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Has he got next?

Paramount looks to Jimmy Iovine for what's coming over pop's horizon.

November 08, 2005|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

WHEN I arrived at Jimmy Iovine's office at Universal Music's headquarters in Santa Monica the other day, I realized I'd forgotten something far more important than my reporter's notebook -- a pair of industrial-strength earplugs. When Iovine cranks up the sound system, whether to play a couple of tracks from Eminem's upcoming hits package or a new Mary J. Blige cover of U2's "One," the bass track booms across the room like the space shuttle reentering the atmosphere.

Iovine was playing Blige's new song for Jack Sussman, CBS' special programming chief, who's hoping Blige will perform at the upcoming Vibe Music Awards, where the singer is receiving an award. Sussman is also looking for artists to do "Entourage"-style cameos for an upcoming CBS show set in the record business. "We'd love any music that works," he says.

"Not any music," Iovine counters with a laugh. "Our music."

For anyone in search of cool in today's entertainment world, the man to see is Iovine, who, as head of Universal Music's Interscope Geffen A&M Records, is the music industry's gatekeeper to cutting-edge pop culture. Wearing a grey sweatshirt and an ever-present baseball cap, he's so full of manic energy that you suspect that if you touched him you'd get an electric shock. Iovine is working overtime these days. In addition to his music business responsibilities, the 52-year-old executive is preparing for the release Wednesday of "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," a chilling gangster film starring 50 Cent, the bullet-scarred gangsta rapper who's currently at the top of Iovine's talent heap.

The $46-million movie, which has already generated protests from community leaders who say it glorifies violence, is the first release in Iovine's new production deal with Paramount Pictures. But more important, it's the latest example of Iovine's ambitious plan to transform Universal Music into a full-service entertainment company that could help its artists broaden their image and cross over into other media.

U2 has its own iPod, Eminem provides satellite radio programming to Sirius and the Pussycat Dolls have a nightclub in Vegas and an upcoming makeup and clothing line. 50 Cent stars in "Bulletproof," a video game due out later this month. Iovine recently spent the day with Dr. Dre in the Silicon Valley pursuing a possible joint venture involving the rap icon. Interscope gets a cut from each new venture, but it also benefits if it nurtures artists who can cross over to a variety of cultural arenas.

"We can't just sell CDs anymore," Iovine explains over lunch, nibbling on a turkey wrap sandwich between phone calls, his ring tone blaring a remix of R. Kelly's "Ignition." "We're doing what the music business should've done from Day 1 -- harness the culture that we developed."

Iovine envisions a future where record labels become content providers, as Interscope already has been for iTunes. "The day is coming when all the telephone and cable companies will be on a par with each other and the only way they can distinguish themselves is unique content. The real players are going to be the people who can deliver that content -- and I want that to be us."

Iovine's entry into the movie business comes at a time when the film industry is in desperate need of unique content itself. Today's Hollywood is mired in a slump that bears an unsettling similarity to the circa-1999 music industry. Not only is revenue down, but young consumers are deserting the multiplex in droves, disenchanted by high prices and bad product, two of the same complaints they had with the music business.

More important, the movie business -- like record companies before it -- appears out of touch with its audience, leading to a stream of movies that have failed to connect with moviegoers. For a business that needs new ideas and energy, there couldn't be a better catalyst than Iovine, who's always had a Zelig-like ability to tap into the pop zeitgeist.

"Jimmy's a one-man early warning system of what's coming on the horizon," says Viacom co-President Tom Freston, who brought Iovine to Paramount. "If you look at the heart of why movies did so badly this summer, it was a lack of fresh ideas -- the audience can smell it. That's what's great about Jimmy. He doesn't fall in love with his past successes. He has a great sense of what's coming next in the culture, which is what movies should be all about."

In the 1970s, Iovine was a baby-faced recording engineer on John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen albums. In the 1980s, he produced U2, Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty. In the last dozen years, as head of Interscope, he's been a pivotal force in establishing Dr. Dre, Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt and 50 Cent. All those artists have been big forces in pop music, but nobody hit the jackpot faster than 50 Cent, who sold 11 million copies of his 2003 debut CD, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'."

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