With Paris enjoying a musical renaissance, we meet the key players making themselves heard in an industry with a global reputation for catchy, sun-kissed pop.
The rise of “boutique” record labels, which often provide tailored support to independent artists, has shown that these players still have a crucial role in the music industry – even in the age of streaming.
One of the best examples of this bespoke approach is Paris-based Microqlima, which aims to provide “the right ecosystem” to each of the seven artists on its roster. “We see our work as craftsmanship,” says founder Antoine Bisou. “We are better suited to artists who want to work with us in the long term and develop a career. We try to do things better than a bigger label but with less.”
Bisou (whose real name is Bigot) was always passionate about music. After dropping out of a politics degree in Toulouse, in 2009 he moved to Berlin where he interned at some independent record labels. Upon his return to France, he started organising club nights under the name Microqlima, with the idea of “creating a mini Berlin microclimate in Toulouse”. He started helping his artist friends, later becoming the manager of disco band L’Impératrice, dream- pop duo Isaac Delusion, singer Fishbach and cheery Pépite.
It was the artists who convinced him that the management company he started in 2014 could be turned into a record label. With the funds from a deal signed with distributor Idol, Bisou got a tiny office in what is now Le Popup’s (see page 138) art gallery. He did everything from designing album covers to sending out press releases. The venue next door was the perfect place to showcase artists. Microqlima still organises regular concerts there with up-and-coming artists on its radar.
Most of Microqlima’s acts are in the realm of French electro-pop. Now with seven full-time employees, the label will soon move into new offices in the 11th arrondissement that will also house recording studios – and Bisou lets slip that there are more signings in the pipeline. He is mindful of staying relevant as music trends evolve. “The challenge is to stay as open as possible and not be defined by a single genre,” he says. “I would love to sign three different styles of rap, or three styles of rock tomorrow. In fact, that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Journalist and presenter, Radio Nova
Radio Nova has been broadcasting the best pop, rock, electronic and hip-hop music, new and old, since 1981. “The number of listeners completely exploded during the pandemic,” says Angèle Chatelier, who presents the radio’s show Nova Lova every weekday from 17.00 to 19.00. “That is because we accompany the listener. It’s my role as a journalist to say, ‘You’ve just listened to this song but did you know about this other band that is playing a concert tonight?’ You don’t get that with a playlist.”
As a teenager in her hometown of Caen in Normandy, Chatelier presented a daily 30-minute slot on student station Radio Phenix, where she interviewed local up-and-coming artists. “There is a good music scene in Caen, so I invited acts from what we called the ‘pop Caennaise’ scene,” she says. “Some of them went on to become big, such as DJs Fakear and Superpoze.”
Today much of her work is still about spotlighting emerging talent, though now they come from all over France and beyond. After moving to Paris to study philosophy, Chatelier landed a job at Europe 1, one of the country’s leading private broadcasters, where she covered the music industry for three years – before putting in stints at rmc, Rolling Stone and Slate. Since January, in her new role at Radio Nova, she has been playing the station’s eclectic selection of pop and rock interspersed with news, interviews and reports on everything from artificial intelligence to how music festivals are going green.
Radio Nova is known for its alternative programming and free-spirited attitude. For the station’s 30th anniversary, the team dispatched 30 reporters to 30 different countries and broadcast at 11.00 from each time zone. Recently, French singer Voyou was invited to write and play a piece of musical theatre for the station, and psychedelic rock band La Femme were given a three-hour “carte blanche” slot to perform, pick tunes and tell the stories behind their songs. “Radio Nova has always done stuff that is completely out there and it’s great that we can continue,” says Chatelier. “It’s not about ratings; it’s about being creative with sound.”
Though the station is based in Paris, every summer the team sets off on a road trip across the country in a camper van to broadcast from DJ sets and festivals in a dozen cities. For Chatelier, the radio’s role in highlighting lesser-known acts is key. “Streaming has its limits. People listen to the same artists, or the same kinds of artists, because the algorithm will present you with the same thing, so curiosity is lost,” she says. “That’s where Nova has a role to play. If people don’t listen to emerging musicians, the whole ecosystem that depends on them – small concert venues and record shops – would collapse.” They can count on Radio Nova’s help.
Christopher Willatt, Julia Johansen and Lewis Lazar
Band members, Oracle Sisters
For the band Oracle Sisters, the question, “Where are you from?” does not produce a straightforward answer. Childhood friends Christopher Willatt and Lewis Lazar grew up in Brussels despite being Irish-English and Danish-American respectively, while drummer Julia Johansen is Danish-Finnish.
