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Jimmy Iovine Opens Up About Working With John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Dr. Dre, the State of the Music Biz, and Being Inducted Into the Rock Hall of Fame

In what he described as his 'last music interview,' on the eve of his induction into the Rock Hall of Fame, Jimmy Iovine — producer, executive, entrepreneur, co-founder of Beats by Dre and the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy — takes a fresh look back at his unique career.

Jimmy Iovine Rock n Roll Hall of Fame Honor
Jose Mandojana

The music business is filled with polymaths, but it’s safe to say that none have had as many separate successful careers as Jimmy Iovine. The Brooklyn native started out as a recording engineer, evolved into a producer; then co-founded Interscope Records and became a powerhouse label executive. He then co-founded Beats by Dre headphones and a streaming service, which became Apple Music after he and longtime partner Dr. Dre sold it to the tech giant in 2014 for $3 billion. 

Along the way, Iovine worked closely with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, U2, Eminem and many others; executives including Jon Landau, Doug Morris and Steve Jobs; and solicited advice from everyone from David Geffen to Diddy. The impact he had on the careers of many of those artists and the music world at large has earned him a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2022, where he will be inducted by none other than Springsteen on Nov. 5. 

Now technically retired — Iovine stepped down as head of Apple Music in 2018 — the 69-year-old father of 6 is only marginally less busy than before. Iovine remains an active investor; he and Dre co-founded the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy (“where human experience field purpose-driven technology and business innovation”); and he’s helping his family members with multiple projects, including his wife, Liberty’s, revival of her father’s roller-skating business, Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace, in New York and London. 

Iovine’s career has been documented in extensive detail — not least in the nearly five-hour 2017 HBO documentary on him and Dre, “The Defiant Ones” — and he said he wants this conversation with Variety, which stretched across two days in October, to be his “last music interview.”

With that palpable inspiration, Iovine’s directive to deliver was received loud and clear in the conversation below, which sprawled across two days last month. 

You’ve been successful in very different disciplines. What in your background or your upbringing enabled you to think like that?

My father played an extraordinary role in my life. He was a longshoreman, a very simple guy, but a very optimistic, positive person, and he was curious about things from everywhere. He thought like that. He gave me the confidence to not be afraid, to hear other people, and to not [cling to] old ideas. So when I went into the studio — the first album I ever did was with John Lennon and Roy Cicala, one of the greatest engineers that ever lived — I was really open, not only to what they were doing, but why they were doing it, who they were, and what I could learn from them. Then I went to Bruce Springsteen and met [longtime manager and co-producer] Jon Landau, and I got insecure. And Jon told me, “I’m going to tell you something you didn’t learn in your neighborhood: This is not about you.”

That moment changed how I dealt with things. So 30 years later, when the common thinking was that there were no white rappers, an intern at Interscope says to me, “I saw a rapper last night — it was this white guy {Eminem], but I think he’s really good,” I stopped and said, “Who knows? Maybe this kid’s got something.” And I wasn’t embarrassed to play it for Dre, because so what if I’m wrong?

So if you’re willing to think like that — accept information from all angles, synthesize it, and realize that things that aren’t obvious can go together — you can go a long way. Lennon, Springsteen and Patti Smith were my first three [major projects] — I don’t know why I thought I could do that, but in the same way, I thought I could build headphones.

Iovine at Electric Lady Studios, New York, mid-1980s. (Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty images) Getty Images

When did it become obvious that you had an aptitude for music?

The first time it hit me was in 1973, when I was setting up mixes for my boss for John Lennon’s “Rock and Roll” album. I was balancing “Sweet Little Sixteen” in the monitor, just concentrating on the mix, and I didn’t know that John was in the room. Someone else walked in and said, “Jimmy, will you get us some tea?” But John said to the person, “No, no — you get the tea. Jimmy, finish what you’re doing.” That was my first professional mix that was ever on a record. And from that day, I said, okay, my feel means something.

