The Corner Office: Luke Wood, President of Beats by Dr. Dre
Words: Julian Mitchell
Some of the most successful people in the game refused to follow the rules to make it happen, they did it their own way. Welcome to the Corner Office.
Spending several years in the music industry as an executive and engineer, working directly with icons like David Geffen, Luke Wood developed a deep understanding of sound quality and a proven expertise in assembling dynamic teams of top-tier talent. He's now President of Beats by Dr. Dre where he oversees the vision of a consumer product company that has successfully transcended the category and is recognized as a leader in the intersection of culture, sports, music and entertainment. Beats built world-class products and provided a global platform for disruptive creators and athletes to be heard.
For nearly a decade Wood has led one of the most influential imprints in pop culture and now runs an international staff of cross-disciplinary creatives, developers and product specialists. The original vision of Beats was simple: "make music sound the way the artist intended." But Wood has helped the brand cultivate the culture of authenticity. Everything the brand does is done in the spirit of authenticity. Beats attracts talent who share a commitment to moving culture forward through authentic expression.
I spoke with Luke Wood about his pivotal role in building Beats, the realities of running an innovative company and the challenges of breaking ground in spaces that don’t yet exist.
Describe your role as President of Beats and your path to taking on this position?
Luke Wood: Before Beats existed I had already worked with Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. Beats first became an idea in 2006. That’s when Jimmy had the famed walk with Dre on the beach -- the "Fu*k sneakers, make speakers" speech. That’s all a true story. But the precursor to that really started when I went to work for Jimmy in 2003. I previously worked for an unbelievable executive and entrepreneur named David Geffen. I worked under him for 14 years. Early in 2003, the music division of DreamWorks was being sold to Universal Music Group. When this happened, David Geffen said to me, "There’s only one person you should go work for and that’s Jimmy Iovine." So I took his advice and had breakfast with Jimmy. I didn’t know him, although I was obviously very aware of the records that he made, because I was an enormous fan of his production. After about 30 seconds into our breakfast at his house, I just completely fell in love with his vision, brilliance and genuine passion for music.
What was that initial conversation like with Jimmy and what about that talk convinced you that your gut feeling was right?
Luke Wood: We immediately had a conversation about music and he asked me to play him a record I was working on. I played him the record and we started getting deep into the technical issues. Things like how the buss compression was affecting the sound of the vocal in the bridge, or know how the vocal doubles were getting in the way of each other. We had real music, engineering talk, which is where we both came from in the industry. Believe it or not, this was fairly unorthodox in the music business, having top music executives who actually understood how to engineer and craft records. I was very fortunate to work with Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker at DreamWorks, two legends in the music business who had that same skill set. That’s what I saw in Jimmy. What I also saw in him was this very intense, fearless entrepreneur. If you think about 2003, at that point, the record business was in complete chaos. You're about three years past the peak of sales, which was 2000 for physical units. The iTunes Store had yet to take off and you're basically getting one-two punched by Napster and LimeWire. On top of that, kids are trading MP3s directly. The entire consumption experience around music was the opposite of pleasurable.
This was a time when so many changes were happening in the music business, from emerging platforms to distribution changing. How would you describe the industry at that time and what problems were you aiming to solve?
Luke Wood: There weren’t a lot of incentives for consumers to legally buy music. It was actually easier to go on Napster or LimeWire and just download the unprotected MP3, and be able to use it anytime. That was a more rewarding, richer experience than actually paying for the album. That’s the business that I was living in. What I’ve found in Jimmy was someone who really wanted to push the business forward and solve these problems. Around that same time, through Jimmy, I met [Dr.] Dre. So, Jimmy and myself started working at Universal Music Group together, focusing pretty hard on figuring out the path to flat-fee subscription. We spent a chunk of 2005 and 2006 trying to solve this problem. In the process, we talked to every internet service provider, NSO (Network Services Orchestrator), hardware company, label group and publisher trying to figure out how we get to a flat-fee subscription model. Truthfully, it was just too difficult. I wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time to understand that the timing was simply premature. Fundamentally you didn’t have the hardware infrastructure. You didn’t have the battery life. You didn’t have the processor speed. You didn’t have the size of cache to hold the memory. You didn’t have the network speed. More notably, you didn’t have the WiFi technology to really support a full flat-fee streaming business at global scale. But that was the existing paradigm we were fighting to shift, so we kept pushing forward.
"Only in dismantling everything could you figure out how to build something new and better."
What was the turning point at which all of the conversations and ideas became a tangible plan of action?
