In the flailing mess that is the recording industry of 2008, there are plenty of hard questions to keep executives up at night. Some stare at the cruel ledger all day and ask "Where is our business?" Others ask a better (or at least more optimistic) question: "What is our business?"
That second question brought Jimmy Iovine, one of the industry's top executives, and Dr. Dre, one of the most esteemed stars on his roster, to Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, a truly over-the-top event that by Sunday night left both a bit blinkered.
"I love coming to Vegas," a weary Dre said, "but I love leaving it too."
Dre has his first album since 2001 (and, he says, his final one) due in June, but he and Iovine were in Vegas to promote a different summer release: Beats by Dre.
That's the name of the new $400, high-performance and (no surprise) bass-intensive headphones co-designed by the rapper-producer.
The headphones are more than a lark: Dre and Iovine have plans for an entire line of home and car audio electronics based on both Dre's celebrity and his perfectionist reputation, a branding plan that would make him a sort of Martha Stewart of the subwoofer set.
"In 10 years, I want to look back and remember this moment, when it was just headphones, because it's going to include speakers and surround-sound systems, car systems, everything," said Dre, 42.
Unlike other rap superstars, he has focused his entire career on music and resisted offers to put out sneakers, booze or clothes with his name on them.
"I'm not into clothes or any of that. This feels organic, and it feels exciting for me."
Dre is arguably the most important figure in rap's commercial era, but only time will tell whether his imprimatur carries more weight with shoppers than, say, Bose, a heavy hitter in the world of audio gear.
But the ambition of the effort alone is another reminder of the changing nature of record labels and what they do.
As the CD market continues to narrow, many executives like Iovine are widening their job descriptions.
Iovine is the chairman of Universal's Geffen Interscope A&M (the train-car name alone reveals plenty about the modern history of the industry and its flurries of consolidation), and the onetime record producer now says his job is about creating multimedia stars with diversified ventures.
"It's about entrepreneurship now, it's about ideas and, instead of just music, it's about delivering an experience," Iovine said. "Our job is to monetize it and come up with the ideas."
For U2, it was putting their music and name on a huge, tailored iPod project, while for Eminem and 50 Cent it led to semi-autobiographical theatrical films that brought them credibility with an older mainstream audience.
For Gwen Stefani it has included recasting her as a fashion brand (and even a line of dolls) and preparing for a major online venture that Iovine says will be launched in the months to come.
Iovine also said his company has "brand new businesses" on tap for will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and Mary J. Blige. Iovine compared himself to Pink Dot, the grocery, liquor and hot-food delivery service that will bring you just what you want as long you don't mind the markup.
"You just got to get it right, that's the main thing," Iovine said. "We as a company have to bring something to the party -- it's the money and the ideas. Without the ideas, you're useless today."