I learnt about Armand Thomassian through my interviews with Rodolphe Plisson and Pierre-Michel Levallois, both of whom had worked with him at Universal Production Music France. But it seemed Armand had a storied career even prior to joining the label, having founded a popular music festival in the 2000s and worked closely with MC Solaar in the early 90s. So I reached out for an interview and ended up at his house once the Paris lockdown was over to talk about his career.
– Hi Armand. Thanks for having me over. Can you tell me what your entry point into music was?
That would be my mother. She used to be an opera singer in Istanbul, so my siblings and I were inspired by her musical sensibilities, and we all ended up in arts-related jobs. My brother worked in advertising and graphic design, my older sister was his agent, and my younger sister did theater.
I got into my brother’s record collection in the late 60s when I was seven. He was buying vinyl and would bring home albums by The Doors, David Bowie, The Beatles, Cat Stevens, and King Crimson, which was eye-opening music for me. Once I turned fourteen, I’d tag along with him to record shops, and in 1977 he came home with three LPs that he’d borrowed from a friend: Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True “, the Television’s “Marquee Moon” and the Dead Boys’ “Young, Loud and Snotty“. Those albums changed everything for me and even the record sleeves caught my attention. All my other LPs had badly drawn cover-art but these albums showed photos of guys dressed like me, and it made me feel like there was a place for me in the music industry.
– What was your first business experience in the industry?
Once I got to university, I went looking for bands to produce. One of them was called Killing The Pig, and we recorded a four-track EP in 1985. I suggested that we set up our own label to release it, which we did, and it was called Grams. I was put in charge of finding us a distributor and that was my entry point into the business.
Our second band was called Paris Brune, and we released a seven-inch of their track, “Minuit Paris“. We also released a 12-inch by a band we thought would blow up, but when they didn’t, we realized that we’d spent most of our money on them. But we still had a chance to release an album from a Jamaican artist called Winston McAnuff. It was recorded at Tuff Gong Studios and had the support of Rita Marley, which was a dream for me as I was really into reggae at the time. But we needed a sponsor who would pay for the release and were able to find a guy who was into real estate. So we hired a lawyer to write the contract, but on the day of the signing the sponsor just disappeared. I was really embarrassed about it – for Winston, coming to France was a chance to better his life, and we’d wasted his time by giving him hope of a release. I never met him again after that.
– How did you move on from that?
After the failed Winston album, we understood that we couldn’t keep playing at being a label, but I’d gotten a taste of what my life could be like in the music business and I wanted more. Once my parents found out, my father said, “Look, if you want to work with music, we’re not going to finance you. You’ll always have a place to sleep with us, our food is free, and you can use the car to drive to Paris. But that’s it “. So I agreed, and started working odd jobs until I could find the opportunity I wanted.
Back in the 80s, there was an entertainment guide with information about popular music-related companies, like labels, distributors and theaters. I sent 600 letters to all of them, but the only response I got was from Polydor, telling me that no vacancies were available. I remember my brother saying, “You sent out 600 letters? That’s not how you do it. Just choose a few artists you really like and call their managers “. So I picked Fela Kuti and Jacques Dutronc, and found their manager’s numbers in the entertainment guide.
I first called Jacques Dutronc’s manager. He told me to come by his office a few days later, which was near the Élysée Palace. He was probably in his sixties, and even though he was kind enough to explain his job to me, I didn’t learn much because his approach seemed old-fashioned. So I called one of Fela’s representatives, Anne-Marie Blanc, and she invited me to her office too. She worked at the end of a hallway filled with African art, and even though she originally had 30 minutes to spare, we ended up talking all day. But when it was finally over, she offered to introduce me to someone who turned out to be Francis Kertekian, Fela’s manager. He came from an Armenian background similar to mine, so perhaps she saw him in me (laughs). We started to talk and Anne-Marie recommended me for the sales team of his new company, Just’In Distribution. Francis said he had sales guys for Paris, Brittany and western France, but needed someone for the rest of the country. So I took the job, dropped out of university, and started in February of 1987.