Perhaps this is why the trio is so rooted in Paris, where they are based. Lazar had been in New York playing in the band Summer Moon (founded by The Strokes’ bassist Nikolai Fraiture) and Willatt had been running a music venue in Edinburgh when they decided to reunite in the French capital in 2017 and form a band. “We grew up in a French-speaking country and part of the reason why we felt comfortable coming here is that it felt a bit like home,” says Lazar. It also turned out to be a great place to be a musician. “A lot of emphasis is placed on artistic creation here,” says Willatt. “People are brought up to put strong importance on literature and music. There’s also a lot of [state] support so you can live an OK life here.”
A friend introduced them to Johansen, who had learnt to play the drums after growing disenchanted with a career in modelling. Their first songs were released soon afterwards. Their home city is the theme of the band’s first two EPs: Paris I and Paris II, released in 2020 and 2021 respectively, which quickly gained a huge following. They were only able to meet their audience when venues reopened after lockdown. “Le Popup (see page 128)was a really important venue,” says Johansen. “It’s the place in Paris that is allowing new artists to step up. They were very supportive.”
Since those early days, the band’s dreamy indie folk has gained a huge following in France and beyond. They arrive at a bar near the Place des Vosges on a sunny evening lugging several suitcases for a US tour. Their debut album, Hydranism, came out in April and they have since toured Europe, selling out shows in France and the UK. As its name suggests, Hydranism was not written in Paris but on the Greek island of Hydra, where the group spent the autumn of 2020. The island, known for attracting writers and artists such as Leonard Cohen and Henry Miller, is famously car-free, so musical equipment had to be transported by donkey to the old carpet factory where they holed up for two months. The result is 11 timeless tracks that bring together folk, dream-pop and jazz influences, all embellished by the group’s alluring vocal harmonies.
The album was finished back in Paris, where they collaborated with producer Maxime Kosinetz. The band point out how welcoming Paris is, which has resulted in friendships with bands such as Papooz, who they have supported on tour. “The most important thing is the community,” says Willatt. “You don’t feel like people are trying to win.”
Would the band ever consider singing in French? “Well,” says Lazar. “I saw a fortune-teller and she said that we have to write songs in French, it’s going to be massive.” Superstitious or not, Oracle Sisters seem to have a bright future laid out before them.
Editor, ‘Les Inrockuptibles’
In the coastal city of Saint-Brieuc in Brittany, Carole Boinet grew up immersed in music. In 1983, four years before she was born, her parents founded the Art Rock Festival where they hosted the likes of Miles Davis and The Sugar Cubes. Her home was always scattered with vinyls and CDs. “It was my mother who introduced me to Daft Punk,” she says. “I had a parental filter that was very precious and which led me to develop a particular relationship to music and art.”
The festival also revealed her parents’ passion for finding exciting new bands and sharing them with potential fans. “I grew up with a desire to help people discover things they didn’t know about, of sharing music rather than keeping it closed in a small group of people who are already in the know,” she says.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that despite an early temptation to become a university lecturer, Boinet also sought a career helping people across France stay up to date with the latest releases as the editor of cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Founded in 1986, Les Inrocks (as it’s commonly known) is a highly respected title covering everything from albums to films and books. Born out of an interest in the sounds coming out of the 1980s Manchester scene, back when a French audience had limited access to it, the magazine has evolved into a reliable source of cultural criticism and a fixture of newsstands around the country. Given how lively and well-populated the French music scene is, it has been an essential guide for those trying to navigate it. In 2010 it was bought by banker Matthieu Pigasse (who also owns Radio Nova) and expanded its remit to politics and society coverage. Boinet arrived as an intern in 2012 and slowly worked her way up, becoming the editor of the annual special issue on sex and eventually making it to the position of editor-in-chief last year.
Boinet is keen to highlight the magazine’s role in promoting emerging artists: Les Inrocks organises its own festival as well as hosting monthly gigs with up-and-coming bands at La Boule Noire, a venue in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. “I love discovering new artists and at Les Inrocks we have always tried to help and accompany artists we like,” says Boinet. “For example, we scheduled November Ultra, Yoa and Eloi when they were still unknown.”
The magazine might have had to adapt to stay relevant to an audience increasingly looking for new music online but Boinet is convinced that Les Inrocks’ role goes beyond simply being a directory of new releases – and is committed to making it reflect the times we are living in. “Culture is political,” she says. “It’s not just about entertainment; it can change the world.”
Louis Dumas and Pauline Couten
Co-founders, Pete the Monkey Festival and Le Popup
Below the Coulée Verte, a railway-turned-elevated park in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, Le Popup stands out thanks to its blue awnings and its bright pink, green and purple façade. On most evenings, crowds can be seen spilling out onto the pavement outside this concert venue – whether it’s for a Tuesday night jam session or a DJ set in the early hours.
