Interscope Records: Inside the Hit Factory

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When Iovine tires of the issue of whether Interscope is responsible for the moral decline of Western civilization, talk turns to the record-business slump. Iovine explains some of his pet theories, many of which recall a famous phrase of Casey Stengel's, "Can't anyone here play this game?" "It's no fuckin' science," Iovine says. "There have to be people at the top who can call an audible at the line of scrimmage. We are an industry. We sell a product. We have to excite the people who we sell the shit to. We are trying to keep kids interested in music."

In this regard, Iovine sees the industry as having made a huge mistake by turning over the reins of power from music people to marketing types. "We need people like [the legendary Atlantic Records executive] Ahmet Ertegun saying, 'Wow, I've got all these great black artists – I'm going to pump a lot of money into this, and I'm going to make Atlantic happen,' " Iovine declares. "Or Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons saying, 'Hip-hop music – that's where we want to go.' If a kid doesn't grow up seeing a Kiss concert or remembering the first moment he saw the Beatles, maybe he's going to remember something else, like the first day he played fucking Mortal Kombat."

Whatever else it does, Interscope's music excites people. "Jimmy's selling more than the major [labels]," says Universal's Lewinter. Asked when a major label becomes a minor one, the smiling executive laughs and answers, "When Jimmy passes them."

As for the rumors that MCA may totally buy out Interscope and that Iovine may be bumped upstairs to help run the company, Field says later: "Jimmy and I are staying together. I don't think either one of us wants to give up Interscope. Why break up a winning team? I trust Jimmy with my life, and he feels the same about me."

As the party winds down, Iovine addresses the troops, saluting many of those who have been there from the beginning and sharing the thrill of victory with his team. "You guys should be very proud," he tells them. "You had a chance to change the course of the record industry, and you did."

It's a hell of a long way from "Rico Suave." For about 15 minutes back in 1991, it looked like that Top 10 hit might be the beginning of bigger things for Gerardo, a sort of salsa-flavored Vanilla Ice. Sadly for Gerardo and his family, it was not to be. But "Rico Suave" was the beginning of bigger and better things for the upstart Interscope.

It's a Thursday, and as the label prepares to shut down for the industrywide holiday break, a group of department heads and representatives, led by Tom Whalley, gathers in Interscope's Westwood offices for a scheduling meeting. A dozen or so Interscopers – mixed in terms of race and gender – sit around a conference table in the war room.

Nine Inch Nails are first on the agenda. The staffers are pondering what to do about the leak of "The Perfect Drug," the group's new single on the Lost Highway soundtrack. Somehow the song has ended up on the Internet, and there's talk that its release date should be pushed up. But when Nine Inch Nails manager and Nothing Records chief John Malm weighs in by phone, he suggests that Interscope should stay the course. Whalley goes with Malm's wishes, and his decision is one secret to Interscope's success: Call it The Band Knows Best.

As the executives plot their strategy in regard to the single – sending out cease-and-desist letters, shutting down the Web site, staying on top of the problem during the break – a certain irony goes unspoken. At other labels, executives try to figure out how to get songs on the air; here at Interscope, the concern is how to keep one of its off, albeit temporarily. As the group moves on to other releases, it becomes apparent that in the high-stakes art of contemporary chart choreography, they are the Balanchines.

It was not always thus.

Ted Field started Interscope Records in late 1990 as a $30 million joint venture with Warner Music's Atlantic Group. He had grown up lavishly in Chicago and Alaska before moving to the West Coast, in the early 1980s. During his youth, Field attended several colleges and developed a penchant for auto racing; in one race, he severely injured his hand, which to this day he keeps wrapped in an Ace bandage. When he arrived in L.A., Field began living the glitzy Hollywood high life and being seen with a variety of beautiful blondes. In 1982 he started his film company, but by 1990 he was ready to branch out.

Field established Interscope during a period in which new record companies were sprouting up like some sort of rock & roll fungus: Hollywood, Zoo, Morgan Creek, Imago, Giant. Recalls Iovine: "We were looking at a long shot. It was a guy with money from the outside and a record producer. Those two things couldn't succeed."

Before Iovine signed on, Field had already recruited Whalley – who'd been fired as head of A&R at Capitol, though the success of artists like Bonnie Raitt and the Beastie Boys had provided him with some serious late-arriving vindication – and John McClain, a key player in Janet Jackson's rise at A&M.

Field, who is 44, seems awfully approachable as billionaires go. Today, he admits to having been acutely aware of the tremendous skepticism within the industry about another guy with a trust fund who wanted to play music mogul. "Absolutely," says Field, who wears his graying hair in a small ponytail. "And not just about a guy in the film business going into the record business, but about some of the choices of people. Some said Jimmy was not a guy who could run a record company. Tom had been at Capitol. We were kind of a ragamuffin band of guys starting a record company. The odds were heavily stacked against us." Asked why he wanted to get into the music business, Field answers quickly: "I loved music."

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