F-IREing on all cylinders: An interview with Barak Schmool

The man behind the F-IRE label talks to thejazzbreakfast’s drummer/journalist JJ Wheeler

Barack Schmool, photographed by Russ Escritt

Barak Schmool, photographed by Russ Escritt

2012 has seen another year of frequent releases from the F-IRE label, representing musicians from all over Britain and exposing us as an audience to a wide variety of genres and concepts within the jazz spectrum. I caught up with label boss, musician and educator Barak Schmool to talk about the label, awards and the state of the British Jazz scene, which brought up some interesting opinions.

Q We’ve been enjoying a really wide range of groups and styles of Jazz (and beyond) offered to us by the F-IRE label recently. Where are you finding all these guys (and gals)?

A Initially, we (F-IRE collective) established the label for ourselves, but we had a lot of friends who were in the same position as us in that they needed to be in control of our own products. So people started asking us to put their record out and we thought it was a good idea to help our friends, as long as they were contributing in the same way as everyone else in the collective. It was really word of mouth – we haven’t pushed it. Once you’re a label everyone comes to you and offers their CD, often expecting to get a deal and somebody to pay for things, although that’s not how it works with us.

I guess the stuff which initially came out on the label was pretty eclectic. Some people find that attractive. There’s very little on the label which represents straight ahead American Jazz as this would probably be an unnatural thing for quite a lot of young British musicians to do.

Q The scope of different artists and musical visions is perhaps wider than some labels offer, but they’re all still consistently producing interesting listening material to a very high standard. Do you have any criteria in whose music you choose to release and who you decline? What makes an artist/band a F-IRE label artist?

A There are reasons for the artistic visions being more disparate – because the label has no remit to control artists. If somebody came to us and produced music of quality that was, say, Nu-Metal, we’d be like “Well, if you’re sure you want to release with us” and explain how distribution is and how we’re not associated with Nu-Metal but it’s about the quality of the music. So it’s more quality control than control over artistic vision.

Q Does that extend to whether you enjoy the music?

A It’s not me personally. There’s a team of people within F-IRE who are responsible for the reputation of the label and who have already established the Collective’s standard. We also make a little distinction between the people who are released as members of F-IRE and people who are friends released under the ‘F-IRE presents’ series. The main remit though is about the quality of music – that’s not to say we don’t pass judgement on some people, but that’s where we’re coming from first.

We have some knowledge, as musicians, of what else is out there and how stuff compares. We’re not picking things because they’re commercially viable as much as that they are artistically complete.

Q We’re seeing a rise in artist-run labels, perhaps similar to your own (I’m thinking Dave Stapleton’s Edition or Mike Janisch’s Whirlwind). A lot of musicians now seem more interested in working with these labels and labels run by Collectives. Why do you think this is? Is there something about the ethos or the structure of these labels that is perhaps more attractive than the traditional power-house industry labels run by non-musicians?

A This country is a pretty tough part of the music world. There’s not a lot of money to be made by playing creative Jazz music, so that’s not attractive to somebody who wants to make money. They’re going to cream off one or two people whose picture sells CDs but actually I always find that quality is only dependent on opportunity – given the right ground all plants will grow.

Musicians tend to know what’s good and what’s going to be the next big thing because we’re playing each other’s music. So musicians running labels is interesting in the sense that they would rarely make a decision to put something out there because of image and to me that’s powerful.

OK, with a label like ours a part of the initial money made from sales has to go back into the label to cover costs, overheads and keep the machine running, but after that all of the money goes back to the artist. For someone who is going to have a sales pattern of trickle sales throughout their career – shifting a few units all the time but never really shifting loads because there isn’t the money for massive tours and publicity – that doesn’t suit a big record label. But it’s essential for an artist to have their product available. So a musician run label is not only attractive but often the only option. You either do it yourself, which has got some problems or you do it with some friends who are all in it together. I may have sold 600 of my Timeline albums (the label’s first release) but I didn’t sell 600 in one year.

Q You mentioned “in this country” at the start of your answer. Do you think things are different in Europe and if so, how?

A Definitely. There is more funding in certain places, supporting scenes, and there is a different audience demographic. I know from doing gigs both in the UK and on the continent what the differences are. When you’re in certain parts of Europe, there’s a very big difference because you’re in a community that accepts and goes out to listen to music.

There is also the issue of the dark forces that control the opportunities in the UK which, until you’re quite old in the scene, you don’t find out about. You spend years wondering why there weren’t opportunities for you, then you discover it’s because somebody put an obstacle in your way that you didn’t know about. But this happens to people. I can talk about any number of people and why they never appear at certain major events in this country. You think ‘well, that’s weird’. But when the people who run festivals are also agents, they will always favour their own artists, i.e. those people they’ll make money off at each stage of the food chain. So if government money is handed to people like that without control, of course, it’s inevitable that it will skew the scene. That’s what happens here. The scene is skewed.

Q One of the recent F-IRE releases, Roller Trio’s self-titled debut, has been making a bit of noise in this year’s award season with nominations for Mercury and MOBO awards. This is nothing new for the label, but many in the Jazz world are often skeptical of these types of accolades. Do you think music ‘Awards’ schemes are helpful? And if so (or not), why?

A There have been plenty of nominations including people from the collective like Seb (Rochford), Kit (Downes) and Pete Wareham. Is this useful? Some big advertising money spreading knowledge of suggestions of creative music – that’s fine. Some people who have never heard of Roller Trio get to hear them because of these nominations.

I don’t think we should ever see award nominations as some kind of quality seal, though. And it skews the scene in a way. This is the problem with having people who only profit from something when it reaches a certain level. They promote somebody and create awareness of them so hard that people think “oh, they must be great because we keep hearing about them” and the answer is “NO!” – there are loads of amazing young musicians of great quality who you will not hear.

So is it helpful? It’s not actually helpful to the whole scene. I don’t see any kind of revival of the jazz scene because someone gets promoted to superstar status, it just seems to suggest that they are worth more than everybody else. It’s like you pull one person up and push everybody else down.

I think young musicians think “that’s the thing, that must be it” because we hear about them and they get awards so we must do that. It’s actually artistically meaningless. They’re catapulted into a world where it’s about sales rather than artistic creativity, so it’s a distraction.

… It’s interesting to hear these views from someone whose label is perhaps benefitting from these awards.

I’m speaking for the music, not for the record label. That’s my interest, not making money for the record label, because that’s not what the label does.

Q Can you give us any inside scoop into what we can expect to hear in the near or not-so-near future? Who is in line to make an appearance on the label and is there anyone out there you can recommend checking out?

A I think there’s a new thing from Basquiat Strings in the pipeline and various other people releasing on the F-IRE presents series in the near future. I can’t recommend one person over another person, I like an awful lot of the more creative stuff that comes in.

As far as we know, Laura Cole and Emily Saunders have both got releases next year.

And, finally, if you want to know what Barak Schmool likes to eat for breakfast, go to the Jazz Breakfasts page here.



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