Luke Wood never became a rock star. But in the music industry, he became the next best thing. As a music executive at Geffen, DreamWorks Records, and later Interscope, Wood has worked with dozens of legendary bands and musicians, from Sonic Youth to Elliott Smith. Now he’s president of Beats Electronics, which released its Beats Music streaming service in January. Wood speaks with Bloomberg Businessweek about changes in music consumption, what makes a good rock band, and how he had no idea Nirvana would blow up as the band did.
You’ve spent your whole career in the music industry, but before that you were a musician. When did you start getting into music?
Really young. My first music memory is when I was six and heard Michael Martin Murphey’s Wildfire. I thought it was about the saddest song I’d ever heard. Then when I was eight, I tied a necktie to a tennis racket and played Blondie’s One Way Or Another. I started playing guitar when I was 13. I switched over from trumpet.
That’s probably a good idea. It’s hard to make it as a trumpet player.
That’s very true. Unless you’re Herb Albert, which I wasn’t.
Did you know at that point that you wanted to be in a band?
Desperately. So much so that I started a band! Like every decent person in the 1980s, I started a punk band for a year and then, once I learned how to play chords, I started a more—well, we called it college rock, but now it would be indie rock. We were called Nehru Zombie. I was 15. We’d play shows around town, promote them on the radio, make t-shirts. We were really hustling. I desperately wanted a record deal, but we didn’t get one.
Since you now have experience in record deals, why didn’t that happen?
Looking back, there were three problems: I wrote bad songs, I couldn’t sing, and we had no vision. Except for that, we were really good.
How did you go from the rock star dream to the man-who-makes-rock-stars dream?
I was in bands in college, too. At one point we made a demo with Richard Hell, from [Richard Hell and] the Voidoids, at the apartment of Chris Stein, from Blondie. We shopped that demo hard but the record deal just didn’t happen. I realized in that process that there was a whole business of music. Up to that point, I assumed I’d go to law school. So my junior year at Wesleyan, I got an internship in A&M Records’ publicity department. Then the next year I went to Geffen in L.A.
What was Geffen like?
I was a summer temp. I answered phones. (This was back before answering machines, so there were a lot of phones to answer.) Bryn Bridenthal, one of the inventors of rock publicity, took me under her arm. She was the publicist for Guns n’ Roses, which at the time was the biggest band in the world. There were always exciting noises coming from her office. She was an unbelievable mentor to me.
In what way?
I remember asking her, “How do you be successful in the music business?” And she told me, “Be on time and be prepared and you’ll do great.” I still only get about half of that right, the “be prepared” part.
What did you look for in a rock band?
That’s really hard to answer. When I came into the record business in 1991, there was a sea change. The first band I was in charge of at Geffen was Siouxsie and the Banshees. The second was the Sundays. Within a year, I was working with Nirvana and Sonic Youth. I was fortunate because my background—the punk and college rock I’d grown up listening to—had the same kinds of sounds and attitude, so I understood what was happening. At that point, I realized I could just look for bands I loved.
I have to ask about Nirvana. They’re the first band I ever loved—the first CD I ever owned was In Utero, actually—but I wonder if the larger-than-life mythology of Nirvana is something we can appreciate only in hindsight. At the time, could you really tell that what they were doing was so groundbreaking?
Oh, Nirvana. I still have my advance cassette of Nevermind. The first song on there is Smells Like Teen Spirit and the first time I heard it, I knew it would be transformational. But no, I don’t think anyone had any idea that it would be as big as it became. You could feel the energy in their records, sure, but we had no idea how far they could take it. I mean, how big can a band with Beatles-style songs really be? The answer is the biggest band in the world.
What are some of your favorite memories of working with musicians to create albums?
There were really so many of them, to be honest. When bands record an album, a lot of work goes into reworking the songs, fixing the hook, producing it. I remember signing Elliott Smith in 1997 when he went to make XO. I thought, ‘O.K., we’ll go in there like we do with other musicians and figure out what needs fixing.’ But nothing did. Elliot’s songs were already perfect.
When you look back on the music industry as it was back then, how much does it resemble the industry that exists now?
I guess I’d say the pieces of the puzzle have changed but the thing they make up—the core things that make up a song or turn a performance into magic—all those things are still the same. And they drive everything. Mo Ostin—who I worked for at DreamWorks—he’d always say: ‘The record will tell you what to do.’
What does that mean, “The record will tell you what to do?”
