Five Questions: John Fields

The producer/engineer recalls his journey from Minneapolis to L.A. and back
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By Barbara Schultz John Fields began his career in Minneapolis, working beside his uncle Steven Greenberg, who wrote, produced, and recorded the Lipps Inc. hit “Funky Town,” among other things. Fields built his audio career running studios with Greenberg and recording increasingly high-profile acts. By the time his uncle was ready to retire, Fields was commuting frequently to L.A. for sessions, and in 2001, he went all in and moved west.

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Success followed success, and the producer who had taken Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown platinum was in demand to work with quite a wide variety of artists, including Lifehouse, Pink, the Backstreet Boys, Jimmy Eat World and more.

Then a couple of years ago, Fields and his wife reversed course, in large part because they wanted to raise their daughter back in the Midwest. Here, Fields shares his insights and recommendations related to working in a midsized market.

What do you see as the creative or professional pros and cons of working in a smaller city vs. one of the big three music markets?

When you work in a city like Minneapolis, the pros are that it’s a real town with no industry; and the cons are, it’s a real town with no industry! There aren’t publishers and agents and lawyers cutting deals.

Some of the most talented people live in those big three cities, and that’s likely where you’ll end up at some point if you’re a bigtime record producer, because that’s the economy that can supply you with enough work to make a living. But for me, I realized that I didn’t need to be there to get enough work, and it made sense to move to a more manageable city.

I know there’s going to be the occasional meeting that didn’t happen, that could have turned into a big project for me; that’s a con. But the pros of living here are, it’s a more relaxed lifestyle and the talent pool is more eager to be involved, even without a Los Angeles/union paycheck.

Do you have some advice for music-makers in smaller cities to stay busy?

Work with everyone that you can. Work in all genres that you can, and if you’re good, something will click. You’ll get referrals: This band loves the mix you did for them, and so their friends will call you and say, “Can you mix our song, too?”

Sharing space is always great, also. I’ve definitely had people walk through this building and say “Hi” to me, and the next thing you know, I’m mixing that person’s record. Team up with other people in a building or share a studio space, and that can turn into more opportunities.

What lessons did you bring back from L.A. that you apply to working in Minneapolis now?

I learned that it was important to have gone there and have found out I was good enough to play in the big leagues. I brought back that confidence, and now I know I can conquer any project and not worry that someone is doing it better in L.A. or Nashville.

So, if you feel like you’re good and like you’re missing out by not being there, you should try it because of the opportunities that are there. Those same opportunities probably are not going to happen in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s not that it can’t happen; Butch Vig started in Madison. But the range of possibilities is different.

For someone starting a studio business in a smaller market, what’s your advice for creating an environment that will keep bands coming back?

Get a guitar, a bass, a keyboard, a drum kit, a vocal setup, a piano. Set up mics and have everything there ready — prepatched, prewired into a Pro Tools system so that people can walk in and lay down an idea immediately. Instead of having amazing mics stored in a locker, pull one out. Have it out always.

In a lot of the bigger L.A. studios, they don’t have that. They’re being used for orchestral work or video shoots anyway. But most studio owners I know in Minneapolis have a custom setup with all the gear they’ve been collecting for years. Part of their day rate is, all the instruments come with it, and they’re saving bands money by having everything ready to go.

From a more philosophical point of view, what do you see as the place of smaller music-making cities within the music recording universe?

All you need to know is that The Beatles were from Liverpool, not London. They’re from a little town like Minneapolis. Prince was from Minneapolis. Aerosmith and The Cars are from Boston. I’m sure there are exceptions, but generally speaking, the real stuff is coming from towns like Cincinnati.

Another example: Leon Russell was from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He moved to Los Angeles because that’s where he could be a keyboard player and make money. You can’t do that in Tulsa, but it’s important to remember that those smaller towns are where the musical talent is bubbling.