“Feel” — that’s the magic word. When I’d go to Silicon Valley, a lot of engineers asked me what that means, because it’s abstract. You’ve got to look at things through abstract thinking, fluid thinking, putting things together that don’t seem like they should go together. It can’t be based solely on existing knowledge. When we had Interscope, we had a problem with piracy, so we started Beats: That wasn’t based in anything that was concrete in the music business.

When reality changes, you’ve got to change your mental framework. A lot of companies right now — not all, but a lot — are getting in trouble because they can’t move laterally. They get stuck because they’re locked into the same mental framework. Engineers, designers, art people all have different disciplines, and that’s why we started the school: because they need to work together. I had no right making a record, I had no right making headphones, no right starting a streaming service — and I most certainly have no right starting a school. But every time I go to one of these tech companies or look around the music business, I see this train wreck of different disciplines that don’t understand each other.

How do you teach feel?

You can catch feel, if you’re paying attention, if you listen and you’re open, and you hang around people that have it. I learned feel from Lennon and Springsteen and Patti Smith. I did six albums over five years with those people, and it taught me everything. Also, just hanging around the Record Plant [studio at that time] — it was right in the middle of a renaissance. You had David Bowie in one room, the Stones in another, John Lennon in another, it was unbelievable.

Weren’t you intimidated being in those rooms?

Are you kidding me? Abject terror! Some people talk when they get scared; some people shut up. I shut up. It was really ground zero for me, those five years. I started at 19 and I learned all those things instead of going to college.

What are some of your best memories of working with John Lennon?

There’s many. For some reason, John and Roy Cicala decided that they were going to teach me how to make records. They included me in everything. One day, John was doing vocals and he sang all of “Norwegian Wood” on acoustic guitar — he wasn’t singing it for me, he was just messing around, but it was pretty awesome. And even though the song was already written, I got to see the genesis of it, and I learned so much about songwriting. There were a lot of moments like that.

One day, my boss was out — his wife was having a baby — and Elton John was coming in to sing on [Lennon’s 1974 No. 1 hit] “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.” I said, “John, I’m terrified” — Elton John was the biggest artist in the world. But John said, “James, he’s as terrified as you. I live my life as a Beatle. It’s very hard for me to get people to be comfortable. Believe me, he’s as nervous as you are.” I said okay — as long as Elton didn’t want to play the piano, because everybody that walked into the studio at that time wanted that Elton John piano sound, and I didn’t know how to mic it. So Elton comes in, sings the song, comes into the control room… and says “It needs piano.” Fuck! But I learned an incredible lesson that day. I was alone, but I set up mics the way I thought Roy would. Elton plays the piano, comes in and listens, and says, “Great piano sound!” John says, “He’s famous for that.” (laughter)

Right? I’d never recorded piano before. But I learned it’s not the piano, it’s the guy banging on it. So all you’ve got to do is get the mics close, and it sounds like Elton John.

What do you think Lennon saw in you?

He was so generous. He took so much time with me, and I offered nothing. I was 19, and he took me places that were culturally way out of my experience, like something as crazy as [the 1973 French absurdist film] “La Grande Bouffe.” I was like, “Okay, I’m supposed to know about this.”

But looking back as a 69-year-old man, I don’t know, but he must have liked my energy, and saw that I was an okay person, and I’ve always been a very loyal person. He liked that, because people were always compromising him. Remember, this was 1973, the Beatles had really just broken up. And he said to me one day, “People are going to try to get to me through you, and you’re not going to let them.” I didn’t know what he meant but I know now.

Do you remember when you last talked to him?

Yeah, it was 1975. He and Yoko invited me to the house because we were going to start an album. Sean was just born, and my sister went out and bought me a teething ring to bring them from Tiffany’s, it was nice. But I got there and Yoko said John’s gonna retire. I was pretty shocked, right? But I said I understand.

Iovine, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen at the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert at Madison Square Garden, October 30, 2009. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage) WireImage

And you basically went straight into Springsteen, which must have been in a very different experience.

