Steve Levine, record producer

 20 August 2013

Steve started out as a trainee tape operator in 1975. He went on to become an award-winning producer, working with the likes of the Beach Boys and Culture Club. He talks about his journey in production.

Steve recommends working with a local band as a way to gain production experience.
Steve recommends working with a local band as a way to gain production experience.

Hometown

I was born in London, which is also where I started recording.

What job do you do?

I'm a record producer. I've worked with all sorts of styles of artists, including the Culture Club, The Clash and the Beach Boys.

I’m also chairman of the Music Producers Guild and a board member for UK Music, PPL (Phonographic Performance Ltd) and PRS (Performing Rights Society).

How did you get into music?

I've always wanted to be a recording professional. I've known since I was about 13 when I started being exposed to all sorts of music, from reggae and soul to pop. 

My first job was as a tape operator for CBS Studios. It's a job title that still exists, but is often covered by a studio assistant. Back then you needed someone to be the remote control for the tapes – early machines didn't even have locaters.

I'd done my research and went there knowing what I was talking about.

Getting the job took a combination of knowledge, effort and luck. When I told my careers advisor what I wanted to do, he gave me a book which listed all the recording studios in the country.

I went through, calling them up, writing letters and just turning up. While I was on study leave I went to London for interviews.

In a weird twist of fate, my mum brought up my job hunt to a woman who sold eggs in the local market. It turned out that her son, Mike Ross Trevor, already worked for CBS as a senior sound recording engineer.

He phoned me and invited me for interview and I got the job. 

It wasn't just luck though – I'd done my research and went there knowing what I was talking about, and he could tell. 

What qualifications do you have? 

I didn't pursue music academically – I went straight into the industry when I was 17, after realising that A levels weren't for me.

At school I really enjoyed Physics, especially learning about electronics, which is so important for sound. This made up for my school being quite poor at teaching music itself.

Knowing about things like sound waves and electronic principles has a huge effect on how you can understand and play music. It allows you to locate curiosities in sound that you might not know about otherwise.  

Although having poor written qualifications hasn't hindered me, I wouldn't advise anyone to leave before completing their A levels now. That is, unless you're going on to do a paid internship or apprenticeship.

At Magnum Opus, we do courses for 16-18 year olds, which are designed to give people help in landing an apprenticeship. We help them get into the flow of working 9-5 and get used to life in a studio. 

What do you do for your job?

The analogy I like to give for a record producer's job is that it's like being a film director.

Music is a pleasure for everyone, it just has to be monetised.

Film directors find the script, the location, sort the equipment and have a general overview of how it should be. They have the artistic vision: it's the same with a record producer.

Producers can be editors, they can be musicians, they can be technical – but not necessarily. 

In the world of record producers, you can have someone like Simon Cowell, who is an impresario. Then you have someone like me, who is very hands on and sits with the band, rearranging songs, suggesting new instruments and trying to open their eyes to different ways of doing things. 

Some are there to give music its phonic identity. Some just work with sound engineers and programmers, creating the backing track. 

There are also those who bring the vision and need others to make it a reality. For example, Jay Z has a team to execute his vision.

I always stress that beats and samples are just as valid as playing a violin. If something's artistic, it has value and there shouldn't be snobbery about it.

What's the best thing about your job?

When you hear a recording you've spent weeks on played live or on the radio, it's fascinating – you never get bored with it. 

Also, it's often the quirks and twists of production that make songs stand out and even go in the top 10. Much of the time it's down to lucky accidents that occur when you're experimenting – unintended consequences that set something apart.

And the worst thing?

Not being credited, which is getting worse in the digital era. 

Millions of pounds are being made out of piracy, often by gangsters, and it's portrayed as 'the people' doing it! The government should have dealt with it long ago as it's devastating creative industries. 

If you have the right approach and you're professional, the music part will follow.

Free music in principle is fine, but it needs to have the consent of all the people that helped to create it.

The idea behind sites like Spotify is good, but artists should get the lion's share.

Music is a pleasure for everyone, it just has to be monetised.  

How do I get into music?

1. Start by finding an artist

No one will employ you straight away! You won't have anyone knocking on your door asking you to produce Radiohead's next album.

If you want to be a record producer, go to gigs, go to a local pub and say to a band that you can help them improve their sound.

If you move to the next stage and your band shows promise, you'll need to pair business skills with your creativity. Sign things earlier on: I always recommend equitable splits.

2. Remember: you're not the producer 

If you're doing an apprenticeship or internship, don't comment on things which you don't yet know about, such as an instrument sounding out of tune.

Instead be efficient, set up the microphone and be a tape op. Taking a picture of the setup before you start, showing how the equipment was initially placed, will be of genuine help to whoever you work for.

Wait to be asked for your comments. Then if you can answer well, you'll be noticed.

3. Put your phone away before you start

It sounds obvious. But not only is it unprofessional, in a recording studio it interferes with the sound quality.

4. Join an industry body

If you become a producer, you can register with the PPL to help collect your royalties, while songwriters can register with the PRS.

If you join bodies such as the Music Producers Guild or the Musicians' Union, you can get insurance for your equipment, as well as support and guidance. They all offer different, important benefits, so look around. 

5. Be a problem solver

90 per cent of being a record producer is problem solving. There's never enough time, money or talent, so you have to be inventive to work with what you've got.

The other 10 per cent is being Kofi Annan: the ultimate diplomat. Your character is just as important as your skill. If you have the right approach and you're professional, the music part will follow easily.


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