Rodolphe Plisson is an engineer and producer from Paris who first built his reputation at studios like Mega and Guillaume Tell, where he worked on albums for the likes of Sting. Then came his stint in the publishing world as the Head of Production at Universal Production Music France. I reached out to him with an interview request and we later met at Opéra Garnier for a chat about his background, life at major labels, and the value of music in general.
– Hi Rodolphe. Thanks for sitting down with me. I heard you got your start at Mega, one of the famous Parisian studios of the 90s. Can you tell me about that?
Sure. My brother, Stéphane Plisson, is a live sound engineer who sometimes produced albums for the acts he toured with. At sixteen I was invited to Mega when he was working with a band called Native, on their album “Couleurs De L’Amour“. It was the first studio I’d ever visited, and I remember talking for hours with people like Jon Lind, who co-wrote “Boogie Wonderland” with Earth, Wind & Fire. He encouraged me to consider a career in audio, and though I didn’t take his words seriously at the time, I later ended up working at the very same studio.
– How did you get employed there?
After graduating from high school I tried enrolling in an audio program, but I only lasted a few months at SAE Paris and I didn’t pass the entrance exam for the American School of Modern Music. I called my brother to ask about the possibility of being a runner at Mega, and he suggested that I speak with the owner, Thierry Rogen, about it. So I went to the studio to see him, and said I was available to work twice a week in-between my SAE classes, to which he answered, “I’ll think about it and get back to you “. I called my brother from a nearby phone booth to tell him how the meeting went, but he said, “They probably won’t consider someone who only wants to work twice a week. Runners are supposed to be available at a moments notice “. It felt quite defeating to hear that, so I decided to try again on my way home. Thierry was in his office with the Studio Manager, Véronique Vincent, so I walked in and said, “I actually make the best coffee ever, and wouldn’t mind sleeping at the studio if that’s what you need “. That’s when Véronique recognized me as Stéphane’s brother and put in a good word for me. So Thierry said, “Leave your number and we’ll call you if a slot opens up “. A few days later, the studio discovered that one of their interns had tried to sleep with an artist, so they fired her and called me in to fill the spot. That’s how I got my start.
– What kind of stuff did you work on as a runner?
I knew nothing about recording when I started, so I spent the first six months in the post-production room alongside Jean-Philippe Bonichon. He would become my mentor, and I’d shadow him during his sessions until I was given the chance to record and mix vocals myself. One morning, he came into the studio and said, “Your time with me is done. Thierry wants you to work in Studio A now “, so I was pushed into the main sessions without any warning. Mega was known for booking the biggest artists in France, like IAM, Suprême NTM, Johnny Hallyday and Patrick Bruel, so there was no room for mistakes and I felt the pressure to deliver.
– What caused you to move on from Mega, given how successful the studio was?
I’d like to acknowledge that Thierry Rogen is one of the most important people I’ve met. He gave me my first job and his role in my life can’t be understated, but I unfortunately butted heads with him and got fired from Mega. People in the audio industry don’t really talk about how tiring this job can be or how challenging the fatigue of a high-pressure environment is, so I succumbed to that stress and it led to my dismissal.
I’d been promoted to assistant engineer after a few months as a runner, and I was soon told that Sting was coming to record “Brand New Day” at Mega. He would be arriving in three days, so I decided to use that time to rest because the fatigue had started to set in. But Thierry wanted to clean up the whole studio and kept calling me to help him. Sometimes he’d call all night, but I didn’t answer because it was my time off and I didn’t want to be disturbed. He wasn’t happy about that, and I think he saw it as a lack of interest on my part. I could tell the vibe wasn’t good whenever we walked past each other after that, but it still caught me off guard when I was fired. He hired a new assistant ten days into the Sting sessions and I was asked to leave.
– I’ve heard that you moved to London after that. How did you manage to create a career for yourself there?
Whilst at Studio Mega in 1999, I worked as an assistant for Pascal Obispo, who’s one of the biggest producers in France. Hugh Burns and his guitar tech, Richard Gardener, had booked a session with us, but it turned out Richard had forgotten his guitar strings, so I offered to drive him into town and buy new ones. We had a good time together, but I was fired from Mega soon after that and never stayed in touch with him. I moved to London some weeks later and tried getting a job as Spike Stent’s assistant because I admired his work on Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine“. I was drinking coffee across from his studio at Olympic, trying to figure out how to meet him, when Richard suddenly showed up. I didn’t remember him at first, but he reminded me of the car trip and invited me over to his squat. I ended up staying with him and his family at Blackstock Road for seven months and got a job with his crew as a roadie. They were responsible for the music rigs of various artists, so we’d visit different studios at night to set up the instruments for their sessions. I enjoyed the work, but it sometimes got tough being around that crew. As the French guy hanging around the Brits and the Scots, I had a hard time understanding what some of them were saying, and a few of the guys were rough to deal with. So I eventually moved out and got a job at a record shop in the Angel area. They had a digital Yamaha desk in the basement that was used to make remixes and my job was to mix those.
