John Janick acknowledges that, when he joined Interscope Geffen A&M as President and COO in 2012, some people out there were quick to dismiss him as a one-trick-pony.
In a way, they were right.
It just so happens his trick was to forge a highly successful record label – no matter its size.
Prior to IGA, Janick had built a mini-empire proudly rooted in pop-punk at Fueled By Ramen – from Fall Out Boy to Panic! At The Disco, Paramore and Jimmy Eat World.
Not that FBR was entirely wedded to a core sound: after the label was ingested by Warner in the mid-noughties, Janick signed platinum-selling leftfield pop acts fun. and twenty one pilots.
On the side, the exec also co-ran Warner’s Elektra Records in New York, breaking Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran and Cee Lo Green.
But the question persisted: could this emo-indie specialist really handle the sprawling demands and diversity of IGA – especially the hardened hip-hop exigency of Interscope?
Five years on, the answer is a resounding yes. All the more so since Janick took over as IGA’s Chairman and CEO following Jimmy Iovine’s departure to Apple in 2014.
Hip-hop and urban music have flowed in the bloodstream of Interscope ever since the label chalked up a deal with Death Row Records back in 1992.
To stroll around IGA’s Santa Monica offices today is to imbibe a visual re-telling of what came next.
In addition to a knockout side-by-side mural of Dr. Dre’s three studio albums, you’ll find brightly colored mosaics by French street artist Space Invader depicting classic Interscope releases – with Tupac’s Me Against The World (1995) and Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP (2000) taking pride of place.
And now IGA has another hip-hop legend to add to these names.
Top Dawg Entertainment’s Kendrick Lamar released good kid, m.A.A.d city three weeks after Janick arrived at the company in 2012. It sold beyond expectations and cemented Lamar’s place as one of the most important artists in the world.
Since then, Janick has been at the helm for the release of Lamar’s Grammy-winning To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) as well as his latest opus, DAMN.
These two albums have transformed Lamar into a streaming juggernaut – he currently has 30m monthly listeners on Spotify – and both hit No.1 on the Billboard 200.
Lamar is signed to Interscope via its Aftermath imprint, through TDE.
The TDE relationship, which has also delivered ScHoolboy Q to IGA, is one of a handful of label allegiances nurtured by Janick since he joined Universal.
Others include producer Mike WiLL Made-It’s Eardrummers imprint, which brought hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd to Interscope – and spawned a gigantic global streaming breakout last year with Black Beatles.
Janick’s team has also inked JV label deals with J.Cole (Dreamville) and producer/songwriter Benny Blanco’s Mad Love, whose roster includes Tory Lanez.
“I come from a company where I had ten acts signed, and it was always ‘eat what you kill’. We had to measure and read every record, and really focus on long-term artist development.”
John Janick, IGA
Other partnerships have been struck with Atlanta’s LVRN – who brought 6lack to Interscope – and A$AP Rocky’s AWGE for the hotly-tipped Playboi Carti (pictured inset).
With his Fueled By Ramen experience in the tank, Janick knows well the balance required to get the best out of independent (or quasi-independent) labels; when to pile on the resources they need, and when to let them operate organically.
“Some major labels are used to throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks,” he says.
“I come from a company where I had ten acts signed, and it was always ‘eat what you kill’. We had to measure and read every record, and really focus on long-term artist development.”
Janick’s ease with the idea of label partnerships shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of ruthlessness when it comes to Interscope’s internal A&R firepower.
After joining IGA in 2012, Janick – with Iovine’s blessing – turned the company’s creative workforce upside down.
He brought in former Atlantic colleague Aaron Bay-Schuck (pictured) as President of A&R, as well as ex-Def Jam exec Joie Manda, now EVP of IGA – and recently pinched Atlantic’s Sam Riback as EVP/Head of A&R on the pop and rock side.
Janick has also unleashed the potential of up-and-comers like former intern Manny Smith – who played an integral role in the Top Dawg deal and was last month upped to SVP of A&R.
This team, in conjunction with the 180+ other staff at IGA, has in recent years worked with the likes of Imagine Dragons, Gwen Stefani, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, DJ Snake, Selena Gomez, The 1975, Zedd and Avicii – a blockbuster roster which Janick says offers “the best in every genre”.
New IGA artists currently bubbling under include Machine Gun Kelly, the aforementioned Playboi Carti and 6lack, BØRNS, Billie Eilish, and the recently-signed Daya – all hoping to etch their own mark on IGA’s formidable history books.
MBW sat down with Janick to ask about his five years at IGA, how building Fueled By Ramen prepared him for the job, and a host of modern industry issues…
It’s been half a decade since you joined IGA. How would you sum up this period?
It’s been a great experience. Obviously coming in at a time when Jimmy was still here and could help through the transition was very important.
He was so supportive, and if that wasn’t the case it could have been a very different situation. I’m lucky to have had that, and to have had the support of Lucian through it all.
“Jimmy was so supportive, and if that wasn’t the case this could have been a very different situation.”
That was part one of the battle; part two was working out how we were going to restructure and shift the company for what the next 10 years would look like.
That meant figuring out the best fit for a streaming world and how we should be marketing in response. It’s been a long process but we’re in a good place now.
You built Fueled by Ramen over 16 years, from a $1,000 dorm room project into a Warner-run major concern, before jumping ship to Interscope in 2012. Did you find it hard leaving your baby behind?
