How Jimmy Iovine Plans to Take Apple Music to New Heights

Jimmy Iovine
josé mandojana for Variety

When you first sit down with Apple Music chief Jimmy Iovine in the living room of his Holmby Hills home, he asks if you want tea. It seems like an automatic sort of pleasantry, but several minutes later he asks again. On the third refusal, he takes matters into his own hands and picks up his house phone, saying, “Look, I’m just gonna get you a tea anyway.” A housekeeper brings the two cups, and he looks on, studying your reaction. After a few sips, he stops to explain the recipe.

“It’s basically steamed almond milk, vanilla, and then green tea we get from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf,” he says. “But then we took the recipe and kinda f–ked with it a little bit. It’s pretty good, huh?”

The tea is, in fact, pretty good, and Iovine’s enthusiasm for it is instructive. A green tea latte is not a new innovation, but neither is a record company, a pair of headphones, a Bruce Springsteen album, nor a music streaming site. If there’s a thread that unites Iovine’s various careers as a record engineer, a label boss, a consumer electronics kingpin, and a technologist, it’s his obsession with futzing over the details of his products and his tirelessness in selling you on the result.

josé mandojana for Variety

Iovine lives in Los Angeles but travels once a week to Apple’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, where he’s known simply as “Jimmy” — he has no public job title. Dressed in cool but modest attire, save for a gold bracelet bearing the name of his wife, 38-year-old model-actress Liberty Ross, the 63-year-old mogul holds court on a plethora of topics, from the state of pop studio- craft (“If you’re looking for a quick hit, that means you’re looking for something disposable”) to his youth (“I wasn’t a good student, I couldn’t concentrate, I probably needed both Prozac and Klonopin”) to his views on President Trump (“the guy is f–king crazy”).

But whatever the subject, Iovine almost always manages to find some connective thread back to Apple Music and his vision for turning the company into one that holistically blends the fundamentally entwined yet oft incompatible worlds of Silicon Valley and the entertainment industry.

“When I first met Steve [Jobs] and Eddy [Cue] in 2003, I said, ‘These guys should have an entertainment company,’” Iovine recalls, referring to the late Apple founder and the senior VP of internet software and services. He lauds the vision of Akio Marita, who bought Columbia Pictures and Columbia Records for Sony, with the idea of combining Sony technology with Columbia content, but died before he could capitalize on the investments.

“They had all these technologies and these entertainment companies, but they couldn’t put it all together,” he explains. “Apple, of all the global tech companies, was the one that understood why artists make things.”

Before Iovine’s arrival in 2014, Apple was struggling to adjust to the transition from downloads to streaming, which currently comprises 38% of the recorded music business. Since jump-starting Apple Music in June 2015 — built on the $3 billion acquisition of Iovine and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young’s streaming and headphones company, Beats Electronics — Apple has returned to flexing its muscle in the music space.

In 2016, Apple Music doubled its subscriber base from 10 million to 20 million users, each paying a base fee of $10 per month. The number falls far short of the totals of Spotify, YouTube, and Pandora — all of which have the advantage of free, ad-supported options — but Apple is making waves in other ways. For one, five of the albums to reach No. 1 on the weekly Billboard album chart last year debuted exclusively on Apple Music, including the year’s best-seller, Drake’s “Views,” which topped the chart for 13 weeks.

With “Views,” Apple presented a test case for how to exploit the breadth of its various platforms. Not only did the album enjoy a heavily marketed two-week exclusive streaming window on the service, but Drake himself teased new tracks on his Apple Music radio show; Apple’s flagship DJ, Zane Lowe, conducted the only extensive pre-release interview; and the company sponsored the rapper’s summer tour with supporting act Future, who also had recently released an Apple-exclusive album. The strategy was, in Iovine’s words, “a complete thought.”

The service will soon add a significant new wrinkle to its offerings. Last year, Apple Music made its first serious move into original video content when it greenlit the Dr. Dre-created, six-episode scripted series “Vital Signs,” then signed a deal with James Corden to turn his popular “Carpool Karaoke” segments into a stand-alone series, albeit without regular appearances from the CBS late-night host.

Iovine declines to offer specifics on exactly where the future of Apple Music’s original content strategy lies, but he stresses that the service’s forays into video will be Apple Music-specific. “We’re trying to make the music service a cultural point of reference, and that’s why we’re making video,” he says. “We’re making video for our Apple Music customers and our future customers.”

In a Jan. 31 earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook acknowledged the importance of the ventures: “In terms of original content,” he said, “we’ve put our toe in the water doing some original content for Apple Music, and that will be rolling out throughout the year. We’re learning from that, and we’ll go from there.”

Iovine, asked if he sees Apple Music attempting to become competitive with the likes of Netflix in the original-content sphere, demurs. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” he says. “When I read that, or I read that we’re taking on whomever, I say no. To me it’s all one thing. It’s Apple Music, and it happens to have video and audio. … It has nothing to do with what Netflix is doing.”

Wherever Apple Music’s video strategy leads him, Iovine remains obsessed with harmonizing the respective dialects of the entertainment industry, which he claims is insecure, and the tech sector, which he calls “slightly overconfident.” “Big tech companies are buying up entertainment companies,” Iovine says. “But someone at these companies has got to speak both languages, or it’s never going to work.”

With that in mind, Iovine and Dre are putting their money into finding youngsters who can straddle technology, business, and the arts, ponying up $70 million between them to create the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation at the University of Southern California. The Academy’s inaugural class is in its junior year. The program offers B.S. degrees, with current undergrads working on everything from interfaces for cancer patients to global Wi-Fi development.

“It began as a hypothetical conversation about what higher education was and had been,” says Erica Muhl, founding executive director of the Academy, and dean of USC’s Roski School of Art and Design. “The idea was to hack the undergraduate degree and start from scratch to rethink how we could educate for this generation’s profile of students.”

Founding a high-tech Bachelor’s degree program couldn’t be further removed from Iovine’s roots in Brooklyn’s working-class Red Hook neighborhood, where he grew up the son of a longshoreman. He was nicknamed Moochie, after the Disney character. “But in my neighborhood, man, I was lucky to get away with that one,” he says. “Everybody had a nickname; it was like hip-hop.”

In the 1960s, his neighborhood was rechristened Carroll Gardens. Every family on his block chipped in $15 toward planting trees, and a period of economic revitalization soon followed.

“Somebody had a vision,” he says, perhaps unintentionally drawing a parallel to his latest pursuits. “You go there now and it’s like, ‘Holy s–t! It’s f–king beautiful.’ These giant trees. And of course, you got all these bohemians living there now.”

Bohemians?

“To us, everybody who lived there that wasn’t Italian was a bohemian,” he explains. “That’s just what we called them. I’ll never forget, some bohemian family moved in across the street from me, and they had a kid called Zane. That blew our minds. We were all Jimmy, Johnny, Tony, Tommy, Frankie … and then there’s this kid Zane? I was like, ‘Holy s–t, this kid’s gotta live with that name his whole life?’ ”

josé mandojana for Variety

After high school, Iovine was forced to lose his outer-borough provincialism in a hurry, finding work as an assistant engineer at the New York studio the Record Plant, where he ended up looking across the glass at music icons. Within a five-year period, he worked on three albums with John Lennon, engineered Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and produced Patti Smith’s “Easter.”

“That was my college education, those six albums and those five years,” he says. “Everything I am today is because of those five years. I had no feel for culture before. I had no information. I had nothing.”

Sony Music Entertainment chairman Doug Morris first met Iovine in 1979, and recalls him as being “very energetic, very ambitious,” and possessing an impressive ability to predict the direction of the industry: “He had this unique antenna where he had very good ideas about what was going to happen, and how to get to the places he wanted to go,” Morris says. “It’s a very unique quality to be able to see around corners.”

As Beats Electronics president Luke Wood notes, “You really needed chops to survive in the studio. And Jimmy’s first real client, at 22 years old, is John Lennon. He would just say into the mic, ‘Jimmy, set up the echo on the quarter-inch machine so I can hear it where I like it.’ I don’t think a 22-year-old kid from Brooklyn had any idea how to do that. But he figured it out.”

