Ian Rogers: The Man Behind the Beats

Ian Rogers, CEO of Beats Music. Photo courtesy of Beats Music.

Ian Rogers, in his black hoodie and skate shoes, looks more like a college grad student than the chief executive officer of Beats Music, a position he assumed almost exactly a year ago.

Despite his youthful appearance, Rogers is a veteran traveler of the intersection between music and technology. In 1993, Beastie Boys manager John Silva hired Rogers to build websites for his artists for $8.50 an hour. The next year, Rogers was invited to give a demonstration of the Internet to the Beastie Boys themselves. They were so impresssed, the band asked Rogers to tour with them.

Rogers went on to head up Yahoo's $140 million music service as its vice president and general manager between 2003 and 2008. This gave him a taste of the challenges of building a subscription music service, one that ultimately folded because of high costs, a dearth of compatible playback devices and high bandwidth costs.

Today, data costs are much lower and smart phones have become universal platforms, giving music services access to hundreds of millions of potential listeners. Though licensing is still not cheap, they have become easier to obtain and the terms have become more flexible, giving Beats Music a chance of success that never was possible just a few short years ago with Yahoo Music. 

We caught up with Rogers at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week to discuss the music service he built with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, and Julie Pilat, the former head of content at Clear Channel Communications.

Billboard: Give us one example of how Beats Music is different.
Ian Rogers:
The first thing you'll notice when you're in the service is catalog cleanliness. We don't present music as a database list. We treat it as discographies, as artists' careers and as ways to tell the story of the artist. We're presenting their work several different ways -- in chronological order so you can see the progression of their work, we have selected tracks for our Essentials lists and we've disambiguated versions of the same song, so that the listener isn't given 10 versions of the same recording. It's also a mobile-first app, not a Web app that's been crammed into a mobile interface. 

There's been a lot of emphasis lately on having people, rather than mathematical algorithms, serve up recommendations for what people should listen to next. How's your approach any different?
We think humans know better than robots about what should come next. Broadcast radio programmers have been doing this for years. Their programming is excellent, but narrow. We wanted to bring that sensibility to our service, but open it up more broadly. Behind every single one of our recommendations is someone who truly loves the album that's being recommended. They are like the endcaps at Amoeba Records with the staff picks. We also have handpicked playlists, and a staff of about 30 curators who are each adding between three and five new playlists a week.

Initial estimates had Beats Music launching in the summer of 2013, then fall of 2013. Now, it's Jan. 21. What accounted for the delays?
I started on Jan. 5 of last year. That's almost exactly a year ago. It's been 12 months of non-stop product design and building. Yes, much of the thinking about the design had been done then. We also had the technology we had purchased from Mog [in July 2012]. But the actual building and assembly of the product didn't begin until a year

Beats Music has many parents, it seems. Who's been doing what? What has Trent's role been?
Trent is a Renaissance man. Most people know him as an artist. But he's also a very talented designer. He led the product design and the user interface. Jimmy [Iovine] and Julie [Pilat] worked on the curation aspects. Jimmy's very hands on. He once called me to point out that there was something wrong with our summer barbeque playlist. Both he and Julie have keen ears and impeccable tastes, which you'll see reflected in the service.