Steve Levine’s has cultivated a reputation as one of the most innovative music producers in contemporary music. From Culture Club to The Beach Boys to Motorhead, Steve Levine has worked across myriad musical genres and with many of the most iconic artists of the twentieth century. Levine’s work has spanned more than four decades and the music he has produced is ubiquitous with popular culture.
It would be easy for Steve Levine to dine out on his achievements and reflect on past glories. However, the seduction of nostalgia is not something that Levine has ever been attracted to – constantly looking for that next challenge.
Now, fully re-located in Liverpool and working out of his studio in the Baltic Triangle, we caught up with Steve to discuss his start-up label, Hubris Records, his love for the city of Liverpool, his current projects and his career highlights.
Q. Hello Steve, you’ve started up your own music label, Hubris Records. Tell us a bit about this project and how it came about
The idea for Hubris came about a number of years ago and was loosely based on some of ideas I was having about the model of self-distribution and self-publishing in relation to the music industry and their relationship to emerging artists. The word hubris, in a nutshell, means ‘those that are more than they actually are’ and I suppose that sums up the project quite well – insomuch as we strove to create something much bigger and more expansive than our resources would suggest we were capable of.
The key into the story is probably my involvement with the band 6 Day Riot who were the first band that I released on the label. They came to me initially through Janice Long’s Brother, Jeff Chegwin who is a radio plugger who was trying to get unreleased and embryonic artists onto the radio. This was the pre-BBC Introducing and post-John Peel days and BBC 2 were looking at innovative new ideas on how to stimulate the emerging artists market.
Anyway, Jeff approached me and said they had this artist called Tamara Schlesinger [6 Day Riot] and she had produced a demo. Jeff said they loved the record but that it wasn’t broadcast quality and would I be interested in working on it. So, we got together and did a couple of tracks and it went really well. We got great airplay and Janice Long and Mark Radcliffe got behind it and that kind of just spread. Once I looked at this experience in retrospect I realised there was quite a lot of freedom in producing and releasing material and I really enjoyed the autonomy.
Around this time, Yamaha had a competition for young and inspiring artists of which Natalie McCool was one of the contestants. I met with Natalie really liked what she was doing and then it kind of just spiralled into me meeting other artists who were expressing their frustration at the rigidity of the music industry and its opportunities for emerging artists. That frustration and the liberation I’d felt and shared with Tamara and 6 Day Riot just coalesced into me starting up the Hubris Records project and here we are.
As a micro-label, what are the specific challenges you face in developing, Hubris?
One of the key issues that each and every micro-label will face (if indeed they get enough success) is taking the project onto the next level – and that generally means sourcing and attracting a partner that fits in to what you’re trying to do.
One of the issues is that you can become the victim of your own success. So, for example, you work on a project or you work with an artist and whatever is produced becomes successful. The upscaling that is required suddenly becomes impossible for a micro-label to deliver – the music video costs X the marketing costs Y. You get into a professional terrain in which only labels like Universal, Sony and Warner Brothers can deliver those projects. This comes with a whole host of other problems.
So, you either stay so big or you get sucked up by bigger publishing houses and labels. At the high end of the industry the machine needs to be fed with so much material to keep its growth – a growth that logically leads to monopolies being created. The danger then is that these monolithic entities lose touch with all local creative scenes and, by consequence, new and exciting emerging artists. So, going back to the start, micro-labels get created to fill this gap and cater for more bespoke areas. There is an in-built paradox at play and you are constantly having to navigate this catch 22.
In terms of challenges for emerging artists, what are your thoughts on social media as a platform for self-publishing and what are the pros and cons of this approach?
Well, let’s look at The Beatles. They went to Kensington Studios, cut an acetate of their work and then that acetate was sent to music labels with a view to getting signed. Now, let’s move forward a few more years and a reel-to-reel recording was used. Then forward a bit further to my time when a cassette was very much the norm. A band would record a cassette demo and that would be the way to open the door and move to the next stage.