Music has a desire to find its audience. You’ll talk to the band about their ideas for music videos, song titles. Though that, the album crafts its own campaign. Then as you send it to radio stations and play it for people in the company, you can tell from the feedback what the life of the record should be. If you can read those tea leaves and follow that narrative, the record will tell you where it wants to go.
That sounds very wishy-washy. And hard to pull off.
It takes intuition and experience. You make a lot of mistakes, believe me. And actually, that’s one of the pieces that has changed in the music industry. It’s getting harder to make mistakes.
In what way?
When I started working as an A&R [artists and repertoire] executive in 1996, the business was somewhat awash in cash, so you were cushioned from always having to produce high returns. I could sign a lot of rock bands who’d make some mistakes on the first or second albums, and it would be O.K.. But now they need to be successful right away.
You were really into online music very early on. You oversaw the first commercial MP3 file—Aerosmith’s Head First—released on CompuServ in 1994. How did you see the digital revolution coming so early?
My history from technology comes from always being the sober guy in the band. That meant I had to learn how to fix the equipment, which led me to working with computers. I was relatively digitally literate, so after CompuServ and AOL became big, myself and two others thought: “Hey, let’s put music online!” We had the idea for a flat-fee subscription service around that time, too, but it was way too early for that.
What did you think of Napster?
I had two very emotional responses to Napster. One was about the quality of the sound. At that time—with 128-megabyte files and very small, horribly compressed MP3s—you weren’t even listening to good music.
The second issue was about consumption. People were grabbing gigabytes of music to create an instant catalog of 20th century pop and rock music. But the emphasis was on quantity. not quality. I came from a time when you’d discover a band like Black Flag, and listening to that would lead you to the Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth. I liked knowing who produced the album and where it was recorded. On Napster, it was all faceless. That was the worst tragedy of Napster. That intimacy of discovery was lost on the Napster generation.
But that’s still happening in some ways. With Pandora and Spotify and now Beats, people have even more access to music than they did with Napster. The sound quality problem is fixed, but people still consume music in bits and pieces—singles and playlists instead of albums, right?
I guess my optimistic response to that is that more music is being consumed globally than ever before. Access has been granted, and now it’s up to content providers to give context and curate it. How do we get music out there, monetize the process, and make the experience great?
You came to Interscope in 2003. Pretty early on, you and Jimmy Iovine were trying to make digital music happen again.
We did a lot of thinking like, how do we work with Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon? How do we use their distribution platforms? This was in 2005, and it was way too soon. Devices didn’t even have the processor power or battery life to deal with that. ITunes was also growing really rapidly back then. We thought we’d wait and see what it became. But out of this frustration came Jimmy [Iovine's] business that he and Dre built.
Why did you decide to join Jimmy at Beats?
Jimmy was my mentor. He still is. He’s the person I work closest with and we spend a tremendous amount of time together. When Beats took off and he decided to really make it a full company, it was hard for me to get my head around leaving music. Since I was 15, I’d spent every day thinking about what new music I could find, bands I could discover, and it terrified me to leave that. But then when the opportunity to be Beats’ president came up, what I realized was that I wasn’t leaving music, I was going to create a way for music to find its fans.
What is your goal for Beats?
I work at Beats like I’m in a culture company. My job is to inspire and push culture. We want Beats to be a cultural artifact, just like a Fender Stratocaster or Yamaha drum sets. We want it to represent a certain era of music.
Is that why it’s in so many music videos? I secretly keep a list of the number of music videos I see Beats pills in.
You’ll have to share that list with me! How many is it?
I think I have like, five or six now? The most famous one is Miley’s We Can’t Stop video, of course. That’s some genius product placement.
See, it’s integrated into the video. She’s on her bed and she has to play the music through something, right? So it’s natural for it to exist. We want Beats to feel like a natural part of the music environment.
So tell me about Beats Music. What was your original vision?
A few fundamental things. People are consuming more music than ever before, but how do they find what they like? They need curated content. That used to be the radio. Now it’s playlists. But how do you know what to put on a playlist? Or better yet, find one already created for you?
Ultimately, we don’t want Beats Music to be like a licensed concept catalog. Our focus is on differentiation. You’re not going to come to us and be like, “Do they have this one live performance by a funk band that played on an Akron, Ohio. radio station for four days in 1973 before all its members went off to college?” We might have that in our catalog, and we can play that for you. But we’re more about finding the right song for the right moment, right now.