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Interview: Jimmy Iovine

Iovine is the co-chairman of Interscope Records which started as a small alternative label in 1989 and grew into a powerful international music company. Its roster includes Eminem, Limp Bizkit and Marilyn Manson.

Let's start with Farm Club. Why base a record company on the internet?

Well, it's funny. It worked out kind of backwards. The record company came after the idea. We wanted to create a vehicle. Because of the way young people are communicating with each other now, it looked very evident to us that there were people online and watching television that wanted to communicate with record companies and with people and musicians and make their presence known. So Doug and I came up with this concept of a TV show, plugging into the internet, driving each other with musicians. . . . And from that, musicians' friends, then fans of music, people that love music, and into the general public. So when you start with the musician, it is easy to reach the rest of the general public. Of course, usually the musician in every neighborhood is the guy who has the Nirvana album first. That's usually what I found, in my experience.

Eminem is not that different from Lenny Bruce.  He may have pushed the envelope a little bit, but...Eminem is a great lyricist and a serious artist. So in a way, Farm Club on the net is almost like market research for you. I gather you can monitor how kids are responding to the different kinds of music, to the different bands, by how much they're uploading, downloading and so forth?

Absolutely. They're also talking to us all the time and telling who their favorites are or who their favorite bands aren't--what they like, what they thought about the show, what they think about the site, what they thought about another show on television, what they thought about a concert they saw in another area. We have 100,000 musicians on the site that are just looking for each other, like bands that are looking for a bass player. We hope to bring this into other countries and really expand it--go to Japan and go in the UK and France and Germany first.

So this is giving you intelligence on the way that the mind of the consumer works?

Absolutely. You don't program stuff for people. We don't really do that in music as much. That's not the way the music business works. Only the music works. Usually, musicians have the best sense of where the culture is moving, rather than the producers. It's a very different thing than the TV business or the movie business. So we listen to the musicians a lot.

Who is that consumer? As consumers, are they harder to reach? Are they harder to keep because of all the clutter of media out there? Do you find it more of a challenge to tap into that consumer now than before?

Well, I don't know how everyone feels about this. But I personally really like what happened in the last four or five years in music, because I feel that we were losing the kids below 10 years old. And what's happened with the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and 'N Sync, is to have kids comfortable that are six and seven years old and using music again. Whereas, for a while, music wasn't the first, second or third on their Christmas list.

My 12-year old wasn't interested in music when he was six or seven. He just got interested in it now. But my six-year old now is interested in music, because there's music for her. So I'm sort of really happy about where the music business stands right now. There's a whole generation of kids that are growing up wanting CD players, wanting to play on the internet with music, wanting to experiment with it. So I think it's a fabulous opportunity for the record industry.

You talked about the girl and boy band phenomenon. What about this other phenomenon--the rap metal phenomenon--how big is it?

I think it's really big. Remember, there's an entire generation of young kids that were brought up on hip hop. And yet they like rock music from their older brother or their friend. So hip hop does a few things. Rap music. But one of the main things it does is the beats are extraordinary. . . . If you were a rock band with this sense of beat, with the sense of feel or the sense of tempo, you infiltrate their world. So what happened was a lot of these bands are coming at you with a hip hop feel, with rock instrumentals, and are really connecting in a big way. One reason is the beat.

The second reason is the attitude, the overall look of it and the feel of it. And it's meant a lot to young black America and white America. It's brought black and white together in our in our young communities. I see I see it literally every day. I see it in my house. I see it in my sister's house. I see it everywhere. For the young kid, it isn't like music in the 1960s and the 1950s, where you listened to the music, but it was a separate culture. These cultures are merging now through our young people.

If you look at hip hop as the music of the ghetto--essentially as an expression of angst of their real lives--you can understand why hip hop is big in a black community. But why is it big in the white community? White kids are living through a period of great prosperity. Things are good. They don't have the same kind of cultural roots. Why is hip hop making such inroads there?

None of us have the answer to any of these things--why things connect and why they influence people or they don't influence people. But first of all, it's not about money. What someone is saying something, expressing themselves and expressing an emotion and a feeling, whether you have money or you don't have money, you can relate to it or not relate to it. So because someone's parents are prosperous doesn't mean that they're not sitting at home miserable or feeling some pain. That's the biggest mistake you can make. . . .

For the time during the late 1980s and early 1990s, outside of one or two rock bands, hip hop was the most potent message and the most true message that was being delivered in this country. And I think it really connected, obviously, with a very big audience, and it influenced a generation. And I think somebody like Tupac Shakur was an extraordinary artist. DMX is an extraordinary artist. Dr. Dre is one of the great producers in all of popular music for the last 30 years. One of the best that ever lived is Dr. Dre. . . .

