So I recently and belatedly watched The Defiant Ones on Netflix and was completely enthralled. It is a great story that shows how music producers and entrepreneurs Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre transformed the music industry, founded Beats Electronics, and got very very rich.
I knew Dr Dre was one of the key members of N.W.A, but Jimmy Iovine was new to me. Starting as an recording engineer in the 1970s, Iovine worked with John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen, before working as a producer with the likes of Patti Smith, Tom Petty, and U2, founding Interscope in 1980 Records, and ultimately Beats Electronics. His story is one of persistence, insight, hard work, and foresight.
Three key moments stick out for me.
The first is in 1973 when Iovine was working as an assistant in a recording studio in New York. Desperate to get in the recording industry he was sweeping floors, answering phones, and learning as much as he could about the business. One Easter Sunday he got a call from his boss saying he was needed at work. When Iovine turned up he was told that the assistant engineer couldn’t come in and they wanted him to work the console for John Lennon. It was his first job as an engineer, and it was with a major star. It could have been intimidating, but Iovine comments:
Fear is a powerful thing. I mean, it’s got a lot of firepower. That was the beginning of making fear a tailwind instead of a headwind.
Using your fear and insecurity as a motivating force to grasp opportunity is a key lesson. When I think about my own (modest) career there have been moments when I have been terrified but have stepped up and committed to having a go. My first job managing a team, the first time I spoke publicly to 200 people, my first product launch, my first meeting with the CEO. Each required courage and using that firepower to push forward rather than be hold back.
During the production of Bruce Springsteen’s seminal album Born to Run in 1975, Iovine was working as a tape operator. His job was to press start and stop on the tape machine. One evening the lead engineer didn’t turn up and Iovine was offered the job. Iovine wasn’t sure he could do it, but jumped at the chance.
Springsteen was a perfectionist. and the production was difficult, he was determined to realise his vision and worked incredibly long hours to get the sound and result he wanted. He comments that for anyone involved the “relentless pursuit” of his vision would have been exhausting. Iovine was often found asleep at the sound board.
After spending 3 weeks working on the drum sounds, Iovine had had enough and wanted to quit. He was told by Springsteen’s producer, “We are here to help Bruce make the best record he can. That’s the job. We’re not here to make you happy. We’re not here to make me happy. We’re here to contribute to the project. And it’s Bruce’s project. If you go back in there and say, “I’m here to support you, this is not about me, it’s about the album”, you will have a friend for the rest of your life and learned a big lesson”.
Iovine stayed and the record was an incredible success.
The key lesson here for me is being conscious of what you are trying to achieve, who the customer is, and creating a culture that supports that outcome. Every product launch or project can have unexpected results, obstacles you didn’t expect, testing results that disprove your assumptions. There will always be something. Being focused on the overall outcome and the customer, and creating a culture to lift the team in those difficult moments is a key requirement for a successful product launch.
In the 2000s Iovine recognised the threat the Internet and digital technology would have on the music industry. He said at the time, “The party is over”. After going on a anti-piracy crusade, Iovine realised he needed to change the model from selling music to enabling people to access music via streaming. With Dr Dre he started Beats Music which they ended up selling to Apple for $3billion in 2014. An incredible result for a music industry veteran and a credit to Iovine’s insight into consumer behaviour and the market.
Products fail when you stop listening to the market and solving real problems for your customers. It might not be easy but you need to not believe your own bullshit and respond. Iovine excelled at this.
If you haven’t seen The Defiant Ones, take a look.