JIMMY IOVINE: FROM COLLEGE DROPOUT TO WORLD-RENOWNED PRODUCER
Jimmy Iovine in 2017: recording engineer for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon, record and movie producer, former American Idol mentor, co-founder of Interscope Records, and co-developer of Beats By Dre.
Jimmy Iovine in 1972: 19 years old, son of a dock worker and a secretary, college drop-out, cleaning a recording studio to support himself. Born in 1953 to Italian-American working-class parents, Iovine grew up in Brooklyn and attended Catholic school as a child.
In The Defiant Ones, HBO’s 4-episode documentary exploring his and Dr. Dre’s journey to professional success, Iovine admitted that his school years were complicated because his early struggle with dyslexia evoked a strong dislike for traditional schooling. After high school he began studying at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, but dropped out.
Jimmy Iovine, however, never let his early academic struggles define his career or his life. Shortly after beginning his career in music by cleaning a studio, his musical genius became apparent, and he went on to contribute to the production of more than 250 albums.
How Iovine’s Genius Influenced Musicians and Modern Music
The high energy rock fanatic began his musical career as a sound engineer during a John Lennon recording session. After this breakthrough he went on to produce for Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, and Tom Petty, reportedly reallocating songs among the artists. Iovine convinced Springsteen to let Smith record “Because the Night” – the biggest hit of her career, and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was smoothly hijacked for Stevie Nicks from Tom Petty. Iovine’s foresight in these “reallocations” show not only his musical genius, but also underscores his ability to work with artists to get exactly what they needed and the public wanted.
In an interview with Esquire, Jimmy Iovine discusses how he took his projects personally, identifying with the musicians whose work he was producing, learning from them, and making their ambition his own. Crediting several great musicians, he confesses, “What I realized early on is what I didn’t bring to the picture . . . I had no skills.” He continues by explaining that over the course of several years as he worked with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith: “These incredible people allowed me into their lives, into touching their music at such a high level, you’d better take care of this and respect this. They were my three professors.” Their lessons paid off.
This humility and openness to learn catapultedJimmy Iovine into the production business. By 1973 Iovine was working at the New York studio Record Plant where he contributed to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell.” His work with Patti Smith in her 1978 album “Easter” brought him into the spotlight, and he continued his career by teaming up with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on “Damn the Torpedoes” and U2 on “Rattle and Hum.” Iovine later produced Stevie Nicks’ first solo album, “Bella Donna,” Dire Straits’ “Making Movies,” and The Pretenders’ “Get Close.”
Besides his musical genius and ambition to learn from his clients, his openness to finding talent in underappreciated and unexpected places brought him dramatic success. Just one year after forming Interscope Records, Iovine signed the record label’s first hip-hop artist, Tupac Shakur. At the height of Iovine’s work with Interscope, he recalls that, “A nineteen-year-old kid said to me, ‘I’ve got a tape of a white rapper,’ I said, ‘Give it to me. I’ll give it to [Iovine’s business partner] Dr. Dre.’ That was Eminem.” Although most at the record label were initially strongly negative toward working with Eminem, Iovine and Dr. Dre’s persisted with foresight and openness.
They signed Eminem, stating that, “We weren’t looking for a white, controversial rapper – we were looking for great.” This determination paid off as their work with platinum artists such as Eminem and Lady Gaga launched the company to incomparable success through the 2000s.
Jimmy Iovine Outside of Music Production
While Iovine has done much to define music in the last four-and-a-half decades, and arguably music has done much to define his life as well, music production and record labels only form one part of his success. In 1992 Interscope Records picked up Dr. Dre’s new label, “Aftermath,” and the two men formed a partnership and business endeavor that developed into Beats By Dre, Beats Music, and finally Apple Music. Sound quality, however, only scratches the surface of this unique facet of Iovine’s life. He discusses the partnership he’s shared for decades with Dr. Dre, sentimentally stating that they “connected and nothing could disconnect us.”
In addition to the mutual respect needed to form this kind of partnership, Iovine points to fear as a positive influencer in his consistent steps forward. Instead of letting fear intimidate, he advises steering into the skid: “Be willing to fail. The greats have failed . . . Bruce Springsteen is as afraid as any of us, but he knows how to conquer it . . . You keep trying.” This determination and courage are the traits that took a dyslexic college dropout and turned him into one of music production’s modern giants.
And the money he has earned through his success? He is reinvesting in the industry in a unique way.
In 2013 he and Dr. Dre donated $70 million to the University of Southern California to found the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. The goal of this groundbreaking academy is “to shape the future by nurturing the talents, passions, leadership and risk-taking of uniquely qualified students who are motivated to explore and create new art forms, technologies, and business models.” The young man who decided in 1971 that Criminal Justice was not for him is therefore pioneering a way to inspire others like him to invest in their education. To top it off, that dyslexic schoolboy recently achieved one final award: an honorary Doctor of Music from the University of Southern California.