“When you have a reggae record label you survive by doing a variety of things” Frenchie tells Erik Magni in this interview for United Reggae.
Frenchie is a mysterious, successful and highly respected producer, writer and arranger from France that relocated to London in the late 80’s. This year his groundbreaking label Maximum Sound celebrates its 20th anniversary and United Reggae had a chat with him about being a producer, the music industry and a broken fridge.
Like many youngsters, Frenchie’s love for music started with an older sibling. In this case an older brother who had a big record collection from which Frenchie used to borrow records.
“My brother was into ska, punk and rock and we begun collecting reggae together. He started to collect records before I did and passed on the passion for collecting music to me,” explains Frenchie.
His passion for music, especially reggae, took him as a teenager to London where he became apprentice engineer at Fashion’s A Class Studio, run by John MacGillivray and Chris Lane, that also operated Dub Vendor. In the early 90’s digital computer riddims ran the dancehalls and Frenchie worked on a number of smash hits, including Cutty Ranks’ The Stopper.
During his apprenticeship he tried his hands on several styles – dancehall, roots, lovers rock and even some crossover styled songs. He also worked with a number of Jamaican veterans that regularly popped by the studio.
But all things usually end and so did his apprenticeship. In 1993 he launched Maximum Sound and started producing tracks for local and international reggae acts. He did original compositions as well as relicks of the classics.
An honest teacher
Over the years Frenchie has worked with a veritable who’s who of Jamaican reggae and today he’s well-respected all over the world, including Jamaica, something that veteran deejay Captain Sinbad told this writer a few months ago. Frenchie is humble when I mention it.
“Not sure why really, but I always believe in paying artists and musicians decent money and I try to deal with people as upfront as I can. To do what I do, you have to love Jamaica and Jamaican people and realize it’s a third world country and the majority of the people are poor, so I always believe in helping out as many people as I can. It’s important to me,” says Frenchie, who believes in good karma, and continues:
“On all my trips to Jamaica I always come back completely broke and with my pockets literally empty,” he laughs, and continues:
“Sometimes it takes me a whole year to get back the money I invested and sometimes I lose a bag. But that’s how it is and I chose this business because I love it and not to make money.”
Teaching is also important to Frenchie. To teach upcoming artists and producers about the harsh music business, the need for publishing and the importance of promotion.
“I can link them with a record company to do a deal or help people in any way I can and I’m not looking for anything in return. I’m a part of this business that I love which is a big thing for me. That is my reward,” he says.
Veterans and fresh talents
His ear and skills for what makes hit songs and what doesn’t have rendered him production credits on several best-selling singles. He for example guided and encouraged keyboard player Stephen “Lenky” Marsden to make the transition from being a musician to being a producer. This spearheaded the world famous Diwali riddim and cuts such as Sean Paul’s and Wayne Wonder’s multi-million selling singles Get Busy and No Letting Go. He also served as executive producer for Mr. Vegas’ breakthrough smash album Heads High.
Today he works with both established artists like Mr. Vegas and Burro Banton and newer ones like Randy Valentine from the UK and Exco Levi from Jamaica.
“Well, I really record who I hear on a riddim and try to voice current artists to try to keep freshness to my label and stay competitive with Jamaican productions, even though today it doesn’t really matter who you voice as much as it did ten years ago,” he explains, and continues:
“Artist’s names are not as important to sell records in today’s market, it has more to do with the quality of the song, I think. I also believe in building good relationships with artists.”
Changing music industry
When Maximum Sound started 20 years ago the music business was completely different compared to today’s market. CD reigned, vinyl was slowing down and no one had heard about the Internet. But according to Frenchie one of the biggest differences today is that industry people are much more educated about the music business. Artists have managed to reverse the old trend and stereotype of the business and they are now making more money than producers do.
“Ten to 15 years ago I was amazed by how some artists and musicians were playing or singing for big producers and did not know anything about publishing, royalties etc. I’m glad today to see that 99 percent of the artists and musicians in the reggae business have a publisher and understand how the business works. It has changed a lot in the last 15 years,” he believes.
But, there are several issues he’s concerned about.
“The value of the music has dropped a lot because of the file sharing virus. It has devalued reggae and definitely the quality of production has dropped a bit compared to where it was before. Not because of lack of talent, but because producers can’t afford to pay top class musicians, studios or top class engineers anymore to do their work. Most beats are now mostly done on a home Pro-Tools studio on Reason, Fruity Loops etc. By one person playing,” he believes, and adds:
“There’s less and less real, trained, professional musicians playing on new productions and a lot of the beats sound very similar to one another. I am not saying there is no good music coming out of Jamaica and I’m not a critic of modern Jamaican reggae. I think there is fantastic Jamaican music and artists out there, but the musicianship has definitely gone down in quality.”