We put out thousands of records by thousands of different types of musicians. And hip hop was music of the kids. They demanded it, believe me. The industry did not want it to happen. The industry did not state, "Let's get into the hip hop business or the rap business." That was absolutely not the case. The kids drove that movement.

And you listened?

Absolutely. Absolutely, we listened. Because not only that, it's great. There are truly some innovative people in this hip hop business. There are some really great artists. I always try to go where the excitement is, where the best music is. I don't care what kind of music it is. I go with the best artist we can find.

If you listen to the message in the music, it's so driven by anger-- Eminem, Limp Bizkit, Korn--these big acts out there right now. Is that connecting with the real feeling in kids, or is it some kind of fantasy that they're responding to?

I don't think Eminem is any more pissed off than Pete Townsend was. I really don't. I think Eminem is one of the true great artists this industry has seen since Kurt Cobain. I think he's an incredible artist. But throughout all of our histories, we've seen musicians that are in pain or that are expressing pain and anger. And I don't think Eminem is any different than any of those other musicians. I don't. I know that everyone would like to tie some kind of attitude in these bands together with what is going on in America right now. And I don't really know. I don't have a feel for that. I don't think that is necessarily the case, because I've been through five generations of music now.

To what extent do you executives worry about lyrical content in this suite of offices? Do you see it as your role to worry about where to draw lines, to rein people in? Or are these artists, and your job is simply to present them?

It's probably somewhere in the middle. I think we're doing everything we can. I don't know why records are treated different than movies. I don't know why records are treated different than books. I don't know why an Eminem record is different than a Stephen King movie. So it's hard for me to answer the question when I don't understand the premise of it. I don't see the difference. If I read an Eminem song or a DMX song and I read a Stephen King book, I don't know why there's a difference, why it's treated differently than books and movies. It seems like it is, and I don't really understand it.

And yet I've been through John Lennon trying to be deported out of the country. I've been there. I was making his album when Nixon was trying to deport him. He used to go to court every day. So I've seen this many times

You're saying it's a lightening rod, in a way?

It is. And I just don't quite understand it. I know that it gets people great visibility. And everybody has a job. And everybody needs visibility for that job, whether you're just a politician or a musician. It's a very, very difficult thing, and there are no easy answers to this.

There was a moment in your career . . . after Tupac Shakur's album . . . It was that moment when Warner Brothers said, "Okay, we're cutting the strings. We can't deal with the pressure." Did that moment affect you?

No. It had nothing to do with the records we were putting out. It had to do with that a cable bill going through Congress at the time, and Time Warner is a gigantic corporation and needed to do something. At that moment, there was an executive at Time Warner, very high up, whose son was using hip hop music to teach in school. One of the executives that made this decision said to me, "Look, it's got nothing to do with how I feel about this. It's got to do with something that we're working on in a much bigger field." It's all at that level where there's a lot of horse-trading going on. Did I feel personal about that? No. No.

You meet and talk to these artists frequently. Do you ever talk to them about the taste level of their music? What are they saying?

Young people are always going to want to pull away from their parents.  It's nature.  And one of the ways they express that is through popular culture.  They express it in a lot of different ways. You're worried like someone from another generation. If you're looking for what young people's reaction is and why they tick and what's going on in popular culture, you're barking up the wrong tree. That is not what the conversation should be.

There's an emotional thing going on. It's not as if I'm an artist, and am I pushing my lyrics too far? Am I making a movie that is too hard? Am I making writing a book that's too explicit? That's not how you find out what's going on in popular culture. That's the tail wagging the dog. That's not where you should look. Yes, it makes a great visual thing. It makes a great sound bite, because people like to hear if record companies think they're being irresponsible with lyrics, or film companies are being irresponsible with movies. We've all used the examples hundreds of times. And there's no interview that can solve any of these any of these issues, right?

Where is the right place to look?

The right place to look is with the kids. I would interview kids before I'd interview me. They can answer any of your questions. I'd interview the parents. A record in the record industry doesn't have anywhere near the answers that people think they have. . . . I don't think people are committing crimes because of these songs or the lyrics. I think we all feel that crime has gone down in most of the major urban cities in the last five years. Rap music has been selling record numbers of records. So what does that mean? Do we give the Nobel Peace Prize to rappers? I don't know if anyone's going to give them the credit for that. So where do we start? It's very difficult, because I've been asked the question so many times. . . . I try to be frank, but I find it's just too difficult to go there.

If I understand you correctly, you respect the kids' culture. You do try to understand it, but you don't try to moralize about it from the adult perspective. You sort of accept it and try to get to the bottom of it and service it as a record company.

