BILLIE STEVENS - THE STORY OF A DIY MUSIC ARTIST
Before the “Digital Age”, if you wanted to be a recording artist, the well-worn path to stardom was to get a band together, write songs, and play lots of seedy dives in hopes of “being discovered” by a record exec, go into a high-priced recording studio, release an album, then work your ass off and “make it big”.
But since the days of file-sharing sites like Napster, and recording software such as ProTools, digital download outlets such as iTunes, artists literally have the power at their own fingertips. One such artist empowered by this DIY ethic is my old friend Billie Stevens.
Billie and I became friends back in the early ‘90s in Fresno, California, where we were in different bands. At some point mid-decade, he moved south to Orange County, and I returned north to my home area. Much has changed since then - parenthood, etc., as well as the ever-changing musical climate. This is one man’s story, and how his personal School of Hard Knocks got him to where he is today.
How did you get your start in music?
I got a ukulele when I was 4 years old, and I had an uncle that stayed with my family when I was that age that played guitar. He got me a uke book and I learned about 3 or 4 chords to play along with him for the year or so he was with us. Then my mom got me a guitar for my 8th birthday. I was a pretty sick kid with asthma and didn’t get to spend much time outside. Playing guitar was my thing. At 9 I got my first lessons. My teacher was a friend of my mom’s, a really big and burly type lady who intimidated me to play my chords properly. She was into folk music, so everything was chords, finger picking, chords, chords and more chords. The songs I learned also had tons of vocal melodies. It was also this time I got into school choir. By the time I was 10 and 11, I was sitting in on jams with my guitar teacher and other musicians at local venues (restaurants, churches, etc). I joined Jazz Band in high school and really pushed my knowledge of theory, but that was also where I realized the power of Rock Guitar over high school girls. Radical course change ensued. BUT, I did stay in choir because it was mostly girls who liked long hair rocker boys.
Please tell Daily Vibez readers about your personal journey to where you are today.
Well, I grew up in Hanford, California, which is a small town just about 30 miles south of Fresno; and Fresno was always the “Big City” of the area. As of the late ‘80s, I had been in a few high school bands, and Fresno was “the Place” to play if you wanted to “Make It”. I mean hell, Guns N’ Roses played the “Old Towne Saloon”, and I had seen Def Leppard and Sammy Hagar at Selland Arena. I had heard a drummer from school was playing with this singer/songwriter kid from Texas and he was writing these great songs. I tracked him down (maybe ’87) and joined their group. We got a set together and booked shows at some popular Fresno clubs like “Louie’s Zoo” and the infamous “Old Towne Saloon”. It was rad cuz we were kids and had to wait outside before we played and leave afterwards. That band was called Dillinger and we played the scene through the end of the 80’s. Around 1991 I moved to Hollywood for about a year. I had to move back after the girl I was staying with kicked me out and I ran out of couches to surf. That was then I rented a room at a little house in a divey part of Fresno, and the next few years were nothing short of remarkable. I joined “Kidd Gypzy” and we played all over Fresno and even some LA gigs. A few of those guys moved into the same house and that place spawned so many musical projects, including my Glam/Punk band “STD”. We created, what seemed like, an entire music scene out of that little “Crack House”.
Around ’94, I moved back to Southern California. I put together a band with a group of friends from Fresno and we all were going to OC to “Make It” (notice the theme?). I packed everything in a van and drove down to meet the guys at one of their cousin’s house where we were going to stay. When I showed up, nobody was there and I (again) had no place to live. I took a gig I was offered to play a birthday show for friend’s band called “Fat Guy Goes Nutzo” and the band’s manager said I could sleep on the couch until I found a place (or the show had passed). I ended up staying on that couch for 4 years. After the birthday gig, FGG continued to play and write songs, which put me in the studio with John Avila (Oingo Boingo) and rehearsing in a studio next to the bands Reel Big Fish, the Aquabats, Save Ferris, etc. Orange County had really became a scene with No Doubt, Social Distortion, and The Offspring, and was a great place to play. Not only was the original scene huge, there were tons of clubs with cover bands all over. I was in about 4 bands with friends between cover bands and original projects, and super busy.
