Steve Levine on artists starting out – tips and advice

Steve Levine

Beginning his career as a trainee tape-op at CBS studios in 1975, Steve soon progressed to in house engineer, working with many now classic new wave & punk acts including The ClashThe Jags, The VibratorsXTC as well as many of CBS records pop acts, including SailorBeach BoyBruce Johnston was to play an important part in Steve’s early career, culminating with Steve producing an album for the Beach Boys several years later.  Steve also produced all of Culture Clubclassic hits and the band’s three multi-platinum albums.  Since then he has worked with a wide spectrum of artistes and composed a number of film scores.

Steve has collected a number of prestigious awards including Brit Award for Producer of the YearMusicweek Top Singles Producer and a Grammy for his work with Deneice Williams. Steve is also a LIPA companion and Honarary Doctorate at Bucks University.

Steve is a regular guest speaker at various pro-audio seminars for companies such as Yamaha, Korg, Apple Computers  & Harman Automotive and presents production master-classes at the Apple store in London.  His radio production company, formed with Richard Allison , Magnum Opus Broadcasting produces documentary series for the BBC and XFM; in particular, The Record Producers for BBC Radio 2 with an extended version on 6Music. This series focuses on the art of record production from the producer’s perspective. In 2011 Steve was awarded a Sony Radio Award for his contribution to these specialist documentaries. Steve presented a radio show – ”Live @ Levines” which featured conversations with artists and musicians on the records that have inspired them to create their music.  He has also appeared on many radio and TV programmes; he is a regular guest on BBCs 6 Music.

Along with his radio and TV work, he is busy producing exciting new bands for his new label Hubris Records;  first release 6 Day Riot.  Currently, Steve is working with Daytona Lights & Natalie McCool. Steve is the author of the highly successful Hit Kit and the Art of Downloading Music. Steve is a Director of PRS for music, MCPS, UK Music, member of the MU Executive Committee &MU LRC and  Chairman of The Music Producers Guild.

In part 2 of his interview with Music Supported Here, Steve shares his advice for artists working with producers for the first time, tips on home recording, starting out as a session musicians and his thoughts on the impact of piracy…

What advice would you give to artists working with a producer for the first time?

Do your research, do your rehearsal and make sure you present your producer with what you want. Producers are very good at doing things most of the time, but they’re not magicians. You have got to understand what your skill is as a band, what you want to achieve, and present that to the producer. Open communication and honesty are so important.

New models of working are emerging all the time. You are producing new bands for your new label Hubris Records. You have worked with artists including The Beach Boys and Culture Club before issues like piracy became prevalent. How does it compare working with emerging acts now? Can you give any advice on surviving in a continuously evolving industry?

Each band member in this day and age should develop a specialist skill. So let’s say the drummer is a great videographer. He or she needs to be in charge of that role. If the singer is great at twitter, he or she needs to do that and so on. They need to delegate those roles to people who can do them well because it’s this constant constant thing of maintaining communication with your fans.  The one thing that the independent artists have, whether you are a band or a solo artist, is that connection with the fanbase. It is something that is truly unique to this day and age. It’s like the über fan club. It’s direct contact. And when it’s really really good, for example with my band Daytona Lights, it has a great effect on their gigs.

I know record companies use terrible words like “social media” and “content”, but it is absolutely true. Bands should not take their foot off the gas at all. Really, really focus and try and do innovative things because fans really like that. Design the t-shirt, design the sleeve, take a picture, upload a video, find stuff that is really exciting and really feel a connection.

What is your view on the standard of home based productions?

If you’re recording at home, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it but be professional in your approach. Try and make sure you’re doing the right job for what your goal is.

If you’re a band then recording at home is still relatively difficult because you need to all play at once. I would encourage as much playing as possible rather than overdubbing everything separately because if you are a band, that can be a strange way of re-recording in what you are used to playing live.

If you’re trying to do quality demos to work with a producer, perhaps consider recording at your rehearsal studios. They’re only a few pounds an hour. Another tip there is if you’re working, as many musicians are, the cheap day rate is normally from 10 till 6 and the expensive rate is from 6 till 10 so it might be cheaper for you all to take a day off of work and record during the day. And if you rehearse really well you should be able to cut your 5 tracks certainly in a day or a couple of days at most.

If you are making demos with a view to working with a producer or engineer or taking your career to the next stage, then really make demos. Don’t make masters. I get so many demos from bands that are quite well recorded at home, quite well produced, but they’ve forgotten the most fundamental thing – the song – and you’ve really got to focus on it. You can’t beat great song writing or great ideas for songs. If an artist is a traditional dance act is doesn’t have to be a traditional verse chorus verse chorus, it can be a great hook or a great idea.

Any tips or advice for artists that give it a go?

Don’t all try and be everything. If you’re a great songwriter, don’t worry about learning the computer and learning how to use Logic or Pro Tools. Get someone in, you can surely find a friend. It’s almost the way I started. So if you’re a band and you want to start to record find out if you have got a friend at school or a friend at university that is studying sound engineering and wants to use you as guinea pigs. It’s a great way of building a relationship up and it’s a great way of concentrating on the things that are really important and get the engineer to concentrate on getting the levels rights.

The other thing is if you are a member of the Musicians’ Union – the MU – you can talk to them about copyright and protecting your work and legal assistance. And when you need help asserting your intellectual property rights. Their insurance is good too.

Do you think music being freely available online generates business for musicians, as some people argue, or is this illegal download culture damaging artists?

Well, it’s incredibly difficult so to take my one solo artist that we are currently working with, Natalie McCool, we’ve had an unbelievable number – an unprecedented number – of illegal downloads which has really taken its toll on us both financially and emotionally.

There was a period when Napster first came out and illegal downloads were there. Generally speaking the downloads that were illegally obtained seemed to be from the major recording artists and the major labels, and as I already mentioned punk, Napster had a punk attitude. Like, these are the big corporations, they’ve not paid tax, they’ve been ripping off the artist, we’re going to take the music for free – not realising of course the ramifications of doing that. That the artist was suffering. What has happened over the last couple of years is that the independent artists who normally didn’t suffer from piracy are suffering as much as any major artist but the devastation it causes on the independent artist is much much greater.

When you look at the record company structure, it’s very interesting because I had this conversation recently with Boy George. Boy George made a very interesting point that with the success of Culture Club in those days, and I think the same applies with my work with The Beach Boys, there was an infrastructure within the record companies that really got on and did the donkey work making sure that the minutiae of record making was completely separate to the plugging and the selling of records. And I think there’s two things that have happened now; that small independent record companies haven’t got the financial resources to have that infrastructure and the major record companies are employing lots of dare I say intern style people who are doing it but I don’t know whether they are doing it in such a holistic way with the artist. I mean Boy George used to go into Virgin and say, not every day but maybe every other day, and sit with them and work things out and I don’t know if that happens to the same degree now. So what happens is when an artist or a major artist with a major record company has a release, it’s almost like that terrible word the “impact date”, everything is geared around one day and it’s like BAM! And then if nothing happens, they move on to the next act. There’s no kind of ebb and flow like there used to be and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

And the thing to do about it as I said before is keep that contact with fans going. That is really really important. And communication with the producer. I think the public deserve to have a good quality recording and a good quality performance.

Next time, we will be speaking to session musicians. Have you got any advice, from the perspective of a producer, for those starting out in session work?

If you are a session musician rather than an artist, the thing there is to make sure you approach record producers who are going to be the ones to employ you. I think quite a lot of people who want to be session musicians make the mistake of going to the artist. Generally speaking it is the record producer who would book session musicians. Because the artist will go to the record producer and say “I’d like you to produce my record, who do you recommend?”.  And work out what your style is. If you are a rock musician, there’s no point going to a producer who does middle of the road stuff and vice versa because you’re wasting everybody’s time. Then get a good relationship going with a few record producers. Good recommendations from record producers work and word really spreads fast. So if you are going to be a session person, you’ve got to be professional, you’ve got to turn up on time and be ready to work.

Steve took part in an Artist Management seminar held by the Musicians’ Union in September 2012, which you can listen to below. You can find more from the MU on Soundcloud.

If you have any questions regarding this interview or any of the articles featured, leave us a comment below and we’ll do our best to address them.

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The Team,
Music Supported Here

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