Table of Contents:
- Jimmy Iovine on working with John Lennon
- Smash the imposing, fear-inducing barriers
- How Jimmy Iovine learned to be of service
- How Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” came about
- The origin story of Interscope Records
- Jimmy Iovine on his first time hearing Dr. Dre’s The Chronic
- Fighting the controversy around hip hop
Harness fear to drive innovation, part 1
REID HOFFMAN: Hi listeners, it’s Reid.
You’re about to hear a special episode of Masters of Scale, featuring record producer and entrepreneur Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Interscope Records and Beats Electronics, and former head of Apple Music.
On today’s episode, we’re welcoming guest host, Angela Ahrendts, former senior VP of retail at Apple, and former CEO of Burberry.
But Angela is no stranger to the show. You might remember her in the guest seat for our two-part episode back in 2020, or as part of our roundtable discussion for our 100th episode. Angela is the perfect host to interview Jimmy Iovine about his legendary career because she happens to be a friend of Jimmy’s. They both joined Apple in the same week in 2014.
So, she’ll be your guide through Jimmy’s incredible scale story, and in doing so, she’ll be unpacking one of her own theories of scale. Now, on with the show.
Jimmy Iovine on working with John Lennon
JIMMY IOVINE: I walk into this studio, and it was really dark, really moody. Lights were really low. And the guy at the console turns around and says, “Hello James.” And it’s John Lennon.
ANGELA AHRENDTS: That’s Jimmy Iovine, legendary record producer and co-founder of Beats Electronics. He was an inexperienced 19-year-old recording engineer.
IOVINE: So now, first thing you do is get abject terror.
This is only three years after the Beatles broke up. So, to anybody who thought about music, they were so big. It was like, oh shit. Right?
AHRENDTS: As a recording engineer, Jimmy was expected to help Lennon translate his vision for a new album to tape. In that moment, Jimmy had a choice.
IOVINE: Either fear was gonna push me back, or from behind, push me forward. I had a mentor — Roy Cicala, who was my boss at the Record Plant, taught me how to engineer records. He was very, very stern — a very tough guy. And he thought I was strong enough to go in there and deal with it. So, I decided fear was gonna push me forward.
Roy would say, “Okay, come in two hours early and set up the mix exactly like you know I would want.” About an hour in, I don’t realize there are people behind me. It was John and someone else. And whoever that was, said, “Jimmy, can you get us some tea?” I said, “absolutely.” And John said, “no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You get the tea. Sit down, Jimmy. Keep doing what you’re doing.” And then he said, “record it.” And that was the mix — first mix I ever got on an album.
It was the beginning of my education. That was really day one of my life.
AHRENDTS: There was a wall of fear dividing the insecure kid from Brooklyn and the musical colossus from Liverpool. Jimmy’s instinct wasn’t to let the fear push him away, but to use it to build a bridge.
IOVINE: Fear is ground zero for success. You’ve gotta deal with it. Cause fear’s gonna chase you. So it might as well chase you forward, then chase you back.
I can’t go back; that’s worse than failing.
Eventually, I learned to like the feeling of fear.
AHRENDTS: By embracing his fear, Jimmy started to hone the instinct to run headlong at imposing barriers, and have the courage to break them down.
For entrepreneurs and leaders who develop this instinct, the upsides are huge. As new connections will spring up, new conversations will begin, and innovative ideas will flourish.
That’s why I believe to innovate, you need to trust your instincts. This will give you the courage to break down barriers, even when they’re terrifying.
AHRENDTS: I’m Angela Ahrendts, former Senior Vice President at Apple, and former Burberry CEO, and today, your guest host. And I believe to innovate, you need to trust your instincts. This will give you the courage to break down barriers, even when they’re terrifying.
Smash the imposing, fear-inducing barriers
Business leaders and entrepreneurs constantly come up against barriers.
And that’s fine — working out how to break through them is part of the job description.
However, there are some barriers many of us don’t even consider trying to breach. They’re so big, so imposing, or so well-established that we instinctively recoil. Maybe because we feel like we lack the expertise, the understanding, or even the right to break through them.
All these justifications come from a place of fear — an instinct that makes every part of your being want to avoid breaching these barriers.
But these big, fear-inducing barriers are precisely the ones you want to be smashing down, because through their wreckage lies the path to innovation.
I wanted to speak to my friend — the record producer, music executive and entrepreneur Jimmy Iovine about this. Across this two-part episode, we’ll hear how time and time again, he had the courage, creativity and instinct to break down barriers between people, genres, sub-cultures and industries. In doing so, he helped others overcome their fear of the unknown to see a bigger picture.
As a producer and record executive, he’s worked with hugely influential artists, including John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Eminem and Lady Gaga.