– And how did you end up back in France with a job at Studio Guillaume Tell? Weren’t they rivals with Mega?
Yes, they were. Guillaume Tell was a no-go zone when I was at Mega, so it’s funny that I later got a job there. I eventually came back to France because my brother had a studio by the ocean that he left empty for long periods, and I was offered the chance to work there with a Chinese violin player called Marcello B, who also played bass for Étienne Daho. Guillaume Tell somehow heard about my return and called me because they needed someone to help out on sessions with Touré Kunda and the Head Engineer, Denis Caribaux. I accepted their offer, even though it was just a short-term gig as a second engineer.
I spent the next three months doing odd jobs and my parents would sometimes let me stay at home until I got back on my feet. They were good people, but from the moment I abandoned my studies they were like, “You can come back home to visit, but you need to take responsibility for your past choices and find a career for yourself. The days of living at home with us are over ” (laughs). But luckily, I got another call from Guillaume Tell’s studio manager, Laurence Lenoir, who now works at Warner Chappell. She said, “Hi Rodolphe. The studio owner, Roland Guillotel, wants to see you. Do you have time to come by? “, and I was like, “Of course! “. So I dropped whatever I was doing, went to the studio, and they hired me the same day because another engineer had left. I was twenty-one at the time.
– And what were your experiences like at Guillaume Tell?
In spite of their small size, the team at Guillaume Tell was more serious about their work than any other studio crew I’ve seen. You had to be there everyday by 9am regardless of when the first session started, and the Chief Engineer was Stéphane Briand, with Jean-Luc Denis as the Head Technician. He made me memorize all the gear manuals, which was such a pain (laughs). Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much back then. But I started off as a second assistant and was promoted to Head Engineer quite quickly. I stayed at Guillaume Tell for two years and had a great time working there with some of the biggest international artists like Roger Waters and Michel Legrand.
– So why did you end up leaving?
I was let go for different reasons. For example, some of the other engineers didn’t like that I developed friendly relationships with clients, and it created tension between us. But the main reason was a behind-the-scenes event that I wasn’t told about until years later. So I never had the chance to defend myself because I was kept in the dark, and I didn’t see the end coming. Loosing my job was a bit depressing, so I drove into the woods to get away from everyone. As I was sitting there wondering what I’d done wrong, Véronique Vincent from Mega called me and was like, “Hi Rodolphe. I heard you were looking for a job “. I can’t make this stuff up (laughs). Mega had built additional studios and needed more engineers, so within just hours of getting fired I was hired by them again.
My second time at Mega was a very exciting period for me, and the studio was running all day and night with projects by producers like Yvan Cassar, Pascal Obispo and Quentin Bachelet. Even though the schedule was always full, none of us would complain about the workload because we loved the job.
(Below: Rodolphe at Les Studios Saint Germain)
– And you got to work on another Sting album, correct?
That’s right. Against all odds, Sting returned to Mega during my second time there, and I worked on his “Sacred Love” album from August 2002 to May 2003.
Sting’s studio in Wiltshire is called Steerpike, and it had a mobile recording rig that they trucked around so he could record anywhere, which is what we used to make the album. Dimitri Kurtz and I were the assistant engineers and we had a great time. It’s hard to complain about life when your job is to choose between drum takes by either Vinne Colaiuta or Manu Katché, and we took part in production decisions like that everyday.
– Is it true that String’s crew offered you a job?
Sort of. When music crews meet a new guy that they get along with, they tend to hire him. So in May of 2003, Sting’s then-manager came to me and said they were leaving for Malibu, and he laid out their travel plans. It wasn’t hard to see that he was making an indirect offer for me to join the team. But I turned it down because I didn’t want to end up being dependent on Sting’s projects, and I didn’t want to work as an assistant indefinitely until the crew’s head engineer was fired, which is the only way to get promoted. I’d also just met my daughter’s mom, Aurelia, and didn’t want to leave France.