Oh, yeah, really different. I was the assistant for one day, and then the engineer left, and I went in the seat. That was my true first solo flight. He was the most exacting and uncompromising person I’ve ever met. There is nothing you have that he wants, which is such a powerful thing. He was flat broke, but he wasn’t going to compromise one thing on that record, and he most certainly wasn’t going to compromise himself.

You don’t get any more powerful than those two characters. So I was doing nothing but learning, and somehow or another, I caught feel, and the appreciation of a song and a lyric, from those guys. And then I fell into working with Patti Smith as a producer, and she was lyrically as powerful as they were.

There’s video of you falling asleep at the board after two excruciating days of trying to get the drum sound Springsteen wanted. How did you have the patience?

I just knew that these guys knew stuff that I didn’t know. I felt the same way when I met Steve Jobs and Eddy Cue in 2003. And Jon Landau was very helpful when I was very young, teaching me to not breathe my own exhaust — so that even if I had a hit, I wasn’t taking a victory lap, I was worried about the next hit.

What else did you learn from Landau?

Two words: big picture. You take your bullshit out of it. So when you’re working with Springsteen, and a lot of the songs on “Born to Run” go through, what, seven, eight, 12 radically different versions, it’s like, okay, there’s a goal that he’s going toward. The whole album was like that. There are ballad versions of “Thunder Road,” different versions of “Backstreets,” there are different lyrics — “Thunder Road” had tons of lyrics. Tons! He would sit at the piano and write a line, go up and sing it, write another line — for days! I remember a day where he sat out in the studio, working on “Thunder Road” with a guitar, for 13 hours and only said the word “again.” I fell asleep for five hours in the middle of it. “Again, again, again, again!” But one of the things that I got from that album was to learn how to believe in something as much as the person that’s doing it.

How was working with Patti Smith different from Lennon and Springsteen?

She was somewhere between the two — right in between them. She had that edge personality-wise that Lennon had, that attitude, and she had that sense of storytelling and poetry. But she also had in her music the magnificence of Bruce Springsteen — they’re both from Jersey so they share that outlook. I tell you, to be with these three people in a row — you’ve got to be dead not to become a better person.

Still, it was you who convinced her to do “Because the Night,” out of the dozens of songs that Springsteen rehearsed for “Darkness at the Edge of Town.”

I guess I had a pretty good instinct. It’s abstract thinking — things that don’t look like they go together, but they do. And the ability to think critically and look at a situation and say there must be a solution that doesn’t exist yet.

How did all of that add up to the next album you did, Tom Petty’s 1979 breakthrough, “Damn the Torpedoes”?

Tom Petty is the second wave of it: I took everything I learned from those three people and brought it to “Damn the Torpedoes.” Remember, “Easter” was Patti’s third album, “Born to Run” was Bruce’s third album, and “Damn the Torpedoes” was Tom’s third. So I was locked into what it needed to be, and we tortured each other every bit as much as Bruce tortured me. We tortured each other to get that record right.

By disagreeing, or saying “It can be better”?

“It can be better.” It wasn’t that we disagreed, we just pushed each other. We were bonded on what the record should be. Tom and I would work from noon till 11 or midnight, then we’d go home and talk for two hours on the phone every night. The first two songs Tom played for me were “Here Comes My Girl” and “Refugee.” Wow.

Did he realize which of his songs were the best? I ask because there’s a video of a New Year’s Eve concert a few months before “Damn the Torpedoes” came out. They played a couple of new songs that didn’t even make the album, and then he sort of shrugs and says, “Here’s another new song” — and it’s “Refugee.”  

They don’t always know, because a lot of them love all their children the same, right? Real writers realize when they’ve got something special, but they don’t always know which one is better than the other. You know, [Petty’s first hit single] “Don’t Do Me Like That” was going to go to the J. Geils Band. I ran into his publisher — “You know, he’s got this song” — but I brought it back to Tom.

Did Petty listen to other people’s opinions? He’s the guy who wrote “I Won’t Back Down.”

