Recently, Arts editor Tom Powell had a chat with Sussex Art History MA-cum-Grime blog- ger Stephen Weller (aka The Levels Are Very High), they covered the online music under- ground on social media, what it’s like to make friends on Twitter and just how frustrating Windows Movie Maker can be.
Sitting in a grimy kitchen surrounded by the accretions of a post-work even- ing The Levels Are Very High, in his traditional attire of five-panel and sweat- shirt, begins to open up about how he initially got into blogging and how over the year since his first posts and You- tube rips he’s carved out something of a name for himself.
Before the serious business however, I ask where his long and referential name comes from. ‘Well it was just a phrase that was around when I was younger, if some- thing was ‘levels’, it was really good.’ Then, apparently, when he heard a 2006 Rinse FM show on Youtube a while back and heard Wiley getting rushed off the mic by the (no longer existent) Mucky Wolf Pack and to the shout ‘the levels are very high!’, his childhood slang became the perfect moniker for his online music persona. With Grime going ‘weird ways’ since 2006’s pirate radio days and becoming a more of a form of club music in the last few years, the blog work of Stephen and others has become an important part of the music’s dissemination in the UK scene, both locally and nationally. The shifts undergone since the dawn of social and musical media have seen Grime catapulted to higher renown, and with this modest success comes one for Levels. ‘I had no idea how much to ask for’, he says, describing his first paid job, a video he’s making for an artist that’ll be released later this month; opting instead for streaming royalties, possibly meagre change, Levels concedes that while the last twelve months have been a great success, he’s still a little way from quitting his day job. MA student by day, call centre worker by evening, blogger by night, his schedule is pretty hectic week on week. He copes, pulling late nights making videos for up and coming Grime artists, organising guest mixes for his Sound- cloud and even recording the odd mix of his own for other channels too.
Since he started, he tells me his out- put has changed significantly. To begin with it was just a way of feeding his voracious appetite for club music, but it soon evolved when he realised that there were enough Grime mixes coming out every week for him to scavenge for rare, new and exclusive tunes. What he did was to painstakingly rip dubs that he liked from mixes with Audacity and upload them to Youtube so he and others could easily listen to them (sometimes to the malcontent of the producer trying to keep them exclusive). However, all this began to change through a little networking. He tells me that although it ‘sounds stupid’, he’s making his name thanks to social media. His initial presence on Youtube and Twitter got him noticed in the online scene and an invite to the not-so-secret group for electronic music artists, label heads and journalists named Classical Trax. With around 600 members, the Facebook group is apparently ‘a proving ground for young producers’, and in Levels’ case, this seems to hold true. While the main focus is to get feed- back on artists’ unreleased dubs and promote radio mixes, the group also release compilations with semi-regularity, for which Levels will be making the videos from now on.
The leap from the wide world of Twitter and Soundcloud to Classical Trax’s more focussed Facebook mode means that conversations between artists and journalists actually occur, colleagues are made and careers begin to bud. All this, Levels says, without ever having face to face contact. In fact, he tells me that he can approach certain DJs or promoters in clubs and they already know who he is. Spooky. These include Brighton’s own Mute events team or Mumdance for example, who he interviewed after Mute’s last event at the Loft last month. This just goes to show you what you can do in a year on Twitter without trolling and with a little hard graft. This elevated status has moved Stephen from being a relative rogue to a relative hero in the industry. Gone are the days when he used to nab tunes painstakingly on Audacity, now he spends his weekday evenings weaving together clips from old movies and stock footage on Windows Movie Maker (and they’re pretty good, follow the links at the end of the article for more).
Okay, so the levels are higher now, he’s getting a strong supply of exclusive tracks and mixes that makes his connoisseur’s mouth water, but Weller continues to bemoan the fact that the software he’s using is clunky, inefficient, and crashes; ‘the bane of his life’. To be fair to him though, he’s not complaining, and why would you be when you’ve gone from avid fan to well reputed industry insider in a matter of months?
Maybe industry insider is a bit of a jump, but when asked if the industry can get in on underground music’s fun he replies that he doesn’t think so. While Soundcloud is falling to a raft of pro-users to rake in plays and publicity, Facebook forums like Classical Trax perpetuate the underground conversation, and most importantly sharing those dubs that aren’t getting played out in the clubs or on internet radio. Levels demonstrates that ultimately, the music industry doesn’t have to be a closed loop, and that one’s ascendancy to renown is less about business and more about community.
So where next? He’s gonna be re- leasing about two mixes a month from now on, but with no concrete dates set because, well, ‘it’s pretty hard to chase people up on the internet’. He seems pretty content with his releases on this casual basis. He’s also got an interview upcoming on his Tumblr with Kimi Mute after he DJs with L-Vis 1990 and Jam City in Audio this Friday, an event that you probably shouldn’t miss if you’re into club music and based in Brighton. Otherwise he’s just looking to pop up and keeping working in the local Brighton scene, which he’s been enjoying over the last four years. On top of this, he’s just glad to be doing what he’s doing, because his ripping days had made listening to music weird:
‘I was listening to music specifically for rips’ he tells me.
So I suppose for a while his hobby became an all consuming task of keep- ing up with the newest and best tunes, a frustrating task sitting somewhere be- tween business and pleasure. A task that luckily he’s now traversed through voracity, renown and enjoyment.
If you like what you’ve read, have a look at Levels’ work via the links below: