Jimmy Iovine used to sweep up recording studios. Can he clean up the record business?
The person who just got the role of guiding the future of the recorded music industry started his career sweeping the floors of a recording studio. Read that sentence again, because it is both one of the most unlikely statements that one could have expected to hear in this, the nadir of the industry's arc, and also the one we most needed to hear.
This comes at a time when the music industry has become little more than a toy for oligarchs and hedge funders; when Shazam‑like algorithms are asked to conjure up hit records out of samples untouched by human hands; when most graduates of recording education programmes never see the inside of a professional studio as an employee; and when Tin Pan Alley has been replaced by Wall Street. But now a guy who used to sweep the floors at a recording studio has been given a senior appointment in what has become one of the biggest companies in the record industry: Apple.
The last time I saw Jimmy Iovine was at the Producers & Engineers Wing event on the Wednesday night preceding the 2011 Grammy Awards, where he was honoured for what had been a remarkable career. A scrappy Brooklyn kid, he parlayed a love of music into a career, working his way up from tea boy to assistant engineer to first‑chair engineer to producer, for artists ranging from John Lennon to Bruce Springsteen to Tom Perry and U2, and finally to full‑fledged macher, founding and running Interscope Records, home to Eminem, Lana Del Rey, Maroon 5, One Republic and others whose careers he's fostered. He was fêted for his co‑founding of Beats by Dr Dre, the fashion‑friendly headphones that turned an audio component into an accoutrement of couture. It was a move on a par with how his acquaintance and peer, Apple founder Steve Jobs, changed a medium of piracy into a monetised business with iTunes.
The Wing event was an evening devoted to those who man the engine rooms of music — the engineers and producers and mastering mavens. Iovine, who swept the floors in between sessions at the Record Plant, was first among equals that night.
I had also met him before then, sometime in the 1980s. At the time, he was sitting in a king‑sized bed at the Waldorf‑Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, in a robe, under the covers, dispensing some career advice to me, an audience where he was both brisk and brusque but always gracious and almost certainly right. I had access thanks to the first time I met Iovine, a decade earlier, when we had discussed him possibly producing a record for me. That wasn't meant to be, but it did produce one of my favourite anecdotes, as he and engineer Shelley Yackus explained that they had mixed the entire Born To Run LP in a single marathon session. Jimmy leaned in and asked if we wanted to know how they stayed awake through that epic mix. We expected the by‑then perfunctory Bolivian Marching Powder answer; instead, he said simply, "We chewed tinfoil.” Anyone with dental fillings will understand.
That's who Iovine is: extremely practical, manically focused but never without sensitivity to the art. He didn't get sidetracked by the trends of the times. Instead, as Doug Morris, the chairman of Sony Music (and who, as the head of Warner Music's Atlantic Group in the 1990s, backed Interscope) said of him: "He can see around corners” — an admiration of Iovine's almost preternaturally accurate prediction that rap, then a musical demi‑monde largely ignored or disdained by the larger culture, was going to go mainstream. When it did, Iovine was at the leading edge.
So now Iovine is in a position to influence the future of music beyond an enterprise scale — he already did that with Interscope and Beats, for which Apple laid out $3 billion, the largest single acquisition in the company's history. No, Iovine, with what is almost certain to be carte blanche, at least for the honeymoon period in Apple's C‑suite, can effect change on an almost spiritual level. His rapport with artists is legendary and genuine; his acumen for the technology and the culture as sharp as anyone's.
But the real news is the fact that for the first time in a very long time, someone who actually made records — big, landmark records — who chose and placed mics, did punches, strategised how to sneak one more guitar solo onto a packed two‑inch reel, whose finger moved the faders and later guided those of others, is in the driver's seat. Not behind a mixing desk (those archaic relics of another era of music), but at the console of a starship that can go places music never imagined it could.
Iovine isn't Thomas Edison, able to conjure up entirely new solutions; he's closer to Walt Disney, with a native understanding of what people want in music and how they want to experience it. He can also be as ruthless as old Walt: Beats' history is a high‑tech Game Of Thrones narrative, complete with a Monster (in this case, the cable‑manufacturing company of the same name — how convenient), and alliances made and crossed. And those headphones are less a monument to sonic fidelity than an accommodation to a fad. The club kids have been putting on cans since long before headphones became a fashion accessory. Beats' notorious hyped low‑end is simply an aural extension of that, a perpetually pressed contour button at a time when even country‑music records need a subwoofer to be properly appreciated.
But Iovine also knows that good music doesn't need gimmicks. He knows that it takes talent, nurtured and guided, in an environment where it can go directly from the soul to the hard drive. In that sense, Beats is simply a plot device, a way to move the narrative forward. In the same way, perhaps Silicon Valley will serve the same purpose, as a way to get to the next stage of whatever record production is going to become. This business could use a hero about now, especially one that knows how to properly wield a broom.