Oh, Tom was very open. His three best albums were made with three different producers — “Wildflowers,” “Full Moon Fever” and “Damn the Torpedoes,” with Rick Rubin, Jeff Lynne and me. So he must.

It almost seems like working with Stevie Nicks, which was next, was the opposite kind of challenge. You were working with such strong-willed people before, but she’s said she’s not as confident in her writing.

Remember, she was doing something different — actually, similar to John. She was going out on a her own. That was a scary thing for John: He loved that band, and he respected them. On top of that, Stevie was a woman [musician in the early 1980s], and she was leaving the biggest band in the world to go do a solo record. At the time, a professional person in the music industry actually said to me, “You know, Stevie Nicks can’t sing a full album.” Which goes back to what I said earlier: Reality changes, but people’s mental frameworks just sit there. They’d [only ever heard her sing] three songs on an album, so that means people must not want it. I mean, what the fuck is wrong with you? And that’s still what you run into today. I wish the music industry would move laterally, and so should Spotify.

How should Spotify move laterally?

Well, first of all, you have an audience of people that love music and love culture, right? They must love other kinds of culture, other products in the culture, right? So develop relationships with entrepreneurs or other types of creatives and find the right products and the right lane and build it out.

Aren’t they trying to do that with their “marketplace”?

Then they gotta get better at it. Daniel Ek is a terrific pioneer and a talented, talented guy. His company needs to do something else. Music streaming needs to not be just a utility, it needs to have some kind of social element to it, where the artists can interact with the audience. The two businesses are separated and they shouldn’t be: Music and distribution should be together.

So Spotify and other streaming services should sign artists and own the content?

I’m just going to say that those two things should be together.

How would that work?

Let’s be technical and less romantic for a sec. Everyone’s margins would be better.

But isn’t it a conflict of interest to own the content and the platform?

Is Netflix a conflict of interest? Is Disney+ a conflict of interest?

No, but video streaming is different — people have already rejected that model for music services.

I’m just saying in music, there is no reason why those two things aren’t together. In my opinion, artists should have distribution. Streaming should have social! Streaming will never be what it can be without social. There has to be some interaction between the artist and the audience. Why do you have to go somewhere else to do it?

Iovine (with his then-ubiquitous Beats headphones0 and Jay-Z at a Los Angeles Lakers-Oklahoma Thunder game at Staples Center, 2009. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images) Getty Images

We’re not gonna solve this one today! Anyway, after Stevie, the next big one is U2 and the live “Under a Blood Red Sky” album, and later “Rattle and Hum.”

I did “Damn the Torpedoes,” [Dire Straits’] “Making Movies” and [Nicks’] “Bella Donna” all within 18 months, I think. I was becoming much more established, and I didn’t like that feeling, because I like that next-level thing — you know, pushing culture forward. But I remember my former wife Vicki was at the US Festival [where U2 performed in 1983], and she called me and said, “You know that next-level thing you’re talking about all the time and driving yourself crazy? I just saw it at the US Festival.” I followed them to Dublin and begged them to let me work with them.

But then they did their next studio album with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.

Yeah, because Eno was better than me. Why he is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is beyond me. [He was inducted as a member of Roxy Music in 2019, but not as a solo artist.] “Pride [in the Name of Love]” would have been a great, great record with me, but they would not have gotten from “The Unforgettable Fire” to “The Joshua Tree” with me. There would have been more “Pride”s and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”s — you know, the big, glorious rock thing — and the band didn’t want that.

I was crushed over not getting that album, but Daniel and Brian were just better for the job. I was with Bono and Eno the other day and I said, “It feels great being the second-best record producer in this room.”

I’ve heard they still play you their music to get your opinion.

We’ve been doing that for 30 years now. Bono played me a song that he did when they were recording “The Joshua Tree,” and he said “This is house music — you’ll love it.” He played it and I liked it — I didn’t love it, but I liked it. But then he played me the demo of “With or Without You” [one of U2’s all-time classic songs], and I said, “That’s house music right there, that other thing is apartment music. With this record, you buy a house.” (laughter) That’s a popular line in the U2 camp.

