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They Sure Figured Something Out : Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field have broken all the rules at Interscope Records and it's paid off--they're the hottest act in the business. : What's their secret? Don't be afraid of the two "Cs"--creativity and controversy

October 24, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN and CHUCK PHILIPS | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. Chuck Philips writes about pop music for Calendar

Iovine and Field are sitting in matching red leather chairs in the 12th-floor Interscope Records office at the corner of Westwood and Wilshire, and it's easy to tell who is supposed to be the music man and who is the business man of the team.

Iovine celebrated his 40th birthday this year, but there's a youthful, hungry look about him--the same kind he must have had 25 years ago when he was a gofer at New York recording studios, trying to learn how to make records.

Forever fidgeting, he tugs at his baseball cap and rocks back and forth in the chair. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was a musician who had come into the office to discuss his next record.

Field, 41, fits the image of a successful Hollywood mogul with his modest ponytail, neatly trimmed beard and elegantly tailored sport coat.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 21, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Page 99 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Nine Inch Nails is signed to TVT-Interscope, a joint venture between Interscope and TVT Records, a New York-based record company. An Oct. 24 story gave incomplete information about the group's contractual ties.

He exudes self-confidence--just what you'd expect from someone who nearly tripled his $260-million inheritance through real estate investments, corporate takeovers and the launching of a successful film production company, also named Interscope, during the freewheeling '80s. Indeed, Field bought and sold--at a handsome profit--the building he's sitting in.

The stereotypes have stuck because the duo maintains a low profile. They rarely attend industry dinners and this is the first time they've both agreed to be interviewed.

One of the reasons for their success--according to allies and rivals--is that Interscope isn't a case of Iovine making all the music decisions and Field bankrolling them. Both are intimately involved with the label's creative and business decisions.

"Ted is an extremely hands-on owner," says the CEO of a rival label. "Every time someone from our company goes out to try and sign a band, Ted has either been there or he's sitting there at 3 a.m., talking to the band."

At the same time, John McClain, who joined Interscope's A&R staff from A&M Records, where he helped launch Janet Jackson's career, says outsiders often misjudge Iovine's business sense.

"Most record heads want a 21-gun salute while they tell you what they're SAT scores are, but Jimmy's like Columbo," McClain says. "He downplays his business skills, so it's very easy to underestimate him. But that's the worst thing you could do. You don't find out how smart he is until its too late."

Interscope Records has become a power by practicing what every other record company preaches: It places its faith in the music.

For all the talk about nurturing artists, most companies in the record business are promotion driven--with decisions on everything from who to sign to the size of marketing budgets based primarily on what music is most likely to get played on the radio.

There have been strong music men guiding record firms in the past--from Ahmet Ertegun, who,as founder of Atlantic Records, signed Ray Charles and Cream, to Chris Blackwell, who discovered Bob Marley and U2 for his Island Records, and more recently Lenny Waronker, a former record producer who has been president at Warner Bros. Records for the past decade. But in an age of increasing conglomeratization, such figures have become a rarity in the $9-billion industry.

As a producer and engineer, Iovine was amazed for years by what he felt were mistakes in the record business: companies signing too many acts (wasting money and time that could be devoted to more important artists), allowing musical integrity to be compromised by promotion and marketing considerations, and battling artists over creative freedom.

The game plan at Interscope: Pinpoint the acts you want, then lure them with big bucks and the guarantee of unprecedented creative freedom. In all, Interscope has spent more than $30 million over the past three years to build its current 20-act roster and finance its 40-employee payroll.

"It's very simple, really," Iovine summarizes. "Record companies are not unique. Artists are. Period! What makes us different as a company is that we try to empower the artists on our label to make them feel that their career is in their hands."

The results have been dramatic.

Dr. Dre's debut album, "The Chronic," has sold almost 3 million copies, while albums by rock groups Primus and 4 Non-Blondes have also cracked the Top 20. While the firm lost approximately $15 million during its first two years of operation, Interscope is expected to net close to $3 million in 1993--a year that had been projected as a loss.

The firm spent big bucks--more than $10 million--to close elaborate contracts last year on Nine Inch Nails and Dr. Dre alone. Both deals contained large advances and lucrative profit-sharing provisions for the artists plus financial participation for the previous labels to which Dre and Nine Inch Nails were signed.

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