Jimmy Iovine’s mother was displeased.
It was 10am on Easter Sunday, 1974, and Iovine had just received a call from Roy Cicala, John Lennon’s go-to engineer at Record Plant Studios in New York.
Cicala had explained that the ex-Beatle urgently needed someone to man the phones… as in, five minutes ago.
Iovine, Record Plant’s always-willing 21-year-old gopher, unquestioningly did was he was asked – but not before informing his mom he wouldn’t be attending church that morning.
Maternal tongue-lashing survived, Iovine pitched up at Record Plant, only to find Cicala and Lennon laughing in his face.
The punchline: this was a test of his dutifulness… and he’d passed.
Jimmy Iovine had just bagged himself a job as John Lennon’s new Assistant Engineer.
This was the moment that Iovine says his life changed forever.
Before he was taken under the wing of Cicala (and Lennon), the now-Beats/Apple Music chief was working go-nowhere jobs in various New York recording studios – while expecting a far less cushy professional destiny to take over.
Having left school with no real qualifications, Iovine believed he’d end up doing what many young men from Red Hook, Brooklyn did in the early ’70s – joining their fathers toiling on the docks.
Instead, Iovine started working on Harry Nilsson’s Pussycats (produced by Lennon, engineered by Cicala), then on to timeless records by Lennon (Rock’n’Roll, Walls & Bridges), Bruce Springsteen (Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge of Town), Patti Smith (Easter), Tom Petty (Damn The Torpedoes), Stevie Nicks (Bella Donna), U2 (Rattle and Hum) and many more besides.
From there, he co-created Interscope Records in 1989, broke Dr. Dre, Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, Lady Gaga… and well, you know the rest.
(For those who need a quick refresher: Interscope became a central player in hip-hop’s first commercial wave alongside its partner Death Row Records; Iovine eventually sold it to MCA, which then became Universal, where Interscope-Geffen-A&M remains a star entity; on the side, Iovine and Dre created Beats headphones – plus streaming service Beats Music – before selling their company to Apple for $3bn in 2014. Both Iovine and Dre are now Apple employees, directing traffic at Apple Music.)
The unlikely tale of Iovine’s path to ‘making it’ – and John Lennon’s vital role within it – is on the 64-year old’s mind when MBW catches up with him at his home in Holmby Hills.
Iovine passionately notes that every item in his sprawling, sun-kissed L.A pad – from the gleaming SUVs in the driveway to the 6-foot Brice Marden artwork hanging on his walls – ultimately exists thanks to Lennon, Cicala and the handful of musicians who gave an unqualified New York drifter a chance.
It’s for this reason, more than any other, he says, that he refuses to countenance the idea of music as a free utility – and why he’s angry other industry power players still blithely accept it as a necessity.
Jimmy Iovine wants people to pay for records again.
And he knows just how the music business can make it happen.
Many artists, Iovine suggests, simply no longer care about the issue of ‘free’ music.
They’ve given up on the idea of the record industry as a revenue generator, and instead view it as a loss-leading tool to sell tickets and merch.
Meanwhile, Apple Music’s potential subscriber audience (currently thought to be hovering around the 30m mark, although not publicly confirmed) has arguably been held back by the free music available on Spotify and – more dangerously – on YouTube.
Iovine is particularly vexed that the music industry – while in a public war with YouTube over payouts – is allowing free music to count equally alongside paid-for music in its most venerated charts.
He cites with some despair a recent conversation with a young artist, who told him their record label had instructed them to promote their music on all services equally – YouTube included – to give them the best chance of a Billboard Hot 100 No.1.
Iovine’s passion for convincing more people to pay for music forms the basis of our discussion across of a range of topics; from the exec’s history with Doug Morris and David Geffen to his Interscope achievements and his personal experience of watching the value of the recorded music business crumble away.
There’s also a few industry hot potatoes to explore in our exclusive interview below, too – including Apple’s attempts at signing exclusive artist releases, Iovine’s departure from Universal and last year’s headline-grabbing Frank Ocean drama…
Explain your big issues with streaming music right now – especially the chart.
The fact is that ‘free’ in music streaming is so technically good and ubiquitous that it’s stunting the growth of paid streaming.
Two things have to happen: free has to become more difficult or restricted, and the paid services have to get better.
It blew my mind that the day after I walked out on stage [to announce Apple Music at WWDC in 2015], YouTube mobile was licensed.
“Two things have to happen: free has to become more difficult or restricted, and the paid services have to get better.”