Luke Wood: One day, Jimmy got very frustrated. He said, "I know music has value, let’s figure out how we can prove that. Let’s find a consumer product that people would pay for, that is driven by music and music culture. Let’s use that to prove music has value." At the same time, Dre was having a real problem with the sound ecosystem and the fact that nothing sounded like it did in his studio. He would spend hundreds of hours in his recording studio, and then he’d go into the real world and listen to how his kids, his family, or consumers were hearing his music. He found that the two experiences weren’t related. So Jimmy and Dre combined these two things together and it became Beats. I was very fortunate to have worked so closely with them and share a similar way of thinking. So when Beats was started, I already knew how both of them thought. I already understood the kind of pathology and their makeup. As a result, working with them and helping enable their dream was very easy for me.
Beats is a brand that has naturally become bigger than headphones, which can easily cause people to forget that you’re a product company first. How important is quality and making sure your products are great above all else?
Luke Wood: Quality is the beginning and the end, nothing else matters. The secret behind our company is that Beats is run like a music business. There’s an oppositional nature to Beats because that’s who we are. Jimmy worked with Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith and John Lennon. Those are oppositional characters.There’s a reason he was drawn to them. Dr. Dre was in NWA and then he worked with Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. Those are oppositional characters. He made Eminem records. For me, I grew up on Black Flag and Minor Threat. The first big rock group I worked with was Nirvana. We all like to work in a business where you're really questioning everything and pushing against the assumed norms, because you're trying to discover and invent new things. But the most important part of that process when it comes to music is the sound. If you think of that through the lens of classics like Born to Run, The Chronic, or you think of Nevermind -- you think of the sound of those records. Sound is the singular, most important element. Because if the sound isn’t right, then the emotion isn’t right. All we’re about is emotional storytelling. That’s what we love about music and [Beats] is on a journey to perfect sound. We didn’t start out as good as we are today, because nobody does. Find an artist whose first record is as good as their third record, it's rare. We started out understanding where we wanted to go emotionally. Let’s take the emotion of the recording studio and put it in headphones, ears and speakers. From there, we’ve spent the last decade iterating and getting better. Today, our portfolio is unsurpassed in the marketplace and certainly lives beyond any of the expectations we had in developing audio products.
How did your extensive background as an executive and engineer equip you with the tools and thinking needed to build a brand like Beats?
Luke Wood: Coming from a subculture of American hardcore and American punk rock, you really wanted to dismantle everything. Only in dismantling everything could you figure out how to build something new and better. The idea was always to do something completely new that had never been done before. I know, speaking for Jimmy and Dre, that’s certainly their desire also. They want to continuously push the envelope and evolve. Although we came from different musical backgrounds, we all had that central thesis of opposition and resistance. But, it wasn’t to push back and do nothing. It was to push back so that you could push harder to go forward and become true pioneers. That’s what we did, and that’s what it took, because nobody in the audio category had ever approached it that way. The audio category was basically a utility category -- like power tools. They were seen, marketed and designed the same way you’d design and market a wrench. We really saw them as musical instruments. We saw our products as an extension of the artists themselves, because it was part of the whole ecosystem of music consumption. We looked at everything: industrial design, quality of sound, how it makes you feel and even packaging. That process is no different from how a great album is recorded, mixed and mastered. What does the video look like? What’s the album cover look like? What’s the tour T-shirt look like? What’s the lighting design? All of those aspects create a feeling and subtext that ultimately answers the question of "Why do I care?" We wanted to accomplish that same exact thing with headphones.
What were some of the challenges you faced getting the company off the ground and getting people to believe in the vision?
Luke Wood: During the process of building Beats, pretty much everything was a challenge. That’s because we were going into a business that was brand new for us, which was hardware manufacturing. We all had a fair amount of experience as engineers. We all understood how to tune a room. We all understood certainly a fair amount about mixing records. But, the actual side of hardware manufacturing, industrialization and scale -- that was difficult. Understanding supply chain was a completely new learning for me. It was a completely different business category. We’re used to the music business, which is a completely different reseller base. These are different stores, different retailers and different relationships. This made the actual business itself a challenge. We got really lucky and found super talented people. But, we had to build a team of people that were also really creative, fearless thinkers. We wanted to build a new kind of company. In any industry, it’s very easy to find people that have a lot of experience who can rinse and repeat what they did at their last job. Since we were building something innovative for the future, we had to be smart and strategic about bringing people in who embodied this spirit.
What rules for success or principles did you adopt from music that didn’t necessarily transfer over into the consumer product industry?
Luke Wood: In music, there’s only two things that matter -- the idea and the execution. What’s the idea of the group, the idea of the song, the idea of the hook, the idea of the lyric, the idea of the production? In the studio, we worked really hard to get that right. Then, it’s about execution. How do I explain this song to my audience? How do I perform it? How do I put it out into the world? With Beats, the idea and the execution were such new concepts for the consumer electronics business. We just needed a completely new team of partners and people at the company to do that. Everything we’d ever learned before was kind of irrelevant, because we had to think of a new way to train people to approach a business that had never existed. It was really fun, but it was also really hard.