Prior to getting that sales job, I’d gained 20 kg because times had been tough. I met my future wife in 1985 and was telling her I’d be in the music business even though I still worked as a security guard, which was a bad look for me. But once I joined the sales team, I lost all 20 kg in my first four months thanks to my workload.
– What exactly did your sales job involve?
I was responsible for selling our catalog to the record shops in my assigned territories. There were over 1400 stores in France and I had to call 800 of them. But I was able to get it done in two weeks and by the end of the month I’d contacted each store twice. So Francis called me to his office and said, “Your performance has been so incredible that I can hardly pay your commission. I owe you €3000 and I promise to pay you, but can we restructure the deal to make it more manageable? “. I was going to make good money regardless, so I agreed. With artists like Fela and The Pogues in our catalog, it wasn’t hard to sell their records, and in fact, we helped break The Pogues in France.
– I recently interviewed Peter Murray, who licensed them for France. He told me about working with you guys on that.
That’s great (laughs). We were his distributors and shared the same office with his label, Off The Track. He signed Les Négresses Vertes and licensed the third Pogues album in France. With just two sales guys on the road and me on the phone, we sold over 150,000 copies of that record. A Gold record was 100,000 sales back then, so it was great for us.
– So Just’In Distribution became a success?
Yes, it did. We became a success after only six months and made enough money to restructure the sales team, which grew to twelve people. I graduated from sitting at a desk to driving a van full of records around the country to visit clients like FNAC. My territory also expanded to include Paris and the surrounding 200 km. So it was great, but I think Francis eventually thought, “We’re distributing for Off The Track, but if I just signed my own artists I wouldn’t have to pay 50% of my earnings to someone else’s label “. Les Négresses Vertes were an example of that – they were actually discovered by a guy on our team called Luca Minchillo who was friends with the band. But since Just’In didn’t own a record label, we gave their demo to Peter Murray, and they ended up becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Rock and Folk was the biggest rock magazine at the time, and I remember reading that whenever Les Négresses Vertes played at American clubs like Whiskey A Go Go, people like Tom Waits and Madonna would be in attendance. So missed opportunities like that led Francis to start his own label, Eurobond Records, in 1988. Luca Minchillo became one of our A&Rs and he was amazing at his job. He later discovered and signed Mathieu Chedid to Delabel, and even licensed De La Soul and Digital Underground in France. Our second A&R was Didier Delage and I remember him bringing us a four-track tape of The Stone Roses that had been produced by Peter Hook from New Order. But no-one at the label understood the music, so we passed on it. The band went on to become huge off their first album, so it was a shame for us.
– Did your job at Just’In ever expand beyond sales?
It did. I went to speak with our Head Of Sales, Gracieuse Casta, and said, “Who’s in charge of Eurobond’s press strategy? Do we have a Product Manager? I’d be interested in that “. She told me to speak with Francis about it and he said, “Sure, you can do that, but what about your sales job? “, and I said, “I’ll just do both, 50-50 “. I later became the full-time Product Manager and we went on to release albums by artists like Kat Onoma and Oui Oui.
– How did your time at Eurobond come to an end?
Our publishing company had a big hit with Mory Konte’s “Yé ké yé ké“, which had been licensed to Barclay. So Francis felt it was time to expand the label, and in 1989 he met with the CEO of FNAC, Philippe Mondan. I believe his pitch was something like, “Physical music sales will disappear in ten years, so FNAC needs a publishing company to replace the lost income with performance and mechanical rights. We can provide that “. Philippe agreed with him, so FNAC bought Just’In and paired it with their distribution company, Wotre Music. This led to the creation of a new record label called FNAC Music, and my team ended up working for them. But the merger had some negative consequences: Wotre Music was bigger than Just’In, so Francis was sacked since there couldn’t be two bosses. It was hard for him, but he continued working as an artist manager. Anne-Marie, Luca Minchillo and Didier were also sacked, which left me as the last man standing. But for whatever reason, they tried moving me back to the sales team. I remember the boss of Wotre Music telling me at a meeting, “You’re not a real Product Manager. I think it’s best you become a sales guy again “, to which I said, “Can you explain what the job of a Product Manager even is? “, and he couldn’t answer. He was trying to bully me without knowing what he was talking about, so I pushed back and kept my job.
– How did you end up working at Polygram after that?
In 1990, FNAC Music was releasing Têtes Raide’s debut album and they made a deal to partner with FNAC stores for the launch. The label and the stores weren’t buddies just because they were owned by the same company, so we were anxious to get the release right. FNAC’s Head of Products, Gilles Lanier, said to me, “We can’t just give the FNAC stores a regular album; they want some exclusive content for their release “. I knew we didn’t have enough money to record bonus tracks, so I spoke with the band and was told they’d made a lyric book. I suggested that we press their logo on the front, wrap the book in plastic film and bundle it with the FNAC albums. The band agreed and stores loved the result. During the album release show, Gilles introduced me to the Head of Marketing at Polydor, Catherine Hardouin. She said to me, “I like what you did with Têtes Raide’s lyric book. Can we talk sometime? “. All my friends had already been fired from FNAC Music, which left me thinking about my future, so I took her number and agreed to call her.
We met at the Polydor offices near Place de Clichy. Catherine told me that Mylène Farmer was releasing a new album, and she needed a Product Manager. I had nothing against Mylène Farmer, but I wasn’t the right person for the job, and I said so.
Catherine replied, “But this is Mylène Farmer, the biggest French artist around. Who says no to that?“, and I said, “Catherine, I prefer to develop new talent. What can I do for Mylène Farmer? Be her private secretary? “. I’d spoken with Luca Minchillo prior to the meeting, and he told me that Polydor’s roster was full of older artists like Maxime Le Forestier and Maurane. But they’d recently signed a new guy called MC Solaar. I knew about his single, “Bouge de là“, which was playing on Radio Nova, but I didn’t know he was the artist until Luca told me. So I said to Catherine, “You have MC Solaar. Let me work with him “, and she replied, “But his career isn’t going anywhere. He’s a rapper, so no-one wants him on TV or in the press “, and I said, “Don’t ask me why, but you have to reconsider that. He’s the future “. So Catherine called me a few days later and said, “I can create a special Product Manager role for you to develop MC Solaar “. And that was how I ended up at Polydor in February of 1991.
– Was there no-one at Polydor who believed in MC Solaar other than you?
Prior to my arrival, Philippe Ascoli and Hubert Blanc-Francard had the right vision for him, but Ascoli ended up leaving. The previous Polydor boss, Marc Lumbroso, had quit to set up his own label, and since Ascoli was his Junior A&R, he left with him. Hubert Blanc-Francard was MC Solaar’s producer and didn’t work at the label, so a third of the original staff had gone by the time I arrived. The remaining members were unsure of their abilities because Marc Lumbroso had left without them, but it worked out for the best because the new staff we hired were hip-hop fans with no history at the old Polydor, so we were able to start on a fresh page.
– What was your first meeting with MC Solaar like?
Catherine played me “Caroline“, which later became one of Solaar’s major hits, and she told me to visit him and his team in the studio. Solaar, Jimmy Jay, Hubert and Philippe Zdar were all there, and I remember they told me to sit in front of the console and wait for a few minutes. Then they played “Armand Est Mort“ and everyone started laughing. So I was welcomed from day one and we started planning the release strategy.
– What were some of the things you strategized about for Solaar’s album?
One of the first things we developed was the visuals. Solaar and his team had taken pictures of themselves standing around in bomber jackets, trying to look tough. It was clearly inspired by Public Enemy, and I told him, “These images aren’t you. You’re a lyricist whose music is reminiscent of jazz and your songs talk about doing the right thing. Your image is closer to Gang Starr and De La Soul than Public Enemy. I think we should use Blue Note as the inspiration “. My concept was that MC Solaar represented cool rap, much like cool jazz, and everyone agreed once I explained it. So Hubert brought in a new photographer called Philippe Bordas, who was famous for African photography, and we worked with him on the cover-art of the first two albums.
The final thing we did was the album title. Solaar wanted to call it “Matière Grasse Contre Matière Grise “, which loosely means, “Muscle vs Brains“, but I said, “That sounds very plain. What about “Qui Sème le Vent Récolte le Tempo“? That has a swing to it, and it’s one of your best tracks “. So we went with that.
