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What are Apple’s Eddy Cue and Beats’ Jimmy Iovine up to?

February 15, 2015, 4:59 PM UTC
Photo: Re/code

In the current issue of Billboard, Shirley Halperin and Ed Christman open with a scene they describe as right out of Goodfellas.

You didn’t have to look too far to spot the action at Clive Davis‘ pre-Grammy gala on Feb. 7. Ground zero was table 108, where Apple CEO Tim Cook, senior vp Internet software and services Eddy Cue, iTunes vp Robert Kondrk and Beats co-founder and title-less Apple executive Jimmy Iovine were seated alongside former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

After a shout-out from the party’s host (Davis called Cook a “special human”), music execs lined up single file for an audience with the Apple contingent — not to mention selfies and overshares about their first Macs.”

Veteran industry reporters, Haplerin and Christman know wheeling and dealing when they see it, and they were watching a couple of pros in action. Gore might have been the Veep and Cook might be a “special human,” but Cue and Iovine in this context — at the Grammys as Apple prepares to take on Pandora and Spotify in the music streaming business — were the guys to watch.

Each is a legend in his own field.

Cue was Steve Jobs’ dealmaking frontman, negotiating contracts with content providers for every new Apple device from the iPod to Apple TV — tens of thousands of contracts, by his estimate. His most famous deals, the ones he cut with book publishers that put the squeeze on Amazon and forced it to rewrite its e-book contracts, was chronicled in detail in a federal antitrust complaint.

Iovine is the former recording engineer (John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen) turned record producer (Patty Smith, Tom Petty, U2, Dire Straits) who co-founded Interscope records in 1990 and signed a parade of headliners from Eminem to Lady Gaga. He’s even dabbled — with some success — in Hollywood, co-producing Eminem’s 8 Mile, which won an Oscar for best original song. Apple paid $3 billion last year to acquire the headphone business that Iovine started with Dr. Dre, their Beats streaming music service, and Iovine’s deep industry connections.

At the Grammys, Cue played the go-between — Sidney Falco to Iovine’s J.J. Hunsecker — greeting music label executives and asking if they had already “met with Jimmy.” The nature of deals these two are cooking up is still a matter of speculation, but key elements have started to emerge.

Iovine often talks about the importance of “curation” in both FM radio and Internet music streaming — in knowing, in his words “what song comes next” — and on Saturday the Guardian reported that the BBC 1’s top DJ, Zane Lowe, had joined Apple.

Meanwhile, according to Billboard, Iovine has been meeting face-to-face with senior execs from the major labels and indies about an “all-you-can-eat music service with a modest subscription fee.”

An earlier report by AppleInsider’s Neil Hughes went further. Iovine, he wrote in late December, is negotiating with a number of artists to unveil upcoming albums exclusively on Beats Music, hoping for a repeat of the launch of Beyoncé’s eponymous LP on iTunes, which sold more than 800,000 copies in its first three days.

Exclusively, at least for the initial release. To Apple. With 800 million iTunes subscriptions and roughly 75% of the paid music download market.

Apple’s goal is not to merely compete with Pandora and Spotify, an unnamed industry insider told Billboard.”It is to be the music business.”

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter at @philiped. Read his Apple AAPL coverage at or subscribe via his RSS feed.