Q&A: Steve Levine
By Chris Cooke | Published on Wednesday 26 October 2011
Steve Levine has been working in the record industry since the mid-1970s, when he joined CBS Studios as a trainee tape-op.
Working as an engineer and later producer he has worked with countless artists over the years, including The Clash, Stevie Wonder, Ziggy Marley, Motorhead and, perhaps most notably, Culture Club – he produced their first three albums. He continues to produce today, but has also expanded his role, providing an incubator for new bands through his own record Hubris Records, allowing new talent the space and support to develop.
A prominent player in the wider record business, Steve has had roles in various industry organisations over the years, and, perhaps most notably, is currently Chair of the Music Producers’ Guild. He is also an accomplished broadcaster, most commonly popping up on the BBC discussing the music industry, the recording process, and new bands and releases. His most high profile radio project to date is certainly ‘The Record Producers, the BBC programme that explores the work of individuals whose recordings have had a lasting impact on popular music history.
Steve is set to take part next week in BASCA’s Songfest event, taking place at The Bedford in Balham from 31 Oct to 2 Nov. Ahead of that, CMU Business Editor Chris Cooke caught up with Steve to chat about his long career, his current projects, and the role of the record producer past, present and future.
CC: When you joined CBS Studios as a trainee tape-op in 1975 what were your ambitions – did you aspire to be a record producer from the outset?
SL: Not really. Initially I just wanted to make records, but not as an artist. The first aim was to become a recording engineer. I was inspired by seeing a picture of Larry Levine, Phil Spector’s engineer. Though that was probably because I knew that role would provide part of the skillset I’d need to become a producer, and it’s a route many producers take.
CC: Different record producers seem to approach the job differently – some playing a more creative role, others more involved in the actual sound engineering, others act as the coordinator. What kind of producer are you?
SL: Very much all of those!
CC: Has the role you play as a record producer changed over the years?
SL: Yes, very much so. The role of record producer has gone full circle to that originally conceived by producers like [Sun Studios founder] Sam Phillips in the 1940s and 50s, where record production means recording, producing and manufacturing records.
CC: You joined a studio and worked your way up the ranks, whereas a lot of the new generation of producers teach themselves the ropes at home. Do you think that’s a good or bad thing?
SL: Home recording has its good sides, in particular you have much more time to develop your technique. But collaboration is also very useful early on in your career, so you can see how other producers and engineers work, and sadly that is much harder for the new generation to get with the demise of so many studios.
CC: Not only are bands now expected to write their own songs to be ‘credible’, because many now record their own first EP or album before getting signed, they often become producers too. Is that a good or bad thing?
SL: Good and bad. New bands must be careful of suffering from ‘demo-itus’. But learning the skills of record production can be useful, especially when they do start working with a producer, because if they can explain what they aspire to achieve in “production terms” that partnership can be much more successful. But I think ultimately it’s best for bands to have an external voice involved when making their records, if nothing else it often helps prevent internal squabbles
CC: With more bands self-producing, and record labels cutting budgets, does that make it harder to be a new record producer?
SL: Not really. With so many bands having to make their own first records, a new producer should find a band at that stage and help them develop the sound they are searching for. That’s a great way in, and both band and producer benefit.
CC: So, assuming the option to join a recording studio and learn on the job isn’t available, aspiring producers should look to hook up with new bands in need of some production help?
SL: Yes, definitely. Go to as many gigs as you can and find a band you think have potential, and who you think you could help develop and just ASK THEM!
CC: You now have your own label, Hubris Records. Why did you set that up?
SL: When I worked with 6 Day Riot we needed a way to get the EP, and then the album, out there, and whilst we had some approaches we didn’t like the “vibe” of the other partners, so we decided to go alone.
CC: Is the aim of Hubris to cut other labels out of the equation? Or is it more of an incubator operation – helping bands develop so they are in a position to sign deals with other record companies down the line?
SL: Hubris is definitely about A&R development – as you say incubation – the sort of development work that sadly the major labels just don’t really do any more.
CC: Where do you find the bands you work with via Hubris?
SL: They approach me. Or I go to gigs and hear them. Daytona Lights are a prime example of that – they supported Patch William and I loved them so much I had to work with them – they were so impressive live.
CC: How did the ‘The Record Producers’ radio programme come about?
SL: I have known Richard Allison since about 1994 and I was a guest on his Radio 2 show talking about record production. We had such a great response to that show, we went to see Lesley Douglas, the then controller, who commissioned the series.
CC: The record producer is often the unsung hero of pop music. Have you found an appetite among listeners to find out about the people who worked behind the scenes on our favourite records?
SL: Yes, definitely, the main focus of the series is to show the listener how, with many of their favourite records, it’s often the production tricks that they love as well as the song.
CC: You’ve covered so many great music makers in the series – which record producers past, present and future do you most admire – and are there any producers you’re yet to cover on the radio show that you’d really like to make a programme about?
SL: All the producers that I have featured I admire in different ways, however I think every producer past and present has to admire the work of Sir George Martin. I also love the work of HDH and Gamble & Huff, and greatly admired Norman Whitfield, who is sadly no longer with us, and I never got to meet him! But there are many other producers we want to cover on the programme, and we have more in the pipeline. Watch this space!
CC: You have a unique perspective on the record industry – obviously it’s just coming out of a tricky decade. Are you optimistic for the industry’s future?
SL: Very much so. I have never been busier – but you have to find other ways of earning a living, because the standard record producer royalty has very little value with so much piracy around.
CC: From Culture Club in the early 1980s to Daytona Lights today, you’ve worked with so many artists over 35 years, and a fair few at the start of their careers when you first meet them. A lot has changed in the music industry in that time, has what makes a great band with real potential changed do you think?
SL: Not really. I still believe great songs, and great ideas for songs, will shine through. The best artists are those who are willing to experiment, to be inventive and different, and who have hubris!