Nø Førmat!'s Laurent Bizot on Finding a Different Path
Since its inception in 2004, Nø Førmat! has released 47 albums that have defined music's worldwide evolution. To celebrate the label's fifteenth anniversary, Nø Førmat! acts will be traveling the world to share a collection of the French label’s best works. For the New York City leg of the tour, ¿Que Vola? will be performing a free show at the David Rubenstein Atrium on Thursday, June 27 as part of this year's France Rocks Festival. In anticipation of the event, I spoke to label founder Laurent Bizot about his inspiration.
Chinekwu Osakwe: How did you become interested in music? Do you remember the first time you heard a song you loved?
Laurent Bizot: My dad used to play piano every night. He took a few lessons but mostly played by ear. When I was 10, I remember buying Michael Jackson's Billie Jean and Lionel Ritchie's All Night Long, but above all, I remember going with my dad to a club in the French Alps, where a family played live every night. The father played keyboards, and his three daughters sang pop songs. I was mesmerized—it was like magic. Very soon I wanted to understand what was behind that magic.
CO: What was the inspiration behind Nø Førmat!'s creation in 2004?
LB: I used to be a lawyer at Universal in Paris and during my eight years there, I learned a lot about the music industry. I felt that some beautiful music couldn't be distributed because of marketing issues: not radio friendly enough or not in a known musical genre. Everyone was focused on marketing the music and trying to anticipate what would make it a success—it was less and less about the art. It was just before the internet blasted, so no distribution meant no release at all. There was too much beautiful and crazy music that was not accessible to listeners. I thought, let's find a different path, a way to choose music without first considering the marketing aspects, and to release those albums even when the sales expectations are low. I was looking for an idea, and I was inspired by the jazz reissue collections like "Jazz in Paris" conceived by Daniel Richard, CEO of Universal Jazz France. I studied the economy of it, and I realized that each album separately may not reach a balance, but considering the whole collection, it was possible because of economies of scale and the dynamics of the collection. The key was to choose the projects carefully, find a strong graphic design, work the label as a beautiful book collection, and build a link of confidence with an audience so that the label brand would help push each album.
CO: Many of Nø Førmat!'s artists are of African descent and sing Afropop music. Why did you move in this direction initially and why has this theme persisted?
LB: Paris is a very mixed city. In the '70s and '80s, a lot of very good African musicians moved there. So if you were interested in groove, you'd easily meet African musicians in Paris. For me, it was mainly musicians from Mali. I had never heard anything more powerful. Every artist I met introduced me to another artist: Mamani Keita, Djeli Moussa Kouyaté, Salif Keita, Moriba Koita, Lansiné Kouyaté. All of them played with western musicians for years. I became interested in making my own connections, suggesting encounters, and seeing what would happen—what works, what doesn't, and why?
CO: Nø Førmat! boasts artists, such as Oumou Sangaré, who has been called the greatest living female voice in Africa, and the Afro-Cuban group, ¿Que Vola?. Can you talk about how you curated your roster and how you approached the artists that are a part of Nø Førmat!?
LB: I just follow my instincts and my guts. There's no rule, and I don't want to make it rational whatsoever. Is it good? Is it new, unheard? Do I feel goosebumps? Is there a beautiful story behind? I don't know why, but I can quickly feel whether or not it's another piece to add to the puzzle, or another color in the picture. When Oumou Sangaré contacted me with her new album almost finished, I wasn't totally convinced by everything she recorded, but I was so thrilled to work with her, because her voice is unique. My colleague Thibaut and I told her, "We know some producers (the French production collective A.l.b.e.r.t.) who could bring something really cool to this music," and we spent another eight months working on the album till it became Mogoya.
CO: How did you discover ¿Que Vola??
LB: A series of coincidences, like most of the artists I collaborate with. Blick Bassy recorded some demos in the studio near our offices, but we didn't really know each other. He saw the label sign and invited me to come downstairs and listen. I loved the first song and after one hour of chatting, we decided to work together. His album featured the trombonist Fidel Fourneyron and one year later Fidel emailed me and said, "I have a new project with Cuban percussionists; you should come and see us at Banlieues Bleues." I liked them, especially the Cuban musicians who totally blew my mind. But the mix was not totally complete—it was their very first show. Six months later, after 20 shows, I came back to check them out in Poitiers without letting Fidel know. I was amazed. The music was so fresh, so new, and so powerful. I thought, "This project is definitely for us!"
CO: What is your favorite Nø Førmat! release and why?
LB: Do you want me to have enemies in my own family?? No, really, I can't answer that. Every release has its own story. A personal link. I only release music that I deeply love. My inspiration is the '70s French label Saravah Records. Like I heard Pierre Barouh say, "Even if someone could prove to me that an album can sell three million copies, if I don't love the music, I won't release it." So, they're all my favorite.
CO: Why did you decide to take the label on the road for your fifteenth anniversary?
LB: We've always organized label nights and events in Paris, and every two to three years, in different places. Last time was in Théâtre du Châtelet, probably the most beautiful theater in Paris. Last year, I thought, "We have artists coming from the whole world, our music is listened to everywhere, so we should try to do a Nø Førmat! Festival abroad, in different cities, different countries." London and New York were the first to sort out, then Cully Jazz in Switzerland. I approached Nuits de Fourvière in Lyon because it's one of my favorite festivals, and Richard Robert is my favorite programmer. And then I wanted to set up something in Africa. Stéphanie Suffren in Kinshasa proposed doing a special night during her festival Jazzkif, and that was the best opportunity. We just did it and it was an amazing experience.
CO: Your label relies on the sales of beautifully designed vinyl and CD sets. How have you been able keep up interest for these products in an increasingly digitized world?
LB: Nothing compares to a nicely printed book, a beautiful vinyl, or a craft serigraphy. Digital can't beat that! Five years ago, we launched our subscription called "Pass Nø Førmat!." It's a kind of "all access" to the label. People pay a yearly €50 flat fee, and they receive all our products released in that year without knowing in advance what music what objects they will receive. Surprisingly, each year, the number of subscribers increases, as if the more digitized the world is, the more some people are sensitive to beautiful physical products. Which is kind of natural in a way!
CO: Has the label achieved everything you thought it would in fifteen years?
LB: I really didn't think it would last that long, survive the industry crisis, and that we would release 47 albums! Now, I would like the amount of "Pass Nø Førmat!" subscribers to increase so that the economic independence of the label is guaranteed by these subscribers. I don't want to depend on sales quantities or streaming figures at all, only on the quality of the music. Quality over quantity.
CO: What is your dream for Nø Førmat! over the next fifteen years?
LB: Keeping on the same path, with the same enthusiasm and pleasure. Just on a slightly slower tempo, with less rush.
CO: What advice would you have given yourself fifteen years ago, when you started Nø Førmat!?
LB: Don't worry, bro! Be happy!
Chinekwu Osakwe is the 2019 editorial intern for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.