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The long, hard road to recording success: Steve Rivers’ lessons learned

Steve Rivers

Unlike many other professions, the recording artist’s career path is full of risk and uncertainty. In 2012 I got the opportunity to meet Steve Rivers, a recording artist who’s working his face off to make success happen. Steve is making a name for himself across Canada and the United States. He spoke to me about starting out, overcoming obstacles and the importance of thorough planning.

Sam Arraj: Tell me a bit about yourself and what you’re doing in the music industry.

Steve Rivers: I’m originally from Campbellville, Ontario. I studied Music Industry Arts at Fanshawe College. The program covered audio engineering and the business side of music. I took a big interest in songwriting, but if you want to pursue a songwriting career, you need to go to Nashville. So while studying I got the opportunity to do an internship at a recording studio in Nashville. It was a good learning experience. I finished my studies and went back to Nashville, made more contacts and pursued the songwriting route.

Sam: That’s a pretty bold move. Did you face any challenges moving down there?

Steve: Oh yeah, I didn’t know anyone there. Plus, on the drive down to start the internship, I was stopped at the border. They said they couldn’t let me through without a student visa. I was embarrassed and didn’t know what to do. I called the studio, I called my school, trying to figure the whole thing out. Then I found a company online that was able to get me the visa in ten days. It was six hundred dollars, but I got through the border and started my internship 10 days later than planned.

Sam: What was going through your head when you were faced with that challenge?

Steve: Well, first I thought I was going to lose the internship. A lot of things were running through my mind, but mainly that I needed to do my homework better. I should have looked into the visa.

Sam: How old were you when that happened?

Steve: I was 21. I met a lot of really cool people, including some really good songwriters from Australia and England. I formed a lot of good relationships. I wasn’t legally allowed to work outside of performances or writing songs, so I would make periodic trips back to Canada to work as much as I could to support my time in Nashville.

Sam: Was it a paid internship?

Steve: No, it was a credit.

Sam: What’s your goal in life?

Steve: I love to perform as an artist. That’s one of my main goals right now. The other is to write songs. In order to be a good artist, you have to perform good songs. The thing about being an independent artist is that you’re not only trying to be an artist and a songwriter, you’re trying to be a businessperson as well. You must think like an entrepreneur to actually sustain what you’re doing. On any given day, I wake up in the morning and become my own manager. I direct my emails, I talk to my team and sometimes I put a portion of the day aside to write songs. I try plan out my co-writes four months ahead. Then there’s weekends or parts of the day where I’m an artist. I also have to do the social media thing and book performances. With success comes more responsibility. It’s a challenge. I’m fortunate to have some people now to delegate these jobs to.

Sam: I was talking to somebody about this. Big artists have a manager and a booking agent, they do songwriting sessions for two or three weeks or have somebody write their songs. But as an independent artist, it’s all on you. You have to be everything, right?

Steve: I’m my own business manager and accountant. I learned over these last years that you have to be diligent with accounting. You must know your expenses and keep track of them.

Sam: Absolutely. That’s critical. When did you realize you wanted to be an artist? Is it something you’ve always wanted?

Steve: I’ve been playing music all my life. My parents enrolled in piano lessons when I was five. I remember making up my own tunes. I tried to listen to stuff and re-create it by ear. In high school, I was part of a rock band. They made me the principal songwriter. We were starting to build a strong local following, but, like all high school bands, we split up over personal differences. A lot of people were telling me they were enjoying the songs I was writing, but I wasn’t a good guitar player. I’m not a great guitar player now, but I forced myself to really hone in on my instrument. I’m the only one able to translate what’s in my head to my hands. So I focused on becoming a better guitar player and working on my craft and learning how to record stuff. Then I went to recording school. I was really lucky to get in and to learn from professors who were all active in the music business.

Sam: When did you decide to record your first album, Temptations?

Steve: Yes, but I actually did a record before that, but the work is hidden because it was terrible. It was in 2005 or 2006. I wasn’t really a big lyrical guy back then. Temptations (released in 2012) was a record that kind of showed my vocal range and my songwriting and helped me get my foot in the door in the Michigan live-music scene.

Sam: What was your thought process when you recorded that album?

Steve: The first thing was that I needed some kind of recording to show people what I do. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it. I just wanted some demos of songs I’ve written to showcase my style. I remember being in the office of Ralph Murphy, the vice-president of ASCAP, and he was ripping my songs to pieces. It was really humbling, because it showed me where the bar was. That was kind of my introduction to songwriting. From 2008 to 2012 I recorded very little. Then I worked with a producer here in town, recorded a few songs and got some attention. It meant I was able to record more of the songs I’d written. So I put together my first proper album, Temptations. We had a couple of singles off that on the radio in 2012. Then I met my wife, Laura, who told me that Michigan, where she’s from, has a really good music scene – especially for country music. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that. I was going through Michigan all the time while going back and forth to Ontario, so I stopped over to check out the clubs there. I put a band together with some friends I made in Grand Rapids, and we started getting gigs at local clubs. Then we were chosen to be the opening act for Gregg Allman at this festival called Coast West. It was my first real big show opening for a major act. I was super nervous, but really glad for the opportunity. That summer I got an offer to participate in the Texaco Country Music Showdown. We ended up winning the Michigan state title. By 2014, I was engaged to Laura. We started getting more shows in Michigan, which helped me get more P-2 visas (which helped so I could live and work in the same state as as my fiancé). In 2014, I opened for Josh Thompson, and a couple of months later for Charlie Worsham. It just started snowballing and snowballing.

