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 Clash, The Jags, The Vibrators, XTC as well as many of CBS records pop acts, including Sailor. Beach Boy, Bruce 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 Club’s classic 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 Year, Musicweek 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 BBC‘s 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 Producer’s Guild.
Here Steve talks to Music Supported Here about his illustrious career from humble beginnings as a tape-op in 1975, to networking and the essential qualities you need to succeed in music production…
You worked your way up from a trainee tape-op. Tell us about some of your experiences and how you got to where you are now. Was there a particular formative one?
I left school in 1975 and started at the lowest level making tea, watching the engineers and assisting the tape operators and junior engineers set up the studio. That was incredibly valuable experience because I think, sadly, with fewer big studios around today that training isn’t available. I was taught very well by a team of great engineers at the time who were from the first generation of recording engineers, people like Mike Ross who is still a very famous engineer to this day.
The mid-70s was a very interesting change era for music. Punk was just around the corner and it really turned the music industry on its head. I think there is a direct analogy with the digital marketplace, the way bands survive and the way they have to earn their living today – it’s turning the market on its head again.
What are the essential qualities needed to be a producer?
As a record producer you have to be Henry Kissinger most of the time. You’ve got to be the perfect diplomat. But you’ve also got to bridge the needs of the artist with your employment.
If you are being employed by the record company you are in the middle. You’ve got to understand what the record company expect you to do and what they want from you with regards to the relationship with the band. But you’ve also got to understand what the band want and very often clarity in description is the key.
I have a great relationship with Boy George in Culture Club, but I remember a long long time ago before we got the rules of engagement perfectly right, there was one early track that I’d mixed. Boy George phoned me early in the morning and said “I don’t like the mix, it’s terrible, it’s awful and I just don’t like it” so we went back into the studio and I asked him to play me something he liked. Here’s the thing that is so incredible and why it is so important for the producer to understand where the artist is coming from. The things he loved about the song he played to me were nothing to do with the song at all. It was the echo on the vocal. And as soon as I changed that, and that was the only thing I changed on the mix, he said “I love it, that’s fantastic, I love it”.
The thing is, absolutely for the producer, it is the communicating with the artist that matters. Find out what turns them on and the things they love. Because very often it’s not the whole thing, it’s the drum sound or the bass sound. You’ve got to understand what the artist is on about and then you can do a better job for them.
Based on your experience, what’s the most important thing in building new relationships with artists and with producers?
Well certainly I would advise everyone who is an MU member or is a member of PRS, MPG or any of these societies to look for networking evenings. Generally when you have a panel event, there is a networking evening. People will come up, give me a card, ask me to listen to their stuff, and I do listen to it and occasionally there are things that are very good. Everyone should have business cards printed up with proper contacts and all of that to use at these. Networking is the most important thing. It’s how I get my contacts and how I would advise MU members and other people to get their contacts. It’s the best way.
From your own experience, what is the most important thing the relationship between producer and artist needs to work? How important is chemistry and how do you start creating that?
I can walk in a room with a band or go to a rehearsal space, meet people and can tell that almost immediately. You can tell if that is going to work almost in the first few seconds. And that actually hasn’t changed in my entire career.
It’s a creative relationship so it’s not just down to chemistry but I think trust. On both sides there should be a mutual respect. I would expect an artist to be honest. One of the things you can’t have is an artist not giving you their ideas or not being open about their ideas. And I mean open in both ways, so if I do something and it is not quite what they were hearing or feeling I expect them to say it in a professional manner and not let it fester and fester and fester. Because I haven’t got the time and energy to patronise people or dare I say blow smoke up their arse. I need it to be professional and as a result of that I think I get a better working relationship. People know that when I get excited about something, I am genuinely very very excited about it for all the right reasons.
Records that people revere, even if they are not successful, very often it’s the performance they love and it’s down to the artist to be able to deliver great performances and the producers to know when they’ve delivered the great performance and not produce the rubbish, but also when they’ve gone past the great performance. I guess that’s one of the greatest skills a producer can bring, knowing when enough is enough, knowing when to stop, but also knowing when to push a little harder once you’ve got the right thing.
Read part 2 of our interview with Steve Levine, on artists working with producers for the first time, home based productions, social media and his thoughts on piracy, next week.
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.
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