Jimmy Iovine on Sound, Vision and Why He Signed Madonna and Van Halen (Q&A)

Jimmy Iovine in the studio - P 2012
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Beats By Dr. Dre

Jimmy Iovine in the studio - P 2012

“At heart, I’m a second engineer,” the Interscope Geffen A&M chairman tells THR. " I learned everything about music and the business from being in the recording studio."

In a 15-minute conversation, Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine uses the word “sound” 27 times. “At heart, I’m a second engineer,” says the producer-turned-executive, referring to the studio role of ProTools expert and audio nitpicker. “But I see recording as part of an ecosystem. How we deliver music and how people receive it is important to me.” Starting out in the 1970s, Iovine produced seminal albums by such artists as Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, but this 58-year-old Brooklyn native has proved repeatedly over the decades that he can adapt, shepherding the likes of U2, Gwen Stefani and Lady Gaga. His latest venture: Beats by Dr. Dre, which sells fashion-aware headphones while preaching Iovine’s life passion. “It was frustrating that young people, through no fault of their own, were listening to terrible $2 ear buds,” he says. “You can’t get good sound out of those. There’s no emotion. But they didn’t know better. We lost a whole generation to bad audio.” With Beats, which in three years has grabbed 23 percent of the total headphone market, Iovine insists, “We are tilting it in a new direction -- a better one.”  

Jimmy Iovine will be honored by the Recording Academy's Producers and Engineers Wing on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at The Village recording studio (1616 Butler Ave., Los Angeles). The fifth annual event is co-chaired by Bono and Dr. Dre.

The Hollywood Reporter: You’re being honored tonight by the Recording Academy’s Producers and Engineers Wing at the Village. Does walking into any recording studio feel like home?

Jimmy Iovine: I consider the recording studio where I was born, so yes, it's like going to your original house. I learned everything about music and the business from being in the studio. And it’s why I'm so excited about this particular event, because the recording engineers and producers -- those are the people I relate to the most. It's where I feel most comfortable.

THR: How much do you produce these days?

Iovine: None whatsoever. I just love record producers, because when someone says, “I made a record,” unless you’re a producer and an engineer, that's not true. Unless you've lived it everyday, you did not make that record. These guys and girls work really hard. That's why the whole sound thing is so important to me, because I come from that culture. One of the most important things is the impact of sound and music. With Beats, the whole mission came about because [Dr.] Dre and I were frustrated.

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THR: Beats claims a 56% share of headphones priced over $100. Are you satisfied with its studio infiltration?

Iovine: I'm happy with studio infiltration, but I'm thrilled when I see 12- to 20-year olds walking down the street with Beats and not two-dollar earbuds. The math doesn't work when they have a $400 mp3 player. So seeing young people caring about sound again and realizing that it's not cool to not have good sound, that means a lot. That's how I grew up -- it wasn't cool to not have a good system.

THR: It also seems like people buy and wear Beats to make a fashion statement…

Iovine: I couldn't make a headphone look like a piece of medical equipment or a toy, as most headphones do… Well, not anymore look because they're copying us.

THR: And if people do buy it for the fashion but discover better sound quality in the process, you’re cool with that? 

Iovine: I'm thrilled! I couldn't be happier. We lost a whole generation to audio. And my whole life and career is based on sound. It’s how Dre and I bonded in the beginning -- over the sound of the track. Ground zero for me is audio. Every system I have in my house or my car, they're all tuned exactly the same. That's the art -- there's a feel that those records have when Kanye goes in the studio, or Bono or Rick Rubin goes in the studio. What we're trying is to replicate what we've done in studios for years.

THR: You and Dre have two songs you use to test audio quality -- Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” --  can you tell us what you are listening for?

Iovine:The impact we felt in the studio. If we tune our headphones or our speakers or our audio solution to those two songs, and they have exactly the impact that both of us got when we made the records, then the music is going to sound right. And if one record sounds exactly right, then all records will sound exactly right. I know what Damn the Torpedoes sounds like. I've had every speaker in every house I've ever lived, in every car I've ever bought tuned to that song. It took us six days to mix that one song with Petty. And Dre knows what "In Da Club" sounds like. We're not tuning it visually as most of these companies do. We tune manually -- by ear. Everything has to pass the test of those two songs.

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THR: In 2011, the music business saw its first year of positive sales since 2004. What do you credit primarily with the uptick?

Iovine: That's a very big, complex question. It’s everything from the piracy bill that was just killed to the digital music services and their broader offerings. But I think it's too early to call. Music has to make a graceful entrance into the phone. The music industry needs the phone, and unless there’s a solution that makes music easy for everyone, I don't believe we every really move the needle.

THR: Interscope signed Van Halen and Madonna this year, can you give us some insight as to why?

Iovine: They're great artists. And they made really good albums, both of them. I heard both records before we made the deal and I was really honored that they wanted to be on Interscope -- stunned, to be honest, I didn't know either of them well. I know Eddie [Van Halen] and Madonna a little bit,. Guy Oseary (Madonna’s manager) is an incredible guy and one of the coolest people I’ve ever met in the business. The opportunity was there and the people at Live Nation were really supportive. Nowadays, everybody goes label shopping, and these people were, like, “I want to work with Interscope.” So I said, “yes, great!”

THR: With overall album sales declining, what do you think the potential is for these veteran artists?

Iovine: I think their potential is as good as anybody that's out there.  These are great artists that made great records.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin