Jimmy Iovine has a line he likes to use. Actually he has a lot of them. Today, Iovine runs Apple Music, the latest stop in a career that has taken him from studio rat to cofounder of Interscope Records to head of Beats Electronics. But he is also a longshoreman’s son from Red Hook, Brooklyn, and he has inherited his native borough’s brand of salty raconteurism. Over the years he’s assembled a playlist of zingers to describe, for instance, his philosophy for dealing with prima donna artists (“If the shit gets bigger than the cat, out goes the cat”) or his appeal to Dr. Dre to build headphones with him instead of designing an athletic shoe (“Fuck sneakers—let’s make speakers”).
But the line I’m talking about is the one he uses to describe his life’s ambition: “All I’ve ever wanted to do is move the needle on popular culture.” It sounds almost modest, the way he says it. Don’t be fooled. Some music executives want to help talented artists reach their natural audience, no matter how small. Iovine is not among them. He’s after the kind of massive flash points that unite populations around the world and change not just what they listen to but how they dress and move and behave and think and live. “He finds one great idea, gets rid of everything else, and chases it to the end of the earth until it’s everywhere,” says Luke Wood, president of Beats Electronics.
By his count, Iovine has pulled this off four times over the past couple of decades by (1) introducing the world to Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Chronic-era Dr. Dre, (2) shepherding the careers of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, (3) giving Eminem his start, and (4) creating Beats, the hardware company that turned headphones into a fashion accessory and today accounts for 34 percent of US stereo headphone sales.