We do a lot of things here. And I do a lot of things personally. There's just no way to stop a movement in popular culture. It's going to happen, with or without you. There's absolutely no way to stop that train. Now, having said that, do I think that everything is for kids of all ages? Absolutely not. I don't believe that. I think that we need parental supervision. I think people should watch their kids. I think they should watch what they eat, watch what they drink, watch what they watch on TV, watch what they listen to--absolutely. People that work in stores or in theaters should pay attention to parental advisories and to ratings. Absolutely. They should pay attention. They should follow what the rules are. And if someone doesn't like the rules, they should change the rules. They should raise the bar or lower the bar, whatever suits their fancy.

You said there's no way to stop the train. But are you the caboose on the train, or are you the engine of the train?

We're absolutely not the engine. Absolutely not. If we were the engine, we'd have a lot easier job. We're not the engine. The engine is the kids, what's going on in the country, what they see on television, what they see on the news, what they see in their homes. And then one of them can sing. And one of them can write. And one of them can make a college film. And then he's plugged into the nerve. Bob Dylan was maybe different than every kid that he grew up with. But he wasn't that different, you know. John Lennon was different than other kids in England at the time. But he wasn't that different.

And Eminem?

There are thousands of Eminems. Just listen to a song. There are thousands of them. It's just that he had the talent. It's like someone with a talent to hit a baseball. He had the talent to write lyrics.

Is the record business doing well, in part, because kids are better consumers now? Teenagers have more money to spend, and more independence than ever. And yet, at the same time, they're very fickle, because they have so many choices.

I think that the record industry has been working very hard to find the right music, make it accessible to people. The biggest movement in music has been the boy bands. These teenage groups. It's been enormous. And there was a big hole there. . . . That's where the internet has been extraordinary for music, as people communicate to other people what they like. It's been great for entertainment in general.

As a parent--not as a chairman of Interscope or president of Farm Club--does the state of the culture worry you in any respect?

Well, no more than it worried my mother and my father, who were Italian and lived in Brooklyn. My father was a longshoreman. . . . It worried them when I wanted to go to the Village to see Sly and the Family Stone or the Doors. They were scared stiff; they didn't relate to it. They didn't know what to do with it. I don't know how other people feel, but the more they put it down, the more I stood up. It's a bit like fishing. You have to let the line out occasionally on your kids, or else they're going to snap it, right? They'll break the line on it. And to be very frank with you, it is really not different. They could say it was it was a better America in 1950 or a better America in 1960 and it was lousy in the 1970s. I don't think every home is perfect. So you have to really navigate your kids and navigate with them.

Is that a harder job now?

I don't think it is. I think it was really hard when my parents were bringing me up in the 1960s, when that explosion happened. And I thought it was much more difficult then. We have much more communication now, so it's more evident now. There are 60 channels with nothing on now. There's all this TV and media. If the president has a problem, there isn't a soul in America who doesn't know it. My kids ask me more about that than they did about any Eminem record or any DMX record. They wanted to know about that, because they were interested in that.

We have a lot of things going on in the country in media that are frightening. I have to watch my kids every day . . . with the television and the remote control. . . . It's impossible to watch them 24 hours a day. . . . You can try to legislate control over the popular media. And everybody will obey the laws and whatever the laws are, the laws are. But it's nearly impossible.

So, in the end, it's about the parents?

I think it's about your community. I think it's about parenting. It's about parents talking to each other. I learn more from my kids and from my kids' friends' parents about what was going on. And I do the best I can to give them the best information I can. There are too many examples of people that were brought up in super-religious households that weren't allowed to watch TV that turned out to be all screwed up. And the most bizarre situation can turn out a great kid. I don't know where the line is drawn.

It's too easy to forget that, in the early 1990s, when hip hop was being aggressively attacked like that, there was a lot of racism involved. There was a lot of, "Hey, not only is this music scary--look who's making it." That was the undertone of the thing. If anybody denied that, it's just crap.

So, I don't know. I don't see why it's worse than when I grew up as a teenager in the 1960s. I think that was really scary. Of course we were we were looking at a country that was exploding, with the Vietnam War and all. . . . It was a much crazier time than it is right now.

It's interesting that you say that, because people say that now the rage is undirected. It doesn't have a focus, and therefore there's something more illegitimate about it--that it's spoiled kids mouthing off.

I've not done that kind of research. And I'd be really stepping out of my area to speak about that. But every generation runs the risk that we both would like to become our parents and, at the same time, are scared stiff of becoming them. . . . A lot of my friends felt the same way. It's amazing. Every time something new comes up, as much as you try to resist it, you say, "Oh, my God, the 'The Simpsons.' I hate 'The Simpsons.'" And they say, "Oops. I sound like my father." "The Simpsons" is harmless. It is what it is, and it's funny.