– How did the album release go? And how did it perform commercially?
In order to maximize sales in Paris, I suggested we make Solaar the opening act for a notable live show. All the trendsetters and relevant media members would be in attendance, and we did it a month before the album release. So we chose De La Soul, who were playing at The Olympia. They were a really cool group at the time, and I felt their fans could easily become Solaar fans.
Solaar had a great show, even though he did the whole gig on crutches because he’d hurt his leg. I remember him talking in the third person, saying “Sorry guys, Solaar is injured tonight “, which was clever because all the girls felt sorry for him (laughs). It also helped us that De La Soul’s performance was boring and someone threw a smoke-bomb on stage towards the end, so everyone went home in tears. As a result, the crowd only talked about Solaar and the album sold 30,000 units in the first week. It went Gold after three weeks and sold about 600,000 copies in France. For the UK, we licensed it to Gilles Peterson’s label, Talkin’ Loud, where it sold 50,000, plus another 50,000 with Polydor US, and another 50,000 in Japan.
– How famous would you say MC Solaar was at his peak?
Well, I remember being in Manhattan right before the second album came out. I was wearing an MC Solaar T-shirt and at least six people stopped me in the street, asking to buy it from me. That’s how popular he was (laughs).
IAM, Suprême NTM and Assassin were three of the main French hip-hop acts of the 90s, but they were rapping like the Americans did. MC Solaar didn’t do that – his music drew more from French culture and I remember doing interviews where record labels would tell me, “Solaar isn’t just making hip-hop music. He’s presenting traditional French chanson as rap, which is quite different “. Joeystarr is the biggest rap star in France and Dee Nasty released the “Rapatittude!” compilation in 1990, but the one who made French rap mainstream was MC Solaar. He was the last globally popular French-speaking artist from France since Daft Punk, Air and Phoenix don’t sing in French, and Celine Dione is from Canada.
– Is it true that MC Solaar became so popular that Chris Blackwell wanted him?
Yes, that’s true. Before the launch of the second album, Chris Blackwell called Paul-Rene Albertini, the CEO of Polygram, and said, “If you give me MC Solaar, I can make him the new Bob Marley “. But Polygram decided to release the album on their own because it was already scheduled to come out. The single was about to be sent to radio and even though I suggested we postpone it to get Blackwell involved, the label disagreed because of how much momentum we had. They were also thinking about the money, which was a mistake in my opinion; Blackwell was still a big deal back then and he wanted Solaar as the opening act for one of his new groups, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, so I think we missed a chance to make him bigger.
– So what happened with the second album, “Prose Combat“?
It did great. The sales were huge and so were the music videos and the tour. But then came the third album, “Paradisiaque“, and everything changed. Solaar’s new manager, Daniel Margules, wanted it to be a double-disc that counted as two albums, which would have ended the Polydor contract and allowed them to sign elsewhere for more money. Also, there were personal clashes between Margules and the head of Polydor which created problems for the label staff, so I accepted that the best days were behind us and I left. Had I stuck around, I’d have just become a personal secretary like I didn’t want to be, and my interest had shifted to electronic music anyway.
– But you stayed working at major labels, correct?
Yes, that’s right. I’d been reading magazines like NME, Melody Maker and Sounds since I was sixteen, and Richard Branson was the only label boss I saw pictures of with a beer in hand, smiling. So I always wanted to work with him and when I heard he was launching V2 Records, I called around to ask who’d be in charge of the French office. I was told it was Thierry Chassagne. So I called him and said, “Hi Thierry. We met once at the Polydor office. I’d like to meet you because I heard you’ll be in charge of V2 France “. At first he said, “What? No, that’s not true “, but I was like, “C’mon man, I already know it’s true “, so he said, “Okay, fine. Come to my place on Saturday morning and we’ll talk “. So I told him about my six-year career at Polydor and he agreed to bring me on. I started in 1997.
