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They sure figured something out
Jimmy Iovine, whose credits as a record producer and engineer range from John Lennon to U2, still winces at the humiliation of being turned down by everyone he approached in 1989 to invest in the record company he wanted to start.
"People took my calls and they took me to their house for dinner," says the 40-year-old son of a Brooklyn longshoreman. "But I could sense a lot of them thinking, 'He's no record company president . . . he's no David Geffen.' "
Around the same time, Ted Field, an heir to the vast Marshall Field retail empire who's worth an estimated $700 million, was talking to some of the industry's biggest powerbrokers about starting his own label. But many dismissed him as a dilettante.
One who did take Field seriously was U2 manager Paul McGuinness, who recommended that he speak to Iovine about running his company.
The unlikely duo got together in February, 1990, in Field's 15-floor Westwood office complex--and things clicked.
They launched Interscope Records the following January as a $20-million joint venture with Warner Music's Atlantic Group, and the label, against all expectations, has become the toast of the industry. Domestic sales this year are expected to top $70 million.
FOR THE RECORD:
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.
Not only is Interscope the most profitable in 1993 of the dozen or so new labels started in the '90s at a total investment of $250 million, but it is also a company with a "cutting-edge" roster--from rap's Dr. Dre to alternative rock kingpins Nine Inch Nails--that is the envy of even the long-standing industry giants. Field and Iovine's success coincides precisely with the rise of Generation X, whose alienation is captured succinctly both in alternative rock and rap.
Insiders say the company's emphasis on having music men at the top--a departure from the '70s and '80s pattern of naming lawyers and promotion people to head companies--could change the executive focus of record companies in the '90s as much as Nirvana has changed the sound of rock.
EMI Music moved in this direction in May by naming Gary Gersh--a 37-year-old executive with a strong music background--to run $400-million Capitol Records. Danny Goldberg, former manager of Nirvana and Bonnie Raitt, is expected to be named president of Atlantic Records.
"Jimmy's one of the ultimate music people in this business," says Thomas D. Mottola, president and chief operating officer of Sony Music Entertainment Inc. "He's got the kind of credibility that goes a long way when you're talking to a band and trying to sign them to your label. Interscope's success certainly encourages a whole cult of new music men."
Another of Field and Iovine's admirers is David Geffen, whose $550-million sale of his 10-year-old record company in 1990 triggered a flurry of label start-ups by showing how much and with what speed money could be made in the industry.
"Ted and Jimmy have accomplished something amazing during difficult recessionary times," he says. "I think you'll have a hard time finding anybody in the business to say anything negative about what they are doing at Interscope."
Interscope is such a hot property that there is already speculation that Time Warner, the label's parent company, may buy them out in two years if the momentum continues. Analysts predict the company could be worth as much as $100 million by then.
However, there have been knocks.
Inside the industry, there are whispers about the pair spending too much for acts. Outside, some of the hard-core rap music released by Interscope came under fire from parent groups and both political parties during last year's national election.
The rap issue is complicated by the fact that the company's three stars have all been arrested over the last year on charges ranging from assault to murder.
Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose debut solo album is expected to enter the national charts at No. 1 when it is released next month, faces trial on a murder charge stemming from an Aug. 25 shooting in the Palms area of West Los Angeles. The 21-year-old Snoop, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, was charged because he was driving the Jeep from which shots were fired by his bodyguard.
The company is also embroiled in a 1992 "cop killing" music-related product liability suit filed by the widow of a slain Texas state trooper.
On the advice of lawyers, Iovine and Field declined to comment on pending legal matters, but they defend rap as an art form. It is music that moves them personally and, they feel, that distinguishes Interscope from the industry pack.
"A lot of this (criticism of rap) is just plain old racism," says a defiant Field, a liberal activist who last year was the fifth largest contributor to the Democratic Party. "You can tell the people who want to stop us from releasing controversial rap music one thing: Kiss my ass."
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.
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.
The company failed, however, in its biggest--and most secretive--rock bid: an attempt in June to woo U2 away from PolyGram-owned Island Records. In the end, the rock quartet stuck with Island founder Chris Blackwell and re-signed with Poly Gram for an estimated $60 million, a figure that sources say Interscope nearly matched.