Musicians believe right now that there’s very little money in the recorded music business. So a lot of them are aiming their goal to be nothing but promotion – and that means having a No.1 record.
If it were me or some of my friends from the past [running today’s labels], we’d have changed this situation.
You’ve got to put everything into making the experience for people who are paying feel special. And for musicians to feel encouraged to promote them.
How do you make Apple Music attractive enough for consumers to leave a free service like YouTube?
We have a lot of ideas I can’t talk about. But we see Apple Music as a cultural platform, and music is becoming more and more about storytelling.
My son has a comic book store, Meltdown Comics [in LA], and it’s his whole life.
I went to the opening of the Power Rangers thing they did. And inevitably, when I’m out, some kid will walk over and give me a CD.
So this kid comes over and says: ‘Yo man, I’m from Compton. Can I show you something?’
I said, why not just give me the CD? He says no, I need to show it to you on my iPad.
It was an animation of an African American family – and he explained there was music in it, as well as a story.
And I thought: ‘Oh sh*t. This reminds me of the beginning of hip-hop; young, talented kids are realizing that the money is in visual.’
That’s where we’re going.
So this is what we’ve been hearing about Apple Music’s drive into exclusive video.
We’re following that path. And we believe that we’ll be on the forefront of popular culture.
That’s where Apple has the advantage – we have 300 creative people at our company, not one creative person running around like a one-legged-man at an ass-kicking contest.
Zane Lowe and Larry Jackson are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The show Dre’s doing is really gonna move the needle. It’s so unique.”
This isn’t just, ‘Let’s hire one guy or girl who used to be in the record business and tell them to do artist and label relations.’
It’s only when you can integrate tech and liberal arts on one platform – and do it well – that the wire will be tripped.
The show Dre’s doing is really gonna move the needle. It’s so unique.
[Iovine appears to be referring to the mooted ‘Vital Signs’ scripted drama on Apple Music, which is in production with Dre at the helm. Both Iovine and Dre are also appearing in ‘The Defiant Ones’ on HBO, which will tell the story of their respective rise.]
Are you encouraged by the news that Spotify is now at least allowing labels to window albums on its service?
I’ll put it this way: people who pay for subscriptions should be advantaged.
The labels owe it to their customers.
If they want to take credit for those customers in their [company] valuation, they owe them something. If they want them to stay for a long time, they owe them something. Period.
Labels got a minor victory with two weeks of windowing. What other industry does that? None. Nobody else does it.
The most important thing for labels is to make the paid services compelling and entertaining. And don’t make free services as good as the paid services.
Is that not obvious?!
Some people think this industry got so beaten up by piracy after Napster, that the only thing left to do was to give it all away for free.
Some people thought that. Some people didn’t. I never thought that – you go back to my interviews in 2002.
Steve Jobs never thought that. Eddy Cue (pictured) never thought that. Apple still doesn’t think that.
“If Apple Music had a free tier we would have 400m people on it. That would make my job real easy.”
If Apple Music had a free tier we would have 400m people on it. That would make my job real easy.
But we believe artists should get paid. That’s why I went to Apple.
I suppose The movie industry never did it; You don’t expect to get everything free on Netflix.
Music was an easier app for technology, so it was easier to transfer the files.
But, still – try and find Game of Thrones on YouTube. Good luck!
Artists are getting screwed. Period. I don’t see how anybody stands behind it.
It’s all of our responsibility to change it.
Naturally, having YouTube streams count the same as Apple streams in the Billboard Hot 100 advantages someone each week – and disadvantages someone else.
Well, it disadvantages the artist. And artists make this world go round.
I spent the first 20 years of my career in a studio with them. I am a manual laborer if not for musicians. I’m down at the docks if not for musicians.
I get that. I get it to my soul, and I’ve tried to live my life always remembering it.
You made three albums with John Lennon…
Yes, and then I went to Springsteen and did two albums with him; and then I went to Patti Smith and did an album with her. This was all in four years.
When you make an album, you’re with a person at least six days a week. So there was probably 75 days out of four years that I wasn’t with one of those three people, plus Jon Landau, who played a big role in it all.
“I had no skills, no talent, no education, no soul – no nothing. I was headed to the docks.”
That was my college education. I had no skills, no talent, no education, no soul – no nothing. I was headed to the docks.
Those three people taught me taste, feel, respect of music – how it should move and shouldn’t move. I was a blank canvas.
So that’s the genome for all this passion for musicians getting paid?
That’s it. Right there. They gave me a shot. I didn’t deserve it.