– Before moving to Universal, you worked as a mastering engineer at Mega. Tell me about that.
It wasn’t my intention to become involved with that, but it happened due to my work with labels like Polydor, which was being run by Jean-Philippe Allard, an important figure in the French music business. He was a producer who revived the careers of jazz artists like Stan Getz, which gained him a lot respect in the New York jazz scene, and he later became the Managing Director of Universal Music Publishing France. He and one of his A&Rs, Romain Bilharz, would send a lot of projects to Mega and sometimes insisted that I supervise an album to its final stages. The mixing was usually handled by Jay Newland, who’d just done Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me“, but he rarely wanted to attend the mastering sessions, so he’d send me to do it. I got to visit studios like Sterling and Metropolis, and spent time with engineers like Berny Grundman and Stephen Marcussen, which led me to take interest in their work. Mixers analyze each track on a song to blend them all together, whilst mastering engineers listen to the entire record and make adjustments to the balance, and I preferred that. So when Thierry came to me in September 2003 and said, “We should make a mastering room a Mega “, I agreed with him. We designed and built it together, and I was put in charge of it thereafter.
Mega was one of the biggest studios in Europe at that time, so my mastering room did quite well. Major label A&Rs like Alain Yahmy, Dominique Gau, Philippe Russo, and Vincent Blaviel would send their projects my way, and I also mastered albums by artists who’d won music shows, like Amel Bent. Other genres included jazz, American rap, Scandinavian electro music, and neo-opera albums from Deutsche Grammophone. That was another great period for me, both professionally and personally, as my daughter was born in 2006.
– Wasn’t Studio Mega sold soon after that?
Yes it was. There was a fire in Studio A that damaged much of the place, and Thierry had to fight the insurance companies for months to get his money. He eventually won, but it took a lot of energy out of him and he was never the same after that. He was already considered to be one of the best engineers of his generation, and he could tell that the music business was slowing down, so he decided to sell the studio to his staff and moved to Thailand. I believe he works as a dive master there now, and takes pictures for magazines like National Geographic.
Véronique Vincent was the one who spearheaded the purchase of Mega, and the rest of the team was made up of her husband Angel Ramos, Fabrice Leyni, Patrick Marconcini and myself. We renamed the place Studio Omega, but kept the mastering room as a separate company called A.V.R.M, which stood for “Angel, Véronique, Rodolphe Mastering”.
(Below: The A.V.R.M room)
– How did you end up leaving A.V.R.M for Universal?
Things went pretty well for three years until our visions for Omega clashed in 2010. I was making decent money with the mastering room and wanted to expand it, but the others wanted to upgrade the production facilities and we couldn’t come to an agreement. So I decided to leave that summer.
I was glad to make the change, but I was also a bit worried about my future for a few months, but by September I’d received job offers from the likes of Pixar and Canal+. However, I decided to accept Pierre-Michel Levallois’ offer, as I already had a relationship with him from my time at Mega; his A&Rs, Vincent Nayrolles and Fred Cortial, used to send me a lot of production music to master. Pierre-Michel had also created the French Touch label Disques Solid in the 90s, which had artists like Alex Gopher and Etienne De Crécy. He later ran library labels like Kapagama and Koka Media, before being put in charge of Universal Production Music France. So he offered me a job there and I was made Head of Production a few years later. I’ll always be thankful to him for that job, as it opened up a lot of opportunities for me.
– Did your position as “Head of Production” place you at the top of the company?
No, there were many people above me. Jody Gerson is the CEO of Universal Publishing Group, so she’s at the top. Underneath the parent company are many different brands and Universal Production Music (UPM) is just one of them. Michael Sammis is the President of the UPM, with Patrick Appelgren as the Vice President for Continental Europe and Ken Nelson as Senior VP of global production. Additionally, each territory has its own General Manager and Pierre-Michel was the French one until he was replaced in 2016 by Armand Thomassian. Above him was the Managing Director of Universal Publishing France, Jean-Philippe Allard, who’s now been replaced by Bertil David. So I was under of all of them.
– So your job was to produce albums for Universal’s production music catalog?
Exactly. Universal owns sub-labels in multiple territories, and each of them are given are given resources to develop products for different markets. So I was in charge of the French UPM labels and my job was to create production music and monitor its impact in the market. I was also responsible for the international promotion of those labels, so I’d do presentations for our UPM offices abroad and have meetings with the foreign sales teams to raise the profile of my labels. I would also stay connected to my local sales teams to ensure they were satisfied with their progress. So my job involved interfacing with different parties and keeping everyone happy.