Thierry runs Warner France now, but it was great working with him at V2 even if it only lasted a year. I introduced him to Pierre-Michel Levallois who was launching the Disques Solid label with Etienne De Crécy and Alex Gopher, and he later signed them to a licensing deal after I left.
– Why did you leave?
Because I’d done everything I could at the label. Thierry even told me, “Richard Branson has always been ahead of his time and I think you need to be the same with electronic music. You could really do something innovative with that “. I was already thinking about launching my own electronic music festival at the time, so I decided to leave V2 and focus on that. Thierry was very gracious about it, and even offered to ask Branson if he’d sponsor the festival with Virgin Cola, which was about to launch. All I had to do was stick around for six more months, which I agreed to do.
– But where did your idea for a festival even come from?
The idea came from seeing how the electronic scene exploded in Europe. When I was at Polydor, we started signing UK artists like Spooky and Banco de Gaia, but I found it hard to promote them because we had no promotional outlets for electronic music. So I spoke with our Head of Sync, Charles-Henri De Pierrefeu, and we managed to get some good sync placements. Because of that success, the label let me hire an intern to create the first mailing list for electronic music releases. Jérôme Mestre ran the Paris branch of Rough Trade record stores, and I hired his wife, Nathalie Mestre, as the intern. Together, we identified all the French outlets that worked in the genre, from radio stations and record shops to fanzines, and we named the mailing list Wellwet Unterkrount as a parody of The Velvet Underground (laughs). The finished list had around 140 contacts all over the country, and thanks to that, Polydor’s electronic music sales increased significantly. So I felt the next step was to start a festival and promote the scene more.
– And how did you form the brand of the festival? Was it inspired by something specific?
Yes, it came from attending a three-day music event in the summer of 1997, called Les Eurockéennes de Belfort. I was in the VIP area and happened to look over at the 30,000 regular attendees. We were separated by a grille fence, and they were cramped together like in a concentration camp. I thought to myself, “How can they treat paying customers like that? “. Additionally, it had been raining for all three days and the audience had mud up to their knees. It was a terrible lack of customer service by the organizers. On the train back home, I saw a young couple who’d been in attendance. They had dry mud on their pants and were sitting on the floor of the carriage. I asked them, “Hey guys, did you enjoy the festival? “, and they said, “It was a nightmare. We couldn’t set up the tent because of all the mud, so we didn’t sleep for three days. We had to take shelter under a bus stop with a group of other people and there wasn’t even enough food “. But then their faces lit up and they said, “But we did get to see No One Is Innocent, which is what mattered most “. So I realized that not only did I want a festival but I also wanted to avoid being like Les Eurockéennes. My audience would be equal to the artists and VIP areas would be banned. The food had to be good and we’d even take better care of our artists by putting them in three-star hotels rather than motels on the highway.
– How did you find a location for the festival?
I was jogging along the bay of Sanary not far from where I grew up, and happened to pass a beach where my friends used to throw parties when I was eighteen. When I saw it, I thought, “This is actually a great place to do my festival “. So I called my friends and asked if anyone knew the mayor at Sanary city hall, but they said, “Forget about that. No-one at Sanary will understand your idea. Go to Hyères’ city hall instead “. Hyères was home to Villa Noailles, a building that had been commissioned by two of the biggest art patrons of the 1920s and 30s, Charles de Noailles and his wife Marie-Laure. It’s 1800 m2, and many of the biggest pre-war French artists got their start there. A DJ called Bernard Sebastien introduced me to the director, Jean-Pierre Blanc, and I explained my idea to him – I was 36, the same age as Charles and Marie when they were sponsors, so my pitch was, “Who would Charles and Marie sponsor if they were alive today? That’s what I want to do “. He loved the idea and took me to meet the mayor, Leopold Ritondale, who thought it would be good for the city. So I was granted the permits and the first edition debuted in June of 1999.
– What did you call it?
I wanted something that symbolized overcoming difficulty since the electronic scene had been such a challenge to promote. So I named it “Aquaplaning“, since the sport can be difficult at first but the experience usually ends well.
(Below: Posters for Aquaplanning in 2001 and 2002)
– So what was the setup of Aquaplaning like?