Iovine isn't defensive about the money issue. He feels other companies could have easily outbid them if they didn't spread their resources thin by signing so many marginal acts.
"I was getting phone calls from people saying you're paying too much and I started wondering if they were right," Iovine says. "I went to Ted and said, 'Are we paying too much for this band?' Ted says, 'Will you stop listening to people? Do we love this band or not? If so, let's sign them.'
"He said, 'So, we pay $50,000 more per album for a band than someone else--which was Helmet's case--what does it matter in the long run?' "
Field echoes Iovine's assessment.
"We're very aggressive in going after what we want. I never worry or think about what other companies do," Field says. "The last thing I would ever pretend to be is Mr. Frugality."
But it took more than money to land Dr. Dre and Nine Inch Nails, because both groups were signed to other independent labels. The Dre deal was so convoluted that at least three other major labels simply gave up on it. Negotiations with Nine Inch Nails and TVT Records were so complex that it took Iovine almost a year to satisfy both parties.
Managers for both Dr. Dre and Nine Inch Nails say their acts were most impressed by the creative climate at Interscope and responded, in the end, to the music men.
"A lot of companies talk about creative control, but Interscope puts their money where their mouth is," says Nine Inch Nails manager John Malm. "They let (bandleader) Trent (Reznor) and I do it all--from the artwork to the video to the ad layout. No interference. When we're done, we just deliver it and Interscope puts the album out."
Suge Knight, CEO of Dr. Dre's Death Row Records, agrees.
"Ted and Jimmy understand rap and freedom of speech and culture the way it is," he says. "When you play them a great record, you don't have to explain anything. They get it. They understand what a great bass line is. They don't have big egos. They trust your judgment."
The focus on the artist carries over into Interscope's staff meetings. In building an executive team, Field and Iovine have recruited people with strong backgrounds in discovering and nurturing talent, and have given them responsibility for overseeing the promotion and marketing of the records.
The firm's artist and repertoire team is already drawing comparisons with the legendary Geffen lineup of the '80s. John McClain championed Dr. Dre, Tom Whalley got the ball rolling for Nine Inch Nails and 4 Non-Blondes and Anna Statman brought Helmet and Rocket From the Crypt.
Interscope's staff shows a bulldog tenacity for results. Field and Iovine conduct weekly brainstorming sessions in an effort to come up with unconventional ways to get a record on the Billboard charts. Indeed, it took almost six months for the company to get radio stations to play the first single from 4 Non-Blondes' "Bigger, Better, Faster, More!"--which eventually went on to sell almost 3 million copies internationally.
"I don't think our management style could be found in any official management books," Field says. "We know it takes time to build an act."
One of the most striking accomplishments in the label's brief history may have been its ability to make Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' But a G Thang" a Top 40 single this year.
Even members of Interscope's own team doubted that a "gangsta rap" single could get enough airplay to make it worth the time and money it would cost to promote it.
But Iovine disagreed.
"John, Ted and I knew 'G Thang' was a hit right from the get-go," says Iovine about the Dr. Dre single, which eventually went on to rank No. 2 on the pop singles chart. "To us, it was just as catchy a single as the Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction.' But there was resistance at radio and MTV to giving a gangsta rap song a shot. Nothing like that had ever happened before. But thanks to Ted, that's what we do every day here at Interscope. We break all the rules."
Iovine and Field may work well together, but their lifestyles are as different as their backgrounds.
Divorced three times and the father of six daughters, ages two months to 15 years old, Field has a reputation for dating young beautiful women. An avid filmgoer and reader who rarely watches TV, Field thrives on personal challenges, playing chess against masters and spending hours each day taking Thai kick-boxing lessons.
Iovine, married to former attorney and Playboy model Vicki McCarty, is a devoted husband and father of three preschool children. The couple leads a fairly sedate lifestyle, spending most free evenings and weekends at home.
But Field's and Iovine's love of music brought them together at a time when both were restless for new challenges.
Field, who mangled his left hand during a racing car accident in the '70s, spent most of the '80s increasing his fortune "dabbling" in real estate, takeovers and stocks. The only thing that gave him satisfaction, he says, was his film production company, whose credits include the hits "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and "Three Men and a Baby."