– And if an artist wanted to get a deal with Universal Production Music, what kind of opportunities did you offer them?
Actually, we stopped doing artist deals during my time at Universal. When I arrived at the company, we were obligated to work with the composers that we’d signed, but if the market wasn’t requesting any music from them, then I had to commission albums from elsewhere. This meant our signed artists were stuck in a contract that didn’t provide them with work, so one of the first things I did was terminate all the artist deals we had, which freed up the composers to seek work elsewhere.
– Okay, but did your freelance composers make good money?
The music business was still growing when I started in 2010, so yes, Universal’s composers were making good money. We also didn’t have too many active composers at that time, which meant there was more money to go around. When you see 6000 artists on a label’s roster, keep in mind that only a handful are actively submitting music, and the production department primarily focuses on those guys. So there was enough work to go around.
Another part of my job was to employ well-known composers but on a reasonable budget. So I’d propose them projects where the pay was decent, though it was less than what they’d earn composing a film score, and they’d get paid a fixed amount to make albums from scratch, which wasn’t hard for them. It was a win-win deal for both of us.
– I’ve heard that Spotify has deals with production music companies that provide them with content for their prioritized playlists. Is that true?
I think Epidemic has a deal with Spotify to provide them with music, so it’s natural to assume that their stuff would get prioritized by the algorithms. Those deals make sense because production music gets played by everyone, including people with only a casual interest in music. So regardless of how much Drake gets streamed every year, the biggest playlists on Spotify are the ones titled “Music for Baths” or “Hanging Out With Friends”, and a lot of those are being driven by an algorithm that’s fed by a production music company. All of that makes sense when you consider the size of their catalogs, which only continue to grow.
– Let’s talk about how the production music industry works. What are the most commonly used business models?
There’s basically two ways of doing business in the production music world: you can either be opportunistic by prioritizing the size of your catalog, or you can focus on real market needs. In the first case you would leverage a big catalog to cover as many customers as possible, but with the second you would figure out what your clients actually need and cater to them directly. When you’re a big ship like Universal Publishing, it’s hard to see what’s happening on the surface of the market, so tailoring your music to customer needs becomes a challenge. That’s why major publishers prefer to leverage their big catalogs by setting a reasonable price on the licensing of their music, and then hoping that it attracts customers, which generally works.
– But is that method effective?
That depends on what territory you’re in. It makes sense for US publishers because they do blanket deals with the American market, meaning the biggest publishers make the most money. But France doesn’t do that – most of our revenues come from performance rights, meaning we get paid when our music is licensed by a client who needs it. So it’s interesting how the French market requires publishers to focus on their customer’s needs, whilst the global financial model used by Universal considers those needs to be secondary. So if you’re a composer who wants to licence his production music, should you be opportunistic and side with a major label that’s overflowing with content, but can offer multiple licensing opportunities, or should you sign with an indie company that has a strong connection with a few clients, but offers less opportunities? It’s not an easy question to answer.
– So the reason for major publishers buying up so many sub-labels is just to grow their catalogs?
Of course. The value of a publisher’s catalog lies in the ownership of it, especially the major ones. It’s what allows them to demand a higher price when doing blanket deals, or to raise their valuation for when the parent company gets sold. So in order to build that catalog, some of the biggest publishers have adopted strategies that focus on growth and quantity. An example is the recent reluctance to pay for in-house recordings in favor of outsourcing music production to third parties. It saves money and allows the publisher to focus on growing their catalog. If you ask me, outsourcing will probably be the norm in the very near future.
– If major labels are growing their publishing catalogs through acquisitions, then it means thousands of albums are being added to their databases each year. So the music you produced in 2018 is already buried far under newer content. Don’t the major labels feel this is a counterproductive approach?
I don’t think anyone at a major label feels responsible for that. The higher-ups are being told to grow the company, so that’s what they do. Maybe one day they’ll have to reconsider the effects of that, but it’s not the case right now. And I get it – there’s so much demand for production music that’s coming from the broadcasting world, so publishers feel that a big catalog is the most important thing. But I feel like there’s a difference between having “enough” content and having an “overflow” of content, so tens of thousands of tracks per year makes no sense, especially when the sales team loses track of what’s in their database because they can’t sort through it.
– Does the publishing industry choose to prioritize growth over quality out of fear of something?
