Learning from Jimmy Iovine

Interscope Records CEO Jimmy Iovine was featured in a recent piece in Rolling Stone, and it was one of those rare celebrity interviews that actually yield insight and useful information for people interested in music production and engineering.

Iovine, who isn’t really a musician per se, though he did play bass in a band as a teen, came up fetching coffee and doing odd chores for legendary and completely insane Producer Phil Spector (presently serving a murder sentence of 19 years-to- life at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison). Iovine was only 20 years old when he started doing studio set-ups for recording sessions and was sort of accidentally discovered as an engineer – by John Lennon, no less – through a serendipitous turn of events. He was screwing around with a mix, during John Lennon’s notorious initial sessions for his lawsuit-driven Rock’n Roll LP, when he thought no one was around; Lennon loved the sound he got and assumed that he was a great engineer.  After that, he was, going on to use his apparently natural talents as a board engineer in producing Bruce Springsteen, U2, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, and others.

Iovine’s career has been like the mythical heroic journey: an arc from lowly gaffer and water boy, to discovery of his own keen hearing and engineering instincts, to development of effective interpersonal communication skills, to development of production manager skills, to top label executive. His resume reads like resumes are supposed to read, with a clear line of career development with increasing levels of responsibility. That is at least how it looks in retrospect; in big-picture hindsight.

During Iovine’s many moments, it probably didn’t seem evolutionary at all. The Brooklyn native is remarkably candid and apparently honest, possibly to a fault, and he doesn’t rewrite history or make more of the artists he has worked with than what they actually are. (He does pay special tribute to the native talents of Elton John and Keith Richards, who he credits with getting the sound they get just because of what they bring to their instruments.)

Iovine, who serves as on-air mentor to American Idol contestants, has worked with mid-range talents and helped them become big hit makers. Iovine’s principal talent is his ability to craft a piece of material so that it blasts from speakers as powerful, full sounds.  His initial claim to fame was his engineering of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” concept, an inheritance that Iovine applied to singer-songwriter types to present small voices as huge sounds. (I think that’s what the wall-of-sound always did, but Iovine made it his trademark in the mid-‘70s.)

STARTING WITH THE VOCAL: For me personally, the big learning from Jimmy Iovine is that he starts with the vocal, and builds the entire arrangement and sound engineering around that vocal presentation, using the orchestration to emphasize vocal nuances and to create a bed that embraces the vocal sound. This is a neat trick, for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that it requires the effective capture of a definitive vocal. Iovine would spend time with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and the others, having them perform their songs as solo artists so he could hear – and no doubt help them hear – the sweet spots in the melody, lyric, and in the vocal presentation, its character and timber. And around that thin scaffolding he would begin to build the Cadillac components of his wall of sound. People like Tom Petty, who Iovine describes as having “a small voice”, begin to sound big.

Apparently John Lennon got Iovine immediately, hearing something in Iovine’s mixes that told Lennon that Iovine got him. This is huge, the tectonic equivalent of emotional/intellectual/artistic continents merging to become something greater than they had been as individual entities. But Lennon was a special case. Bruce Springsteen’s reaction, upon first hearing Iovine’s production of his Born to Run LP, was to toss it into a swimming pool, to discard it. Iovine had been brought in to the 14-month long recording session – he has specialized in saving difficult projects  – because he understood the wall-of-sound Springsteen purported to want, but couldn’t seem to express. Even upon hearing it, as it was expressed on what most would call Springsteen’s finest LP, Springsteen didn’t really get it.

And that, to me, is what has been so impressive about Jimmy Iovine. He has done what any artist would hope their producer would do, though few actually can: that is, make them better as artists, or at least make them come across as more than they actually are.

Iovine stopped producing records at 38 years of age, and yet as a label executive he still has a tremendous influence over the records his company develops. He can recognize the hit single, if there is one, and bands such as U2 have come to rely on his instinct, this after losing their U.S. fan base through disappointing state-side sales of their 1997 Pop LP. Their 2000 follow up, All that You Can’t Leave Behind, was released as an Island Records/Interscope Records product only after Iovine named “Beautiful Day” as a worthwhile single. It won three Grammy Awards (Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal).

Iovine says he left the studio work behind when he no longer felt about the music he was hearing the way he did when he was in his 20s. That, also, represents a standard arc that brings an end to most peoples’ musical ambitions, but was only a passage way in Iovine’s life story, as he moved on to a more hi-level overview approach to his affairs as record executive.

The key there for me, as a singer-songwriter and music producer on a far lesser plane, is that Iovine recognized that he had grown past that developmental stage where life could be channeled simply through one’s visceral response to emotion and musical dynamics. That fades with age right along the time path indicated by Iovine’s history, so that by the late 30s musical expression becomes something one parses and explores completely differently than how one did as a kid. And the music itself changes with each generation, until finally the person in their mid-30s is not necessarily hearing modern sounds that resonate with them as did the music of their youth, and the way familiar things do.

Iovine, with Interscope Records, heard the coming of age of Hip-Hop, and so the Italian Iovine became the unlikely head of the West Coasts biggest Hip-Hop label. That must have been a decision based entirely on business savvy, and another indicator of the significant depth of Jimmy Iovine, who still approaches all aspects of his work from an engineer’s perspective, tinkering with the details, working on the quality components. But then he has those ears, those producer instincts that make him whole as a music pro, and he can apply in specific proportions as required for each new project, and so he stays relevant.

Rick Alan Rice (RAR) is a lifelong musician, singer, songwriter, audio engineer and owner of the RARWRITER Publishing Group, including RARWRITER.com, the  Revolution Culture Journal, the Irresistible Squeaks, and others. He is the Chief Executive Officer of Rick Alan Rice Consulting, LLC, a California communications consulting firm.

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