Interscope Records: Inside the Hit Factory

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Of course, a lot of people love music, and Whalley was initially unwilling even to meet with Field. "Every time I turned around, someone was trying to start a new record company, and most of them were wealthy men who wanted to get in the business," Whalley says. "I said, 'No, thanks.' Then people told me, 'Everything Ted does, he does very well.' But some people – and I won't mention names – told me, when I signed on with Interscope, I'd made a decision to get out of the record business."

At the suggestion of U2 manager Paul McGuinness, Iovine met with Field, and the two hit it off instantly. In a deal negotiated by none other than David Geffen, Iovine signed on. The Brooklyn-born son of a longshoreman, Iovine had been a respected engineer and then producer whose impressive credits included John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Patti Smith and U2. Iovine had gotten his first break from the Brill Building great Ellie Greenwich. ("She was the only person I knew in Manhattan," he says with a smile.) But by the late '80s, while working on U2's Rattle and Hum, Iovine found himself soul-searching.

"I thought, 'Music is going to change,'" Iovine remembers. "'Young bands aren't going to be asking for me.' But I love working with the new thing. I always liked the part of the business that's the first time you hear something, and I knew I wasn't in that business anymore."

As it turned out, Interscope's start-up coincided with a period of incredible change in the music world. Nirvana had ushered in the alternative revolution. And though nobody was going to confuse Gerardo for grunge, the change worked in Interscope's favor. While the major labels were packed with rosters full of expensive veteran artists who had to redefine themselves for a new rock era, Interscope was in the business of signing new artists and could – as Iovine puts it – "move on a dime." At the time, the most recent successful start-up was Geffen Records, which had begun in the opposite way, with early superstar signings like Elton John, Donna Summer and John Lennon.

"These things take on a life of their own," Geffen says today. "You start with these plans, and it goes in its own direction. It's no secret why Interscope has succeeded: They had a strategy that worked for them. They've signed wonderful artists with a group of terrific executives led by Jimmy. Everyone there has contributed mightily, and Ted did a terrific job."

Colleagues confirm that Ted Field's contribution to Interscope has gone way beyond his checkbook. Field, who calls himself "the more silent partner," has demonstrated his "ears" time and time again. It was Field, for instance, who initially got interested in Bush.

Interscope has built its extended family of labels – which includes Death Row, Trauma, Nothing and Aftermath, among others – partly on what can be termed the Great Man Theory of Music. When Interscope executives spot someone whose work excites them, they jump and jump hard. Though John McClain has since left Interscope, he made a huge contribution to the bottom line when he initiated the company's relationship with Death Row. In the case of Nine Inch Nails, Iovine invested lots of effort in striking a deal at a time when Reznor was bitterly fighting with Steve Gottlieb of TVT Records, the independent label for which NIN were then recording. The payoff: Interscope affiliated itself with one of the most influential and popular artists of the decade and also ended up with the offshoot Nothing label and its massively successful band Marilyn Manson. Along the same line, Interscope has label deals going with producer Teddy Riley (whose platinum group Blackstreet records for Interscope) and R&B singer R. Kelly. No doubt to the amusement of the outspoken rap critic C. DeLores Tucker, Interscope is also distributing a gospel label.

"Interscope is run more like a rock band than a record company," Iovine says. "It's run in a very spontaneous, heartfelt way. I don't look at the record business from the point of view of what 'the kids' want. I never thought of that as a record producer, and I still don't. What we look at is someone who's doing something exciting. I always feel, if you build it, [fans] will come."

People have come to Interscope in a big way. By 1993, the label was grossing an estimated $88 million and was profitable – well ahead of projections. According to Iovine, Interscope will gross somewhere between $250 million and $300 million domestically this year.

Not everything Interscope has tried has worked. An overstuffed 1994 comeback album by Tom Jones, The Lead and How to Swing It, flopped badly. "We threw a party," Iovine recalls, "and no one came." A Robin Zander solo album, which Iovine produced, also disappeared like some cheap trick. Such failures suggested that Interscope wouldn't make its name as a career-rehab center. "The good news is," Iovine says, "in the record business, they only count your successes." In the pursuit of success, Interscope got a reputation for being scrappy and aggressive. "They know how to turn on the afterburners," says Trauma's Rob Kahane. "When they smell blood in the water, there is nobody that moves faster. They can make the earth move if they want to." In the case of Bush, soon after Field heard the group, he and Iovine met with Kahane and partner Paul Palmer. "There were other labels chasing us," Palmer recalls. "It was a Friday, and they said, 'We don't want you guys to leave here until a deal is done.'"

Interscope doesn't win every bidding war. Recently the label was reportedly the second choice of British electronica sensation Prodigy, which ended up signing with Madonna's Maverick label. And some industry insiders have long suggested that Interscope greatly overpays artists, a criticism that first surfaced with the 1992 signing of Helmet.

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