After watching even just a bit of HBO’s sensational The Defiant Ones, two things immediately came to mind: first, I never thought the 90s would hit such a strong nostalgic chord with the masses, regardless of music interest. Second, the constant theme in the financial success of a true music business heavyweight was not about business, but about art.
Giving artists resources and freedom created beauty AND value. Lots of value. Jimmy Iovine, along with Dr. Dre – who was uniquely both an ear for talent and the talent himself – were able to pick the right artists and push them toward a goal of creating music that fans would want to buy without ever telling them what kind of music to make or how to make it.
Historically, artists have had much less freedom, and any freedom they did have was hard fought and won, not given. The Beatles had to lock studio doors and block windows to be left in peace to record because “they were using the equipment incorrectly.” Of course, the techniques pioneered by the Beatles and Sir George Martin are now used every day in studios across the globe and the music of the Beatles – the very result of those “incorrect” studio techniques – has sold hundreds of millions of copies worldwide.
If artistic freedom is a pathway to great music and robust sales, why has it been so difficult for labels (or movie studios, for that matter…but that’s another kettle) to let artists create without interference? Obviously, the answer lies in money, specifically a turnkey, scalable model for generating ongoing revenue. The problem with allowing great, soulful artists the freedom to create music – and ultimately sales – lies with the artists themselves, specifically in finding them.
Jimmy Iovine was a brilliant judge of music and musicians and he built a team with similar skills. At many other labels, the artists required (or were perceived as requiring) more help to make good music that would fit into the marketplace. Interscope short-circuited that by going to great lengths to get the artists they wanted and believed in, and by having the taste and confidence to commit the right artists.
The missing ingredient for many labels compared to Interscope was the stellar team of taste-makers (and deal makers) which brought in the finest talent. Other labels used a “comp system” to sign acts. If act A is in the same genre and has similar demographics to act B, then we can expect the same sales from A as B. We know we can then sign A for some certain amount proscribed by forecasted sales. Further, if we fill all demographic and genre slots then we will have a full roster and voila…a record company. This works well for real estate.
Music is not real estate.
As labels codified the signing process to achieve repeatable success, many created what, at best, could be termed an artistic stagnation and, at worst, a race to the bottom. Jimmy Iovine et al were able arrest this downward spiral by paying attention to artists.
This should not be considered an act of defiance. It should be modus operandi for any company where business meets art. Especially in our current environment of DIY distribution and social promotion, entertainment companies need to focus on empowering authentic content creators who have already worked hard to reach and inspire their fans, not on forcing art created by committee on an already-jaded public.
BYGMusic Founder and CEO