Well, one of the main threats is an aggregator company like APM Music. They’re made up of thousands of sub-labels, and someone told me their catalog is four times bigger than Universal’s. As a producer who mainly worked with local French labels, it made no sense for me compete with a machine like that. Realistically, only financial companies in London or New York can pursue that level of growth, and even if a publisher were able to buy enough labels to overtake APM, there aren’t enough clients in the marketplace to consume all that music. So it still makes no sense, and I would recommend doing the opposite: make high-quality music to fill a client’s need. Most clients are video and audio editors that work with Pro Tools or Final Cut, so they want music that can easily fit into their workflow, not hundreds of tracks from a catalog they can’t sort through.
– Let’s talk about how the production music differs from France and America. Despite having the most convoluted music catalog in the world, I’ve heard that American sales teams do better at catering to their clients than French ones. Shouldn’t it be the opposite, since France is a smaller market?
It should, but cultural differences play a big role in that. When a French media company is tasked to create mainstream content, it’s not uncommon for them to make something of passable quality. But if you look at an American company like Netflix, we see the opposite – their goal is to reach the largest possible audience with content that’s written, filmed, and scored in-house, and the result is usually high-quality. I could draw another parallel with cars: the best-selling vehicles in France tend to be cheap minicars like the Renaut Clio, but the best-sellers in the US are trucks like the Ford F-150, a high-tech four-by-four that’s built to last you ages. So it comes down to a difference in mindset, and that affects the production music world too. Here’s an example: a French editor thinks to himself, “I don’t know what music I need for my media, but maybe if I show it to a music publisher they’ll offer me something great from their catalog “, but then the publisher goes, “I have no clue what works best for this client, but I’ll offer him a bunch of tracks from our catalog and hopefully they’ll find something usable “, and then the client goes, “Oh no, I received too many tracks and I don’t know which one to choose...”. Do you see the problem? Both sides are being opportunistic and hoping to take advantage of the other’s expertise, but in the end, neither side had the skills to make a good decision. I’ve seen American publishing companies that have millions of tracks in their catalog, yet their sales team have enough sensibility to say, “I prefer the first track to the second, and third one doesn’t work at all, so we’ll pitch the first track to the client “. That kind of skill is what you want in your sales team.
Another difference between the business in France and America is how clients speak about audio stems. When I was at Universal, we always made our stems available, yet hardly any of the French clients would request them. They just crossed their fingers and hoped the music would be the perfect length, volume and mix for their media, whilst the American clients would say, “Your music is great, but we need to adapt it to our project. Can you send us the stems? “.
– When I talk to people at major labels, they tell me about how apathetic some of their staff can be. I hear stories about A&Rs who just punch clocks and collect paychecks because they feel helpless to affect the outcome of their projects. Why do you think stuff like that happens?
There’s no easy answer to that. From the moment you accept being part of the major label “machine”, it becomes tempting to adopt that mindset. Working at a major corporation means partly being surrounded by people who are just happy to be there, and when they see their colleagues getting stressed or screwed over, it actually makes them more compliant out of fear of losing their job. I can see how people who stay too long at major labels could become unconcerned, and find satisfaction in just doing what they’re told. If they’re asked to crunch numbers and report to their bosses whilst taking no responsibility for anything, they’ll do that. And if they’re asked to produce an album that will be useless in the marketplace, they’ll do that too. But just to be clear, I don’t exclude myself from that description. I think it can happen to anyone working at a major company.
– I’ve seen scenarios where major label staff are fired for failing to meet expectations. But I’ve also heard that sometimes people get fired for being too successful. Do you know anything about that?
The way I see it, there are two camps in the music business: on one side you have the those who decided from a young age to be creatives – some became executives that founded festivals and others became musicians. On the other side you’ve got the managers – their job is to handle spreadsheets, manage risk and report to their bosses. These two camps aren’t always compatible. For example, artist development has become pretty conservative in France, which is why you hear the same household names over and over, like Vanessa Paradis or Serge Gainsbourg. It’s very rare to find stars of that caliber, so if a creative A&R were to develop new artists to similar levels of fame, it could rub certain people in the management class the wrong way. When the high-level board meetings take place at the biggest companies, some of the people at the table don’t like each other because they’re from different camps. On one side are the guys who make nice salaries just to be managers; they stay on budget and avoid risky ventures for fear of losing money. But on the other side you have a guy who doesn’t mind overspending, and takes risks to produce music he believes in. The previous CEO of Universal France, Pascal Nègre, was the latter, and it worked well for him until the times changed. But you can’t take those risks in today’s climate, which is why I presume Pascal is gone, and his replacement is Olivier Nusse, an efficient management guy who played it safe as a boss for labels like ULM. But it makes sense for him to be the current CEO because he’s good at what he does, even if those skills aren’t compatible with spending money to make the best album possible.
– But if the music business prefers to reward the management types, are today’s A&Rs even necessary?
It’s a job whose role has changed. A&Rs don’t receive CD demos in the mail anymore – they get Soundcloud links in their inbox. How can they develop their expertise by sitting in an office and clicking on links all day? Also, A&Rs used to manage budgets and production teams, whereas now they have to deal with endless meetings or learn how to do the work of other departments, like marketing or finance. So the job description doesn’t make sense anymore. I do believe that A&Rs with their own artistic vision still exist, but those guys are getting fewer each year, so will the labels continue paying people to pretend to do a job whose role in the market has changed? I’m not sure. I can see the A&R role changing as time goes on, though I’m not sure what it’ll become exactly.
To be honest, major labels don’t make sense anymore either. Sure, they continue to make money, but just look at their artist rosters. Most of their “new” artists are just licensees from indie labels – many new French rappers are like that. The majors do licensing deals with them to profit from their live shows and merch sales in exchange for branding and marketing. This isn’t the 90s when major labels were a bank that gave you an advance to recoup through record sales. The majors realized they had to become versatile enough to make money elsewhere, which they’ve succeeded in doing.
– I can understand that the business side isn’t what it used to be, but what about the artist side? We’re seeing a lot of poor-quality music flood the charts, so apparently today’s musicians aren’t what they used to be either.
Not to sound harsh, but the sad truth is that not everyone is born to be a creator. This is the lie Steve Jobs told the world when he said everyone has creative talent that’s just waiting to be released – no they don’t. Making art also involves technical skill that some people find hard to learn. Let’s take my dad as an example: he’s retired, and is supposed to be spending this stage of his life doing photography, which he was always good at. The plan was to use a digital camera with editing software to take cool pictures and fill up a wall with his art – but that’s not what he does. He spends most of his time trying to figure out how the camera works, which means it stays plugged into a computer. But since he never studied software, he’s making no progress. He came from a time when analog photos were easy to take, but now he has to learn how digital cameras and editing software work, which is a waste of his time. It’s no different than giving a smartphone to my mom: she’s going to eventually call me from her landline and say, “This thing has a lot of features I’m not sure about “. So my parents spend half of their days trying to understand devices that are meant to help them, yet they get nowhere, and it tires them out. My point is, there’s a lot of people in the music business that are pretending to be artists when in fact they have nothing to say, and even if they do, they can’t even say it well. When I started out, I remember reading that 99% of artists worldwide made music for fun, which meant the industry only comprised of the 1% that were able to monetize their abilities. But doing music for fun is something we’ve forgotten about because everyone is trying so hard to appear cool or interesting without really knowing what they’re doing, and the music on the charts partially reflects that.
– In your opinion, what should today’s artists be talking about?
There’s always something worthwhile to talk about. Take hip-hop as an example, a genre that was once completely different from what we see today. It started off as a powerful youth movement that birthed some of the strongest protest music in the world, but it eventually became absorbed into pop culture and ran out of things to say. In fact, there’s no genre that acts as effective protest music anymore, and it’s a reflection of a society where unhappiness is widespread, yet no-one protests in a meaningful way. And even when they try, it’s hard to make people listen. The Yellow Jackets are an example of that – they mainly consist of the French middle-class, yet they’re more or less unhappy with the status quo. But even when they make valid points, not many people take their claims seriously because no-one wants to hear how underprivileged the middle-class is, especially when you have cars, smartphones and flat-screen TVs at home. It’s hard to cry for people who already have good things, unlike the homeless or the destitute. It’s the same for today’s music industry: how do you expect to sell music that says everything about what you already know? So instead, artists have settled for trying to sound cool and look good on social media, which revolutionizes nothing. So I think the next wave of inspiring music will come from artists that decide to reintroduce some virtue to their art, and there’s probably some A&Rs who secretly wish for that but the “machine” won’t let them support it.
– Do you think this kind of virtue problem is pervasive through-out the entertainment industry, and not just with music?
