As the music plays, Iovine points out tracks he likes and suggests improvements for others -- a better chorus, a stronger beat. It's as if he's got this massive computer in his head, filled with all he's heard over the years -- and he draws sounds from it to make new recordings more appealing.
But he also keeps looking around the room for reaction to the tracks because he believes strongly that hit-making takes a team.
"A lot of record executives are solo acts," says Iovine, his leg draped over the side of his favorite chair. "But I want everybody's ideas. I'm talking about the people at the company, and producers and artists as well. They are all gigantic allies in setting the tone for the company. Gwen brought me the Pussycat Dolls. Eminem and his manager, Paul Rosenberg, found 50 Cent."
As Iovine meets with his staff, he's surrounded by some remarkable mementos. Against one wall is the mellotron that John Lennon used with the Beatles in making "Strawberry Fields Forever." On another wall is a signed copy of Bono's handwritten lyrics for "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own." Iovine was with the band in Dublin, Ireland, the night U2 recorded the song about the death of Bono's father.
These touches are more than comforting. They remind Iovine of the obsession of those artists and his own drive, so intense that Iovine (who is married and has four children, ages 12 to 18) has been taking Prozac for years to maintain balance in his life.
"Bruce said to me a few years ago that we were both lucky because we were able to keep that low self-esteem that got us here," he says, smiling. "Some people get to where they don't want to deal with the tough things anymore. They give it to someone else, but I'm still willing to move mountains to make things work. I haven't earned a free pass from hard work."
A little help from Mr. Lennon
THE Interscope co-founder isn't the only record company chief with musical "ears" to assume his post over the last two decades, but he is by far the most successful, despite a rough start in the conglomerate age.
With co-founder Ted Field, Iovine launched the label under the Time Warner umbrella, but the media empire, upset over Interscope's gangsta rap acts, severed ties with it in 1995. Morris, who championed Interscope at Time Warner, jumped at the chance to be in business with Interscope again at his new home, now Universal Music Group, where he is chairman. (Field left Interscope in 2001).
One of Iovine's strengths in working with artists is that he's endlessly entertaining, able to charm a roomful of people with one-liners about life in the music business. If you wanted to make a film about him, you'd look for a young Al Pacino type -- short and Italian, with quiet good looks.
Personality and charm surely contributed to Iovine's swift rise in the music world. At 21, he was working as a "runner" at the Record Plant studio in New York when Lennon and engineer Roy Cicala asked him if he wanted to work with them on Lennon's "Mind Games" album.
His enthusiasm -- and musical insight -- also played a role in a chance meeting in 1977 that changed his life. He was in the Record Plant lounge when Patti Smith walked in. Iovine was working on Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and she was in another studio recording the follow-up to her brilliant debut, "Horses."
"With Patti, I saw things in her that she didn't even see," Iovine says. "She wondered why her records didn't sell more, and I told her it was because her first album showed only one side of her -- the punk/poet thing. To me, there was a lot more, a sort of mix between the street poet aura of Jim Morrison and the energy and excitement of the Rolling Stones. I thought she needed to put all sides on a record to really reach everyone with her music."
Iovine was speaking just as a fan, so he was shocked when Smith asked him on the spot to produce her next album even though he had no experience as a producer.
He was especially thrilled to work with Smith, whose background as a poet gave her words an especially striking, adventurous edge, because he prizes lyrics above all in music; Iovine believes great lyrics speak to an artist's depth and vision, and they're the hardest thing to find in a new artist. But he wasn't intimidated. He pushed Smith hard.
The moment of truth was when he realized there wasn't a track dynamic enough to be a radio hit. His answer was for Smith to record a Springsteen song left over from the "Darkness " sessions, a brooding tale of romantic desire titled "Because the Night."
Smith didn't like the idea of recording someone else's song.