Wood, who oversees Beats’ headphone and speaker lines — the company claimed six of the 10 bestselling headphone models in the last quarter of 2016 — has been part of Iovine’s team since 2003, when he joined Interscope as an A&R exec. It was Iovine’s lingering obsession with music tech that drew the two together.

“I sat down with him for breakfast, and probably within 10 minutes he asked me to play him some music I’d been working on,” Wood recalls of their first meeting. “I remember the first song I played him; we got to the bridge, and Jimmy pointed out how the Boss compression was affecting the emotional delivery of the lead vocal. And I think that was the minute we fell in love.”

Among other record-business confidantes Iovine brought to Apple are Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor (an Interscope artist-turned-Beats’ chief creative officer) and former Interscope A&R man Larry Jackson. Yet none of his current co-conspirators loom as large as Dre.

The two met in the early 1990s, shortly after the launch of Iovine and Ted Field’s Interscope Records, which notched early pop-rap hits with Gerardo’s “Rico Suave” and “Marky” Mark Wahlberg’s “Good Vibrations.” But the label lacked street cred until the arrivals of 2Pac and Dre in 1991 and ’92.

Impressed with Dre’s grasp of sound, Iovine helped sell a skeptical industry on the artist’s first solo venture, whether that meant comparing Dre and protégé Snoop Dogg to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for rock-centric journalists or buying blocks of commercial time on radio to tease segments of their single “Nuthin’ but a G Thang.” After the multiplatinum success of Dre’s “The Chronic” and Snoop’s “Doggystyle,” Interscope became the home of West Coast hip-hop.

Iovine and Dre remained close through Iovine’s eventful run at Interscope, helping to sign and develop acts including No Doubt, 50 Cent, Marilyn Manson, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and Lady Gaga — each withstanding the mid-’90s protests over gangsta rap that saw the label change hands from Time Warner to what would become Universal Music Group, and each enduring splits with Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, after which Dre started the Interscope affiliate label Aftermath Records. Iovine and Dre ventured into consumer electronics together in 2008 with Beats, and cashed out spectacularly with the Apple acquisition in mid-2014.

The relationship between the two will soon be the subject of a four-hour documentary, “The Defiant Ones,” directed by Allen Hughes for a spring release on HBO. If that title seems exaggerated on first blush — taken from Stanley Kramer’s 1958 film about two prisoners, one white and one black, forced to work together after escaping a chain gang — Iovine points to their shared background in rough, racially charged neighborhoods, and their ability to stay together “through some of the most difficult circumstances in the history of entertainment, some of [which] I can’t even talk about. And I’ll put that against anyone.”

“Jimmy is unlike anyone I’ve ever known,” Dre says. “When I left Death Row, and probably when Aftermath was off to a slow start, Jimmy always had my back. We have a different kind of relationship. ”

The two still speak every morning, and they appear to collaborate in a decidedly complementary fashion — Dre, the quiet partner, tinkering on projects in seclusion; Iovine the brash promoter, slipping Beats headphones over the necks of athletes and taking the stage at industry events to plug the brand.

“Dre’s purpose in life is to come up with something that moves the needle,” Iovine says. “He’s done that really seriously a bunch of times. And now he’s experimenting with video. And what he does will be unique, and he will get there. My responsibility to Apple and to him is to put him in that position where he can.”

Their loyalty is clear. “Over the years, Jimmy and I have encountered enough people to fight with,” Dre says. “We never had time to fight with each other. ”

Iovine concurs: “I don’t know why, but we’ve always stayed together. And we’ve never had a single argument. Probably because he doesn’t speak,” he deadpans.

While he acknowledges that there were flaws in Apple Music’s initial iteration, Iovine — perhaps taking a cue from his partner — stays mum on exactly what they were. (“I can’t say it, because then my competitors would know what I have in mind.”) Nonetheless, he certainly had a crash course in the economics of streaming before Apple entered the picture.