There’s still good movies being made and the video game industry is extremely popular, so I think the consumers of those products see the virtue in them. But I don’t think music will be as interesting as it used to be unless it first stops devaluing itself. For example, orchestral music was always the most expensive genre to produce, not just because of the resources needed, but also because of how much emotional value it offered. But even orchestral music has now become so trivial that we hear symphonies playing in the background of Top Chef trailers. This only became possible when composers started using orchestral sample libraries instead of real orchestras. So who gets the blame? The TV editor who chose to sync the fake orchestral music, or the developers of the sample library? In either case, if you want to reclaim the value of an orchestra, you don’t use it like a piece of Kleenex for a TV show no-one cares about. The music industry suffers from this kind of problem more than any other business.
– After almost a decade at Universal, why did you decide to finally leave?
I first want to say that I loved working there. I got to travel, make music with all kinds of composers, and I spent a lot of time with people who became like family to me, whether it was office partners like Delphine Coline or the staff at recording studios. But I could never have imagined what the business would later turn into. Things just got to a point where concessions were becoming unavoidable, and I’d couldn’t avoid compromising certain things to get my job done. So I started losing enthusiasm, and when the company changed their global strategy in 2016, things got even harder. A lot of CEOs and Managing Directors at major companies tend to eventually get replaced by guys from the finance and sales department, which is what happened, and Pierre-Michel decided to leave during that time. He bought an indie label called BAM Music and is already having success with that. Once that happened, it took me two years of fighting uphill until I realized I couldn’t do my job effectively anymore, and I left as a result.
– You mentioned before how seldom people talk about the effect of stress and fatigue in the music business. Was that something you had to deal with?
Yes it was, and since I got divorced in 2013, it caused me to bury myself in my job for years. On one hand it felt great to provide work to the composers and studios I worked with, but it also put me in the hospital three times a year because of the stress. I had to slow down for the sake of my health in 2017, and we hired Delphine Joutard to help with some of my workload. She was great, and partnering with her was the best work experience I’ve had in recent times. But by 2019 the company wanted me to produce more material than ever, so I knew it was time to leave.
– You once mentioned that you earned more money both prior and after your time at Universal. So if a freelancer within the music business can make more money than major label staff, why would you even take the Universal job?
Prior to Universal, I was earning a living as mastering engineer in a market that no longer exists. I was billing €2000 – €3000 per project, which you probably couldn’t do today. Labels back then were happy to spend that much on mastering, whereas they’d allocate that money towards something else today.
The salary I made at Universal wasn’t bad, but even if I make more money now, the risks I take are a lot higher, so working for yourself isn’t really comparable to being at a major. It’s also harder to motivate yourself at a label, especially when you get closer to the top. Ironically, the more money you make, the less freedom you have. You don’t really make creative decisions at the higher levels – you just manage information. So you’re essentially being well-paid to keep the ship on course and manage tensions within the company.
– As someone who’s seen a lot in the music industry, would you say it’s common for people to be assholes in this business?
Like I said before, this industry full of people who wait for their orders, and I was guilty of that too. Most people aren’t assholes until they’re put in a situation where they feel pressured to become one, so I don’t think the business is full of of them per se, but I do think there are people who accept jobs they aren’t suited for, and that can lead them to make bad choices.
– I have a friend who once worked in the movie business, and he told me something interesting that I’d like to repeat to you. He said, “The entertainment is full of stupid people making stuff for other stupid people to consume. If there were any smart people in this business, the content would at least reflect some of their sensibilities. But since it doesn’t, we shouldn’t be surprised by the dumbed-down world we see around us”. Any thoughts on that?
I don’t think it’s a question of being stupid or not. Take Billie Elish as an example: wouldn’t you say there’s intelligence behind her songs? She’s surrounded by industry people who handle her brand and the results have been pretty good, so that seems like a sign of intelligence to me.
Let me ask you this: do you think political dictators throughout history were stupid, or just fantastic assholes? Probably the latter – I’d imagine it’s hard survive as a stupid tyrant. That’s what I think about the music business – it’s full of very clever people, many of whom don’t care about the effects of what they do or how disposable their products are. As a tyrant, Napoleon was a fantastic asshole, but least modern Parisians are happy to have the Opéra Garnier that he built. A lot of people suffered for such buildings to exist, but at least the end result was a relevant cultural artifact that’s still here. The problem with today’s entertainment and pop culture is that instead of edifying us, it just destroys our minds and none of it lasts very long anyway. I can still remember when Britney Spears debuted on MTV twenty years ago, but who’s going to remember Billie Eilish in twenty years? It’s doubtful that anything considered relevant today will be left standing in even a decade.
