IDOL Insights: meet Nø Førmat!

Welcome to IDOL’s monthly interview series featuring one of our label partners. This month, we interviewed Nø Førmat!, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Interview with Laurent Bizot, live from Johannesburg.

Innovative and avant-garde, Nø Førmat has been pushing the boundaries of creativity for 20 years. The label was built on the idea of celebrating open-mindedness. Establishing itself as a haven for artists in search of creative freedom, this artisanal label offers a platform to emerging artists such as Natascha Rogers, Msaki x Tubatsi, Ala.ni and Koki Nakano, as well as experimental pioneers like Lucas Santtana, Piers Faccini, Vincent Segal and Balaké Sissoko.

The introduction of the Pass in 2011 marked a major turning point in the history of Nø Førmat!, inspired by the Community supported agriculture model and its commitment to sustainability. This concept has created a true family of music enthusiasts, united by their desire to support artists in their creative endeavors. Over the years, Nø Førmat! has remained true to its core values and continues to shape the future of music by defying convention. Here’s a look back at twenty years of musical commitment by founder Laurent Bizot.

How was Nø Førmat born?

Nø Førmat was born at a time when I was working at Universal Jazz as a lawyer. Two encounters played a key role. First with Daniel Richard, director of the Universal Jazz label, then Jérôme Witz, a graphic designer and painter who produced a lot of their album covers. These two personalities made a big impression on me, making me realize the importance of knowledge and culture. Daniel Richard has an immense knowledge of music and musicians, particularly jazz, which he knows like no one else on earth, and the same goes for Jérôme and painting. And yet, they are both extremely humble. They taught me that art can change people’s lives, but not in an intellectual way. In a sensitive way, that you can touch with your fingertips. Everyday life can be sublimated by art.

At the time, I had noticed a certain evolution in the music market, which had taken an increasingly “marketing” approach. In record companies, the central question was no longer “is this record any good” but “how are we going to sell it”. And if the music wasn’t calibrated to these marketing criteria, it wasn’t released. This was back in 2002-2003, before the advent of digital technology. The possibility of finding distribution outside record labels was very slim, and streaming platforms didn’t exist. I wanted to create a space for the unclassifiable type of project: not easy to work with, but musically worthy of seeing the light of day. And to counter the difficulty of the economic model, I drew inspiration from the reissue collections that were doing well at Universal Jazz (Jazz in Paris, Free America, Ecoutez le cinéma…) and whose assets were quality, a strong brand, supported by a strong graphic charter, mutualization of costs, and a “collection” effect that ensured a good presence in stores, even with little-known artists. I thought I’d do exactly the same thing, but with new artists who might be difficult to sell individually, but who could be boosted by the collection effect. At the time, I’d been very impressed by Naomi Klein’s book No Logo. And as I heard the word “format” (the radio format, the TV format…) every day in the corridors of Polydor or Mercury, the name No Format came to my mind.

Then we wrote the manifesto, to explain what we wanted to do, and on April 20, 2004 we released the first 3 albums. Totobonalokua, a solar, quasi-acapella album, Le Dogme de VI jours, a noisy album, somewhere between spoken word and free jazz, and Swing Swing, a sort of rave party built around 78s of big bands from the 20s. I wanted to show that we weren’t confined to any musical genre. Later that year, in September, we released Chilly Gonzales’s Solo Piano album, which went straight to the top of the charts, became a huge success, and established the label on the music scene.

Since then, we’ve evolved while staying the course. We aim to surprise musically with each release, never being where we are expected. Graphically, we’re still delighted to work with Jérôme Witz, whose visual identity has stood the test of time, and who helps us to constantly renew our cover designs, notably by initiating collaborations with visual artists such as Fabien Merelle, Benjamin Flao and Maria-Paz Matthey. We regularly hold exhibitions on this graphic art aspect. In the same way, we constantly strive to open up to other disciplines, such as dance, for example, for which we have done extensive video work with Koki Nakano and director Benjamin Seroussi. The idea is always to build bridges between music and other arts.

How does it feel to celebrate the label's 20th anniversary?