And I’ve put my money where my mouth is: Beats Music didn’t have a free tier. Apple Music doesn’t have a free tier.
I’m not just talking it; I’m walking it. That’s why I aligned with Eddy and Tim and Steve. They thought the same way.
I think what’s going on [with free music] is wrong. I just do.
I don’t care if saying that makes me seem behind-the-times, up-with-the-times, young, old… I don’t care!
Because, whatever it is, it’s wrong.
Your huge success with Beats earned you a lot of money – it sold for $3bn, and you’d have got a big chunk of that. Has that windfall affected your hunger to achieve in the music business?
No. I was very fortunate to be successful at an early age back in the ’70s.
Compared to what I come from, all of that [success] was unbelievable. What I have now is just more unbelievable.
In the beginning of Apple Music, I was very frustrated; I tried to fight [Spotify] and all those things.
Now all we can do is make Apple Music such a special place that people want to come and that will encourage more people [to subscribe].
“I’m hoping that what we can build at Apple is so creatively compelling, the road will lead to where we want it to go naturally.”
By the way, I think Daniel Ek is terrific. I think he’s doing a fabulous job.
Everybody needs competition; my best friends were my competition in the record business. Doug [Morris], David Geffen, Irving [Azoff], Mo [Ostin] – these guys were all my friends…. and then they were my competitors.
I’m hoping that what we can build at Apple is so creatively compelling, the road will lead to where we want it to go naturally.
But I don’t think the streaming industry can do this on their own. They need the help of the artists – and they need the help of the people who own the licenses.
Where does all of this leave Apple’s drive for artist exclusives, which were a key tenet of your strategy to benefit paying customers?
We tried it. We’ll still do some stuff with the occasional artist. The labels don’t seem to like it and ultimately it’s their content.
But we’re doing exclusive video content now, and putting a lot of money into that.
“The labels don’t seem to like [exclusives] and ultimately it’s their content.”
So what did we do? We signed an exclusive on an album then marketed the heck out of it. The artist benefited, the label benefited and it was only on a paid-tier.
Larry Jackson just thought: let’s promote this Drake album [Views] as hard as we can. And I said, okay, let’s make a deal with him.
Drake and Future are two of the smartest musicians and entrepreneurs I’ve met in a long time.
This is interesting: at Apple you’ve empowered artists like Chance The Rapper and Frank Ocean to take control of their own careers like never before. And yet you’re a record company guy.
I was doing the same thing [at Interscope]. Dr. Dre and Suge Knight own their masters.
I’m known for giving good deals to artists when I ran a record company.
I’m sure some people might disagree; [when I was a producer], when albums came out that I sweated over, pained over, killed over and they weren’t a hit, I always blamed the building. I never looked in the mirror.
“Chance The Rapper owns his copyrights? I didn’t invent that…”
Are there people who were on Interscope who feel they would have been successful if not for me or my promotions guys or something? Yes. Are some of them right? Yes. But are a lot of them wrong? Yes.
My thing is, I’m not trying to hurt labels.
Chance The Rapper owns his copyrights? I didn’t invent that – he’d [been doing that already] before I’d even heard of him.
But you must still be hurting labels by financially supporting him, no?
Herb Alpert was the original Chance The Rapper. He played the trumpet and wanted to make a record. Nobody would make it with him. He had a friend named Jerry Moss and they started A&M Records.
Who’s to say Chance The Rapper won’t be the next Herb Alpert? Who’s to say? Both smart motherf*ckers.
Berry Gordy started a record [label] with $4. And in America they called them ‘race records’.
That’s why he’s the greatest record company executive of all time, by the way, because he overcame something that no-one’s ever overcome. What he did was impossible.
The Frank Ocean story is fascinating. He released his final Universal album, Endless, exclusively on Apple last year. Then all-of-a-sudden he self-released his next record, Blonde – again, exclusively on Apple. It looked like UMG had been duped. Soon after, Sir Lucian Grainge sent out a company-wide diktat banning exclusives. How did that week play out for you?
Very simple. We’re gonna play by whatever rules someone who owns the masters wants to play by.
But we have to make our business grow, so we’re going to create stuff that is good for our customers and favors them – whatever that is.
“We’re not looking to disrespect or hurt a record company. I made my living owning a record company.”
We’re not looking to disrespect or hurt a record company. I made my living owning a record company.
It’s a great business and people need record companies. [But] record companies have to adapt – and they will, hopefully.
Someone out there is going to change the model. And what the majors want is for them to change the model.
They need to be ahead of it. And I can’t say whether they are or not.