Leopold Ritondale wanted me to make the festival accessible for locals too, so I arranged free-access beach parties during the daytime. Each beach was run by one of my media partners: Liberation, Le Monde, Les Inrockuptibles and Magic. They would arrange their own DJs and food whilst I paid for the sound system. Anyone who enjoyed the beaches could then buy tickets for the Villa Noailles party that ran from 8pm to 1am.
– Was it a challenge to book artists for a new festival?
Yes, it was. Because I wanted exclusivity, I chose not to book any touring acts. I preferred artists who thought the festival was worth playing as a single event, not as a stop on their tour. But it made their fees more expensive since I was asking them to travel for just one show. But I had Fabrice Desprez and Pierre-Louis Berlatier as my co-programmers, so we did the best we could.
– Were there any popular names on the first lineup?
Sure. Bertrand Burgalat is a friend of mine, and when I learned that he was producing a poetry album for Michel Houellebecq, I got very excited. I was a fan of his books and suggested to Bertrand that we book him to do a reading on the beach since the media presence would guarantee good promo. Betrand agreed, and suddenly the most popular French author at the time was doing his first live gig at my festival and none of my peers or media friends could make sense of it.
For the headliner, I was able to get Aphex Twin. He was the most talented electronic artist at the time, so I organized a label night for him since he was launching Rephlex. But I had to be careful because I’d heard that he sometimes sends a body double to do his gigs (laughs). So with those kinds of artists, my first edition was a big success.
– Is it true you booked M83’s first ever live gig?
Yes, that’s true. They were introduced to me by Jerome Mestre from Rough Trade, and I booked them for the second edition. The Rapture’s first gig in France was also at Aquaplaning, and I booked LCD Soundsystem for the fourth edition.
From 1999 to 2002, I booked 120 artists and 80 of them were largely unknown. Out of that group, 32 went on to get a record deal, publishing deal or touring deal as a result of playing at the festival. So I felt like I did my job.
– How did Aquaplaning come to an end?
Well, the success of the festival created jealousy among the local government. It was the only event in Hyères that attracted an international crowd and filled up all the hotels. But for some reason, the government didn’t see it like that. I remember having a discussion with the guy in charge of Arts & Culture and I asked him, “Do you know why the Paris Porte de Versailles exhibition continues to take place? “, and he actually said, “No, why? “. So I told him, “To provide work for the hotels, restaurants and taxis of the city. It’s the same reason that Cannes Film Festival is still held where it is. It’s to provide tourist revenue for the industries in that area “. He didn’t know what to say, and I thought to myself, “Wow, this guy doesn’t know what his job is. All the hotels are full and I’m bringing Hyères a lot of money, yet they don’t see the importance of the festival “. Here’s an example of what I mean: for Aquaplaning’s fifth edition, I’d secured sponsorship from Volkswagen. They were launching a new Beetle car and gave me ten of them to transport both artists and media to the festival, in addition to providing financial support. In exchange, I gave them a whole beach to throw their own party and promote the car. But two weeks before I finalized everything, the guy in charge of Arts & Culture said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. We weren’t able to get the authorization to use the beaches “. I was like, “The festival launches in two weeks. You’ve known about this since January, but you’re only telling me now in April? “. So I traveled to Paris to speak with Volkswagen but they pulled out of the festival. My whole budget suddenly vanished and the balance became negative. With less than two weeks to find new sponsors I had no choice but to cancel, and the festival never returned after that. I’d spent €45,000 of my own money since launching in 1999 and never earned profit from it, so I wasn’t able to continue once the numbers were in the red.
– Did you run into legal problems after canceling?
No, but the local government was pissed because they got into trouble when the festival went away. All the hotel owners came to city hall to protest .They said, “Why wouldn’t you support the only festival that brings us clients? Isn’t that your job? “. So to calm everyone down, the government went on TV and said Aquaplaning was still underway, even though it wasn’t. They also said I embezzled money from my own festival, which was terrible for my mother to hear. She still lived in that area and had to read articles about her son stealing money like a gangster. But when Liberation heard about it, they responded by giving me an editorial to explain what really happened, which I did. It was just needlessly dramatic.
