my house. So it was risky to move forward with BAM, and I’ve had to make some changes – I make 40% less than my salary at Universal and I drive my brother’s car instead of the BMW I used to have (laughs). But life is more interesting and intense than it used to be, which I’m happy for. But yeah, it’s true that freedom gets limited at higher levels in a corporation, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be productive.
– Last question about the music industry. Would you say there’s an aspect of the business that’s evil?
When big corporations run everything, it leads to both good and evil. The “evil” is that three major labels own most of the back-catalog and have hidden agendas when negotiating on behalf of the rest of the industry, which is what happened with the streaming deals. That can lead to evil decisions being made because profit isn’t a good adviser. But on the other hand, the only way to save the industry is to have powerful players that can challenge the likes of Apple, Google, YouTube and Amazon. What if those tech companies bought up all of the record labels and took over the market? So major labels can dictate the market rules and use their catalog as leverage against other players, which is something indie labels can’t do.
I think it’s less a question of “evil”, than it is “ignorance” of how the music business works and how artists make a living. If you kill the value of music by turning it into a free online commodity, you end up devaluing your artist roster and their earnings, but it doesn’t seem like the majors fully understood that. They might have been excited about pushing their new business model, but it led to the same mindset that I saw in the 90s with executives who thought that artists didn’t matter anymore, when in fact they do.
– Will there be any changes at BAM because of the coronavirus situation?
Not really. The market may be challenged but we’ve already reviewed our plans for this year. Besides, our earnings aren’t straightforward; it takes a while for us to get paid by the collection societies, so we’re working with long-term revenue in mind. It’s unclear what’ll happen after crisis, but we’re hopeful that business will return even if there’s a decrease in demand. There’s always going to be media creation going on, so we’ll have a future even if we make less money in the short term.
– Since purchasing BAM, have you learnt any new things about yourself as a businessman?
Of course. I’ve learned to face my fears and take on difficult situations that require you to go all in. There’s no real risk when you work at a major company in France. The only risk is getting fired, which you get paid for on your way out anyway. An entrepreneur has to worry about making enough money to pay his bills and his kid’s tuition, which is a whole different feeling. But the great thing is that you learn how to find that resolve from within yourself and push forward in spite of the challenges.
– Have the risks of entrepreneurship been worth it?
It has. It just takes you further on your life’s journey. Sometimes you have doubts about why you left your well-paying major label job with all the perks, but then you catch yourself and think, “Oh right, that’s why. Of course it made sense to leave “. So I feel fortunate despite all the ups and downs.
– Thanks for talking to me Pierre-Michel. It’s been a great talk. What’s next for you in 2020?
BAM is my main focus. Our goal is to encourage creativity among our artists and offer them licensing opportunities, rather than have their music get diluted in an oversized catalog. We’re also redesigning our website and aiming to have success in the US whilst continuing to develop our operations in Montreal, London and Paris.