Sam: Were they paying you anything for those shows?

Steve: Some of them paid really well, but others – like the club shows where we were opening up for bigger acts – paid next to nothing. I kind of knew that it wasn’t going to be a big money-making thing, but at least we walked out of there with 50 or 70 bucks in our pockets. However, that’s when I tested the strength of my original material and started filming the shows so we could see what we were doing on stage. At the beginning of 2014, I got a level-one recording grant. I asked Dan Brodbeck, one of my professors at recording school, to produce the new album, ‘No Boundaries’. The biggest mistake I made with Temptations was doing it all in one shot, not taking my time and redoing some parts when needed. I’m really glad Dan and I took our time to make ‘No Boundaries’ and didn’t rush the process. There are even a few tracks on ‘No Boundaries’ that I recorded in my living room in Grand Rapids, because I wanted something a little more unpolished. We started recording in April 2014 and were done by June 2015. It didn’t come out until August 2015. Honestly, you can record an album in one week and have it out the next, but that’s not the issue. You have to ask: how are you going to package it? How are you going to promote it? Where’s your team going to be? What’s an appropriate release date?

Sam: You spent all of 2015 focusing on this album, right?

Steve: Yeah, but check this out. In the course of 2014, I started recording an album while also planning a wedding. I got married in September 2014 and filed for immigration in the US in December that year. So I couldn’t leave the US for four or five months, and during this time my work permit expired. So I could not legally work. It was a crazy time. I give my wife a lot of credit that she put up with it.

Sam: Was it tough mentally?

Steve: Mentally and also financially. I was getting gig offers that I couldn’t legally accept and had to turn down. Sam: Do you think this killed your momentum a bit?

Steve: Yes and no. It definitely slowed some things down, but once we got the permit I was good to go full-force playing in the US. I started planning while I was waiting. I started thinking long- term. It was super-frustrating, but in hindsight it was probably a good thing because if I’d released the album earlier there might not have been a spot for me on radio.

Sam: How many hours of work did you put into this album?

Steve: Definitely over a hundred. Maybe more. The one helpful thing I did on this record was to take the time to ask people for their opinions, whether they were band members or people whohad nothing to do with music. I’m trying to do more background research now before I release something.

Sam: That’s smart. It’s what most companies do when they release a product, right? Do market research to gain intelligence?Steve Rivers: Yes. Because I don’t have a record deal, it forced me and taught me to make very calculated decisions to find cost-effective measures and still have an effective outcome. Take banners, for example. For simple graphic work, I found some really neat free tools online.

Sam: Do you know

Steve: I love Canva. I use it all the time. PicMonkey is another great one.

Sam: That’s the thing. Nobody has all the resources in the world. You have to budget and use the available tools. It’s probably a blessing that you had time to think about your next step with this album. It allowed you to do some strategic thinking, right?

Steve: Yes, we took a chance by releasing the record in August 2015. Most people release in March or in the fall. To promote it, we did a lot of pre-releasing stuff, like putting a song on the website. Then we combined the actual release with going to my hometown and headlining the Milton Ribfest. I got a great response. Instead of putting out a single, I did the reverse. I put out the album and promoted the heck out of it, with January as our target month to drop the new single, ‘Don’t Come Here Tonight’. We worked out a campaign for four months and got a really good radio tracker. Since January 1st, it’s been full speed ahead.

Sam: How are you financing all this? Aren’t radio trackers pretty expensive?

Steve: We got some funding from FACTOR. It definitely helped.

Sam: Isn’t FACTOR funding only a few grand?

Steve: A big chunk of it came from FACTOR. I had to come up with the rest, while also trying to pay for my monthly living expenses. I pushed myself to get sponsors to keep things afloat. Honestly, we weren’t expecting huge numbers on the first single. We’re just hoping it will generate more bookings. My main goal is to get people excited and create a good buzz around the songs. It’s helped a lot being back in Nashville and talking with people that are moving up in the industry. I’m trying to work on those relationships in the hope of getting a deal out of it.

Sam: So you have realistic goals? I guess you’re in a unique situation, playing here and out in the states as well.

Steve: I’m definitely in a unique situation to be able to play in both Canada and the United States legally, with very few restrictions. I definitely don’t take that for granted. I also don’t take the support of my wife and family for granted. They’re my reality check in a lot of ways. They help keep me focused and grounded.

Sam: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Steve: I think I got everything covered. The best advice I have is to do research on the people you work with. Everybody in this business is willing to negotiate. If people really want to work with you, they’ll be flexible. It’s also important not to be in a rush. Take your time. And if you have down time, don’t just sit around twiddling your thumbs. Use it to plan out your next year. It’s 2016, and I’m already thinking about 2017. Time will start flying by, especially when the summer hits.

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