A Fireside Chat with Helma Schlief, Curator of FMP (Free Music Production)
“ [This music] is worthwhile. It has something to do with the liberty, the attitude, with the approach towards music, which is the most democratic process I can think of. ”
I love FMP. I will go far as to say that there isn't a title on FMP (in print) I haven't listened to and moreover, not one title (in print) I wouldn't recommend. But how do you argue against the record label that has recorded the vast majority of Europe's legendary improvisers? How do you argue against the label that released Machine Gun (quite possibly the best Euro improv record ever recorded)? How do you argue against the label that has released more Cecil Taylor titles than perhaps all the labels put together?
Since Jost Gebers' departure, Helma Schleif has taken over as curator and owner of Europe's foremost label for improvised music. Ms. Schleif was kind enough to sit down with the Roadshow on her first visit to my fair City of Angels. The following is a conversation with a true proponent of the music and one, whom I admire greatly, unedited and in her own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
Helma Schleif: Well, I known Jost Gebers for twenty years, since the time I am in Berlin and in '98 he offered me to buy the stock and the rest, of course, he wanted to retire and so I started in February 2000. I took over manufacturing and distribution process and this is what I am doing since then.
FJ: In the States, FMP is distributed by Bob Rusch's Cadence North Country.
HS: That is right. I have a number of distributors worldwide, of course, from Australia to Taiwan to Hong Kong to all Europe and the States of course.
FJ: What markets are doing well?
HS: Well, in regard to Europe, it is part of Russia as well, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and the States, and Japan is quite important. The Asian countries are slowly developing. Taiwan, for example, is a great partner. The market has been there all the time, but FMP hadn't, so I started to change the space.
FJ: Certain FMP catalog titles are being reissue through Atavistic Stateside.
HS: That's right. I was not very amused when I found out about this.
FJ: I was under the impression this was a cooperative effort. Do you not own the catalog?
HS: I do. I do. I'm the exclusive worldwide of FMP. As I said, I was not amused when I found out. I was not informed beforehand and this is something of a conflict now. Nipples, for example, was certainly done like that. As I heard before, it was intended to be re-released on FMP, but Jost Gebers couldn't find the outtakes or didn't want to, so Peter Br'tzmann, obviously, decided to give it to John Corbett in order to see it released at all. That is how it started, but the rest, there is a catalog of twenty-five titles I suppose, planned to be re-released through John Corbett's Unheard Music Series, which is something of let's say a legal conflict now.
FJ: Has it been difficult keeping the catalog complete?
HS: No, I have most of the CDs in print. This is one of my priorities, to have all the titles available. Of course, this depends on the demand like Raphe Malik 21st Century Texts, it is very good CD, but if there is no demand, I can't do reruns. It is too costly to have them in stock and nobody orders them. So there are a few titles, five out of one hundred and thirty, which are not available at the moment, but which could be redone anytime if there is demand.
FJ: What is FMP's best selling title?
HS: Well, it is Machine Gun. It is the Cecil Taylor stuff and some of the Schlippenbach Trios.
FJ: Taylor's documented recordings are primarily through FMP.
HS: Yes, certainly, there might be two other titles coming out this year. There is a Cecil at the Total Music Meeting in '99 and another one I don't want to talk about.
FJ: With FMP such a known entity, why spinoff a/l/l?
HS: That started in February last year with Tony Oxley's Floating Phantoms B.I.M.P. Quartet. First, I wanted to start the label designed for music and language, but then it turned out differently as I had the chance to release this Tony Oxley material and so I did. It was FMP's policy at the time to run sideway labels, so I thought it was quite worthwhile to have control of the whole process of producing and so I started this smaller label. It is doing very well I must say.
FJ: With one hundred plus titles in the FMP catalog, how many more of planned for release this year?
HS: Six to ten, that is the plan. I have some more in the pipeline, but it depends on the returns of course because different to Jost Gebers, I am totally dependent upon sales for the production of new CDs. He had subsides all the time so for him, it was much easier to continue to produce new CDs. The next CD is from the December Total Music Meeting. I expect it to be ready for May this year and it will be a great CD with the Evan Parker Trio, the Schlippenbach Trio and both trios together. Hopefully, the Cecil Taylor CD will come out and I have done also three other releases from last year Total Meeting, which was really great.
FJ: And have you not received those subsides because the European governments are following suit with the government in this country and the well is drying.
HS: Certainly, especially when you consider the situation as we found it. Jost Gebers had returned the money, the subsides to the Berlin authorities without telling anyone. We couldn't get access to this subsides when it was returned so we are now dealing with a fifth of what he had before and this money goes totally to the organization of the Total Music Meeting, which is partly funded by my company. Otherwise, it would not be able to stay. So the producing of CDs has sold down because the money available is going to the festival.
FJ: You are spending so much of your own money to do this, you must be dedicated to the art.
HS: I do. I do (laughing). You have to be a bit crazy to do all this of course. And you have to be some kind of pessimist to do it at all, but it is also what I said from the very beginning. It is not only marginal music. It is something that is affecting me and the lives of so many other people and it is important. In regards to the socialist vision of this music, it is the most contemporary genre of music I can think of and it needs to be heard and it affects so many people and their lives, hearts, and minds. It is worthwhile. It has something to do with the liberty, the attitude, with the approach towards music, which is the most democratic process I can think of. The unexpected, it is sort of adventure and so many people from the audience at the festival have told me that the impression they get at live concerts is mandatory for later or for being a collector of CDs. They are always saying that it moves me or they see things differently, and I think this is a very important aspect of this music, which is that it really affects and touches hearts and minds.