It feels so good! To have succeeded in lasting, to realize that a little utopia we started one day with €2,000 in our pockets has become a reality. Today, we employ three people, a few freelancers and dozens of casual workers. We’ve released a series of improbable albums, and have 1,200 subscribers who follow us over time. Year after year, we’ve patiently built up our stability, and frankly it’s what I dreamed of most 20 years ago. Not ephemeral success, but a project that lasts and never gives in to the easy way or the effects of fashion. And 20 years is quite an emotional roller-coaster with artists who have all left their mark on me.

It also gives me the opportunity to emphasize just how lucky we are in France, with all its cultural support schemes. First of all, Pôle Emploi (Job Center), which allowed me to continue receiving unemployment benefits for a few months when I set up the label. But also Sacem, collective management bodies such as SCPP, the phono production tax credit, state aid during Covid, now the CNM (National Center of Music)… It’s crazy, in another country, with the same editorial line, and faced with market mechanisms alone, we would never have lasted 20 years.

You've developed a strong identity over the years, with albums featuring collaborations between Western music and West African traditions. What have been the biggest obstacles to these creations?

We worked a lot on collaborations in general. ¿Que vola?, Kouyate-Neerman, Msaki x Tubatsi, Mamani Keita and Nicolas Repac, Sissoko-Segal, and so on. In fact, almost two-thirds of the albums in our catalog are the result of collaborations between artists. Sometimes we initiated them, sometimes not. For me, it’s also the role of a producer to initiate encounters, to provoke the spark, to have the intuition that by putting Msaki, Tubatsi and Clément Petit in the same room, something special is going to happen.

And it’s true that Paris is a very African city, so it’s very conducive to encounters between African and European musicians. Since the ’80s, we’ve been lucky enough to have huge Malian musicians living in Paris, notably Cheick Tidiane Seck and the whole band from the Sarala album with Hank Jones. In a way, we benefited from all the work done at the time by Africa fête, Mamadou Konté and Christophe Meyer… or Africolor, with Philippe Conrath. We do different things, but we’ve certainly been inspired by them. And I mention this because, for me, this openness to other cultures, to otherness, is also a real characteristic of France. Sure, we have some fascists, but on the other hand we always have people who are open to the world, curious about others and respectful. For me, the Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal duo, for example, or their magnificent quartet with Emile Parisien and Vincent Peirani, represent France more than any pop project that sings in French. Because we’re good at this kind of project, we have experience. Are we good at pop? I’m not sure…

The obstacles aren’t so much in the creation as in the distribution. It’s always very difficult to convince a label, a platform or a media outlet when a project doesn’t fit into any specific box, when it’s multiple, unclassifiable or just a bit complex to describe. Before listening, they need us to sum up the music in a word, a phrase, a genre… In 2021, we released a magnificent piece by Piers Faccini, with Ben Harper and Abdelkebir Merchane, a gnaoua maalem. Musically, it was a no-brainer, and everyone loved it. But for the platforms, when it’s all at once blues, American, African, gnaoua, folk, in several languages, it doesn’t fit into any box, it’s complicated. But listeners don’t think like that. The multiple doesn’t bother them. And thankfully so!

What makes a Nø Førmat artist? What do you look for in potential signings?

Above all, I’m looking to be surprised and charmed by the artistic proposal. I want it to be relevant, audacious, innovative and exploratory, without being elitist or experimental. I like to feel like I’m hearing something new, yet paradoxically sounds already familiar. Sometimes there’s an almost cosmic connection with certain projects or artists. You don’t explain it, it’s obvious. Sometimes it takes time.

I remember I was invited to the Banlieues Bleues jazz festival by Fidel Fourneyron to see the first ¿Que Vola? concert, and after the show I wasn’t sure it was for us. I went back to listen to them six months later, they’d made their mark, and by then I had no doubts whatsoever.