He co-founded Interscope, pioneering headphone and music-streaming company Beats, which Apple bought for 3 billion dollars in 2014. And as head of Apple Music, he launched the company’s music streaming platform in 2015.
Jimmy is also a dear friend — I’ve been turning to him for inspiration since we first met as new executives at Apple back in 2014. So it was a joy to reconnect with Jimmy and explore these ideas together at his home in LA.
How Jimmy Iovine learned to be of service
After Jimmy’s incredible start as a recording engineer working with John Lennon, he was soon working with other music legends.
IOVINE: I got to work with a lot of great people from the age of 20 to 26. I did three albums with John Lennon, two with Bruce Springsteen, and one with Patti Smith. So I had those three professors, and I learned everything there was to know about the essence of the music and the music industry.
All three of them were poets. So they were very, very particular on temperament and how to work and the quality of the work, the drilling down on the work.
AHRENDTS: And he often found himself chafing at the barriers that these artists threw up around themselves. One of these was Bruce Springsteen.
Jimmy had another opportunity to be a part of making something great. His rough Brooklyn edges reared up.
IOVINE: Now you gotta picture: I’m coming from Brooklyn. My father’s a longshoreman. I had a real attitude. I thought I was being insulted, disrespected about something. I wanted to quit.
AHRENDTS: Bruce Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, offered Jimmy some advice.
IOVINE: He walked in and he said to me, “Come here, you, I gotta talk to you. I’m gonna tell you something that’s gonna blow your mind. You never heard this in your neighborhood from your parents or anybody. This is not about you.”
I said, what? Everything’s about me. Just ask my mother. And then he said, “I want you to look at the big picture. This is not about you, it’s not about me. It’s about the album, the big picture. What are we trying to do? Swallow your bullshit. Don’t breathe your own exhaust. Keep your ego in the car and look at the big picture.” That is the greatest advice anyone’s ever given me, still to today.
AHRENDTS: This key advice helped Jimmy begin honing his instincts to break down barriers. He had been stuck behind the barrier of his own ego. And it kept him from seeing the big picture — what the artists needed, and what he could contribute to making innovative new music.
IOVINE: So I went in there with the mindset of an assistant engineer, which is completely of service. You are of service to the person behind that microphone. And without that person behind that microphone, you have nothing. So you learn that lesson over and over and over and over and over and again.
AHRENDTS: Jimmy wanted to be of service to the artists. But that didn’t mean simply following their instructions. With the barriers down, Jimmy could challenge them to break out of their own creative silos. Though it still took huge courage.
IOVINE: Sometimes you battle in a studio because as long as an artist in music believes that you care as much about their work as they do, you’re gonna do okay. But you gotta convince them of that. And they’re not easy to convince.
Cause when you’re that young, you’re just like, don’t let me get thrown out of this room.
ANGELA: Jimmy was understandably scared of getting thrown out of the room — remember, he was in his early 20s, and still building his reputation in a competitive industry. It would have been so easy for him to back down. But he didn’t. And that’s something I want you to note: The barriers we build — and become comfortable in — are founded on fear. Breaking out of them is scary. But the upsides of doing so are huge. And for Jimmy, there was a strong instinct to push through these barriers.
IOVINE: For some reason, I’m able to connect dots at times that don’t look like they belong together. I call it abstract thinking. Whenever you have a really different idea, you’re gonna meet a lot of resistance.
How Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” came about
AHRENDTS: Here’s an example from that era in Jimmy’s career — when he risked being thrown out of the room by not one, but two hugely influential artists. It came about when Jimmy felt the potential in a song Bruce Springsteen was struggling to finish, called “Because the Night.”
IOVINE: Bruce was working on “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and he had this album in his head, and he wasn’t sure if that type of love song fit on the record. And he didn’t really finish it.
ANGELA: Maybe Bruce felt the song didn’t fit his persona as a grizzled hero of the everyman. Perhaps it didn’t gel with the album’s theme of down-on-their-luck characters pitted against the odds. But whatever caused Bruce’s indifference to that unfinished song, Jimmy instinctively felt it had potential — with a twist.
IOVINE: I hear this song, and I said, “Wow. If a girl sang this, it would be powerful, you know?” ‘Because the night belongs to lovers,’ right? So I heard that, and I had giant conviction on it.
AHRENDTS: What made Jimmy’s instinct even more astounding, and harder to sell, was who he felt would be the perfect singer for that song.
IOVINE: Patti Smith. I’m working with Patti. I said, “I don’t have a first single.”
AHRENDTS: That’s Patti Smith — the no-nonsense high priestess of punk-poetry, whose earlier songs included one titled “Piss Factory,” and whose most recent attempt at a commercial hit had been described by critics as “10 minutes of noise.” Just making the ask of Bruce was a big deal.