These days, SoundCloud is the modern version of a cassette recording and the good thing about it is that it acts as a sort of repository for artists work. The negative aspect of a platform such as SoundCloud is that your work can become over exposed and vulnerable to intellectual theft. SoundCloud is great but it should be used as a demo repository or, for those that are using it for promotional reasons, it should be used it as a way of putting up teasers for your other material.
Social media is a truly fantastic development and it provides a democracy of access and publishing that has never been in existence before. However, I would caution young artists to be clear and clever in terms of how they use social media so that they’re not just giving their ideas away.
You have worked with LIPA for a number of years now. What is your relationship with LIPA?
My relationship with LIPA is actually ten years old and that’s how long I’ve been coming up to Liverpool. Initially, I came to LIPA’s in a sort of mentoring role where I would sit down and offer advice to young sound engineers – advice that would complement what was already on their syllabus. This evolved into having the students come down to my studio.
In parallel to my work with LIPA I also do some work with the universities here in Liverpool and that allows me to spread my experience around to a really diverse set of students who are from all sorts of different backgrounds. In this way, it works for both parties as I get to see what talent there is around the city and also learn from what they are producing. It becomes clear very quickly who are the ones with most commitment and talent and I’ve gone on to work with some them professionally. Working with young people in this way is immensely rewarding.
Having lived and worked in London for over twenty years can you tell us your reasons for relocating to Liverpool?
Why Liverpool? You’d be surprised by how many times my London friends ask that question
To go back a bit, myself and my wife were in Fulham and the kids had left home and we were also living under a flight path – that was sort of driving me crazy. Anyway, I’d started working with Daytona Lights and they were doing some work with Hollyoaks. I was coming up to Liverpool more and more and I just realised that it was such a lovely city with such a great vibe. The people are great and the energy, particularly the music energy, is just engrained into the whole fabric of the place. It reminds me of Los Angeles on a micro-level – in the sense that LA is just steeped in the film industry. It’s the same here in terms of music.
I love the fact that you can walk anywhere around town and see half a dozen people carrying a musical instrument. I don’t see that anywhere else; not even in London.
Liverpool is a fabulous city and I have been coming here for over ten years and worked periodically with bands from the area such as China Crisis – never in Liverpool funnily enough. It’s also a wonderfully multi-cultural place. I remember I hadn’t long moved up here and George [Boy George] phoning me about an art exhibition he was having at Camp & Furnace. So, I got to the event and there were all these police outside. I still had my London hat on and I thought Oh no, trouble! I mean George does tend to cause some controversy at times and I just wondered whether he was going to get a rough reception. Anyway, I was there with the assistant Mayor, Wendy Simon and she told me not to worry as the whole reason the police were there was that Merseyside police were strong advocates of LGBT rights and were there to support the event. It was one of those moments – and there have been many since – where I just fell in love with this city. It’s an exciting time for Liverpool and I’m very happy to be a part of that.
Your music studio is now set up in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle – an area which has seen a lot of development in recent years and one which is stimulating Liverpool’s cultural economy. How do you see the area evolving in the future?
There’s an entrepreneurial spirit running through the DNA of the Baltic Triangle. It is very exciting to see and it’s local businesses and local people taking ownership of the opportunities around the Baltic. It is important to keep that ethos because the last thing you want is vulture capitalism in which massive and rich organisations start to take over and hike rents and lease prices up. At the minute, the Baltic is doing very well to avoid gentrification in a way which London is not. Baltic is so good that the aim should really be to have four or five ‘Baltics’ in Liverpool in which you can have cross-pollination between the hubs.
What project and what artists are you working with at the moment?
I’ve just finished working with Space on their new album, Give Me Your Future which will be out soon. It will be released via Pledge Music so it’s a fully-fledged commercial project and one that I really enjoyed working on. Space were so lovely to work with and obviously