BRAINTRUST: Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre sold Beats Electronics to Apple in 2014 for $3 billion.
Damian Dovarganes/AP/REX/Shutterstock

As Beats by Dre became a giant in the consumer audio world, Iovine and Wood set their sights on creating a boutique streaming service. After abandoning attempts to build it from the ground up, in 2012 they acquired an existing service, MOG, and used that as a foundation to develop the subscription-based Beats Music.

Despite the service’s splashy January 2014 launch, Iovine acknowledges: “We were never going to be able to scale it, because the business model was very difficult, and still is. I didn’t think I could have finished it on my own. I don’t think any of us did. We knew exactly what we were doing, meaning that [joining Apple] is the outcome we wanted.”

The streaming space has undergone a good deal of consolidation, as the model’s royalty payment structures prevent any company without deep pockets (or investors with a high tolerance for initial operating losses) from staying in the game for long. Yet despite competition from Spotify, Jay Z’s Tidal, and others, Iovine doesn’t believe that streaming has to become a winner-take-all proposition.

“Not if streaming is done right,” he says. What “right” means is that each service is culturally different, he explains, so that each has a different feel. “Yeah, they all have the same catalog, but what we’re doing is we’re just building on top of that. That’s where the personality and the feel will come from.”

Apple Music’s radio presence — most notably primary station Beats 1 — has been key to differentiating the service from its competitors. Tastemaker DJ Lowe was recruited from BBC’s Radio One to helm a daily show on Beats 1.

“We looked at [Beats 1] as a living, breathing, fast-paced organism,” Lowe says. “We thought that if we could build something that can even remotely keep up with the pace that people are consuming music and culture these days, then we have a shot at being something usable that adds value to people’s lives.”

In addition to Lowe’s daily broadcasts, Beats 1 hosts periodic shows from established names like Dre, Drake, Elton John, St. Vincent, and Mary J. Blige. Yet Lowe is quick to cite Beats 1’s successes in gaining exposure for the emerging likes of Halsey, Bryson Tiller, Christine and the Queens, and current Grammy nominees Anderson .Paak and Sofi Tukker — significant successes, considering streaming music’s limitations as a way to discover new artists.

“Let’s be honest,” Lowe says. “Mainstream radio is not in a place where it can afford — literally afford — to take that many risks on a regular basis. And we are more than happy doing the legwork.”

Much ink has been spilled on the streaming services’ battles over exclusive releases from superstars. Tidal bowed three huge releases last year in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” Rihanna’s “Anti,” and Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo.” Apple secured exclusive windows on hits like “Views,” DJ Khaled’s “Major Key,” Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book,” Future’s “Evol,” and perhaps most contentiously, Frank Ocean’s “Blonde.” Ocean’s album was the cause of much industry hand-wringing, leading to Universal Music Group’s Lucian Grainge reportedly declaring a kibosh on allowing his acts to participate in service-specific exclusives going forward.

Asked if his tenure at Apple has caused friction with former music-business colleagues, Iovine is noncommittal. “Not really. Maybe? I don’t think so.” But he does downplay the centrality of exclusives. “I don’t lean on them too heavily myself,” he says. “We did ’em. We’ll do some more. But we’re just experimenting. I just know that if something feels right and someone wants to, we’re willing to do it, to help them really market their record, get the word out, and spend what it deserves.”

A fierce proponent of the paid subscription model for streaming, Iovine faults changes in chart methodology that give the same weight to all streams — paid and free — in tallying the top albums and singles. “A free stream shouldn’t be weighted the same as a paid stream — I don’t think there’s a sane person in the world, other than a promotion man, who would advocate that,” he says. “And that is one of the many things that someone has to fix in order for the whole thing to move forward.”

He continues: “A chart that weighs some ad-supported streams the same as a pay stream …encourages artists to promote free tiers to have a No. 1 record. That’s great for the tech companies, but not for artists.”

Iovine claims to not regret leaving the recording studio behind. “Not for one second,” he says. “I love daylight.” Yet he’s quick to lament the idea that the music industry is losing its sense of freedom, and risking a brain drain in the process, as the best and brightest are drawn toward the wider horizons that tech companies offer.