– Maybe the people who create such disposable content don’t feel like they have any other option if they want to be successful.
I always run into people who say, “I don’t have a choice “, which is precisely what they have in most cases. But I understand why people feel powerless once they’re in bed with the “machine”. It provides them with so many good things they don’t want to give up, and then it pays them just enough to make them scared to leave. And if they still think about leaving, the machine puts an arm around their shoulder and offers all kinds of incentives to make them stay. It’s hard to resist that kind of pull.
– After 20+ years in the business, is there anything that still surprises you about the entertainment industry?
Well, I sometimes find myself asking what the role of the industry even is. Anytime we switch on the TV, we’re met by a multitude of news channels that all say the world is a harsh and fearful place. So now that people are conditioned to be fearful, they turn to entertainment as an escape from their fears. But is that what the industry is for? It reminds me of the book called “Mainstream”, which is set in an alternate universe where Columbia Pictures is owned by a popcorn company, and the sole purpose of making movies is to fuel the consumption of popcorn. Our world has become similar to that – just look at Vivendi. Do you know what it started out as? It was created in 1853 as a water management company called Compagnie Générale des Eaux, and only became a mass media company in the 1990s. Now it’s a global conglomerate that owns twenty of the main harbors in Africa, most of the electric cars in Europe and some of the biggest media groups in the world, like Havas and Universal. And it’s all managed by just one guy, Vincent Bolloré. – yet another CEO like Steve Jobs or Phil Knight that compels people to consume stuff they don’t need.
– Speaking of CEOs, what are your thoughts on Lucian Grainge? Is that someone you ever interacted with at Universal?
I don’t know much about him. He’s like the captain of a huge ship whose cabin I wasn’t invited to, but it seems that he’s able to handle his job well. Label employees often complain about their bosses inability to handle pressure but I’ve never heard anyone say that about Lucian Grainge. This is a guy who has to analyze information from label managers all over the world, plus deliver the conclusions to Vivendi, so he has a lot on his plate, but seems to have managed it well.
We’ve talked for a quite while, so now I have a question for you: prior to the interview, you told me that you’d tried and failed multiple times to work in the music business. But as I listen to your questions, I wonder if that’s what you really wanted? Wouldn’t you rather do something that makes you happy, rather than trying and failing at something else?
– Sure, I would. But a homeless guy on the street might conceivably be very happy, yet no-one wants to trade places with him. Most of us would rather be Bill Gates, even if it means dealing with stress all day. So I think you have to consider the trade-off between happiness and success, and try to find a middle-ground.
I don’t want to be homeless either, but what I fear the most is not having peace of mind, which is ironic considering how much I choose to work; even when I tell myself to stay in bed and rest, it only lasts a few hours (laughs). But why do you draw a distinction between “happiness” and “success”? I don’t separate those two things. For me, “success” equates to “happiness”.
– For me, “happiness” equates to “personal fulfillment”, which is not the same thing as “success”. I see “success” as being about personal gain, whilst “happiness” is about peace of mind, and sometimes you have to choose between the two.
I see your point. Well, now that I’m over forty with an older daughter I do feel the need to be pragmatic, which means working not only for money but happiness too, and for the first time in my life I’ll be sharing that happiness with others through my work. I’ve had a fun ride being a runner at Mega, taking risks in London, being a mastering engineer and finally producing albums for Universal, but I look forward to doing something different now.
– As someone who originally came from a creative background of audio engineering and mastering, would you say that you sold out by working for a major label?
No, I don’t think I sold out. I felt I was doing the right thing until I wasn’t. Perhaps I was guilty of being complicit, but it’s hard to find people you get along with in this business, so you have to find your own way out when things rough, which is what I ultimately did.
– Rodolphe, it’s been really nice talking to you. Thanks for the chat. What do you have in the works for the rest of 2020?
I’m working on a bunch of different projects, some of which I can’t talk about. But one of them is a production music endeavor that’s based in France and Senegal, and it’s connected me to people from other parts of the world too, like the US, Canada, Brazil and Japan. It’s been a great way to meet new composers and musicians, and I’m hoping to assemble a new production team with some of them.
When it comes to performance rights, only the territories with efficient collection societies receive any real attention, like North America, Europe, Australia and Japan. So places like South America, Africa and South East Asia are either off the radar or receive no real investment. But I think there’s interesting things to be done in those territories if you rethink your model, so I’m developing a project around that.
I’m also helping to set up a Point Blank school in Paris with three of my peers, which takes takes up most of my time nowadays.