Harder and harder to make a living
The file sharing virus that Frenchie mentions is widely known today, even though it might have slowed down in past years. Recent statistics from Nielsen SoundScan show that physical sales continue to drop while digital sales are up. Frenchie knows this.
“Yes, it’s the same everywhere. I still do a minimum of 7”, but the market is getting smaller and smaller each year. When you have a reggae record label you survive by doing a variety of things,” he explains, and continues:
“It is becoming harder and harder and almost impossible to live from it. Sometimes you wonder why you are doing it. Producing juggling riddims is becoming pointless for a producer. No one wants to pay for them! DJ’s used to represent about half of the 7” pre-buyers. Today most of them expect the music for free,” he says, and adds:
“All you do as a producer is really to set up a platform for the artist. Someone was telling me last year ‘whoa, that tune you did was number one in such and such charts and mashed-up UK and Europe and Africa. You must have done well with it?’. He was amazed when I showed him the 7” sales figures and download and how low they were. People who download or steal your work for free don’t give a f*** about that!”.
Ways to survive
To fight the declining physical sales and illegal downloads Maximum Sound has opened the mighty music vaults and today the back catalogue is available on several digital platforms, including iTunes, Spotify and Deezer. For Frenchie it was a natural step and the only way to survive.
“We live on a razor edge, so everything helps and digital sales have definitely increased, despite the crazy piracy that is still mashing up this business,” he explains.
Apart from making the music more available Frenchie also tries to contact the file sharing sites to get rid of the illegal download links. He also calls for better rules and regulations and Google to act more responsibly.
“If the Internet was better controlled against piracy and people were more responsible and law abiding the business would definitely be in a better shape. It’s just like stealing, but the people at Google don’t give a damn about content. They want the traffic on their sites to make three billions,” he says, and continues:
“Small, independent, labels at the bottom of the food chain are hit the hardest today! As labels like mine don’t have the budget to pay anti-piracy sites to take down links from sites such as MediaFire. It’s a bit depressing. I wouldn’t walk in a shop, pick up a bunch of stuff, and walk out without paying. It’s legalized theft!”
“No pay, no play”
File sharing and declining sales are of course tough to handle, but there are other challenges as well running a small reggae label, challenges that people outside the industry rarely experience or read about.
“For years I suffered from very poor promotion, especially in Jamaica and the States. It is always harder to get your records played if you have a European label voicing current yard artists and you will always play second fiddle to the Jamaican labels and producers. And if you want your records played on the radio, TV or sound systems in Jamaica I think for the most part you have to pay. As Buju Banton once sung ‘no pay, no play’. Straight away. That limits your promotion spread if you, like me, don’t believe you should bribe DJ’s to play your music,” explains Frenchie, and continues:
“And since I started most DJ’s more or less mostly play the tunes that are popular in Jamaica. If they buss in Jamaica the rest of the world follows. Apart from a few exceptions. That has been a big challenge for me over the years.”
But the UK is different and Frenchie explains that in England people are more upfront with music.
“Since the 60’s reggae fans in Britain have followed what they like and have always been more forward thinking when it comes to reggae. No bribes involved. On the UK charts you don’t only see Jamaican hits, you also see a lot from the UK, the U.S. and Europe. The level of knowledge with people involved in the music is the greatest in the world,” he believes.
Dealing with artists
Another possible challenge is the artists. There are money, friends and family involved in the artist’s decision-making process. And when you’re a rookie it can lead to disputes and lengthy discussions.
“When I started I was happy to get such and such artist on my label, as to get some of them to voice was not easy. I had to wait for them to turn up at the studio or literally hunt them down through Kingston. It was hard in the early days when my label was much less established and I didn’t have much money to pay them. So I wasn’t checking as much the quality of the songs, as just to get them to voice on my riddims was an epic experience and it was a much bigger achievement for me back then,” he explains, and continues:
“And nowadays the fee some of the artists want for voicing can be ridiculous to what a song is really worth, especially in today’s market,” he says, and adds:
“There is also a lot of peripheral bullshit you have to deal with as well. Dealing with egos, negative attitudes, back biting, politics etc. A lot of unnecessary rubbish, childish behavior and time wasting. It can get very tiring dealing with all that crap.”
