Apr 27, 2023
The Rise of Interscope Records (with Zack Greenburg)
In the 1990s, Interscope Records played by its own rules. Most new labels started with big stars, but Interscope had a clean slate. Most labels were scared of rap music, but Interscope leaned in. Co-founded by Jimmy Iovine, a producer, and Ted Field, a film producer, people questioned whether they had the chops to make it.
The label has had a hand in some of the most memorable music moments like Death Row Records, the rise of Eminem, and the creation of Beats by Dre headphones.
To break down Interscope’s success, I brought back Zack O’Malley Greenberg. His book, “Three Kings,” covered Interscope’s story. Together, we unpack what’s made Interscope such a long-standing player in the music industry.
[0:53] The most successful individual label of the past 30 years?
[2:40] Key figures in Interscope’s come-up story
[6:57] Nontraditional way to build a record label
[11:07] Death Row Records partnership
[16:44] Biggest signing?
[19:14] Best business move?
[28:07] Darkhorse business move?
[33:21] Where will Interscope be in 10 years
[36:07] Would Interscope’s 90s approach work today?
[43:39] Interscope’s entrepreneurial challenges today
[50:36] Biggest winner in Interscope history?
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Host: Dan Runcie, @RuncieDan, trapital.co
Guests: Zack O’Malley Greenburg, @zogblog
This episode is sponsored by DICE. Learn more about why artists, venues, and promoters love to partner with DICE for their ticketing needs. Visit dice.fm
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[00:00:00] Dan Runcie Intro: Hey, welcome to the Trapital Podcast. I'm your host and the founder of Trapital, Dan Runcie. This podcast is your place to gain insights from the executives in music, media, entertainment, and more, who are taking hip hop culture to the next level.
[00:00:27] Dan Runcie Guest Intro: Today's episode is all about Interscope Records. It has been one of the most influential record labels since it was started in 1990. This record label has been home to Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent, Lady Gaga, Olivia, Rodrigo, and countless other names in between. So we talked about what made Death Row records wanna partner with a company like Interscope and what made Interscope succeed time and time again. So we talk about the business model of being able to sell controversy and why that worked well, especially in the 90s. We also talk about leadership and how important it is to have people at the helm that understand what's needed and how that continued to help Interscope time and time again.
We also talk about some of the challenges that Interscope has had and how they're able to navigate that too. And in this episode, very similar to the Cash Money one that we did a couple months ago, Zach and I, that's Zach O'Malley Greenberg, you may know him from his work back when he was at Forbes as the entertainment editor there.
And from the books he's written like Three Kings and Empire State of Mind. We talked about a number of things and answered several questions that we talked about in the Cash Money episode as well. What was the biggest signing? What were the best business moves that were made? What was the Dark Horse move?
What are the missed opportunities? How did this record label handle transitions? And who is the biggest winner overall from the success of Interscope Records, which is now Interscope Geffen A and M today, one of the umbrella labels under Universal Music Group. This is a really fun episode to do, and we're gonna do more of them.
So let us also know if you have any suggestions on other ones you want us to do at the end of the episode, and we'll go from there. Here's our breakdown on Interscope Records. Hope you enjoy it.
[00:02:13] Dan Runcie: This episode is a breakdown on one of the most storied record labels of the past few decades, Interscope Records and we're back to break it down with my guy, Zach O'Malley Greenberg. Zach, welcome back, man.
[00:02:24] Zack Greenburg: Thanks for having me, as always.
[00:02:27] Dan Runcie: Yeah, I knew that this was a topic that was near and dear to you, given the work you covered in the spaces.
Well, this is one of the more interesting record labels, but following their work for years. And just to just kick things off, this record label starts 1990, right at the beginning of a new wave for music and since it's come out, would you say that this is the most successful record label, individual record label that we've seen in music since then?
[00:02:52] Zack Greenburg: I mean, it's certainly hard to think of another one, that's been more reliably at the top, right? I mean, and I think the thing that really sets Interscope apart is it's not like, you know, the label was made off of just one act or two acts or three acts. They just have a, track record of continuing to find, you know, artists that push the envelope, that, you know, break records and that end up at the top of the music scene and, you know, kind of across genres and eras too.
So, you know, and really even across, chief executives, which is I think, pretty unusual. So, I think there's some kind of secret sauce in there and, can't wait to dig into it with you.
[00:03:27] Dan Runcie: Yeah, I think it. In terms of the longevity, in terms of the phases they've gone through, whether it's dominating in hip hop, dominating in pop, dominating in rock, they've been able to do it across genres across decades. The one record label that I do think could also be worth mentioning in this respect is Republic Records started a few years after 1995, but I think there's a few things there too as well.
The consistency and the ability to do consistent deals, win challenging Bit Wars and get some of the top artists. So I do think it would probably have to be one of those two. But from a timeframe perspective, just all of what Interscope was able to do even before things got started at Republic, do give them a edge.
If we're talking past 25 years, that's probably another discussion, but past 30, 32 years, I think Interscope is probably there. I think there's also maybe a case to be made for Columbia or a case to be made for Atlantic as well, but I do think that Interscope, especially just with the way that they went about things a little differently, which we'll get into, but I feel like they have a strong advantage there.
[00:04:33] Zack Greenburg: Yeah, for sure. And I think, you know, particularly when it comes to the sort of entrepreneurial spirit, you know, and we've talked about Cash Money and Def Jam and you know, Rockefeller certainly, hip hop, specific record labels that have been uniquely, entrepreneurial, you know, especially given some of their leadership, but like, I think for a label that, you know, kind of delves into pop so much.
And of course Interscope obviously, you know, huge home for hip hop too. But to have that entrepreneurial streak, outside of it, mostly hip hop label. I think that's pretty unusual too in some of the things they've done around beats, which we can get into. you know, j just, you know, being almost, you know, like a venture fund or an incubator as much as a record label in some ways. I think that's another way that Interscope has been, you know, really different from the rest.
[00:05:16] Dan Runcie: Yeah, for sure. That beats thing, we'll get into that one in a minute. I feel there's so much to dive into there but let's start with the quick backstory. I'm sure a lot of folks already know this, but there are three main figures that were involved with. The beginning of this record label. You have PBIV, you have Ted Fields, and you have John McLay so. Let's first start with Jimmy. So as many of you know, this was someone that was a record prod…