– So after 2002, you went back to work for major labels?
Well, I’d already become the Head A&R at Delabel Publishing, and I worked there parallel to running the festival. But when Emmanuel De Buretel sold Delabel Editions to EMI in 2003, most of the staff were fired. But to be honest, I was actually sacked by De Buretel because I failed to sign David Guetta. My boss, Michel Duval, said I should handle the signing on my own. But I told him, “This is Guetta and he’s a famous DJ. He’ll only sign with a label boss, not an A&R like me. I need you to help secure him “. But he still refused, and predictably, Guetta didn’t sign with us. So I got the sack as a result.
– So what did you do after Aquaplaning?
I worked as a freelance consultant for some years, among other things. But things didn’t look good in 2006 when I checked my cash flow. My freelance work had dried up and all my savings were spent on Aquaplaning, so I needed a full-time job. By chance, I ran into one of my past colleagues at a theater and found out he was working with real estate. I asked if his company was hiring, and after taking a meeting at his office I ended up working there for a year.
It was a cool job at first, but six months later I realized something was bothering me. I wasn’t sure what it was but I knew it had to do with the materialism I was seeing around me; the poorest flat-owners had the biggest TVs and they invested more into consumerism than their own welfare. Some of the rich flat-owners did the same and I found it all very confusing. I got a call one day to visit an old professor that wanted to sell his flat, and as soon as I entered, I understood why I’d been feeling uncomfortable for so many months: it was the first time I’d visited a flat with any books in it for six months. The culture surrounding all my clients was so intellectually poor that none of them even read books and it subconsciously bothered me the whole time. I’d visited over 100 flats in a year and decided I couldn’t endure the intellectual misery any more, so I quit immediately after that experience.
– But how did you end up at Universal?
I had no opportunities after quitting real estate in 2007 and I wasn’t sure of what to do. But luckily, one of my former interns from Aquaplaning told me, “You should register on Facebook “, and I was like, “What’s that? “. He said, “It’s a social network. It only has 30,000 French users but many music executives are on there. You should register and use it to recreate your old network “. So I did that, and someone eventually told me that Pierre-Michel Levallois needed a Head of Advertising for Universal Production Music. I’d never heard about production music in all my twenty years in the business but I sent him a message about it. We met over lunch and I said to him, “I’m interested in this job you’re offering “. He responded, “Armand, you’re the guy who helped me get signed with V2 and you’re ten years older than me. I can’t be your boss and I can’t even pay you the salary that matches your experience “, but I said, “Look, none of that matters. The only thing to consider is whether I’m competent for the role. Don’t worry about the salary either. I’ll do the job and we can figure out the money later “. So he agreed, and I’ve been working at Universal for twelve years now. I’ll always thank Pierre-Michel for that. I was 45 years old and everyone was telling me I’d never get another job after being out of the business for a decade. But I had friends like Charles-Henri De Pierrefeu and former Polygram employees who put in a good word for me, so it all worked out in the end.
I went from Head of Advertising to being Head of Sales by the time Pierre-Michel left, and now I’m the General Manager of UPM.
– You started working at Universal with a smaller salary than you deserved, but was there ever a time when you had a salary dispute with a major label?
Not really. But when I was Product Manager at Polydor in the mid-90s, a Head A&R from another label approached me about joining his team. It was an attractive offer but I gave him a condition: I wanted a financial stake in my artist’s careers. So I’d accept the lowest possible salary and would only earn more if the artists I signed were successful. But the A&R said, “If your artists end up being successful, you could make more money than me or even the CEO. We can’t have that ” . So I said, “Is that really a problem? If one of my artists has major success, the whole label benefits. So why would my earnings be an issue? Especially if I’m willing to take such high risks with a commission-based model? “. People already had deals like that in the UK. Pete Tong had a label called FFRR, where he got paid based on his artist’s performance. During his most successful years, he was reportedly earning more than the chairmen of major labels, yet no-one had a problem with that. But when I suggested the same thing in France, people got scared. It was a sign that the A&Rs didn’t trust their own artists to become successful, and they would never risk their own money to sign anyone, whereas my approach had always been to sign artists as if I was investing my money.
