MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the greatest talents working in studios today – and, in this case, yesterday. World’s Greatest Producers is supported by Hipgnosis Songs Fund.
Early on in The Defiant Ones (the brilliant Netflix documentary about his and Dr Dre’s separate and then intwined lives), Jimmy Iovine says: “I don’t see producing as a big thing. I consider it a job, not any great achievement.”
Speaking to him now, though, specifically about his life and achievements in the studio, it’s clear that this brash and seemingly downbeat statement is only partly accurate.
It’s true that Iovine does consider production a job, in the sense that, as he puts it, it is “part of the service industry”.
It definitely is, however, a big thing. Or, again, as Iovine puts it: “Record producing is the foundation for everything. Everything I did in my life after that, I behaved as a record producer.”
Everything he did in his life after that, of course, includes founding and then selling Interscope Records, heading up the post-merger Interscope Geffen A&M label within Universal, founding the Beats headphone brand with Dr Dre, and then selling Beats’ streaming division to Apple (where it would become Apple Music) for $3 billion.
‘That’, meanwhile, encompasses engineering on John Lennon’s Walls & Bridges and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run before going on to produce Patti Smith’s Easter, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn The Torpedoes, Stevie Nicks’ first solo album, Bella Donna, Dire Straits’ Making Movies and U2’s Rattle & Hum.
So, for all sorts of reasons, examining the details and pervasive influence of music production on Iovine’s life is well worthwhile… and rollicking good fun.
Quite often, when looking for a jumping off point, trying to get an insight into the careers and psyches of MBW’’s World’s Greatest Producers, a key question is, ‘When, why and how did you get into producing?’
With Iovine, the key question is probably, ‘When, why, and how did you get out of producing?’
His answer: “I think Rattle and Hum did me in. I love that album, but it was the end of my producing career, or the beginning of the end. My son was born that year and I wanted to be home.
“And then, at the same time, David Geffen sold Geffen Records. I thought, he’s from Brooklyn, I’m from Brooklyn. He was born in 1943, I was born in 1953. Why can’t I do this?”
And so he did. Only different. And with his background in production always influencing his decisions.
“My strength was that I knew what really went into making a record, and I had respect for it.”
“I wouldn’t have known where to begin without [a history as a producer], because my strength wasn’t in business. My strength was that I knew what really went into making a record, and I had respect for it.
“That respect determined the way I looked at artists. I just basically used my instincts and my instincts were based on that.
“I don’t know how good an executive I was or wasn’t, I purely went on instinct. There was never a moment in the music business where I wasn’t just reflexing.”
Famously, Iovine’s first break in the studio came when he abandoned his Italian American family’s Easter Sunday celebrations, having been asked by his boss at The Record Plant to come in and work.
When Iovine arrived, none other than John Lennon was waiting for him, waiting to see if the Brooklyn kid would come when called. No matter what.
Even before that, though, Iovine was set on his way by a woman whose name might not be as familiar, but whose work even the former Beatle would have revered…
Who were your mentors in the early days of engineering and production?
It started when I was 18 years old with a woman named Ellie Greenwich, one of the great songwriters of the sixties and seventies. She wrote River Deep Mountain High, Da Do Ron Ron, Leader of the Pack, I Can Hear Music, Be My Baby, Chapel Of Love; she wrote all those classic songs.
I met her through a cousin, and she sort of mentored me, which was a big deal for anyone to do that. Eventually she got me a job which introduced me to two more mentors, Roy Cicala and Eddie Germano, at The Record Plant.
For some reason, again, these guys took an interest in me, and stayed with me. I had a very big hurdle getting over from my life in Brooklyn to my life in Manhattan, as far as how do you fit in, you know? They sort of helped me understand that world.
It sounds as if their mentorship was at least as much about how to be and act in a studio, in Manhattan, as it was about which buttons to push.
Oh my God, as much if not more. Because you have to understand, my next mentor, which was actually around the same time, was a guy named Jon Landau, who was Bruce Springsteen’s producer and manager.
The combination of all these people, and especially Jon [Landau], gave me the line: This is not about you.
That was the biggest lesson that I ever learned in music. This is about the artist. And it’s about the music. It’s not about you.
After a false start (Jimmy WAS FIRED BY FOGHAT), your first production job was with Patti Smith on Easter. How did you find that step up?