The name of the venue, which is Rue Abel, is a reference to its humble beginnings: the 200-capacity space started out as a pop-up over a decade ago but became a permanent fixture complete with a bar, art gallery and restaurant serving seasonal French dishes. “There were very few venues this size back then,” says Franco-British founder Louis Dumas, who grew up in Oxford and Brighton before moving to Paris. Since then, the venue has become a stop-off point for emerging local and foreign artists seeking a small stage to test their songs on a Parisian audience: Clara Luciani, Juliette Armanet, Eddy de Pretto and Loyle Carner all played here before they became well known. With most of the French music industry concentrated in Paris, Dumas and his team want to support the scene however they can. “It’s become a venue for developing artists,” says Dumas. “What I find exciting is participating at the beginning of their career, to be there before anyone else.”
Over the years, the venue has also served as an incubator for Pete the Monkey, the festival that Dumas founded in 2012, which takes place on the Normandy coast every July. The project, named after a capuchin monkey that Dumas filmed while volunteering for a wildlife conservation ngo in Bolivia, has an environmental bent: every edition raises funds for the Latin-American charity. “My brother, Rob, and I had a project for a festival in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, where we spent our summers, and we thought it would be a good way to raise awareness around the cause,” says Dumas.
For the first edition, they invited friends from the UK and France: 300 people turned up. Ten years later, the festival has set itself apart thanks to its unique multidisciplinary approach, with dance workshops, sports activities and a sauna alongside concerts. Most of all, though, Pete the Monkey is beloved because of its ability to act as a springboard for up-and-coming music acts on both sides of the Channel. In recent years tickets have sold out even before the line-up has been announced. “Our community is open-minded and curious, and they trust us to bring them real gems every year,” says Pauline Couten, Dumas’s wife, who joined to run the festival’s operations in 2013.
The festival became so successful that a production company in Portugal expressed interest in launching an off-shoot edition near Porto four years ago. The founders declined, as they weren’t sure whether they could reproduce an authentic feeling of community in a less familiar context. Instead, they decided to focus on supporting the music scene closer to home. “That’s what drives us,” says Dumas.
Music producer and owner, Studios Ferber
In the basement of an unassuming 1970s building in the 20th arrondissement, in a peaceful neighbourhood dotted with quaint townhouses known as La Campagne à Paris (“The countryside in Paris”), Studio Ferber is one of some 30 recording studios in the French capital. Here, the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Charles Aznavour and Juliette Greco spent hours honing their albums to perfection.
Today, down a spiral staircase and through a soundproofed door, record producer Renaud Letang welcomes monocle into a wood-panelled room furnished with leather sofas. Ever since he inherited Studio Ferber from its founder René Ameline in 2014, Letang has used the same room. “We have three commercial studios,” he says. “We built 11 booths that are rented out to producers, musicians and film score composers year-round.”
Born in Tehran to French parents, Letang spent much of his childhood travelling around the world thanks to his father’s job as an engineer for a big multinational. Though he didn’t make a career out of music, Letang’s father was an avid multi-instrumentalist who, in his son’s memories, “played the piano for three hours every day but came from a generation for whom becoming a musician was not an option”. After Iran, the family moved to Indonesia and then to Venezuela. This exposure to different influences, along with his family’s eclectic music taste, had a profound effect. “These three countries are cultural extremes, so it broadened my mind,” he says. “That’s why I’ve been able to do such a vast variety of things in my career. From an album for Jane Birkin to Seu Jorge and The Kills.”
After leaving school, Letang got an internship at Studios Guillaume Tell, another legendary Parisian recording space that attracted artists from around the world. “For three years all I did was work with some of the biggest acts: Sting, Prince, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon,” he says. “That’s how I learnt everything.”
At 20, Letang met Jean-Michel Jarre, one of the pioneers of French electronica, and spent the following decade as a sound engineer for his live shows. He went on to collaborate with seminal artists: from singer-songwriter Alain Souchon to French-Spanish musician Manu Chao.
“We developed a production style, a sound that worked very well at the time,” says Letang. Though he is perhaps best-known for his work in folk and pop, a recent interest in the revival of French touch has also benefitted his operations – with a variety of international artists choosing to record here. In recent years, Letang has helped to steer projects by Benny Sings, Chilly Gonzales and the French disco band L’Impératrice.
Ultimately, Letang says that his role comes down to finding “the right emotion” and working with artists who are open to his suggestions. “I need to have an idea of where I can take the project,” he says. “The aim is to try to understand what they want better than they do themselves.” It’s this expertise that, from behind the scenes, will keep shaping the French music of tomorrow.