Photo: Brad Hamilton
When he was just starting out, his producer at the time told him that if he really wanted to be involved in music, he’d have to embrace every part of it. “That was probably the best career advice I’ve ever gotten,” says Ben Rice, producer/engineer/songwriter and studio owner. In fact, it’s advice that has served this young up and comer extremely well. Today, you might find Rice in Los Angeles writing with British music producer/songwriter Ted Hutt; or in his New York City studio working on records with the Wicked Tomorrow and Nocera; or fronting his own band, Blackbells, at New York City’s Mercury Lounge. This month, Rice shares some tips that have not only helped him to achieve success thus far, but also helped his clients.
Like a lot of those whose passion is music, Rice started playing music when he was a young child and began dabbling in writing as soon as he could play his first chords. However, unlike a lot of those whose passion is music, Rice had an ability to create his own opportunities at a young age and not rest solely on his musical abilities.
“By the time I was a teenager, I had a 4-track cassette recorder and started recording myself, my friends, my band, and anyone who would let me have a go at recording them,” he recalls. Rice took his interest in the recording process to a wholly different level, when, at the age of 15, he got his first job working at the now closed Clinton Recording Studio, one of the last of the über-studios. “My experience at Clinton was a really exciting time. I had the chance to learn from some of the best engineers in the business,” says Rice.
The real turning point in Rice’s journey into the production realm, however, occurred when he was 20 and playing in a band called Surefire. At that point, Rice’s primary focus was writing and playing, but his then-producer and manager, Gus Van Go, gave him a reality check.
“He said, ‘If you really want to have a career in music, you’re going to have to do more than just play in a band. You’re a songwriter—you have a good sense of melody and arrangement—but ultimately you’re going to end up in production, so you should really consider starting now,’” Rice recalls. “It struck a chord with me, and I took his advice seriously.” Not long afterward, Rice opened his own studio and has been writing, playing, recording and producing other musicians and bands ever since.
When it comes to Rice’s schedule, it’s safe to say that no such thing as mundane. However, there is a lot of juggling, long days, and learning how to go with the flow. “One of the ways I’ve been able to manage everything is to make every day an extremely long day,” he admits. Typically, Rice spends a good part of his morning taking care of business for his band, Blackbells. “I try to touch base with our manager, answer emails, and make sure everything that has to be done that day is set in motion.” Then, he kicks into full production mode. “If I’ve got a big project, it will pretty much take over my life, and that’s what I live until the project is completed. It’s all about hard work, figuring out how to wear different hats, and make everything work together.”
Although it would be easier to go at every job based on a model to follow, Rice says it sells the project short, which is why he tries to come at each project from a unique angle. “Every artist and band is different. I don’t come at anything from a ‘This is my production style’ approach. That only makes things boring, and even though it may save some time, it can actually sabotage a project,” says Rice. “Because every project has its own quirks, you have to be willing to change accordingly and pick up on what the artist or band needs. Some will come into the studio with very specific ideas, and some will say they know what they want to make a record but don’t know the extent of what they need in order to reach their goals. It’s my job to get to know the client, figure out what’s needed, and be willing to jump in and offer creative input to benefit the project.”
Loving what you do accounts for just half of what it takes to produce music well. The other half, according to Rice, is consistently giving his all to every project. “The biggest challenge I encounter is that it takes a tremendous amount of time and focus to make records, so one of the mottos I live by is that every single minute that I’m in the studio as a producer or engineer, I bring 110 percent,” says Rice. “If I don’t, I know I risk missing that spark—that moment that someone gave their best performance and, for whatever reason, I missed it. The artists I’m working with have invested their trust in me and what I’m doing for them, so I can’t allow that to happen.”
One of the best parts about being both a producer and a musician, Rice says, is the fact that he can draw on some of the knowledge he’s garnered from his own experiences and share that with up and coming artists. Considering the significant changes that have and continue to shape the new music industry, this kind of guidance can be invaluable. “It’s kind of cool that producing EPs and albums for artists actually enables me to share what I’ve learned as a touring musician,” he says. “Not only do I give my artist clients advice on how to build momentum for themselves, but also share some of the things I screwed up on along the way. I think it’s reassuring for them to know that I’ve been in their shoes. It creates a bond that makes them feel comfortable because they know I get what they’re going through.”
Because artists today need to be up to speed on the business of the music business more than ever before, Rice also spends time helping artists understand the importance of educating themselves on as much of the business side of music as they can. “If you’re trying to make it in the music business now, you have to take control over your own career, and that’s what I tell the bands I work with. I also explain that it’s important not to sell yourself short. When artists are just starting out, sometimes they jump at the first opportunities that are offered to them, but that’s not always the best idea, especially if that means giving up all of the rights to a song. It’s important to make wise business decisions from the very beginning that will benefit your career over the long haul.”
In fact, it’s more critical now than it ever has been for artists to get involved in every aspect of their careers. Rice is a prime example. Even though Blackbells have a manager and agent, Rice is heavily involved in the day-to-day decisions. “I can understand the temptation to want to turn over the business stuff to someone else and sit around and play and write music all day, but no one who is doing anything in music has the luxury of doing that anymore,” he says. “I encourage artists to get as involved as much as they can. It only benefits them in the end.”
For the past six years, Rice has been working out of a studio that is located on the ground floor of an old Victorian house. Comprising a live room and a control room, the setup is what Rice describes as a professional project studio. “One of the best things this situation afforded me was to do was accumulate a good amount of gear, work with some incredibly talented people, and offer my services to them at very affordable prices.”
Now he’s about to embark on a new adventure. In fact, he’s already started. Rice is currently in the process of building a new, full commercial studio space in Brooklyn, and has commissioned renowned studio designer Dave Ellis to design it. Not only will the new space allow Rice to improve the sound quality that he can offer his clients, but it will give him greater freedom for live tracking with a 400-square-foot live room with a dedicated isolation booth.
“What I loved about the old space was the fact that it was casual environment that enabled artists to feel comfortable and not feel any unnecessary pressure,” says Rice. “What’s great about the new space that I’m building is that, without compromising the vibe and comfort level that I believe is so important in a recording environment, it will enable me to bring the recording experience to the next level.”
Aside from Rice’s success as a producer, the band that he fronts, Blackbells, is making quite a name for itself. In addition to landing 50 shows last year, playing with such bands as Alberta Cross and Crash Kings, and making an appearance at the DeLuna Music Festival, the band was recently featured in Vogue Italy. For Rice, the success is great, but the camaraderie is even greater.
“The band is made up of my friends and my favorite musicians that I know, so when it comes to goals, what I really want is to keep making music and to keep enjoying it,” he says. “Given where the industry is, I think you can really set yourself up thinking too far into the future and trying to be too strategic, so I don’t have crazy goals. I just want us to continue making music together, write the material that we’re excited about, put ourselves out there, get a chance to connect with people, and enjoy the process. As long as I can survive by doing all that, I will be a happy person.”
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