IOVINE: It took conviction, first of all, to get the guts to ask Bruce for the song. ‘Cause when he’s working in those days, he was very, very, very intense. And there wasn’t room for any bullshit.
AHRENDTS: So Jimmy waited until he and Bruce were away from the intense environment of the studio before making his request.
IOVINE: We went out to Coney Island together, and I said, “Bruce, I’m working with Patti.” I said, “I don’t have a first single. Are you gonna use this song?” He said, “no.” I said, “Can I give it a shot with Patti?” And he said … he’s very simple. He says, yes.
AHRENDTS: Having braved the wrath of Bruce, Jimmy now had to work up the courage to convince Patti to sing a love song. Easter, the album that Jimmy was working on with Patti, was his first as a full-fledged producer. So the stakes were high.
IOVINE: So I went back and Patti, she goes, “I write my own songs.” I said, “Patti, this is a moment in time. You’re both from New Jersey. If we capture this, it will be magnificent.”
AHRENDTS: All the hours sitting in darkened studios with musicians had taught Jimmy something key when it comes to building the courage to break through to them.
IOVINE: In order to work together, you have to understand the value of the other person — really speak each other’s language and understand the why of each other.
AHRENDTS: Patti was an artist, a creator, so he appealed to the songwriter in her.
IOVINE: ‘Cause Bruce hadn’t written the lyrics. He only wrote the chorus. She said, “Oh, screw it. I’ll just write the lyrics.”
And she wrote, “Love is a ring, the telephone. Desire is hunger, it’s the fire I breathe. Love is a banquet on which we feed.” And when she played that for me, I said, “That’s exactly beyond what I could have imagined.” Those lyrics are so powerful. It was my first hit record as a producer.
AHRENDTS: A love song co-written by Springsteen and Smith may have seemed like a crazy idea, but Jimmy broke through the “crazy idea” barrier. Instinctively knowing how artists can break out of their creative silos to make creative leaps made Jimmy one of the most sought-after and successful producers of the eighties and nineties.
His many achievements included helping U2 break into America with their album Rattle and Hum; launching Stevie Nicks as a solo artist, and working with stars like the Pretenders, Tom Petty, the Eurythmics, and many others.
Jimmy also became known for having artist’s backs. This included wrestling creative control from the record companies and music executives.
So when Jimmy got the offer to help co-found a record label and become a music exec, he was faced with a barrier he didn’t want to break through.
AHRENDTS: We’re back with Jimmy Iovine.
I’m your guest host, Angela Ahrendts. If you want to watch my full interview with Jimmy, you can become a Masters of Scale member today at mastersofscale.com, or download the Masters of Scale app.You’ll be able to hear the stories and insights from Jimmy’s career, including more on his early days as a producer, his time at Apple, and his views on the intersection of fame and talent.
The origin story of Interscope Records
Before the break, we heard how Jimmy built a career as one of the world’s most successful record producers, and how he grew a reputation for putting the artists’ interests first. This included having their backs in battles with record companies.
IOVINE: I look at all these things with bewilderment. I’m always bewildered, like, I can do that? Can I? I mean, I don’t know.
I had no idea how to run a record company. There was some great people running record companies, my God, David Geffen.
I had worked with Geffen Records a bit, and I got to know David, and we just … he was another mentor in my life.
So I went to him. I said, “David, I’m thinking about starting a label.” He says, “you could absolutely start a label.” He says, “There are so many people in the record business that are successful that are a lot dumber than you.”
And he said, “there’s this guy, Ted Fields, starting a record company.” I said, “Okay.” And he introduced me to him.
AHRENDTS: In 1990, movie producer and entrepreneur Ted Field asked Jimmy to co-found a record company with him.
IOVINE: Doug Morris was running Atlantic Records at the time. And I told him about this. He goes, you know, we’ll put up half the money.
AHRENDTS: This could be an opportunity to shake up the record industry, by breaking down the barriers that had grown between the record labels and the artists. He took inspiration from another record label that had become part of the Time Warner stable.
IOVINE: In the ‘70s, there was a company called Atlantic Records. They had Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. We wanted Black culture and rock culture. We wanted the extremes of that. We wanted it banging at the same time.
AHRENDTS: Just as Atlantic had helped break down barriers between musical genres, Jimmy wanted to do the same with Interscope. He signed on as co-founder.
IOVINE: We built it around record producers and artists with their own labels. Like Dre with Death Row, Trent Reznor with Nothing Records, Timberland, and, will.i.am, and all these guys had their own labels … Pharrell. We just built a company that they were driving.
AHRENDTS: Interscope soon made a name for being the place that let artists be in control — collapsing the barrier between musicians and record label.
Jimmy Iovine on his first time hearing Dr. Dre’s The Chronic
However, there was a relatively new form of music that Jimmy didn’t even understand: hip hop.
IOVINE: I didn’t know a lot about hip hop. I didn’t like the sound of hip hop records. Sonically, I didn’t understand it — how the mixing was going down.
AHRENDTS: It took one of the pioneers of hip hop to break through to Jimmy.
IOVINE: So all of a sudden, Suge Knight and Dr. Dre come in my office.
AHRENDTS: That’s Dr Dre, founding member of the hugely influential rap group N.W.A., and Suge Knight, founder of the new hip-hop label Death Row Records. They had with them an unreleased album by Dre that they wanted Jimmy to hear.
IOVINE: They play me the record. And I had these speakers from the seventies called Tannoys. I knew everything about those speakers. I knew what they sounded like. I knew when something was good, when it was corny, when it was bad, it was weak. When he dropped the needle, I said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Who engineered this?” And he said, “I did.” And I said, “Who produced it?” He said, “I did.”
I knew Dre was magic.
Dre took it to another level. He understood how to control the bass and make it so powerful.
I said, this guy’s gonna define Interscope.
AHRENDTS: That record was The Chronic. And with it, Dre opened Jimmy’s eyes to the full artistry and potential of hip hop. He did it by speaking the same language as Jimmy — the language of the mixing desk.
Jimmy signed an exclusive deal with Death Row Records.
IOVINE: I said, “I don’t know a lot about hip hop, but these guys remind me of the first time I saw the Rolling Stones”. Snoop and Dre remind me of Mick and Keith. I can’t explain it, but they do.
In the early days, the Stones would scare you, but bring you in with their music. Dre knew how to make it into a record that was palatable for everybody. That’s why The Chronic was one of the biggest instruments in spreading hip hop around the world.
AHRENDTS: The Chronic was a global hit that defined a new era of hip hop and brought gangsta rap into the mainstream.
IOVINE: We’re not trying to have a hit. When you really succeed is when you move the needle. All of a sudden you change something that caused a seismic shift. That comes from not adhering to conventional wisdom.
If you are trying to do something fresh, you can’t live your life with conventional wisdom. It just doesn’t work.
AHRENDTS: But breaking through a barrier doesn’t mean the work is over. Often, you’ll need to keep fighting to keep that barrier down.
Fighting the controversy around hip hop
In 1995, Death Row Records found itself at the center of a huge controversy. Campaigners and politicians were calling for gangsta rap to be banned.
IOVINE: We got into a lot of trouble with lyrics with, uh, the government — Dolores Tucker, Bill Bennett, Bob Dole, even Bill Clinton said something terrible about us.
AHRENDTS: Time Warner, which had a 50 percent stake in Interscope, started to pressure Jimmy to drop Death Row Records and the gangsta rap roster.
IOVINE: A lot of the people around me who are lawyers and stuff were saying, “You gotta get rid of this stuff.” I said, “No, I gotta get rid of Time Warner.”
AHRENDTS: That’s right. Jimmy would rather ditch his owner and distributor rather than help put gangsta rap back in its silo.
IOVINE: They said, “But no one’s gonna wanna work with the label. Everybody’s afraid of these guys.” I said, “No, no, no, no, no. People will take deli tickets to work within Interscope. Trust me.” One of them said, “You’re gonna be selling pencils.” I said, “I don’t care.”
And, we took it right to the edge, and we got out of Time Warner.
AHRENDTS: In February 1996, Jimmy and his co-founders sold a 50% stake in Interscope to MCA Records for a reported $200 million. The deal included a clause giving Interscope artists — including the gangsta rappers — complete creative freedom. The move defeated the attempt to put the artists back in their silo.
And this is important to remember: just because a barrier has been broken or a silo breached, that doesn’t mean the work is over. There will always be voices fueled by fear and misunderstanding that call for those barriers to be rebuilt.
Jimmy’s instinct had been right, and in the following five years, Interscope continued to uncover and nurture era-defining talent like Eminem and Nine Inch Nails.
IOVINE: We ended up with Trent Reznor. We ended up with Helmet and Primus and Manson and Dre and Pac and Snoop.
AHRENDTS: However, the turn of the millennium brought with it technological transformation. The Internet was becoming mainstream and was driving a new phenomenon that threatened the very existence of the music industry: illegal file sharing. By the early 2000s, things were dire.
IOVINE: The record business was in the toilet.
AHRENDTS: The tech and record industries were at loggerheads. And the music execs were retreating behind a wall of lawyers in a fearful attempt to hit rewind on illegal file-sharing. But for Jimmy, running scared was no solution, so he set out to break through the barrier between the tech and the music worlds.
We’ll hear about that, and more, next week, in the second half of this two-part episode.