A lot of musicians would love to get career advice from someone who helped write a best-selling business book. Much of the business world doesn’t come easily to artists: how to market their work, how to compose an annual budget, how to deal with music labels or even the mundane items such as how to pay for that new guitar or how to make this month’s rent.
Minneapolis musician David Levin is very intimate with a person brimming with business advice: himself.
Art of business
“I have a parallel life, a two-pronged life. I am the co-author of a best-selling business book. When I say ‘business book,’ I don’t mean business book like MBA business book. It’s really more of a business culture book, but it’s been primarily marketed to the business community.”
Levin co-wrote “QBQ! The Question Behind the Question” with John G. Miller, a friend and writer living in Denver. Levin says the book about personal accountability has sold more than 600,000 copies.
So Levin’s day job, as it were, is giving seminars, speaking at corporate gatherings and coaching business people on how personal accountability in business helps companies and employees thrive.
His night job is making music, although his next gig is more of an early evening affair (5:30-7:30) Friday, March 21, at the Fine Line, 318 First Ave. N., Minneapolis.
That’s when Levin celebrates the release of his fourth CD, “Criminal,” a project on which he did virtually everything (a couple of musician-friends chipped in touches of percussion and keyboards), including singing, songwriting, playing guitars, manipulating a synthesizer, etc.
When you listen to “Criminal,” you’re hearing an almost entirely purely personal vision. Yet Levin admits that when gigs are hard to find and attention difficult to get, he isn’t always quick to take the advice on personal responsibility he gives to corporate ladder-climbers.
“I’m not proud of it, but I have fallen into the trap of the whining musician,” he admits ruefully before recalling his experience of watching more successful artists performing at a music conference a couple of years ago. He remembers the whining running through his head at the time.
” ‘Gee, I just really think I’m pretty good. How come nobody seems to really care about that?’ You know, really generic mindset, probably.”
Then it occurred to him that these musicians he was watching were, despite their label deals and their touring and all their other accomplishments and hard work, striving (maybe in vain), just as he was and is today, to get more attention and propel their careers onto a higher plane.
“How can I continue to sit here and feel sorry for myself?” he recalls thinking. “OK, no more complaining about my lack of, whatever, buzz or whatever. It’s time to really own the fact that I do need to make it happen. I do need to take ownership of my own situation and my own status.”
“Criminal,” the 49-year-old says, is part of the process of taking personal responsibility for his career.
In making the pop-rock “Criminal,” he took a look back at his first three CDs.
“I did take a harder look at my material. … I would listen to stuff that was on the radio, more successful than [my material]. I started to realize that as hard as I had worked [on the first three CDs], I could’ve worked harder in raising the bar. Not letting any passage in a song go by and thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I could have done that a little better.’ “
After the release of 2005’s “Stepping on My Hat,” critics were nearly unanimous about the resemblance between Levin’s music and that of the Police.
“I just don’t like being so transparently unoriginal,” he says. “I’d like to think they’re an influence, but not [that I was doing] an impersonation.
“It’s just a little embarrassing that it’s so obvious, but I don’t think it is on the new record.”
It’s unlikely, this time around, that every breath music critics take after listening to “Criminal” will refer to every move Sting makes. (Listen to a clip here.)
The CD is instead a glimpse at Levin through some other voices. His “Jet Boy,” a song about his 3-year-old son, is buoyant guitar rock conjuring up echoes of Robert Palmer, while Elton John reverberates in the title track, and the synth-bop of “Evil Genius” (a song about Karl Rove) might well take you all the way back to New Wave and the 1980s.
Levin says that no matter what happens with this CD, or CDs to come, he’s not going to quit his day job. He genuinely enjoys coaching people on accountability and ways to incorporate it in their personal and business lives.
He’s not convinced, however, that business and art dovetail.
“I don’t talk about both at once because my impression is — and I’m still looking for people to straighten me out on this — my impression is they diminish each other,” he says.
When he hears about an artist who’s an attorney, for instance, “I immediately dismiss them as an artist.”
The double-edged sword of corporate speaking and music-making cuts in the other direction as well.
“Being an active recording musician does not necessarily have credibility on the corporate speaking market either,” he says with a laugh. “They’re both really in my bones, but they don’t really help each other in a direct way at all.”
If Levin one day captures some of that honesty and somehow puts it to music, he might be too busy with his night job to keep his day job.
The Front Porch Swingin’ Liquor Pigs, “the monster trucks of folk music,” are raucous, blues-rock, fiddle-fueled, hell-raisin’ unibrow fun. Check out their regular early gig from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at the Eagle’s Club, 2507 E. 25th St., Minneapolis.