I was talking to an artist manager recently and he effectively credited you with kick-starting the trend of hip-hop becoming the prevailing language of streaming. Do you think you’ve had an influence in that music going so mainstream?
No. I’m a timing person. I don’t invent anything. I don’t take credit for that at all.
It makes sense because it’s so compelling a genre of music. And right now it’s being embraced by the streaming audience. If you look at Spotify’s Top 30 and our Top 30, it’s very similar.
I really believe in [urban music]. I always have.
Why is streaming leaning so heavily towards urban? I don’t know. What’s shocking to me is that pop isn’t bigger on it than it is right now. But I think that will come.
What’s your history with tech companies before Apple?
Here’s why I fell in love with Steve Jobs and Eddy Cue.
I went to meet someone at Intel once, before I met Steve or Eddy. And I explained the plight of an Assistant Engineer and a young musician [during the erosion of the music business due to piracy].
I said: ‘If we can work together, we can really advantage your platform with music. And you can help the music industry find its value, rather than this free stuff.’
He goes: ‘What an interesting story, Jimmy. Unfortunately not every industry was made to last forever…’
I walked out of there saying: ‘Oh sh*t! We’re on another planet.’
Then I met Steve and Eddy, and they were very pro-musician – Eddy as much as Steve. And then I started working with Tim and he feels the same way.
Time Warner was the original 50% owner in Interscope. They sold the company back to you and Ted Field for $115m in 1995, after publicly criticizing hip-hop music for being obscene. The next year, you sold that 50% to MCA for a reported $200m. Hip-hop is now the biggest genre in the charts. Time Warner looks ridiculous in hindsight.
It’s one of my favorite stories in the world – and it’s is why a lot of these big companies have problems in the arts.
Someone at Time Warner came to me in the middle of it and said: ‘Look. My son listens to Tupac – as a matter of fact, he’s a teacher in a public school and he uses it as poetry. I understand what you’re trying to do. But I need all these people that are complaining about you [to buy cable subscriptions].’
“Time Warner looks… as they should. Because they made a big mistake.”
That’s what pushes all of this stuff. It wasn’t Elvis’s belt, or John Lennon saying [the Beatles were bigger than Jesus]. It’s always the same thing – it’s agendas.
It’s the same thing today. These giant companies buy media companies and there’s inevitably going to be a conflict of interest.
But, yes, Time Warner looks… as they should. Because they made a big mistake.
How do you think the current Interscope team at Universal, led by John Janick, are getting along since you left?
It’s different. They’re going to be very successful, but it’s just different.
When a founder is in a record company, they have ideas. And John will have different ideas.
Whatever those ideas are, I’m sure he’ll be successful.
I’m proud of them, I’m happy for them and obviously I love [Steve] Berman. But it’s just different.
When you had to leave that building in 2014 and officially became Apple’s Jimmy rather than Interscope’s Jimmy, what emotions did you have and how did you rationalize them?
It was very simple.
I couldn’t get done what I wanted to get done inside Interscope.
I couldn’t take the next step. So I said: I gotta leave.
And that next step was?
Streaming. I’d wanted to do streaming since 2006 – that’s when I started talking to Steve [Jobs] about it.
I remember he said to me, I’m working on something and I can’t get distracted with this right now. He didn’t tell me what it was but he said it was bigger than streaming.
It was the iPhone, and he was right.
We weren’t going to sell Beats to just anybody. Beats is doing really well today – it’s shocking how it’s doing even better now than when we sold it.
And now what you see all these guys like Snapchat trying to get into hardware.
Any of those companies would have wanted Beats because it [offered] an easy way into hardware. You can’t just wake up and say: ‘I’m in hardware.’ It’s a tough business.
What have Doug Morris and David Geffen taught you in your career?
David Geffen really gave me feel for the art of business. With him, it’s instinctual.
He fully understands art and the creative process but also fully understands business.
A lot of my business attitude, my feel for it, comes from him. How to deal – when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em. All of that I got from David.
David, still to this day, guides me in business and in life in an enormous way. He’s very generous with me and always has been.
“David [Geffen], still to this day, guides me in business and in life in an enormous way.”
And how to run a record company? I got that from Doug.
Doug is one of the greatest executives for executives ever. How to nurture and spot and bring up executive talent in music.
He taught me so much about how you should treat people within your record company.
I also learned a lot from Steve Jobs and Eddy. I knew I’d never be as good as them at making hardware, but I knew I could be better that some of the people out there doing it.
I was a terrible student in school. But I’m a great student at life.Music Business Worldwide