There’s one thing that fascinates me, and that often cracks me up. It’s the relationship a musician has with his instrument. Even at the level of mastery they have achieved, they continue to devote themselves to it tirelessly, for long hours every day. Like Buddhist monks or martial arts masters, it’s fascinating. Ballaké and his kora, Vincent Segal and his cello, Salif Keita and his guitar, Koki and his piano, Natascha Rogers and her percussions…

You've been running the label from South Africa for several years now. Why did you choose Johannesburg?

I just wanted to relocate, to have a different geographical and cultural position, less Euro-centric. To get out of Paris, where I’d lived all my life. The idea was that it would change my perspective, that it would bring me fresh ideas, that it would put me in touch with other languages, other talents. My first thought was to go to London. But if you’re going to leave, you might as well go far away! Here in Johannesburg, France isn’t a reference point, hardly anyone speaks French, it doesn’t mean anything to people. I’m exotic to them, and they’re exotic to me. It’s a fascinating country, with an incredible history. And there’s a great artistic vitality in Johannesburg, so it makes sense to be here.

You're one of the few labels to have a subscription system. How did the idea come about?

The aim of our Pass Nø Førmat! subscription is to create a direct link between us and our listeners. We were inspired by two things. Firstly, a visionary article from 2010 which explained that, in the future, the job of an indie label would no longer be to sell a certain number of copies of an album, but to properly monetize the various means of access to its catalog. And secondly, Community Supported Agriculture. When you think about it, it’s a brilliant idea for consumers to get together to enable a producer, through a direct link, to produce with peace of mind – his harvest being pre-purchased – and for him to stop worrying about “how to sell enough” and focus solely on “how to produce better”, with sales that don’t go through supermarkets, and financing that doesn’t go through banks! It’s a win-win situation.

It’s an almost perfect example of a virtuous circle. And it was completely in line with our idea of combating formatting by avoiding intermediaries and creating a direct link with the public. Very early on, we had already noticed that some people were buying the label’s 3 or 4 albums a year. We proposed the formula in 2011: the listener pre-purchases unlimited access to everything we produce during the year at a fixed, advantageous price (between €40 and €130 depending on whether it’s a Pass, vinyl, CD, digital…). In a way, they pre-finances our production, thus guaranteeing our independence, and in exchange they receive all the albums we release, limited edition productions (silkscreens, books), and private concerts. Today we have 1,200 subscribers all over the world.

What are the main advantages of being an independent label?

First of all, the freedom to make decisions. There’s nothing to stop me from choosing an artist, even if I feel it might be difficult. If it’s my intuition and my desire, I follow it. I don’t have the pressure of having to support a heavy structure, I don’t have to convince a hierarchy or a shareholder, I don’t have to explain my choice by rational reasoning, I follow my gut. That already makes a big difference.

Secondly, an independent label has a clear image and editorial line. A large structure, less so.

Being small also means being flexible. There aren’t many of us, so most of the people who work on a new artist are generally freelancers and are chosen to suit the project. A new ad hoc ecosystem is created for each project, from press attaché to image creation and so on. I find this is often more efficient.

Then I’d say a form of benevolence. We care about the artists, we’re close to them, it becomes like a family. We’re in a process that’s still artisanal, on a small scale, it’ll never become industrial. It couldn’t. And that also makes a difference, it’s a bit like restaurants, the quality isn’t quite the same for 30 covers or 200.

Last but not least, tenacity and hard work. We don’t give up on the first single that doesn’t meet the expected reception. We work hard on an album, whatever the result, and we’ll defend it even years later, it’s part of the collection, if we’ve chosen it, it’s because we believe in its value. And these old albums, because we’ve worked hard on them, now bring in revenue, which enables us to finance new projects, just as risky. This is not possible with self-production, which by definition has no catalog.

Why do you think independence is a strength?

When you work with an artist, you can’t compromise. That’s what I ask of an artist, so I have to apply it to ourselves. Not to think about the public, the media, how the music will be received or appreciated, but to get to the end of the creative gesture. And that’s only possible when you’re independent. If you have a board or shareholders who look at the profit at the end of the year, to whom you have to report every quarter, inevitably, other thoughts come into play. You can quickly start thinking like you’re selling sausages. If you’re independent, you can stay focused and take all the risks.

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