Today, Iovine leads Apple Music and Morris is CEO of Sony Music. But 15 years ago, they were on USA Network, right after wrestling, with Farmclub, a wild late-night series that was part A&R experiment and part Napster nemesis, where Eminem was in the green room, the Doritos model was a host and the end was just around the corner, as the founders lovingly recall. Says Iovine: “When do you find a place where it didn’t work and people say, ’That was one of the greatest times of my life’?”
“The minute Napster hit, I thought we were in trouble,” remembers Jimmy Iovine, who was running Interscope Records in 1999. “I said, ‘This is too simple, too easy and free.’” Soon, every label executive was similarly panicked: What do we do now? Iovine’s boss (and friend) Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music Group, had an idea: a combination label, website and TV show that would collectively function as an A&R “farm club” for Interscope. Users would vote for unsigned bands through Farmclub.com, the most popular acts would play the TV show, and the series would set the pace for music’s new digital future and maybe even help cripple piracy. Eventually, they would IPO the whole thing.
With Edgar Bronfman Jr. onboard, parent company Seagram bankrolled the startup capital: $25 million to buy time on USA Network following the station’s two-hour flagship show, WWF Raw/War Zone. (Not coincidentally, Seagram owned UMG and 43 percent of USA.) The audience for pro wrestling aligned with that of Jimmy and Doug’s Farmclub: young adult males who stanned hard for Interscope’s rap and nu-metal.
Farmclub debuted Jan. 20, 2000, with former Miss USA Ali Landry and MTV personality Matt Pinfield as hosts, and quickly became the No. 3 show for males 12 to 24, drawing 1 million viewers per night. But by September, Raw had moved to TNN, costing Farmclub its prize lead-in, and ratings suffered. Meanwhile, French conglomerate Vivendi had just acquired Seagram, and with USA head Barry Diller soon taking his network in a new direction and Vivendi Universal buying MP3.com, Farmclub aired its final broadcast in June 2001, after only 15 months. This is the story of Jimmy and Doug’s $25 million experiment.
‘Let’s Build A Farm Team’: The Concept
JIMMY IOVINE (CO-CHAIRMAN OF INTERSCOPE GEFFEN A&M; CHAIRMAN/CEO, JIMMY & DOUG’S FARMCLUB): Doug Morris and I have been friends since I produced Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna in 1980. Doug called me up one day and said, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s build a farm team. Let’s do a television show where artists can upload their music to us online and we can find different kinds of artists.” And I took it and ran with it.
DOUG MORRIS (CHAIRMAN/CEO OF UMG; CO-FOUNDER, JIMMY & DOUG’S FARMCLUB): We would discover new artists and give them a ticket into a record organization filled with professionals.
EDGAR BRONFMAN JR. (CEO, SEAGRAM): I signed off on Farmclub. There are no two better salesmen in the world than Doug and Jimmy.
ANDY SCHUON (PRESIDENT/COO, FARMCLUB) Jimmy and Doug approached me shortly after I left MTV. I got called to Jimmy’s office. I knew it had to be something interesting.
MATT PINFIELD (CO-HOST, FARMCLUB): Farmclub.com was an incredible experiment.
AMANDA MARKS (GM, FARMCLUB): Jimmy and Doug’s Farmclub was a web portal where unsigned artists uploaded their music to get reviewed by professional A&R scouts. Ultimately, [the goal was] to win a record deal.
MORRIS: I don’t know why we called it Jimmy and Doug’s Farmclub…we were egomaniacs! But it sounded better with his name first.
SCHUON: It was a record company, a television show and website all together.
MORRIS: Napster was a problem. That was the gorilla in the room.
GLENN KAINO (EXECUTIVE VP/HEAD OF PROGRAMMING, FARMCLUB): The ground was moving underneath the industry’s feet, and we were all running somewhere. We didn’t know where, but we knew we had to move.
‘We Did Whatever We Wanted’: Farmclub‘s WWF and Nu-Metal Tag Team
IOVINE: We bought the time on USA, we sold advertising, and we did whatever we wanted. We didn’t know how to do television, we just did it.
MARKS: We sold cross-platform advertising packages that included online advertising. That may seem traditional now, but in 1999, that was not the case.
SCHUON: Farmclub got more than three times the ad rate USA got for Baywatch.
IOVINE: Andy Schuon recommended Matt Pinfield. I saw Ali in a Doritos commercial and said, “That’s her!”
ALI LANDRY (CO-HOST, FARMCLUB): Jimmy saw me and was like, “Get this girl and bring her over to my house.” It was like an out-of-body experience: I’m from a small Louisiana town and here I am in L.A., in Jimmy Iovine’s living room.
PINFIELD: Farmclub came right after Raw/War Zone, the two highest-rated cable hours, Monday night at 11 o’clock. Buying that hour after Raw was, in my opinion, a genius move.
IOVINE: I wanted to follow wrestling because it synced with our roster.
DAVID FAGIN (FRONTMAN, THE ROSENBERGS): The lead-in audience was a bunch of ’roid heads and guys who loved George “The Animal” Steele.
MORRIS: We thought it was going to be a big-time show.
STEVE HARWELL (SINGER, SMASH MOUTH): They had that hot-ass host chick, that Ali girl. I wanted to get some of that.
LANDRY: It was a guy-dominated situation. I did bring some feminine energy.
‘Somebody’s Going To Get A Record Deal’: The A&R Play
FAGIN: We heard about Farmclub. You could just send this new thing called an MP3, and if they liked you, you would go on TV and play with big Universal bands.
RON WASSERMAN (SONGWRITER, FISHER): We were the second act they signed. We negotiated a deal on Christmas Eve in ’99.
