Luke Ebbin is a twelve-time platinum, five-time Grammy nominated record producer, songwriter, composer, and new media entrepreneur. As a record producer, Luke is considered to be the architect behind the makeover and comeback of Bon Jovi with his production of their hit record, “Crush”, which featured the worldwide #1 smash single “It’s My Life
Luke has produced and written songs for Melissa Etheridge, Plain White T’s, Rival Schools, the All-American Rejects, and Will I Am. Additionally, Luke produced and/ or composed the television themes for Entertainment Tonight, The Insider, CBS News 50th Anniversary, The CBS 1998 Nagano Olympics, among many others.
In the Kings of A&R interview Luke discusses his work with Bon Jovi, how new aspiring producers can make a mark, and breaking well-known classic artists in the digital world.
Tell me how you began your journey into the music business.
I had a pretty wild entry into the music business. I was 16 at the time and an obsessed drummer. My brother and I went to see The Pat Metheny Group play at a shed near my hometown early in the summer and we struck up a conversation with the front of house engineer. At some point it came up that I was a drummer and he mentioned that they were looking for a new drum tech for the tour and asked me if i’d be interested in the job. Of course I said yes. He said he’d let the road manager know and if interested, they’d call me the next day. Sure enough the call came the next morning and before my mother could say “absolutely not”, I was on a plane to New Jersey to meet up with the tour and spent the rest of the summer on the road. Needless to say, it was somewhat of the modern jazz version of “Almost Famous”- and one hell of an experience for a 16 year old. Read more…
A couple of years later I was a freshman at a college that offered a program that encouraged off campus internships for school credit during the month of January. I was majoring in music and interested in recording and production. Being an avid reader of liner notes, I knew that many of the top records at the time were being recorded at Power Station Studios in New York City. So I picked up the phone and cold-called the studio, got the studio manager on the line and told him that I wanted to intern there that January. During the conversation, I mentioned I had been a roadie for Pat Metheny and in yet another fortuitous turn of events, he said that Pat was actually recording at the studio at that very moment. He put me on hold and came back a few minutes later and told me that Pat vouched for me and that I was hired. I ended up “gofering” for the likes of The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Cindy Lauper, and James Taylor, who were all recording there at that time.
Who was the first artist you produced?
Well, I guess I consider the following artists as all “firsts”. After college, I went on managing Sigma Sound in New York. I was in a band at the time and we used the studio during off hours to record our demos. I became the producer by default and came to realize that I liked that side of the glass better. From there I began working with a lot of different NYC bands and the first full record I produced was for a tremendous funk band (that is still around today) called “The Second Step”. James Diener and Josh Sarubin were both at Columbia Records at the time (and are both tremendous A&R guys to this day) and started hiring me to produce acts that they had development deals with. This led to James giving me the opportunity to work on my first major label release with the band Splender.
Have you been influenced by other producers?
Absolutely. It’s tough to boil it down to a short list, but I’ll try- George Martin, Bob Ezrin, Gary Katz, Manfred Eicher, Tom Dowd, David Gamson, Nigel Godrich, Brian Eno, Rob Cavallo, Daniel Lanois, Dr. Luke, Russ Titleman, Teo Macero, Danny Kortchmar, Bob Rock, and the late Bruce Fairbairn. I’m lucky enough to call some of these guys friends.
Every record producer has strong points. Some are great with vocals , others are great at writing songs, and some are fantastic at getting good sounds. How would you describe yourself as a record producer?
I think I’m pretty well-rounded as I’m deeply involved from songwriting to mastering and everything in between. Unlike a lot of other producers, I like to be in the studio at all times and be involved in, or at least cognizant of every note that goes to tape (or hard drive). That shouldn’t be misconstrued as me being a control freak. It’s about being there for the artist, coming up with and exploring new ideas, making sure that they are performing at optimal levels and sounding great, and facilitating great performances. Ultimately, my job is to help the artist/band be the best they can be while maintaining the core of who they are and what makes them unique.
Do you play any instruments?
Yes, as I mentioned, I am mainly a drummer and can play guitar, bass and keys well enough to write and record demos. I also sing a bit and often end up singing backgrounds on a lot of the records I produce.
As a record producer, you played an important role in the comeback of Bon Jovi with your production of their international hit record, “Crush”, which featured the worldwide #1 smash single “It’s My Life”. How did you get involved with Bon Jovi?
Again, I was very lucky. James Diener was kind enough to introduce me to the legendary A&R man, John Kalodner. If you don’t know who he is, Google him. Not only was he responsible for many of the great rock records of our time, but he is also one of the great characters in the history of the record business. An incredible guy and a mentor to me. Anyway, John was at Columbia at the time but also was doing A&R consulting for Bon Jovi. They were looking for a producer for their new record and were interviewing all the top guys at the time but no one was exciting them. Jon Bon Jovi had asked John if he knew any young up and coming producers with fresh ideas. One day I’m sitting in my apartment in the East Village and got a phone call from John asking me if I’d be interested in producing a Bon Jovi record. “Uh….yeah?”, was how I think I responded. He said “OK- I’ll let you know” and hangs up. A few minutes later, the phone rings and I pick up- “Hey is this Luke? It’s Jon Bon Jovi”. Next thing I know, we’re having a conversation about music, sports, and world events, and he then asks me to come down to New Jersey the next day so he can play me some song sketches and demos. That next morning a stretch limo arrives and I’m driven down to his house in New Jersey, where he has a beautiful studio. We hang out all day, listening and discussing the demos and he tells me to choose one of the songs and come back the following week for a tryout of sorts. I purposely chose a song that they had only demoed with an acoustic guitar and vocal that I knew was ripe for programming, string arrangements and background vocal arrangements, so I could show him some of my abilities. I locked myself in my studio and produced a fully arranged version of the song and returned to Bon Jovi’s the following week. We spent a couple of days re- recording my version with the full band and at the end of the second day, Jon told me I was hired. I went on to produce a second record with them called “Bounce”.
