French label No Format! celebrates its tenth anniversary this month. To mark the occasion they released a hat trick of albums, hosted a mini festival and have launched a new side label. Jo Frost gets the lowdown from the founder, Laurent Bizot.
It’s not always easy to try and define the ideology behind a record label, especially when it’s called ‘No Format!’. But over the last ten years the label has created its own aesthetic, from its finely crafted black and white logo to the eclecticism of its roster and its simple and elegant album artwork.
The man who founded the label is Laurent Bizot, formerly a lawyer for Universal Music. When he moved over from the corporate pop world to the jazz side of the company, Bizot started dabbling in A&R, then had a three-year stint as Salif Keita’s manager – a steep learning experience one senses Bizot would not be overly keen to repeat: “I aged about ten years!” he rues. This period coincided with the idea to create his own label.
No Format! started with a bang, launching with not one but three albums. It was all part of the master plan to underline their eclecticism and emphasise their message. “We wrote a manifesto,” Bizot says, outlining how they were going to make a place for music that had generally been considered “too independent, too elitist…” and so on. The first three releases were Toto Bona Lokua, an a capella album by the trio of Gerald Toto, Richard Bona & Lokua Kanza; Swing Swing by the maverick French singer Nicolas Repac and Le Dogma des VI Jours, an avant-garde jazz album. “I really try hard not to rationalise the decisions,” says Bizot about his approach to selecting artists. “I just try first to listen to the music with a new ear and with no plans. It’s really intuitive.”
From the outset the emphasis has been on the whole package – not just the music but also the look of the release. The man instrumental behind creating the style of the label is graphic designer, Jérome Witz. The predominantly white albums have become clearly recognisable but without being formulaic. ‘Every new project is a prototype,’ Witz explains how he works on the singularity of each release and how the aesthetic of the label has developed. It’s an artisanal approach, using different illustrators for each album. The artist Dialiba Konaté is responsible for the beautiful drawings on Kassé Mady Diabaté’s new album Kiriké and on Songs of Time Lost by Piers Faccini and Vincent Segal (pictured below, photography by Tom McGeehan), it’s actually Faccini who created the cover artwork.
In these days of declining CD sales, it’s somewhat of an anomaly to come across a business model like No Format!. But they have come up with innovative ideas to boost sales and bolster their loyal fan base by devising a subscription plan called the ‘le Pass No Format!’. Bizot likens it to the veg box scheme, or AMAP as it’s known in France. “In each town you have an organic producer and you can buy a basket each week. It’s good but you don’t know what it’s going to be,” explains Bizot. “There’s no middle man, just a contract between the producer and the client. It’s win-win for the producer, the customer is really happy to support us and to have musical surprises.” So once you’ve paid your annual fee, you then receive everything the label releases over the course of the year, plus invites to private acoustic shows.
Another idea to stimulate interest in the label was to put on a festival to celebrate their anniversary. The four-night programme at le Café de la Danse near Bastille in Paris certainly gave a flavour of just how eclectic the roster of artists are. The first night featured a beautiful acoustic set by Vincent Segal and Piers Faccini, who created an incredible intimacy with their delicate, quiet music. The second night kicked off with the Cameroonian singer and guitarist Blick Bassy together with a curious line-up of trombone, cello and banjo. This was followed by a superb set by Kassé Mady Diabaté and his trio of fabulous musicians: Ballaké Sissoko on kora, Lansiné Kouyaté on balafon and Badje Tounkara on ngoni. They conjured up a real sense of celebration, largely due to the numerous West Africans in the audience who came down to the front of the stage to greet Kassé Mady and thrusted notes into his hands as he sang, making very clear why he is known as one of Mali’s greatest praise singers.
The third night featured a new name on the label: Brazilian artist Lucas Santtana. “It was really amazing, super energetic, a huge party,” Bizot reports about their latest signing’s show.
The final night launched the label’s new initiative called Prospect, an online label. Described as a ‘hybrid project’ Prospect is dedicated to the emergence of young international talent. “Sometimes a No Format! album takes two to three years,” Bizot explains. So to counteract this protracted process and to respond to the ‘rapidity and flux’ of our daily lives, they decided to launch Prospect in order to feature “music that’s cool and fresh and that we just want to release now.”
First signings on Prospect are Estère from New Zealand and Gabriel Garzón-Montano from Brooklyn. “It’s more urban; the music we hear today in a lot of capitals around the world – it’s very spontaneous,” says Bizot.
So in keeping with these new developments, there are also more exciting new CD releases planned for next year, including Blick Bassy’s new album and an eagerly awaited follow-up to Chamber Music, with Vincent Segal and Ballaké Sissoko due to head to Bamako in the new year to record it.
Read a live review of the No Format! festival in the March 2015 issue (#105), out February 6.