While watching his favorite band, the Rolling Stones, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1989, Field realized that he could get the same thrill from the music business.
He still looks back fondly on his early love of rock, the days he played drums in a garage band and couldn't wait to get the latest Stones or Beatles record.
"When I look back, I can see that my political consciousness was completely raised and formed by the music that I loved," says Field, who still plays drums on a trap set in his 20,000-square foot Beverly Hills mansion. "I totally identified with all the rebelliousness of the '60s. I mean, the more political the music was, the better I liked it. That's why I love and am willing to record the farthest-out protest gangsta rap at our company. I love that stuff."
Iovine--who produced or engineered hit albums for such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, the Pretenders and U2--sensed by the late '80s that a new generation of young, cutting-edge bands and producers was on the horizon and he felt the best way for him to remain current was as head of a label.
"I wasn't going to be vital anymore as a producer and I knew it," he says. "I just felt it in my stomach. I said to myself, 'I'm not going to be 55 years old producing records.' Do you know what I mean? I wanted a label that reflects the times . . . a center for artists who want to express themselves. That's what makes Interscope unique. It's about freedom."
Interscope's allegiance to creative freedom was tested in the fall of 1992 when the label and Time Warner were sued by the widow of a slain Texas state trooper who claimed that violent music on an Interscope album by Tupac Amaru Shakur figured prominently in the shooting of her husband.
That didn't prevent the company from moving forward in hard-core rap, signing former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre, even though the gangsta rapper's music had been rejected as too controversial by BMG and Sony.
Dr. Dre's debut solo album, "The Chronic," hit the stores last December on the same day the rapper was scheduled to appear in court for assault--one of four run-ins with the law in the past two years. His Death Row Records partner Suge Knight was also recently charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
But by far the most controversial rapper on Interscope these days is Snoop Doggy Dogg, who pleaded not guilty to murder charges in West Los Angeles Municipal Court. He has been released on $1-million bail. Preliminary hearings on the charges begin Wednesday.
"We've had to endure a little bit of heat because of the Tupac situation and the Death Row situation," Field says. "But I believe in all these guys. I think they are great artists and they should have the right to say what they want."
The exception involves last year's "cop killing" controversy, which prompted the company to institute a policy restricting the release of music containing lyrics that could be misunderstood to promote the killing of police or public figures. Interscope's stance was swiftly embraced by the rest of the industry, causing a wholesale exit of controversial rappers from major labels.
"Even though I believe in freedom of expression, I totally support police organizations and am a law-abiding citizen," says Field, a longstanding board member of DARE, the ACLU and People for the American Way. "There are some things we won't do here and releasing lyrics that could be misunderstood to promote cop killing is one of them."
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a dozen or so friends are gathered at Iovine's sprawling Malibu estate for an intense touch football game. Dre's manager, Suge Knight, is tossing a football to John McClain on an immaculately groomed lawn that is half the size of a regulation football field. The every-other-Sunday gatherings are one of the few ways Iovine has found to unwind from his hectic pace.
Inside, Iovine pops a cassette of the new Snoop Doggy Dogg video into the VCR. The song is called "What's My Name?" and the video, directed by Fab 5 Freddy, shows the rapper transformed into a dog that is chased by dog catchers.
"Isn't this video great?" asks Iovine eagerly. "This is proof why the real power in the record business should be left in the hands of the artist. Not the marketing department or the accountants or the lawyers. What record executive could possibly come up with a better video idea to represent their music than Snoop and Dre?"
Field usually joins them on Sundays, reading scripts while the game's on. But he's in Florida for the weekend.
"Ted and I talk every day," Iovine says, walking in the sunshine. "In fact, all of us in the company are in constant contact. I really feel like what we're creating here at Interscope is a culture. I always dreamed of making something vital like (A&M's) Jerry Moss, Chris Blackwell and David Geffen did."
Iovine pauses before rushing off to join the game.
"For me, faith in the artist goes back to working all those years with (U2's) Bono and Lennon and Springsteen. These guys know so much more than anyone at any record company could possibly know about what they're trying to do. If you follow the lead of the artists, they will take you places that you could never go on your own."