Jessy Fuchs is and always was a free thinker. Barely 16 when he joined SOCAN, he founded the Slam Disques label, is an art director and video director, he’s the frontman of punk-rock duo Rouge Pompier (loosely: Firetruck Red) and he was the bass player and main songwriter for the now-defunct band eXterio. Rewind to the mid-‘90s: at the time, he caught everyone off-guard during a songwriting workshop organized by SOCAN.

“The panel members were talking about the secrets of a good song,” Fuchs (pronounced “Füsh”) remembers. “I was getting infuriated by what I was hearing. You have to do this and that to write a good song. There was a mic so that members of the audience could ask questions. I stepped up. I was 17 and I totally disagreed with them. Everybody turned and stared at me. I said I felt like they were proposing a template, a recipe, that was tantamount to the death of creativity. I said I believed there were as many ways to write a good song than there were great songs. The crowd cheered me on. I went back to my seat and realized I really enjoyed it. I was good at something: shit-kicking!”

“People in the music scene tend to be quiet in public. They’re afraid to upset someone and lose their support. From that point on, it becomes politics.”

Eighteen years later, the musician is frequently solicited to share his opinions on the recording industry’s issues. His editorials have been published by The Huffington Post and he’s a regular on the Catherine et Laurent show, which airs simultaneously on community stations CIBL and MATV. He’s openly criticized ADISQ who, in his own words, is there to serve record producers rather than artists. He blames musicians for their inability to sell themselves during interviews. He’s opinionated and makes no bones about it. “People like the fact that I’m a musician, a label guy, and that I’m not afraid to speak my mind,” says Fuchs. “That’s quite rare indeed. People in the music scene tend to be quiet in public. They’re afraid to upset someone and lose their support. From that point on, it becomes politics.”

Really? Can one really lose that much just from criticizing their peers? “There’s nothing dramatic about taking a stand,” says Fuchs. “Opinions abound everywhere. I’ve understood that with time, things settle down and people move on.”

According to Fuchs, no one should ever feel ashamed of standing for what they believe. “No one can ever please everyone, and it’s just as true for recording artists. Whether they are pop or rock, too many musicians compromise too much by trying to please everyone. When I act as a producer or art director for records released by Slam Disques, I always warn the band members before giving them my opinion. I tell them my opinion should not matter more than that of their girlfriend or peers. I tell them that in the end, I will always let them decide because the reason I signed them is because I trust them and I’m ready to assume their choices. If I didn’t like them, I didn’t have to sign them.”

Living on $12,000 a Year

Rouge Pompier

Rouge Pompier (Photo: Jean-François Lemire)

Founded in 2002, Slam Disques – whose roster includes O Linea, Athena, Couturier, Jeffrey Piton, Les Conards à l’Orange – will turn 15 next year. That’s quite a feat when you consider the very specific niche market coveted by the label: teenage fans of Francophone punk rock. One glance at the sales and one quickly realizes that most of Slam Disques’s releases sell 500 or 600 copies at best. The only exception being eXterio, which sold 30,000 units, but that was eight years ago. “Our secret? Five employees who work for a salary that I wish could be higher, an unpaid intern, and myself –  who, until very recently, worked 120 hours a week for zero dollars. Except to buy a car two years ago, I have never paid myself a salary for my work at Slam Disques.”

This means he lived on $12,000 a year which he earned from his copyrights from eXterio’s catalogue (including their hit “Whippet”) as well as from the catalogue of Rouge Pompier and a few other collaborations, including one with Les Chick’n Swell. That meant a lot of sacrifices for Fuchs. “I don’t have a family, I have very few expenses,” he says. “All the money I earned for filming, directing, editing and screenwriting videos went straight to the label’s bank account, not mine. The merch for eXterio and the first Rouge Pompier album was paid by the label and the profits went back to the label. To me, success is not a matter of the amount of money I can make, but to the number of projects I’ve successfully put out.”

This determination is equally present in his work as a songwriter. On Chevy Chase, Rouge Pompier’s latest album, released in March 2016, Jessy and drummer Alexandre Portelance produced 145 demos. Of those, 45 were shared to their fans so they could pick the 13 songs that made the final cut of the album. “I’m not interested in bands that write 12 songs for a 12-song album,” says Fuchs. “If you really think everything you write is good, we have a serious problem. By composing 145 songs, I set no limits and I was going in every possible direction without censoring myself: there were gloomy songs, stupid songs, protest songs, pop songs… It’s the fans that picked the best ones.”


The Cornerstone: A Good Song

One of the songs selected by the fans is titled “Ta peau tu la brûles” (loosely: “Burn Your Own Skin”), perfectly expresses the philosophy of Fuchs’ career. “I sing about the fact that we’re the only ones responsible for our own fate,” he says. “There’s no one bigger than you to pull yourself up. I started producing concerts and records because I wanted to work in the music business. I knew I wasn’t any smarter than anyone else when I was a teen, but I also knew that hard work would get me where I wanted to be. Just yesterday, I was invited in a fifth-grade class to tell the kids how I’ve managed to earn a living doing what I’m passionate about. Every time, the message is the same. Want to be an astronaut? Perfect! Don’t listen to people who’ll say, ‘Why?’ Listen to people who’ll say, ‘Why not?’ These are the people who’ll help you get to your dream.”

And those same kids are the ones who, three or four years from now, will be Slam Disques’s new target audience, a market that is purportedly not very interested in Francophone music and even less in paying for its music. “As far as Francophone music, it’s not true,” says Fuchs. “Kids listen to every kind of music. If they like a song, they don’t care whether it’s in French, in English or in Portuguese. It is true, however, that paying for music is quite a foreign concept to them. They have access to the whole world’s repertoire via YouTube. That’s where it’s at for them. My job is making sure that they will easily have access to my artists’ songs and, from that point on, that they want to see them live and, maybe, buy their t-shirt.”

And this video director believes that the ever-popular lyric videos aren’t enough. “Rouge Pompier filmed videos for all the songs on the first album, Kevin Bacon,” he says. “For Chevy Chase’s first single, “Autobus,” we released a lyric video and a regular video. Just putting up a lyric video is useless. In 2016, on the Internet, you need to repeat the same promotional outreach to have the desired impact. A truly creative video is systematically shared a lot more on social media.”

If there’s one thing Fuchs has learned in his 20 years in the business, it’s that “you might have the best promotional plan in the world, but if you don’t have a good album with good songs, it’s just not going to work. Everything starts with the songwriter. I used to think that I could come up with foolproof marketing strategies. Fuck strategy: write good songs, and it’ll work. No promo plan can save a shitty record.”

Rouge Pompier play Montréal’s Club Soda on April 22, 2016
with Kamikazi, Les Connards à l’Orange, Athena and Noé Talbot