I would give myself no choice, you know. I made myself do it. It was terrifying, but exciting at the same time.
“in business I’m not that afraid for some reason; I’m not quite sure why that is.”
Fear always makes me excited.
I’m not somebody who would do very adventurous things like, say, river rafting. But in business I’m not that afraid for some reason; I’m not quite sure why that is.
That was the start of a golden run for you. Is there one record that stands out for you from that period?
Damn The Torpedoes (1979, No. 2 in the US). I just connected with Tom Petty with every inch of my soul.
We would work 10 to 12 hours a day, go home to our houses and talk on the phone for two hours every night. Every night.. I don’t think I’ve ever been that connected to an individual.
Also, Born To Run was Bruce’s third album. Easter was Patti’s third album. Damn The Torpedoes was Tom’s third album. And in those days, you built towards that. You built your career to that third album; you’d learned your craft, you’d found your audience etc.
He claims in The Defiant Ones that he would occasionally cut your telephone cord in the studio to stop you talking business. Is that true?
That was not on Damn The Torpedoes, that was later on. What happened was, after 1983 I started looking at the world differently, and I saw there was more to it than what I was doing. I wanted to control the output.
I started thinking, Jesus, what a what a thing to do, we go into this dark isolation for a year, and then we give [the result] to other people, record companies.
What was your relationship with the record companies like when you were producing?
I would never let record companies in the room when I was producing a record, even if I liked the people.
“when somebody from the record company walks into a room, there are three reactions they can have, and they all only affect a record in a negative way.”
When somebody from the record company walks into a room, there are three reactions they can have, and they can all only affect a record in a negative way.
One is saying nothing, two is liking it, and three is not liking it. None of those things help. And I don’t want the artist having that noise in his or her head.
Did that lead to confrontation sometimes?
I never cared about that. I still don’t care about that. I wasn’t looking for work, I wasn’t one of those guys.
Which record in that period provided your toughest challenge?
Same answer: Damn The Torpedoes. I wanted to get it really right. It literally took over a month to record Refugee. One song. Then it took another five weeks to mix it.
Did you at any point think you’d be a producer forever or did you always think there was more in the business for you?
No, at that point in my life I was really good at just worrying about guitar sounds, thinking about nothing but one song. I was uber-focused. One particular snare sound would keep me up all night.
why did you start to suspect that ‘just’ producing wasn’t enough for you?
Because I liked to pivot. You know, DJs get bored faster than the people in the club. And the reason that benefits them is because it means they know when to change the song. I do that with my career. I get bored.
I had four different careers. Engineering/producing is one. Interscope was one. There was electronics, with Beats. And then streaming [with Apple Music].
So I had four different journeys, and, when I look back, I feel that I stayed too long at all of them.
What do you think is the most important part of a producer’s job – and where does the balance lie between the technical/audio side and the more emotional/atmosphere side?
Your job is to take the idea and add to the emotion. That’s your job; you have one job.
“A huge part of producing is empathy, it really is: what is the person on the other side of this conversation hearing? Same as at record companies: what’s the other side of the table feeling?”
Nothing should start without an idea. This is a song about… This song is supposed to make you dance. The song is supposed to make you cry. This song is supposed to make you feel good. This song is supposed to make you feel down.
It’s your job as a producer to translate that, to get in with the artist, and together make that emotion come true. That’s it.
Don’t think about the radio, or the chart, don’t think about anything else; think about getting it right in that box, without windows.
How did you deal with producers when you were the record executive who you would previously have wanted to keep out of the room?
Very simple: the artists that came to me to ask for my help, I did. The ones that didn’t, I didn’t.
Trent Reznor would bring us records in the plastic: done, okay, let’s go. Other people would come to me and say, ‘What do you think?’ And when they ask that, I answer.
“I would just push it and push it until the person couldn’t take it anymore. And then go one step further.”
Where I would inject myself was the quality of the songs and the amount of quality songs. I would just be very, very strong about that.
There was a famous line at Interscope: ‘You need three more’. I would just push it and push it until the person couldn’t take it anymore. And then go one step further [laughs]. But I was like that as a record producer as well.
Was your forthrightness ever a problem as a producer, when perhaps diplomacy was needed?
No, I was very fortunate. You know who encouraged me in that? John Lennon.
