Jimmy Iovine has something to get off his chest. The Apple executive, 63, has spent decades in the music industry as a producer, engineer, label executive and co-founder of Interscope Records, before founding Beats Electronics and Beats Music alongside Dr. Dre and, in 2014, moving to Apple after its purchase of that company in a deal worth some $3 billion. Now, 17 months after the launch of Apple Music — which has generated plenty of headlines due to its exclusives strategy and aggressive pursuit of original content on its way to 17 million paid subscribers — Iovine still feels like his mission is misunderstood.
“What everyone’s writing is the obvious right now,” he tells Billboard. “They’re writing, ‘People in the record business are getting into tech so they can talk to people in the record business.’ That’s hogwash.” [Ed. Note: That topic was the subject of several articles last week, including ones in Billboard and Music Business Worldwide, though Iovine’s ire appeared to be aimed at a Rolling Stone article published on Yahoo.com.]
The topic is one that’s of particular interest to Iovine, who alongside Dr. Dre donated $70 million to the University of Southern California at Los Angeles in 2013 to create a new institute dedicated to educating students in the arts, technology and business of innovation, which he says means “everything” to him. It’s also in the context of the recent migration of former music business players such as Troy Carter, previously manager to Lady Gaga and Meghan Trainor, and Lyor Cohen, the longtime Def Jam and Warner Music Group veteran, who both recently shifted to Spotify and YouTube, respectively. But while that shift has become a trend in recent months, particularly as streaming has overtaken all other areas as the dominant revenue stream in the music industry’s digital era, Iovine feels that the ‘liaison narrative’ being put forward is an oversimplification of a larger issue.
“It took 10 years to develop this team,” he says of those around him at Apple, including Trent Reznor, Luke Wood and Larry Jackson. “The people from popular culture had to understand how to talk to engineers. It isn’t just them talking to record people; [otherwise] the engineer culture doesn’t understand what you’re talking about, doesn’t take you serious, and writes you off.”
With Apple Music’s recent redesign and its continuing foray into exclusives, both in audio streams and now its latest push into video, Jimmy Iovine breaks down the misconceptions of his strategy at Apple, the difficulty of marrying the music world with the tech world and the evolution of the company he’s building now. “We are an adjunct to labels and artists,” he says. “Yeah, it’s a popular culture company, but it’s also a tool. And that’s what we’re building. We’re not in the record business.”
Billboard: Apple Music has accomplished plenty in the past year…
Jimmy Iovine: Before we get into that, we have to get into the why. It’s a story, it’s complex. Because what everyone’s writing is the obvious right now. They’re writing, “People in the record business are getting into tech so they can talk to people in the record business.” That’s hogwash. And why it’s hogwash is, it takes a certain individual… For example, I met [Apple executives] Steve Jobs and Eddy Cue in 2003. I realized, okay, the future of music is going to be intertwined with distribution through technology companies. It just looked like that to me, and I realized how far behind I personally was. So I set out to really understand. So I worked with those guys for about two years, and I said to Steve, “I’d like to do headphones with Apple with [Dr.] Dre,” about two or three years later. He said, “Do it yourself, you can do it.” So I tried it myself.
So I built a tech company. And we built this whole company and we needed certain types of individuals for the kind of company we wanted to build. We wanted to build a tech company that had a big presence in popular culture, which was what Apple had, but no one claims to be Steve Jobs. But we wanted to have that understanding. So one of the first things I did was to hire Luke Wood, because he understood both languages. Because language is tricky.
Then I needed somebody with an artist’s point of view who understood the language of technology, and that was Trent Reznor. This new [user interface] that you see at Apple Music, Trent Reznor was really, truly involved on every level of it. Both in design and engineering, every week, to get it to where it was both technically right and culturally right, to do what we want to do with culture. So then I left Interscope, and Larry [Jackson] was a guy who also could speak both languages, so I took him with me. So this was a 10-year process. Then we sold to Apple. Then Apple brought over 250 people from popular culture, from the media business — not one, 250 people. Right? So that’s why all of this is missing the point: it took 10 years to develop this team. We’re so committed to this that Dre and I started a school at USC.
