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The Music Industry Titans

Ears wide open

He interned with Lennon, got Dr. Dre on the air, was musical matchmaker for Gwen Stefani. Jimmy Iovine listens and imagines, then makes it happen.

November 26, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

"WHEN I first went into the studio with John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen, I thought making records was going to be fun, like going to a Rolling Stones concert," says Jimmy Iovine, reflecting on his route to becoming a record industry tyco4on. "But fun had nothing to do with it. Fun wasn't even on the menu.

"Bruce would spend eight hours trying to write one line of the lyrics to 'Jungleland' and longer on the guitar part to 'Thunder Road.' He'd try it one way and then tell everybody 'again' and 'again' for days. I fell asleep for four hours one night and the first thing I heard after waking up was Bruce saying, 'Again.' "

Iovine, the 53-year-old son of a Brooklyn longshoreman, is in the bright exercise room of his Holmby Hills estate, though he doesn't look much different here, in his Nike baseball cap and sweat suit, than he does in his Santa Monica office.

As he steps onto an elliptical trainer, the slender executive isn't just looking for a cardiovascular boost but for another hit record -- to join the ones he has had as producer or record company head with such artists as U2, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Tom Petty, 50 Cent and Gwen Stefani.

Iovine had the business smarts to build Interscope Records from a $30-million start-up in 1991 to the crown jewel in the world's biggest music firm, Universal Music Group, but he believes his most important role is in finding and nurturing talent. He constantly draws upon lessons from his studio apprenticeships in the '70s.

"I've always wanted to bring to this record company the intensity and drive of those artists," says Iovine, whose roster of labels also includes A&M and Geffen Records. "Every artist can't be Springsteen or Lennon or you'd only have two artists on your label, but you want to encourage everyone to reach for that spark of passion that I saw every day in them.

"I also learned that the songs are everything. If the songs aren't there, you're dead. You must do whatever it takes to get them right -- as much time, as much pain."

Iovine brought one intangible with him to the music business: an instinct for hits, and his 35-by-30-foot exercise room is where he searches for them several mornings a week.

It was here 11 years ago that he first heard a forceful young Detroit rapper who was in L.A. seeking a record deal. An intern at the company heard Eminem live on the radio and was so impressed he got a copy of the broadcast for Iovine. He played it for premier rap producer Dr. Dre one Saturday, and Dre was so impressed he went into the studio with Eminem the following Monday. The result: worldwide sales by Eminem of 65 million albums -- or nearly $1 billion.

Last fall in the room, Iovine heard new tracks by Nelly Furtado, a young Canadian singer he inherited when Universal bought DreamWorks Records.

Iovine had tried to sign Furtado, a pop singer with teasingly seductive dance and hip-hop sensibilities, and he was fond of Furtado's 2000 debut album and, even more, a remix track she did with hip-hop producer Timbaland.

But Iovine felt Furtado's new music was too "mature" -- his polite word for uninspired -- and he made a mental note that morning: "Timbaland!"

Meeting with Furtado a few days later, Iovine advised the twentysomething singer to scrap the tracks she had done and go into the studio with Timbaland. Furtado jumped at the suggestion so fast it surprised Iovine, but artists do listen when you've got his track record.

In June, the Timbaland-produced album, "Loose," entered the U.S. pop charts at No. 1, thanks in part to a sassy single, "Promiscuous." Worldwide sales: more than 2.5 million.

By focusing on the music rather than chiefly on quarterly spreadsheets, Iovine fits into the grand, entrepreneurial tradition of post-World War II executives who built the modern record business -- people such as Ahmet Ertegun, Clive Davis, David Geffen, Mo Ostin and Iovine's mentor, Doug Morris, with whom he confers six to 10 times a day.

"I don't talk to my artists about record deals," Iovine says. "I talk to them about how we are going to make their records better. To do that, you've got to infiltrate the artist and get their trust and confidence so that you can help push them in directions they might not see or might not even want to go at first, and that can cause tension, but that's just part of the creative process.

"If you don't speak the truth in the studio, your relationship with the artist is finished. It's not enough to just tell them everything is great. The most important thing is to tell them when it's not great."

All energy, all the time

THERE'S no exercise equipment in Iovine's fifth-floor office in Universal's West Coast headquarters, but on a recent fall afternoon, he still seems to be in constant motion.

Even when music is blasting from the massive sound system, Iovine is multitasking, exchanging BlackBerry messages with artists or managers, or listening to staff members fill him in on the latest airplay reports.

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