“Right now there’s a lot of fear in the record business,” he says. “And the [parent] corporations should make it so the labels can relax a bit and be more adventurous. When the businesses are leveling out or going down, and you’re still asking for growth, you don’t have to be a mathematician to know what happens.

“You gotta remember,” he continues, “the record industry, in order for it to really thrive, has got to attract great people. And I think there might be some suffering there right now. I always tell people about this one kid, my daughter’s boyfriend. He’s a great piano player, his father was a record producer, and he makes records on the weekend. But he works at Snapchat. He’d be incredible in the music industry. And the only way to get people like that back is to give them the same kind of freedom.”

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    1. Giuseppe Baggadonutza says:

      A 22 year old non-musician lands John Lennon as his first real client after just two years of burnishing his ‘chops in the studio’. Not sure we have the whole story. Entirely reminiscent of another time we didn’t get the whole story. Another NY non-musician Salvatore ‘Sal the Banker’ Pisello worked out of MCA’s Universal City offices for a year earning some $600K but none of the label execs could remember who gave permission for that..

    2. katinies says:

      what is with that shirt?

    3. Gurn Blinka says:

      Make Music Free. Make Movies Free. Actors and Muscians should play free for the masses.

    4. Socialism Kills says:

      “On the third refusal, he takes matters into his own hands and picks up his house phone, saying, ‘Look, I’m just gonna get you a tea anyway.'”

      Classic leftist c**tery. “Shut-up! We know better than you!!!”

    5. Paully says:

      Unless Apple moves up to MQA streaming like Tidal the Apple sound will always be poorer.. Apple should buy Tidal..

    6. bobhopeless says:

      He produced two good albums in his life (Rattle & Hum and Damn The Torpedoes) and the rest is cookie cutter crap. There are far better producers out there, but he’s head of apple so kiss his ring everyone and thank him for marky mark and rico suave!

    7. Trapper says:

      Jimmy, we don’t care about your left wing California politics or your twisted views of Donald Trump. Please do what you do best and stop trying to tell the rest of us what we should think while you sit in your multi-million dollar mansion sipping Green Tea Lattes. If you could just do your job and not act like we care about your thoughts on anything other than music…if that!!

    8. Al Canales says:

      Jimmy is a musical genius! That’s really all the article had to say. As to his recipe for tea or what he thinks of Trump, who cares. He, most likely, wouldn’t care for me either. But what others think of me is none of my business. Jimmy’s accomplishments in the music industry are impressive and he is to be respected for it.

    9. Amazing, the media will write anything for a reason to make some derogatory comment about the President of the United States. GET OVER IT HOLLYWOOD LEFT. YOU LOST….

    10. Col. Angus says:

      He hates Trump because that’s what the kewl people do.

    11. Jack says:

      No longer interested in music. The technology and “ease of use” has become so complicated and infuriating to use there’s no joy in trying to get to the music.

    12. jef says:

      The haters are out, can’t stop progress. Jimmy has created endless wealth and opportunity for a lot of people. Don’t, love the man. He is an example of what makes America great, anyone can make it if they have passion and vision.

    13. Red Barber says:

      Iovine must employ the worlds best publicist!!!!

    14. Aldous H says:

      Hollywood needs an endless supply of ‘sucker’s money’ to run. Iovine is just fleecing money from big dumb Apple – and Apple is too star struck realize they are getting robbed.

      Hollywood has become a black hole for money. All they can do is make comic book movies to break even.

    15. Music is dead and souless and so is the music industry as a whole. Just like 9/11 changed travelling forever (not for the good), digital media changed the industry (not for the good).

    16. Shooby says:

      Never trust a man his age that wears skinny jeans!

    17. bobo says:

      Why do you delete letters in the middle of expletives and vulgarities? I don’t see the point.

    18. Pat Miller says:

      Lovine, why don’t you start by selling lossless tracks. 24/96 would be very nice, and I will finally buy from Apple.

    19. Mr. Blackwell, Jr. says:

      With all that Beats dough, you’d think he’d be able to invest in a full-length mirror…

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