In 1995, some friends of mine from the cover band circuit put a 3 piece power pop group together and opened for FGGN at a local club. They were called WANK, and had a really cool punk, pop, ska sound, kind of like The Clash meets The Beatles. I thought they were great and after the show, they asked me if I’d be interested in playing because they wanted to add a 4th guy. I was in. It seemed like every month a new local band had a record deal and that’s what I wanted. I even joined Glam rockers Pretty Boy Floyd for their “big comeback” in ‘97.
In ’97, WANK went into the studio to record our first (self-produced) record. We all chipped in and were able to record about 12 or 13 songs and put out Get A Grip On Yourself. We were playing all over OC and LA but our main spot was “Linda’s Doll Hut” which was a tiny bar in OC that legally held 49 people. It was rad though, cuz Brian Setzer, Reverend Horton Heat, and all these big guys would do unannounced shows there. We were playing there one night and one of the 50 +/- people there happened to be Mike Ness from Social Distortion. After the show, he came up and said he liked our band and was interested in working with us as a producer. Everything at that point came together. We had a song getting played on the local show at (LA FM radio station) KROQ, which was the biggest Modern Rock radio station of the time. We ended up getting Stone Temple Pilots. manager to represent us. Within a few months, we found ourselves in full rotation on KROQ without a record deal. Throw in the biggest label bidding war of the time (possibly history) and we signed to (Madonna’s) Maverick Records, had a video on MTV and had our single on 150 radio stations nationwide.
It took a couple of years for the Music Business, or MACHINE, to get to us. Over a year on the road had worn on some of the guys, our label was having internal struggles that affected our promotion and sales, radio dropped off, etc. We wrote a new record but our manager suggested we put it out on another label due to the issues at ours. About that time, a couple of the guys decided they weren’t interested in doing it any longer. Danny Walker, who was the other guitarist, and myself found ourselves with a bunch of songs and no band, record deal, or what seemed like a plan. So we decided to start a new project, rebrand it and run with it: “Handsome Devil”.
The Orange County scene was still hot when WANK broke up. It turned out that one of the bands we use to play clubs with all the time had just went double platinum and were looking for other artists to bring to their label RCA Records. When Lit found out that WANK had broken up, Jeremy Popoff (Guitarist) asked to hear our new material and immediately started sending musicians our way. And in 2001, Handsome Devil was signed to RCA Records by President Bob Jamieson after a show in Los Angeles opening up for Zebrahead.
Handsome Devil put out Love and Kisses from the Underground in 2001 and toured to support that record through the end of 2002, at which time we went back into the studio for our follow up record. While we were in the studio, we again fell victim to the MACHINE. Bob Jamieson left RCA and Clive Davis took his position. Clive was a Pop/R&B guy and under him Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, etc, all did great. He was not a Rock guy and under him, Lit, Eve 6, Dave Matthews, and pretty much the whole Rock/Alt Rock department was gutted with no options picked up. That means we have a record and no label. Also, in a turn of bad luck, our Manager Stu Sobol was admitted into Cedar Sinai Hospital with lung cancer and was unable to continue representing us. Although Handsome Devil went on to self-release two more records (Knock Yourself Out and Fully Automatic), I put the bulk of my attention into music production and opened a music complex.
And so you then became a studio owner/producer/recording artist:
In 2003, I had started Dinky Music Inc. as a recording facility out of my home. By early 2004, I had secured a building in Corona, California and by 2008, it grew to be a 4,000 sq. ft. music complex that offered 3 complete recording studios, a duplication company, an online radio station, artist development/management, local booking agency and served as an “Off Campus Learning Facility” for the California State College School System. We had a full staff and a crew of new interns every semester.