What made you feel it was time to get out of production and move into running a label?

Well, three things. I felt production was a young man’s sport — I had been working as a record producer for 18 years. Music was changing and I wasn’t inspired like I was in my 20s. I’d also had a son, and David Geffen had just sold his company [to Universal] for $500 million. So I wanted to be home, I wanted to stretch, and I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t about earning more money as well.

David Geffen was always encouraging me to do my own thing, always, and at the same time educating me on the art of business, because it’s really an art form. We’re both from Brooklyn, but he had this ability to learn sophisticated ways of dealing with things that I hadn’t yet. The shortest distance from here to there: You think you see it quick? He sees it quicker. And he sees it in your life. So he would say things to me like, “You know, you’re doing well. But you could do a lot better. Don’t be defined by your job.” I listened to everything he said — except one day, I went to his house and there was this painting of a guy above a swimming pool. “What’s that?” He said, “It’s a David Hockney painting.” I said, “Wow, what did you pay for that?” He said a million dollars or something. I thought, “Well, he’s not smart about everything.” (laughter)  

You don’t hear it often, but there are a lot of businesspeople who have an artistic sensibility. Steve Jobs. [Former Warner chief] Steve Ross. So I learned it. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit, and a level of risk and abstract thinking. And David’s a very, very good abstract thinker.

Doug Morris, Iovine, Sheryl Crow, Bono and Gwen Stefani during Interscope Records’ 2000s heyday (Photo by Lester Cohen Archive/WireImage) WireImage

Interscope started as a pop and rock label but became a hip-hop powerhouse really quickly.

I went to Europe a lot to record, and I knew that [hip-hop] attitude would sell there. Everybody was telling me this music doesn’t travel, including Dre. And I said to them, “They’ll be dancing to this in Shanghai” — because of the attitude. 

They probably saw a language barrier, but you thought it didn’t matter?

Of course not. Look at Bad Bunny.

Two things happened at Interscope that could have been disasters, but worked very much in your favor: The corporate battle at Time Warner that ousted Doug Morris [then CEO of Warner Music, which distributed Interscope], and the controversies over gangsta rap and Death Row Records. But Morris and then you moved over to Universal and grew even bigger. Were you ever worried in that time, or did you just see the opportunity?

I don’t worry. I always saw it — I believed in Interscope so much. Every day David [Geffen] would tell me, “You couldn’t be lucky enough to get out [of Warner Music],” and Doug was at Universal, pulling for me. Everybody else — my attorneys, everybody — was telling me, “Oh my god, the company is going to be worth nothing, you’re going to be worth nothing.” But David and Doug — those two voices drowned everything else out.

Doug Morris and Dre are the longest-lasting business relationships in your life, are there similarities?

You can’t get more different than Dre and Doug. Doug is a business guy — he’s creative, but it’s a completely, completely different thing. Part of empathy is to really understand who you’re in business with, and people aren’t the same, so you have to customize what you do for the important people in your life. Doug really believed in me — he’ll dream your dreams with you. He’s the one who worked out the [arrangement that enabled Iovine to simultaneously run Interscope while developing Beats].

Peter Chou, Dr. Dre and Iovine announce the strategic partnership of HTC and Beats by Dre, 2011 . (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Beats By Dr. Dre) Christopher Polk

Is your relationship with Dre similar to your relationship with Springsteen?

Dre is exactly like dealing with Bruce. They are both as uncompromising as human beings can be. And they’re very, very similar. I knew how to deal with Dre because of my dealings with Bruce.

Remember, I wasn’t a producer for Springsteen, but I was for Patti and Tom Petty, and I would argue with them constantly. I argued with Dre this morning! So but I don’t mind losing the fight, because I respect them, and in the end, it is their call. And with Beats, Dre was my guiding light to the attitude. “This is the attitude you want” or “Nah, that’s corny.” That’s how we blend so well. It’s really the greatest partnership I’ve ever had.