Throughout all of the changes and challenges you faced, what has been the consistent goal or mission behind Beats?
Luke Wood: We’ve always had a consistent goal and expectation -- we want to move global culture. That’s what we’ve always wanted to do in the music business. So success to us is moving culture at scale. That’s not necessarily about making a lot of money. It’s really about having a meaningful impact emotionally with a global community. At the core of our point of view is authenticity. We come from music. You can’t lie about music. Music is either going to make you feel something, or it’s not. An artist may be divisive, but if they speak the truth and you feel it, it’s the truth. That’s where we come from. Music speaks the truth. Applying that to Beats, we try to have the brand be an extension of that belief by only having authentic storytelling that’s relevant to what we do. We’re about music and the emotion of sound. Always stay true to your core and don’t be afraid to challenge people or go to uncomfortable places, because that’s what the real world’s like. That’s what makes us authentic human beings -- our own dignity and our own failures. We’re real people and we’re out there grinding every day. We really care about sound, and trust us, we know how to make headphones.
"We’ve always had a consistent goal and expectation -- we want to move global culture."
How important is being a student of the game and learning every aspect of how the business works?
Luke Wood: Being a student of the game is incredibly important. Believe it or not, I’m an Eagle Boy Scout, and the slogan of the Boy Scouts is “Be Prepared.” That’s probably the most valuable thing I learned. When I started making records as an A&R executive, I quickly felt that most of the label talent didn’t understand the incredible technical difficulties of composing and engineering a record in the studio. So I spent the 10,000 hours to learn how every piece of gear works. I had to understand all of that, because that was the language of the studio. Granted, it wasn’t my job. I wasn’t the producer and engineer during most of those sessions. But, I’ve always looked at everything in my life that way. When you're talking to people, whatever their passion is, they have to go above and beyond to understand every facet of the endeavor. I learned to understand the music process from beginning to end. I learned about engineering, the creative process, how music is consumed, and how it’s distributed. You need to learn everything, because you never know when that piece of information is going to become invaluable. You may only use that information five percent of the time, but when you need it, it’s really powerful. I believe that’s the differentiator between good and great.
What role did mentorship play in your development and what advice did you receive that has stuck with you along the journey?
Luke Wood: I was incredibly fortunate to have great mentors. My first real mentor was a woman who ran publicity at Geffen Records. She was one of the real pioneers of rock PR. She told me that the secrets to success are very simple -- just be prepared and be on time. If you're prepared and on time, you’ll do better than 99 percent of the rest of the world. Shockingly enough, she was right. What I also learned is that you have to work extremely hard. If you’ve seen "The Defiant Ones" documentary, you surely walked away from the first episode with a sense of how hard both Jimmy and Dre had to work to get where they are. Nothing was a layup, everything was work. You just have to work harder than everybody else and don’t look up -- keep running in your lane and never stop.
Having worked with so many legends and visionaries, what would you say it really takes to be great for the long run versus just being great for a moment?
Luke Wood: I think you have to become comfortable with a little bit of chaos, because you need to be awake in the world. If things are too easy, I get bored quickly. I also like things to be a little improvisational. That keeps me alert. I believe that when you're awake and alert, that’s when you develop great ideas. I think you have to be willing to live really close to the edge and not be afraid of falling. That’s a common trait I’ve seen with successful people. What I’ve learned from the Beats experiment is that you’ve got to do things for yourself. You can’t really worry about what other people think of you. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of incredibly disruptive creative people. True creative geniuses. At the end of the day, they look at themselves and ask, What did I accomplish? Am I proud of this? Would I put my name on this? That’s what matters. You can’t look for a reflection in the people around you. You’ve got to look at the inner truth. When you can learn to be honest with yourself, then you know you're halfway there.
Obviously, people associated Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre with the success of Beats, but you were actively involved from the start. How important is getting credit or receiving validation for the contributions that you make to a winning team?
Luke Wood: It goes back to how you define success. Success, for me, was having a platform to be creative, have ideas and, ultimately, be around music, because I was so passionate about it. So everything I’ve done has been driving towards creating that platform and sustaining it, which allows me to stay in the game. I never worry about credit, because it doesn’t really matter. People figure out who’s talented and who’s not. I’ve worked with some of the most talented people in the music business like David Geffen, Mo Ostin, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. I was never going to get more credit than them. If I was concerned about credit, I wouldn’t have gone to work for them. I wanted to take their ideas and add my piece to it. How do I make their ideas the best they can be? In the process, people realize that I’ve been a valuable player on a lot of championship teams. And they see how good I’ve been the whole time. But I never worried about saying it -- I just worry about doing it.