So people that hire record executives — I don’t know what these people can or can’t do — but Larry and Trent and Luke were guys that I just knew, instinctively and through working with them, that they could learn this. That’s very important. Because every time I read, “Oh, they’re hiring music people!” How naïve! You know what’s wrong? There are too many journalists, too many articles and not enough time to do the research and the depth of what you need to get a story right. What I read on Yahoo this morning was so f—ing absurd. Anyway, so I had a good morning. [Laughs]
What was it about guys like Larry, then, that made you think he was the type of person who would be able to walk that line?
A lot of young people have that feel because they were brought up communicating through technology and got their entertainment through technology and dealing with technology. So they really have a feel for it. Some of them go the extra yard to really try to understand — they’re not coders, but at least they understand the language and want to learn about it. Larry had those qualities and had the capacity and the inclination for that. So I believe I was right. And he’s been doing very well at Apple, and he’s been working with people from the tech world. And that’s very, very, very difficult, and it’s why I started my school. This isn’t something that just happened overnight, this has been going on since 2004.
This year, though, those 10 years of prep and build up have manifested themselves in a lot of projects, and that’s why I wanted to ask you —
Yeah, and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make this balance work. Robert Kondrk and I work constantly on blending the cultures, and he should be mentioned because he’s working very, very hard on blending the cultures with me, of blending Apple and the people from Beats. And Eddy Cue is incredibly natural; he’s gifted, because he was Steve’s guy, so he learned a lot about this and he’s very open and has a great feel for popular culture and media. So you put that team together, and you’ve got a shot.
And what we’re going to do, what we’re doing now that hasn’t been revealed yet, is we’re building the right hybrid. And we believe it’s the right hybrid, and the combination of these things together, we’ll build a music service that is technologically and culturally adept.
Can you share anything about what that might look like?
I can’t. But I can tell you that we are, you know… Larry, Trent, Luke on the headphones side, Zane Lowe [with Beats 1], we’re all working to create something — and Robert Kondrk — that we can just blend into correctly and not just say, “Let’s just get somebody from a record company to go make the deal we want.” That has nothing to do with what it — capital IT — is. And, you know, it’s been a road. The last three years both sides have had to work to really understand each other. And I have to have people with the capacity and the capability of learning.
We’re going to do whatever we believe is great. We are going to make a combination of tech and popular culture that is exciting and adept at both areas. So that’s what you’re starting to see. It’s going to have a voice. It’s not going to be just a utility — “Go here and get your music, good luck,” or, “We’re going to send you a list” — that’s great, but that’s not what this is. That’s not what this was, anyway.
Do you ever look back at —
I don’t have a rear-view mirror. I’m just working so hard, because it’s so hard to get right, how to work in the tech world. It’s not the same. You’re going from one world to another world, and we are starting to succeed. But this has been 10 years of preparation, two companies built — Beats Electronics and Beats Music — and then the people were chosen and understood how to work in both worlds. This is not something where you can just pluck somebody out of the air. Larry’s been with me for eight years. Trent’s been with me for 20 years. Luke’s been with me for 15 years. I’m hoping you get the feel for what I’m talking about.
So are you looking at building a future where there is no line between those two industries?
No, no, no, no, no. We are an adjunct to labels and artists. We are building something that can help labels and artists and undiscovered artists. Yeah, it’s a popular culture company, but it’s also a tool. And that’s what we’re building. We’re not in the record business.
For some reason, this has to be the case for it to really work. That’s why there are so many people out there in media companies that don’t understand; they work on the digital side of the record companies, but they don’t understand the language of the world of technology companies, what it’s like to be in a technology company and how they perceive things. Like I said, we built the number-one headphone company in the world today. We didn’t go out and make a headphone company and say we’re in the tech business, we built the number one headphone company. And that went to Apple with all the people. So those people are trained, multi-disciplined. And that is important to me. And that’s what I hope you get out of this, the understanding. I’m constantly finding and training people that can be in both worlds. And I would like to include them, because it takes a lot. It takes a lot from our side and a lot from their side.
Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and context.