I figured that I had all this Music Business knowledge and I should put it to use. I’m a curious person, and from the beginning of the band process, I had always wanted to know the hows and whys of whatever I was doing. Well during my time in the Music Industry I was always asking questions on how and why things were done a certain way, and how and why that worked. It seemed natural that I would end up doing what I know.
In 2012 I closed my facility. In the 9+ years, we had recorded hundreds of records, logged thousands of hours of radio, and helped dozens of people become artists, engineers, producers and industry personnel. We also made records for Steven Adler, Ice T, and tons of kids that went on to be in big bands. We did so much work for the community and even sponsored an event for Make-a-Wish. That said, it was just as huge a responsibility as it was a business and getting to be more and more work. It seemed that with the direction of the industry, closing the facility was the smart business thing to do. We were watching these legendary studios close down all over Southern California (ie: Sound City) and I was really wanting to play again. I knew I couldn’t do both, so when my lease came up, I moved out.
The old saying that you have your whole life to write your first album, but only six months to write your second. That's changed a bit now, hasn't it?
Yes and No, I guess. I believe that applies more to the industry because when you are on a label, they are going to spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce your records. Therefore, they will spend weeks going through ALL your material and parts of material and scraps of material to get what they are looking for. Well for your second record, they’ve heard about a hundred or more old ideas and want to know what you have that’s new.
Although I just released my first Billie Stevens record American Youxia 6 or so months ago, it really is my 5th record, not to mention the hundreds of songs I have produced or helped to write. Plus, I think the model has changed dramatically for the Independent Artist. We no longer work within the scope of the old industry. I still have plenty of friends that are on labels, and some that aren’t, that do things the traditional way. Many of my friends in Nashville are working the same model that was around in the ‘50s, BUT with Social Media, new distribution channels and the fact that anything you want is immediately available, I think it has changed a lot. I actually think it has evolved into “Live stream me what you’re working on today” and “What is it you haven’t written yet” that are carrying more weight than your “Next Big Record”.
What are the “hats” you wear as a self-made artist of today, and what is it like as an artist today versus the pre-digital age:
Well as an independent artist I wear ALL the hats, and that sucks! Honestly, I have been spoiled in the past to know what it is like to have a full team. Now, I have my attorney (which I have had since 2000) and that’s it. The up and down sides of it is that I know what is supposed to be done and the proper ways, so I really need a team of 3-4 people but that’s not reality for today’s independent artist. I think that leaves things up to picking and choosing what you want to focus on.
I guess the short list would be: Writer, Arranger, Recording Artist/Musician, Recording Engineer, Runner, Mixing Engineer, Mastering Engineer, Producer, Publicist, Stylist, Graphic Designer, Web Designer/Developer, Publicist, Radio Promoter, Concert Promoter, Booking Agent, Artist Manager, Tour Manager, Business Manager, Merchandise Consultant, Physical Merchandise Sales, Digital Merchandise Sales, Digital Marketing, Social Media Marketing, and Publishing. I am sure I am forgetting a few but that’s a good place to start when planning to “Do It Yourself”.
I think the main difference between now and the “pre-digital” age is that things move faster now and shelf life is much shorter. The traditional album cycle was 18-24 months. It seems like now, if you don’t have something to offer each quarter, or month, or week… you’re old news; or worse yet, not news at all. I know I am constantly trying to streamline all my processes so I can do more with what I have.
What are some of the challenges as a DIY artist of today?
The biggest challenge I have is doing everything. Right now, I am writing for a new record. That means my focus is on crafting great songs. Once I am happy with that, I will work on instrumentation and getting all the parts recorded. I engineer, mix, master and produce it all myself and that can be a bit overwhelming to keep up with.
And although that is what’s on my plate today, I can’t stop answering email or checking social media because I still have a record out that I am promoting and a brand new video. You have to set your boundaries based on what you can do, and therefore, I am not able to actively seek interview opportunities or spend all day contacting radio stations to get my music played. Then there are the publishing aspects. If you want your songs in movies, commercials, video games; that is all hours each day reaching out and developing relationships with music supervisors and music directors.