– Tell me about your work at UPM. What’s it like working with production music?
If you’re a music lover, then production music is the best place to work. It’s a product that’s meant to support other media and I think it’s the last place where you can still find people who are 100% dedicated to music. I’ll be honest with you – during my time at Polydor and V2, I only met two or three people that were really artists. The rest mainly wanted to be famous. But at UPM, all of our composers are real artists and I cherish that. Many of them have no interest in artist careers and some are only focused on one genre, whilst others can conduct an orchestra, compose for piano and produce pop music. Also, there isn’t much space for ego here. It’s like a detective bureau – we all have problems to solve, and we’re focused on finding the right solutions through music.
– What are your thoughts on today’s music in general? Do you feel like it’s worsened or improved since you were younger?
When I started buying records in the mid-70s, rock had been the primary genre for twenty years. So there was still space for new things to come along like rap, punk, electronic music, trip-hop, etc. It’s more difficult to do new things today. You also needed good vocals to have a hit record in the 70s and 80s; nowadays your hit could be based on a synth sound or an effect. But I can’t say that today’s music is crap because I haven’t heard anything new with a guitar since 1991 anyway. Each time I say that to my friends they get outraged, but the last band to innovate with the guitar was My Bloody Valentine on “Loveless“. So bashing the generation of the 2010s for not living up the music from 40 years ago makes no sense.
– So what kinds of things don’t you like to see or hear in music culture?
I don’t like when music that was once new and experimental loses its edge and becomes something bourgeoisie. But what I hate even more are musicians who pretend to be edgy when they’re not. For example, I’m not a huge Radiohead fan, but what I really dislike are the knock-off bands that Radiohead inspired. People forget that Radiohead didn’t become famous by making experimental music. They became famous for making major hits like “Creep“. The same goes for Björk. She has the popularity and money to make unconventional music because she already made major pop hits on her first two albums. So the artists who imitate Radiohead and Björk are failing because they never had any hits to make them popular nor interesting, and their “experimental” music ends up sounding contrived, which I don’t like.
– So what’s your opinion on Daft Punk? Did you ever work with them?
I met Thomas Bangalter either through Hubert Blanc-Francard or Philippe Zdar. I remember arranging for him to meet one of Polydor’s A&Rs since the label wanted to sign them. We all met at Gare Du Nord for an hour but never reached a deal.
I’m split about Daft Punk. They created something hugely influential and opened doors for many people but they’re also one of the reasons that electronic music became bourgeoisie. Perhaps it wasn’t their goal, but they took something that had been underground and helped make it into music for discotheques and MTV. I fully respect their work, and I even bought their albums, but I didn’t like the cultural effect it had.
– Last question. Since you were a successful Product Manager, what’s the most important thing to keep in mind when working in that role?
My motto as a Product Manager was always, “Never say you like it. Say it works “.The idea isn’t to fall in love with a song, but to respect it and to understand what the artist is trying to do. That will help you create the right strategy around it. It’s fine if you also happen to like it, but if you like it too much, it’s possible to get overemotional and lose objectivity. Do you really think people who work at advertising companies are fans of all the stuff they promote? Of course not. What matters is that they understand the product, the brand and their potential buyers. An example is Marlborough. It was originally a cigarette brand for women, but it failed to sell. So the company put a cowboy in their ads and made it into cigarettes for the pure male. Selling music requires the same mindset.
– Armand, thanks for talking to me. This was a great interview. As a former Product Manager, A&R, festival owner and salesman, what do you still hope to accomplish in the music business?
My ambition is to remain where I am. During these tough times, I’m really happy to work at Universal. If you ask our 500 staff members how the company handled the pandemic, they’ll say it was fantastic. So it’s a great place to be. Twelve years is a long time, but when you have a dream team like mine, the work is fantastic. Besides, I’d never heard about production music before 2008, yet it became the most exciting part of the industry that I’ve worked in thus far. In fact, if UPM offered me a life-time contract to work in production music at my current salary, I’d sign it. So I’m excited to continue working with this.