King Jammy is a role model
Even though the industry is challenging, time-consuming and tough, it’s obvious that Frenchie loves his work. He still buys lots of records and aims to produce music he’d like to see in the record shops or on digital platforms. His greatest reward about being a producer is a rather simple one.
“When people buy what you’ve made. And when DJ’s or sounds play your music. It’s a great feeling,” he says, and adds:
“I also love the creative process when I start with a riddim.”
He plays a bit of keyboard and programs some of his riddims using an Akai MPC drum machine. He also works with top session musicians to play some of his riddims.
“I program some of the beats myself and I use musicians I love and idolize, like Sly & Robbie, Lenky, Mafia & Fluxy, Dalton Browne, Dean Fraser etc. So to make a record from scratch – the riddim, then the voicing, then mixing and mastering and finally pressing is a fantastic achievement for me. It’s like a labor of love. A teenager’s dream. As I’ve always wanted to be like King Jammy since I was 16 years old,” he says.
“No reggae business school”
Frenchie has produced top-selling tunes, acclaimed riddims and several albums for top artists like Jah Mason, Luciano and Anthony B, but he’s reluctant to pick a favorite project.
“Every time I go to Jamaica it’s like an adventure. Every project has a different vibe. The hardest thing is to make the transition between being a fan and then being in the business as some people you’ve been a fan of for years, didn’t turn out to be what you thought. And then, from passion, it becomes a job with all the constraints and tedious stuff that comes with it,” he says, and adds:
“They say never meet your heroes if you don’t want to be disappointed and that’s so true! I’ve had a few of those moments over the years!”.
Apart from being involved in several successful projects, Frenchie also has loads of things he believes he could have done better or artists he wanted to voice but never did.
“That’s how it is in this business as you mostly do what you can and not what you want. You learn from your mistakes as well. It’s a trial and error thing. There is no reggae business school to go to,” he laughs,” and continues:
“It’s a very particular business. You are limited by time, money and artists’ availability. And in Jamaica you also have the unknown factor. You can be in the middle of recording a song when there’s a power cut for five hours and the artist has to leave and can’t finish the song. Or the rain starts to fall down like mad and no one wants to come out of their house when that happens etc.”
Intensive anniversary year
Today Frenchie’s music empire includes Maximum Sound, Calabash Records, Pull Up My Selecta! and the newly established Maximum Sound Bwoy Killers. He runs it almost by himself since he can’t afford any staff.
This year has already boasted several releases from the labels. The Tin Mackerel riddim on Maximum Sound Bwoy Killers and The Mightiest and Number One Station riddims on Pull Up My Selecta! An album – the first in many years on Maximum Sound – with veteran deejay Captain Sinbad has also been put out. He and Frenchie met in the early 90’s and have been close friends since then.
“It’s really like putting out one of your best friends’ album and I wanted to do something different. To produce albums today is not very cost effective and that’s why I don’t do it much. The minute you talk to an artist about doing an album they ask you for a ton of money today. It’s too big of a gamble to do with Jamaica-based current artists for my small structure,” he explains.
Since recording an album is expensive Frenchie isn’t sure if there will be another one artist set on Maximum Sound again. However, he usually puts out a compilation for digital platforms each year and 2013 will be no different. But the one coming later this year offers something special since it’s the 20th anniversary.
“A digital compilation celebrating 20 years of the label will come out at some point this year. And I’ll be doing some drum and bass and jungle remixes of some of the older tracks in the catalogue to try to bring some of the tunes to a different audience,” reveals Frenchie.
The fridge and the view of the producer
Then there’s the fridge mentioned earlier. As a producer people expect you to be live like a king, sit on a throne and have a truckload of money to invest, or in some cases spend. This has happened to Frenchie several times and he’s particularly fond of one amusing memory.
“One night more than 15 years ago I got a phone call from Jamaica at three o’clock in the morning. An artist’s wife came on the phone. I had voiced him three weeks earlier in London and in complete panic she asked me ‘Frenchie, my fridge just pop down and the grocery’s a spoil, can you please send me a fridge from England tomorrow urgently!’,” he laughs, and continues:
“At that time I used to rent a room in someone’s house and did not even own a car. Whereas that particular artist was living on the hills of Kingston and owned several houses and drove a huge pickup truck,” he explains, and concludes:
“That is how you are seen as a producer. If you are doing it right you must be making a bag. Or you better make a bag in the eyes of certain artists. Ignorance is king in this business, but fortunately I think it’s better today. Most artists know what’s going on in the business much more than before.” For the original report go to http://unitedreggae.com/articles/n1401/071013/interview-frenchie-20-years-of-maximum-sound#sthash.nJASUYzn.dpuf