I try to take each hat as it fits into the cycle or which stage I’m in. I take a lot of notes and will come back to certain people when I am back in their stage. So all the people I did interviews with for this record will go in a book and next record, when I’m ready for press, I will take out that book and start reaching out with the hopes of adding a few more names each go round.
Tell us about writing and recording the album (“the process”).
Well for me, I have to be somewhat systematic. Not only is there a lot to do, but my passion is playing and singing. Therefore, if I don’t give myself deadlines (that I never keep), I would never have a record. I will do something like book a musician to come into the studio and perform a part that I know is contingent upon me having another part done and then when we start getting close to them showing up, I haul ass and work. It’s the old “Term paper, night before” strategy. The true advantage of that for me is that I will overbook myself in order to get more done. I probably spend more time in crisis mode as I am constantly on a deadline but I will also get a high yield of great focused work done. Without that, I’d never get to all there is to do… and still don’t. But closer is better than farther. SO… Once I have way too many deadlines, I start the process. I am constantly in what I call collection mode. It seems that every day I get an idea for a lyric or melody. It may be a hook, a guitar lick, a quote or any other idea that hits me like “Hey, that’d be good for a song”. Most times I won’t even know how or where I’d use it and so it goes in my phone or in a journal. Then as the deadlines for music get close, I will pull out my journal and start building songs. I won’t come close to using everything and it usually is just a phrase or idea that leads to a whole song. I get all creative about what the story would be and try to write down everything I can in as much detail as possible. I’ll think of how words sound together, and musically, what would bring out that cadence or accentuate the meaning of a phrase. I’ll build mini movies in my head with the story and put music to them or around them. Once I get rolling, it’s really exciting to see where the story is going to go and I can get really productive in a short amount of time.
Tell us the meaning behind your album title.
Well “American” is self-explanatory, and “Youxia” is Chinese for errant knight or wandering mercenary. As I was putting the record together, I saw a progression in lyrical content unfolding and it made sense to try to tie it altogether in a theme. I felt independence, to lost love, to recklessness, to a calling and finally to a retrospective of the journey and felt that it was the type of life that a warrior or mercenary would take. I envisioned a displaced American Veteran type of character which really brought an additional quality out of the songs that they didn’t have independently. I even brought that theme into the artwork with the Eagle-Dragon Rebis. The duality of the experience influenced by the principle or core values.
Tell us about the making of the video for "The Story…”:
After having the opportunity to do huge scale music videos with people like Marc Klasfeld (Katy Perry, Jay-Z, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Britney Spears, Kid Rock, Michael Bublé) and Kevin Kerslake (Liz Phair, Stone Temple Pilots, Filter, R.E.M., 311, Blue October, Faith No More), I had a perspective of what I had to do and what I could get away with. That’s why it was so much fun to do the video for “A Story of a Boy and a Girl”. That and working with a professional film maker like Derrick Ligas! That was a blessing because he knew what we could change plot-wise and not compromise the story. I had no idea how to do a shoot-out with uniformed cops in patrol cars and real guns, but when he suggested vigilantes instead it was like “TADA” easy, affordable, and made a better story. So I wrote the treatment, booked the locations and handled the footwork (permits, contracts, insurance, etc) and he revised the story, shot and edited it. I couldn’t be happier.
We shot the whole thing in South Corona where I live. We had 3 locations and all were within 5 or so miles of each other. AND… what made this video so rad was the people. When I approached the bar owner, not only was he cool about us using his location, he let us shoot some scenes when the bar was closed and he was even in the video. We used almost all the people that came down that afternoon to drink, had them sign off on being in it, and bought them a beer. Everyone that was from out of town, we put up at my house and made it a 3 day party. We cooked enormous meals and everyone was just so cool.
What are your plans for 2017 and beyond?
Well 2017 is already and will continue to be super busy. I am writing for a new record and hope to release it in May. I am also looking to do a western US regional tour. Add in a couple more music videos and those are the big rocks. Most importantly, though; is Play, Play, Play!
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