Jimmy Iovine Talks Birth of Beats, 'Cool' Steve Jobs and Music's 'Sterile' Distribution Systems at Revolt Conference

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Jimmy Iovine and Sean "Diddy" Combs attend the Revolt Music Conference at Fontainebleau Miami Beach on October 18, 2014 in Miami Beach, Florida.  

Jimmy Iovine used his acceptance speech for a special award at Sean Combs' inaugural Revolt Music Conference this week to talk about Beats, Apple and the changing landscape of the music business, or as he prefers, the business of music. Iovine, the former chairman of Interscope and co-founder with Dr. Dre of Beats Electronics, which sold to Apple in May for $3 billion, was bestowed the Drake-inspired We Started From the Bottom Now We Here Award.

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Here are some highlights from the speech, which begins at about the 11:00-minute mark in the video below.

On being "scared to death" of Napster circa 2000: "I could see the kind of impact Napster was going to have on people buying music… I called my buddy Doug Morris, the Chairman of Universal Music and my boss at the time. I said, 'Doug, we're screwed.' I said, 'Doug, these guys don't want our land. They want our water to take back to their land.' At that moment, I was scared to death. I realized a full-blown invasion was coming... For me, it was time to not just panic, but to innovate. Like a lot of us, I had gotten into the music business in the first place because I wanted to be associated with something cool. I knew in my heart that I wasn't cool, but I figured I could at least be cool by association. But like everything else, cool changes and moves on."

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On "cool" Steve Jobs: "This was a man who understood the lyrics, who understood the music, who understood The Beatles and Bob Dylan, but who also in a visionary way, truly understood lifestyle and technology. In other words, this was a great and dangerous man who I quickly decided to make my friend. See Steve didn't just love music; he had a deep and intuitive understanding of its place in our world. Today, everybody thinks that if they love music, that's enough. That's nonsense. For instance, I really love chocolate, but that doesn't make me a potential Willie Wonka."

On convincing Dre to choose headphones over sneakers: "When I ran into Dre one day and he told me his lawyer wanted him to start selling sneakers, the shining example of Steve Jobs and his company stuck in my head. I said, 'Dre, let's not do sneakers – let's do speakers. Nobody cares what sneakers you wear, but everybody will really care what headphones you wear and what speakers you use.' Being a real music man, Dre was intrigued. He said, 'Can we do that?' And very thoughtfully and elegantly, I said, 'Fuck yeah, we can do that!' … Thankfully, Dre and I were brave or foolish enough to try our hands at consumer electronics -- and eventually to get the most successful technology company in the history of the planet to buy us. But make no mistake, Beats was created out of -- and with the philosophy of and an innate passion for music."

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On Beats' success: "Our competitors' headphones were made by scientists for 'reference.' In other words, they wanted music to sound exactly the way it looks on an oscilloscope, but guess what? Nobody listens to music like that. I met the chief engineer for a big competitor, and I asked him, 'How do you tune your headphones?' He told me, 'Well, we use an oscilloscope.' I asked him to come into my studio with me, so I could show him something. I said, 'Have you ever been in a recording studio?' And he said, 'No.' I called Dre immediately, and said, 'There's no way we can lose here.' What we're gonna do is build a headphone and give it a soul... Beats succeeded because as music lovers we knew, oscilloscopes don't buy headphones -- people do." 

On the industry's ailing distribution systems: "The great artists of music have always innovated and boldly changed the game, but the industry itself has not. Too often, the music business allowed third-party companies to innovate for us -- and that simply does not work anymore. We must face the fact that our delivery and distribution systems are too sterile and not compelling enough for a new generation of young people who love music in their own way. And if we don't fix the distribution of music, we run the risk of music being sent out into the world in such an uninspired way that music loses its value -- and not just its financial value, but even worse, its emotional value too -- and therefore its position as arguably the most dominant art form going forward."


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