TODD SMITH (VOCALS, DOG FASHION DISCO): Matt Pinfield and his camera crew flew out to Maryland to interview us at our rehearsal stage, which was our drummer’s parents’ basement.
MORRIS: We’d go into the bowling alleys, the pizza parlors, meet the kids and see the group.
FAGIN: We were a pop band from [New] Jersey, and our bass player uploaded demos to Farmclub.com. All of a sudden we get this call: “Do you want to come on the show?” We were excited. It was quarter to five on a Friday. Two minutes later, the “clearance form” comes through: a 23-page, six-record deal that lasted for 10 or 20 years for two minutes of television time; in the contract, they had the right to break up the band, they owned our website, they owned our synch and publishing rights. It was literally like an MGM Louis B. Mayer 1940s contract.
IOVINE: If [a band] wanted to be on the show, they had to give us an option to sign to Interscope, which I didn’t think was unreasonable. Maybe it was.
FAGIN: I immediately faxed it over to a friend who worked at Gold Mountain Management and she was like, “This is just really, really bad.” We really got angry. I wrote an email that was originally just meant for my friends. Farmclub’s slogan was, “Somebody’s Going to Get a Record Deal,” so I said, “Is that a threat?” On Monday morning, we met with our attorney about a completely unrelated matter and every partner
in the firm was waiting for us. They’re like, “Your email made it to every person in the music business over the weekend.”
STEPHAN JENKINS (SINGER, THIRD EYE BLIND): There was a sense of bringing up new talent, and I didn’t buy that.
‘How Amazing Is This?’: The Vibe On Set
AUDREY MORRISSEY (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, FARMCLUB): Our vision for the set was to make it seem like a cool underground club.
WASSERMAN: It was a 30,000-square-foot building [at Universal Studios] they’d converted into this beautiful multi-cam set, with slick floors, couches and a gorgeous stage.
LANDRY: Doug wasn’t there all the time. He’d float in and out. Jimmy was at every taping, backstage roaming the lot, in the dressing room — he was everywhere. He handled everything.
WASSERMAN: Matt and Ali as co-hosts was like having Tom Brokaw and then somebody from Channel 7 in Alabama.
LANDRY: Matt was an encyclopedia. I did my best to keep up.
DARCY FULMER (SENIOR VP MUSIC AND TALENT, FARMCLUB): It was that moment when hip-hop and rock could work together, but weren’t thought of in those terms. We had LL Cool J and No Doubt on the same show. We had Disturbed and Cypress Hill. Now, that’s commonplace at festivals.
KAINO: I hung out with Jimmy when he made a phone call to ask Dre to do the N.W.A reunion. I was like, “Did that just happen? Do you just make one phone call and now N.W.A is getting back together on Farmclub?”
MC REN (N.W.A): That was the first time me, Dre and Ice Cube were onstage since the Straight Outta Compton Tour in ’89. I remember Quentin Tarantino was in the dressing room. Shit, we might’ve smoked some weed together.
PINFIELD: Quentin Tarantino loved N.W.A. He was like, “How amazing is this?!” — like he’s a 16-year-old kid. He was running from one side of the stage to the other, singing every line at the top of his lungs.
IOVINE: One great band came through Farmclub: Trail of Dead.
JASON REECE (GUITARIST/VOCALIST,…AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD) We’re this small band from Texas who had never been on TV before, so our inspiration was The Who on The Smothers Brothers [Comedy Hour] in the ’60s. We acted like we were playing a house party for our friends. We trashed all the show’s gear. Later, we signed with Interscope.
‘The Boom Boom Room’: The Afterparties
IOVINE: I was watching that  movie Life and Eddie Murphy was talking about [an imaginary club called] the Boom Boom Room, so I called up Andy Schuon and said, “That’s what we need! We need a Boom Boom Room!” That was bigger than the show.
LANDRY: Jimmy doesn’t do anything small, right? He had the soundstage where we shot, but he also rented out the soundstage next to us, so after every single show there was a party.
MORRISSEY: I cannot tell you how insane that room was. I’ll just leave it to your imagination.
LANDRY: Eminem was always hanging out.
PINFIELD: Tommy Lee brought in some pretty crazy people.
REECE: My mom was there, and Bono was chilling out with my mom.
MORRIS: What happened in the Boom Boom Room stayed in the Boom Boom Room.
‘We Tried It’: The Demise Of Farmclub
FAGIN: Farmclub started having problems because of my email. Jimmy calls me: “Can we talk about this?” He flies to New York, sends the limo for us. He’s like, “We appreciate you helping us revise our performance contract. We had a bunch of lawyers do it. We didn’t look at it, and we should have. We’re changing it and we want you to come on the show.” Two days later, Farmclub was canceled.
WASSERMAN: We thought [Interscope] would understand what was going on in the online world, and how the industry was changing. It turns out they didn’t have a f—ing clue.
MARKS: We lost our lead-in because the WWF left USA. In the midst, we got bought by Vivendi.
MORRISSEY: We hadn’t really broken a big act.
MARKS: It was our intention to IPO fairly early in order to take advantage of the sloppy valuations for tech businesses.
SCHUON: When the tech bubble burst in 2001, hopes of going public completely washed away.
MARKS: My husband has never let me forget the amount of stock I had.
IOVINE: We tried it. Maybe we didn’t do it good enough.
BRONFMAN: At the end of the day, it didn’t have a great reason for being. We went too fast, and we didn’t produce a very compelling show.
LANDRY: This was my favorite job of all time.
IOVINE: When do you ever find a place where it didn’t work and people say, “That was one of the greatest times in my life”?
SCHUON: People ask me, “What was your best job ever? It must have been running MTV.” Actually, it was probably Farmclub.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of Billboard.