What made John Janick the person to take over Interscope?

He had all the pieces. I wanted to leave it to somebody who could do things that I couldn’t do, because they couldn’t do the things that I that I could do. I ran Interscope like I was on the back of a rocket ship, you know what I mean? I don’t think anyone else could have had a situation with that amount of risk and that amount of boldness. But he had other things.

His style is so different from yours.

It’s day and night. You need a different skill set to take over from the founder, you can’t get a mirror of yourself. I knew he was talented. He has a bit of entrepreneurial streak in him, because he had the Fueled by Ramen label, he had taste in certain things, and he knew how to manage. A lot of people are better executives than me.

What made you feel it was time to leave Interscope?

I’d done it long enough. I instinctively felt that it was becoming a more mechanical, you know, more research driven. But Beats was my tunnel out of the record business — I considered it every bit as credible and as creative as music. I got that from meeting Steve Jobs. He made hardware and tech sexy. I always wanted the company to be at Apple, from the day we started it.

When I met Steve Jobs and [top Apple executive] Eddy Cue, people thought the record business was the coolest thing in the world — but then I realized that it wasn’t anymore. I remember telling people, “The party’s at Steve’s house. We’re on the wrong track.” I asked him a lot of questions while we were building Beats. He was like Springsteen and Lennon, and I saw him as another artist that I got to learn from — “Oh shit, he’s one of them.”

I remember we were at a restaurant one day, and it was one of those tables where they give you crayons and [a paper tablecloth]. And he drew everything, from the conception of the idea to product development, distribution, ideation. I wish I still had it! That really inspired me for Beats — and when we first got the [prototypes], I took two pairs of headphones to our marketing team and said, “Okay, this one is Axl Rose, and this one is Tupac. These headphones have a personality and an attitude. And that’s how we market them.”

A lot of Beats’ image came from the iPod, right? That way of making hardware sexy.

Yep, totally! I was mimicking the iPod. I was so interested in being able to do that with an inanimate object. And the thing that had it before the iPod was the Walkman. Steve had a lot of admiration for [Sony co-founder Akio] Morita.

When Apple and Beats came together, the cultures were very different, and there was a clash. Are there things you would do differently?

Oh, yeah. If I really had to do it over, at a different time in my life, I would have moved to [Apple’s headquarters in] Cupertino. I feel like I could have been more effective. But I’m very happy with the result: Apple has really been able to figure out Beats. It’s the No. 2 [streaming service] in the world, and Beats Pro is the best headphone Beats ever made. So that’s all I can ask for.

Dean Erica Muhl, Dre, Iovine and USC President Carol Folt at the ribbon-cutting of the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, 2019 (Courtesy USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy) Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shu

Let’s talk about education. It seems like so many of the things you’re trying to build a curriculum around — feel, lateral thinking — are really difficult to teach.

Collaborative innovation is what we’re trying to teach. When you have engineers, designers and creative in businesses, there are all these pods. Companies today need people who can communicate across disciplines. They’ve got to speak the same language. All these kids that are coming out of school are so siloed in their thinking, they have no idea of the why of the other person. So I said to Dre, “Let’s build a school like this.” We’re very committed to it — we put up over $70 million to build a curriculum. If you work with music software, making the leap to hardware is abstract. And that’s what the school teaches. “I understand what this engineer-type person is thinking and why he or she thinks like that.” We don’t want to teach them what to think, we want to teach them how to think.

Finally, without pre-empting your acceptance speech, what does being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mean to you?

To be really honest with you, it’s a moment to thank the people that gave me the life and a career that I’ve had. I want to say, without sounding corny, that mentoring works, and the appreciation of mentors works. All the people I’m talking about are still in my life, if they’re alive. I’m seeing David Geffen tomorrow. I’m talking to Doug Morris today. Bruce Springsteen’s inducting me into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I speak to Bono every two weeks.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Yes. [Motown founder] Berry Gordy is the greatest record executive that ever lived.