Who has been the most gifted singer you ever recorded?
That is also a tough one to name just one as I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some incredible singers. Both Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora are amazing singers in totally different ways. I also had the opportunity to work with Melissa Etheridge who is absolutely fantastic. Danielle Barbe, a young artist that I am currently working with, is an insanely gifted singer.
Singing competitions like American Idol, The X-Factor, and The Voice have become a popular prime TV shows. Do you think these shows help sustain the business? What are the down sides?
Sure. I think anything that exposes the public to music (albeit good or bad) is a good thing for the business. Music is more popular than ever and I think these shows should get some credit for that. You know when my Dad (who knows nothing about pop/rock music) calls me to seriously discuss that week’s Idol results with very strong opinions, that it’s having a huge impact on culture. We most likely would never have heard Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, David Cook, and Jennifer Hudson, if it weren’t for Idol. I think the downside is that there are now too many of these shows and they are all starting to blend into one another, which will most likely start diluting the affect these shows are having.
The Beatles were never a great performing band until they practiced 8 hours a day and 6 days a week. It seems artists lost that work ethic, or maybe the use of technology eliminated the need for raw entertainment. Thoughts?
It’s interesting, I’m actually starting to see that work ethic coming back. In the ’90′s and early part of the 2000′s it wasn’t cool to be a technically great musician- which was an incredibly frustrating trend for us producers responsible for delivering great recordings. I’ve recently worked with some younger acts and the whole band shreds (in a good way) and they practice and write non-stop like I did when I was coming up. I also think that the DIY model of the new music business has forced (at least the smart artists) to be both business minded and work hard to be great at their craft and to attract fans.
Any advice to new aspiring producers looking to make a mark?
First of all, be great at what you do, or find something else to do. There are a lot of producers out there clamoring for gigs so you better be at the top of your game. Find an act that you believe in with lots of potential and develop them- become their creative and business partner. And do everything you can to help them get heard. Producers need to wear more hats nowadays than when I was starting out- so learn the business as well- learn how to be your own record label. It used to take millions of dollars to record, market, and promote a record. Now you can do most of that on your laptop.
In the pop and urban world, if you make great beats- get them heard by the major producers and try to get in their writing and production camps.
The music business has gone through many changes. How have you adapted to the digital world?
I think this is an incredibly exciting time to be in the music business. Granted, piracy has been a nightmare, but the positive by-product of this disruption is that in many ways, the playing field is becoming more and more level every day. Acts don’t need a record deal to achieve success, and fans don’t need to rely on the filter of terrestrial radio to discover new music. And we are just at the beginning of things being sorted out with new business models testing the waters everyday. I have been involved on the digital side of the business for years now as a co-founder of Music180.com and more recently launching my new company, Mechanism Strategic (http://mechanismstrategic.com), a music strategy and consulting company. We provide services such as advising digital music companies on strategy and business development, and helping emerging artists navigate the new music business- both online and off.
Tell me about your new venture Music180.com.
I co-founded Music180.com in 2008 to break down the barriers between aspiring artists and music industry professionals. I led the development of a roster of some of the world’s top producers, songwriters, managers, and executives who offer services such as expert guidance, song critiques, and in-studio collaboration. We’ve had some great successes with getting new artists writing with top songwriters and recording with top producers. It’s an incredible resource. Although I’m not actively involved on a daily basis at Music180.com anymore, I still serve on the Board of Directors.
You earned multiple Grammy nominations for your work. Great songs are really impervious to discrimination, but what does it take to break a well-known classic artist in this digital world of new media?
Well, as you mentioned, great songs- and also great production. Well known classic artists also need to understand how the new music business works and the importance of aggregating their fan base via social media. They can’t leave this up to their management and handlers anymore. Most of the older artists made their mark when the idea was to be mysterious, elusive, and removed from their fans. These days, in order to remain viable, they need to learn to engage directly with their fans via social media, online contests, meet and greets, giveaways, house parties, etc- but most importantly, continue to write great songs so people want to hear more than just the classic hits when they come to see the show.
Do you think a career can be launched and maintained solely through the use of social media outlets? Do you think a purely digital artist can be successful and compete with those who still utilize traditional outlets?
Absolutely. Although it’s a little tougher in the pop world, where radio airplay is still super important. While playing live ( a traditional outlet) is very helpful promoting an artist, it’s difficult in the early stages, as it’s an expensive proposition to hit the road to play in front of 8 people in North Dakota. Acts can now start by creating great content and promoting via online channels and once they develop a big enough fan base, they can tour without breaking the bank. I’m utilizing this approach right now with the artist I mentioned earlier, Danielle Barbe, and we are having great success with it. After making a great record, she has played shows on the Warped Tour, shot two fantastic videos inexpensively, won MTVu Freshman of the Week, had songs placed in major studio film and television releases- all from developing her fan base via social media- mainly Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
If you could have your pick of any classic artist, who would you love to help revitalize and expose to a whole new generation?
Another tough question to choose just one. But I’ll be more disciplined on this one. I was just listening to KD Lang the other day. She sent shivers down my spine and I thought how much the world needs to hear her again. I would love a shot at working with her and making a great record that exposes her to a younger crowd.