Do you do you let your kids listen to Marilyn Manson, Eminem, Limp Bizkit?

I draw the line on everything with my kids. I talk to my kids about everything. And if they're too young at the time and I think something is not for them . . . they don't have it. I read the parental advisory. I take it literally. I look at ratings on movies. I take them literally. And I try to do what's in the best interest of my kid. . . .

Television is being interrupted continually. There are incredibly intelligent ways that commercials are getting to the kids. . . . Big corporate America is circumventing parents. . . .

I know what you're talking about. . . . If I use the television as a babysitter, I'm asking for it, right? What do you expect someone to do? What do you think they're doing with everything from religion to candy to politics? It's all sold in the same way, or with the same amount of force, enthusiasm, sound, and subliminal effects. It's the same amount of indirect or direct assault. It's all sold the same way.

So I'm not offended by it. I believe that you are in control of your family. You have to cast you wife right. You have to cast your life right. You have to be in control of your family as much as you can be, and do the best you can. Not everyone has that luxury--not a luxury--but even has the will to do it.

But why should the culture be on the opposite side of the parent? Why should you need to fight against that culture?

It's not like that. Young people are always going to want to pull away from their parents. It's nature. And one of the ways they express that is through popular culture. They express it in a lot of different ways. The way they dress, comb their hair, dance--it's all different ways that they express it. Like, if you have a young daughter and you really like sports and athletes, there's a chance that she's going to like an artist. There's just that pull that's been going on, I assume, for a very long time. . . .

Before there was television, there were always going to be people that can't handle their own lives, let alone help their kids. And I really do believe in the community aspect of childrearing. My wife and I are very involved with our kids' school.

Well, what happens if the community . . .

It's got nothing to do with what songs they hear. They're escaping from something. . . . You're not going to fix the problem through legislation. You could try it.

You're saying the culture can't raise your kids. . . .

It doesn't try to. Your kids are creating the culture, actually. It's not the other way around. The question you pose is a very interesting question, because I don't know the answer. I don't think anyone knows the answer.

Entire civilizations that were pretty horrible came about without any public television or any commercials. To look at what commercials are doing to our kids isn't the way to look for the answer. Whatever your thing is--whether it's religion or family or whatever your base is--you've got to lean on that and fight and fight and fight. . . . Things need to be properly rated. I think as long as they're rated properly and we have put the parental advisory on our records, that's what our industry accepted before I was even in the record side of it.

. . . Where do you start? People have tried to influence our kids through television. Well, how do you get that genie back in the bottle? What do you do? Legislate it to death? We could do that. We can create a law that says no subliminal messages on television. Okay. What is a subliminal message? What isn't? What are lyrics? How do you interpret lyrics? What do they mean? What don't they mean? If somebody's screaming, does it mean one thing?

It's a great question. What do you do? The genie is out of the bottle.

I remember being a kid in 1973. I remember being very impressionable. I remember how much John Lennon meant to me, because I got the chance to work with him every day for three years. And I remember specifically how frightened he was that Richard Nixon wanted to throw him out of this country. Nixon wanted to take away his green card. I remember the fight. He'd come to the studio in a suit and change his clothes before he got there. . . .

I was brought up to think that the president of the United States was the most honest and great person that could possibly exist. I went to Catholic school. . . . And I asked Lennon, "Why does the president of the United States want to throw you out of the country?" And he looked at me like I had three heads, because he realized that I didn't get it. And it was almost like, "Where do I start with you?"

But there was nothing wrong with what John Lennon was doing. And I don't think there's a person in the world right now that wouldn't want him to be around making music and look back on his influences as just extraordinary.

One man's improper lyrics are other man's political message.

Or another man's sense of humor . . . remember Lenny Bruce. Eminem is not that different from Lenny Bruce. He may have pushed the envelope a little bit one way or the other, but Red Foxx, Lenny Bruce . . . Eminem is a great lyricist and a serious artist, but he does have a sense of humor. And he uses it the way he uses it. I don't know. It's a very, very, very, complicated maze. Everyone has self-interest. The artist has self-interest. The record company has self-interest. The politicians have self-interest.

It's not a simple question, and we're not here to oversimplify it.

By the way, off the record, I'd like to know what music Hitler listened to, okay? If that influenced him. . .

Wagner, I'm sure. . . .

And it was Wagner. But what I'm saying is, where do you draw the line with this shit? I don't know what influences and what doesn't influence. You should pull the FBI report, which I have done. . . . The crime rate in the last five years in teenage crime, in hard crime, has been down. Do the politicians want the credit for that? But the musicians get the blame for whatever.

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