When Elton John was coming in [to record with Lennon], I said, ‘John, I’m really nervous about recording his piano.’ I was 20 years old and I was like, this guy’s got the greatest piano sound ever.
I learned two lessons that day.
John looked at me and said, ‘Trust me, Jimmy, he’s just as nervous as you are.’ He was glib like that. And what he meant was, Elton John was walking in to play with a Beatle.
Near the end of the session, Elton says, ‘Let me try a piano.’ I was terrified.
I put a couple of mics in where I thought they should be, and it sounded exactly like Elton John. And I realized, it’s the guy; it’s the person banging the piano, that’s where it comes from!
Then Elton came in and said to me, ‘Hey, great piano sound.’ And John said, ‘That’s why we use him.’ [laughs]. He always encouraged me.
So, how did you get over the fact that he was a Beatle? Because if Elton John’s nervous…
Abject fear of getting fired. I was much more terrified of getting fired than the fact that he was a Beatle.
I had the type of terror that dwarfed being in a room with a Beatle. I guess, yeah, I was nervous, but I was too scared for that to matter.
“I had the type of terror that dwarfed being in a room with a Beatle.”
Going back to the question about being honest, being diplomatic, the way I am as a person, I just for some reason learned how to be truthful.
The thing in music is, the people that I [produced], why I could be honest is, they knew that I cared as much about their music and what we’re doing as they did.
If they know that, and you’re coming at it from a humble position… I realize which side of the glass is more important, and I’m gonna say the thing that needs saying, because I care about the record, and I care about you.
I’ve never had trouble saying what I think. Some people can handle it, some people can’t. But they’re gonna hear it, they’re gonna hear the truth from me.
I’m not a tough guy, not at all, but I don’t have that chip.
Can I ask you a very difficult question: who would be your favorite producer of all time?
Oh, man, that’s not difficult, that’s easy. The two greatest record men, record executives and record makers ever are Sam Phillips and Berry Gordy. Period.
To anyone who says they’re the greatest record executive in the world – no, the best you can be is third.
And then, you know, you’ve got to go to Spector. You’ve got to go to Holland/Dozier/Holland as writers/producers. You’ve got to go to Gamble and Huff. I always liked what Jimmy Miller did with The Stones.
I mean, play God Only Knows. What it should say is God Only Knows How He Made That Record.”
And I mean, of course, the threesome of George Martin, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. No one talks about it like that, but that was a production team, a production force.
Brian Wilson. I mean, play God Only Knows. What it should say is God Only Knows How He Made That Record. That’s what it’s called in my house.
And we have to add Dr. Dre, we have to add Teddy Riley with new jack swing. I consider all these people seminal in moving music forward.
Because you have such a special relationship with Dre, can you talk about what you think makes him such a great producer?
He has the ability to translate what’s in his head better than anybody I’ve ever met.
What’s in his head? I never go too far into that, because, you know what I mean, that’s a place I just don’t want to go [laughs].
“What Dre did sonically was as important as what Phil Spector did, as important as what Brian Wilson did. And, actually, as important as what the Beatles did. It’s blasphemy to say that, but it’s true.”
What Dre did sonically was as important as what Phil Spector did, as important as what Brian Wilson did. And, actually, as important as what the Beatles did. It’s blasphemy to say that, but it’s true.
What he did in hip-hop was so transformative. It was the big bang. It translated all over the world, and it changed everything.
What advice would you give to a young producer starting out today?
Well, first of all, it’s a vocation. If you’re a record producer that’s singing and doing all the work yourself, that’s one thing. But if you are working with an artist, you are there to express them. And then, through them, you get expressed. Always remember which side of the glass is more important. I never forgot that.
And don’t breathe your own exhaust. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had a hit record. Have ten, and then talk about it. Maybe 15.
Also, don’t get caught up in yourself. And be willing to work harder than anyone else is willing to work.
- The end. Only, as with his career, it wasn’t. Production once again became a springboard from which Iovine, nudged by MBW, dived into the wider industry, giving his thoughts on major labels, streaming services, copyright ownership and more. All of that is coming in part two of our interview, next week.
MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series is supported by Hipgnosis Songs Fund. Traded on the London Stock Exchange, Hipgnosis was established to maximise the value of music… while also proving that value to institutional investors. Music Business Worldwide