Is it possible to launch a successful record label in the 21st century while remaining independent? Born Bad Records is proof that this utopian dream can become a reality – with a lot of work and passion. A former A&R for a major record company, Jean-Baptiste Guillot founded this Paris-based label in September 2006, heralding the dawn of a radical new French sound.
Focusing on French underground music, this entrepreneur with DIY ethics has reissued many unsung gems and signed an impressive number of great artists over the years: Cheveu, La Femme (for their vinyl releases), Frustration, Magnetix, JC Satàn, Wall of Death, Usé, Julien Gasc, Forever Pavot, Yussuf Jerusalem … We caught up with him in Paris to discuss how he runs his label and how he sees the1 music industry of today.
Born Bad celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Are you surprised by this longevity?
When I launched the label, I wasn’t playing the wise guy. I didn’t really know what I was doing. So yes, I’m quite surprised by the longevity and the impact of the label. I see how important it has become to certain people, which I didn’t expect. A lot of people feel close to this label and I find it a bit disconcerting when I’m seen as a kind of role model. It’s nice and hard to understand at the same time.
In some radical underground circles, like the squat scene, the acknowledged ambition of the label and the massive image it has can scare away some artists. I’m flabbergasted by the discrepancy between the reality of how I work, in a very DIY way, and the perception people have of it. There is a broad consensus regarding this label in the media (in the underground media, the hipsters and the established media), but also among the audience (punks in their 50s, trendy young women in their 20s …). I think it’s quite uncommon in France to manage to appeal to such a large spectrum.
After signing a lot of garage-punk bands, you started opening the label to other genres with pop songwriters like Julien Gasc and Forever Pavot. Was it a risky decision?
I was part of an inner circle with a strong musical identity. When you change direction, you do take a risk, although I’ve always tried different things. Admittedly, signing Julien Gasc was quite a radical move for me. His music is different, but the way he makes music and his state of mind are actually very close to the other bands I work with. That’s one of the requirements I have to pick artists. I want to work with authentic, radical people for whom playing music is a matter of life and death. People who have scars and cracks. People who are a bit fragile and broken. The outcasts. Most of them have side jobs and so do I: I work for MPO (a French company pressing CDs, vinyl records, etc.). Obviously, freaks are not to be found only in rock ’n’ roll. You can find them in any music genre.
Running a label basically means releasing records, but you do much more than that: career development, producing records…
Yes. A lot of labels release albums that are brought to them as a finished product. I’m involved in most of the records from the beginning to the end. It’s not the same gamble at all, financially and artistically. I’m in charge of everything: scouting at gigs, signing the artist, often producing, choosing the right studio and the right people to mix and master it, promoting, distributing, making the videos, writing the bios, setting up photo shoots … We work with a limited budget in a short period of time. There are no guarantees on the result. In the early days, I even had to organize shows and tours.
Now that the label is more established, it’s a different dynamic: people get in touch with me. But I had to do it in the beginning, otherwise people don’t come to you. I’m an advocate of the DIY method. I do things my way and I go beyond my limits, whether they be financial or human. This flexibility is rewarding. You feel efficient, like a war machine. It’s not enough, though. I’m not that good at the paperwork. I’m not particularly interested in this side of the label, but I have to be, so that I don’t owe anyone anything. This is how I was raised. I don’t count on anyone and I don’t request anything. It’s not necessarily smart, because I could delegate some of the work and still be fine. That’s what I need to do at this point. I did take on a PR representative, we’ve been working together for about two years now.
That was a big step. It’s difficult to work alone and face the label alone. You need to take a step back to have some distance – at the moment, I don’t have any distance as to what I’m doing. I live like an austere monk. People imagine some kind of crazy lifestyle and lots of images pop up in their mind when you say you’re the head of a rock label. Some people do live like that, but they don’t go anywhere. They only release one album a year and they can’t keep up with the pace of a real label. For me, it’s actually the opposite of all that: I’m sitting at my computer, or preparing cardboard boxes, or getting in touch with journalists … There’s nothing glamorous about it.
Do you sometimes have the temptation to make compromises and accept partnerships with majors?
I have my own values and ideals. I’m an old-school kind of guy. I come from the rock ’n’ roll scene and I keep by its codes, which are not always what the institutions impose on you. I’m in the byways and I don’t stay within the framework. I’ve invented my own system. I don’t apply for grants. I don’t rely on placing songs in TV commercials.
I’ve noticed that I manage to get some results that people who have more funds don’t always get. Of course, I’d like to have a lot of money to make it easier. What I do is the opposite of any entrepreneurial logic. I run this label in a rough, rudimentary way. I don’t overthink things. I don’t have the time to ask myself too many questions, if this decision is reasonable or not. I don’t demonize majors, but they don’t know how to work with alternative projects. They wouldn’t know how to develop bands like JC Satàn or Cheveu. It wouldn’t make sense. Yet they still go on signing bands like that from time to time.
How has the music industry evolved since you started the label in late 2006?
I don’t take a step back, so I don’t see anything. I run my label intuitively, dealing with the most pressing issues. I don’t have any interns. The only difference for me is that I started renting a warehouse six months ago. Before that, I had been storing all the records in my living room. It makes me laugh when I see young labels who already have it all from day one: nice offices, nice laptops, four interns helping them … I’m the antithesis of that.
How is it possible to turn a profit?
You don’t have a choice when you’re an entrepreneur. It has to be viable. Unlike many other labels, I don’t delegate distribution. Born Bad is one of the few labels that know how to sell records. If you were to put 1,000 vinyl records in my living room, I would sell all of them myself. That’s my strength and that’s why I don’t lose money. I fight for it. That’s the fundamental difference with all the other labels. Very few of them have this expertise. I personally know every record store that sells my records all over France and even abroad. I can name the owner and I have been to their stores about ten times. That’s the heart of this business.
Most labels don’t do that anymore because it’s tough and thankless: for instance, once a week, I have to pack boxes for ten hours, or I can drive across Paris to deliver three records if it needs to be done. It’s profitable in the long run because it sets up privileged work relationships, then you become the record store owners’ favourite label, and the media darling.
That’s the key: having good promotion, having your records for sale in the shops and signing artists who play good live shows. If you put together these three elements, you get more people buying your records than the labels who only have two reviews in magazines and whose artists don’t know how to perform live. That’s all. It’s not about having a digital strategy or a marketing plan. I could get better on some levels, but on the scale of my label and judging from the radical music that I release, I think I get meaningful results.