It was a really difficult decision. I came in here for what I thought would be a 20-minute meeting with Jimmy [Iovine] and then he said: ‘I want you to run the company.’
I wasn’t looking to leave [FBR]. I was very honest with him, and he was very cool. After that, it was eight months of going back and forth, getting to know one another. So it wasn’t like I just jumped in.
“I came in here for what I thought would be a 20-minute meeting with Jimmy and then he said: ‘I want you to run the company.'”
As soon as I told Warner I was leaving, I called all the [FBR] artists. I had really good relationships with them; I hoped they would be really supportive, and they all were.
The hardest one was twenty one pilots, because I had just signed them two months beforehand. I didn’t know I was going to leave when I signed them, and they probably felt a bit deserted.
They were really cool about it, but that was a hard conversation.
You signed twenty one pilots before you left FBR?
Yes I met with the [band] and they were awesome. It was crazy; super-competitive, but I was laser-focused. When I know where something’s going to fit and I have a vision for it on the label, things usually work out.
[TOP] did a show in Columbus, Ohio in front of 5,000 people and it felt like an arena show; that’s one of the best shows from a new artist I’ve ever seen.
I’d never taken it upon myself to send a company-wide email at WMG before, but when I got back to New York I sent one saying: ‘This band is the future of Fueled By Ramen.’
It feels like there was a time in history where majors had to own everything. You seem quite relaxed with your JVs and partnerships across Top Dawg, Eardrummers etc – how do you balance that with the need for direct signings?
The history of Interscope always involved partnerships with great, creative people and entrepreneurs – Dr. Dre with Aftermath, Eminem and Paul Rosenberg with Shady Records.
Those relationships are vital to our company. We’re continuing the tradition.
“Jimmy and I are both entrepreneurs who started a record company… I think that makes interscope a bit different.”
Jimmy and I are both entrepreneurs who started a record company, and that still informs Intercope’s thinking about being creative on the A&R side and on the marketing side.
As a company, I think it makes Interscope a bit different.
What did your own experiences with Fueled By Ramen teach you about how to treat a ‘feeder’ label at a major?
I remember after Fueled By Ramen had finished our upstream deal with Island [in 2004], I was going round the labels trying to figure out the right next partnership.
I met with a guy who’s a label head now, and he said: ‘You have Fall Out Boy, but what’s your next one? I can’t go to my boss and do a deal unless you have that one now. ‘
“I know what it’s like to build a company that really matters to you.”
I said: ‘We’re developing a few really exciting artists.’ But they just didn’t get it.
We did the deal with WMG instead, and our next artist ended up being Panic! At The Disco (pictured).
Fueled by Ramen was me and nine other core employees. We signed artists because they trusted that we believed in them – and we would be smart about when we pushed buttons to go to radio etc.
So I know what it’s like to build a company that really matters to you, and to also be able to read the right time to let the major label do their job.
What’s it like working with IGA Vice Chairman Steve Berman? He was Jimmy Iovine’s right-hand man for a long time – and now he’s yours.
Steve’s amazing. As soon as it was announced I was taking the Interscope job, I spoke to Berman and he said the nicest, most helpful things.
Having lived in New York for eight years, I was a little jaded. Like, ‘Why the f*ck is this guy being so nice? Something’s wrong!’
He’s hugely talented at what he does; one of the best in the business relationship-wise and marketing-wise.
He adds so much value to what Interscope is and the fabric of the company.
Typically people who’ve taken over from titans at record labels have struggled – but you don’t seem to have. Did you feel the intimidation/pressure of Jimmy’s legacy?
It’s interesting. My mind looks at it a different way.
I felt I had a really good run with Jimmy before he left; I’d hoped he was going to stay involved with Interscope in some way for his entire career.
It was very daunting coming in here at the start – especially as we made so many changes within the first three months. But I just had to remain super-focused.
“It was very daunting coming in here at the start – especially as we made so many changes within the first three months. But I just had to remain super-focused.”
It was important for the people that work here and our artists for me not to worry about how people would view me; I tried not to pay attention to any of my own insecurities.
So in terms of being respectful to the size of the shoes I had to fill, I guess I was concentrating more on the job ahead of me – I had to get down to business and focus.
Do you think you’ve surprised some people who thought you were a bit of a one trick pony – an expert in one field at Fueled By Ramen but who probably couldn’t handle a multi-genre company like this?
I hope so. I try not to consider what other people are thinking about me, but I was aware of people saying: ‘Oh, he signs certain types of artists.’
People said to me when I took the Interscope job: ‘What type of music do you want to sign?’ And I said: ‘I want the best of everything.’
I’d say we’re really strong, the best in every genre, and now we’re developing the next crop of artists who will be at that level.
Did you always suspect that Kendrick Lamar could become a mainstream superstar?
I knew coming into the company that Kendrick was a really important artist, and Top Dawg was a really important executive.
One of my first meetings here was with Top [Dawg], and I really respected what he had built and what Kendrick had done in his career. I’ve learned a lot from working with Top.
Whatever Top and Kendrick needed, I knew we had to deliver for them as a company. I knew Kendrick was special – it was obvious.
Why do you think hip-hop/urban is emerging as the genre of choice on streaming services?
Hip-hop has always been really important.
I think the same way sales on hip-hop albums surprised a lot of people in the US when Soundscan was first introduced, it’s happening again with consumption on a global scale.
People dive in and want to know every detail, and become die-hard fans because of that. To this day when you listen to “Lose Yourself” you still get chills, because you lock in on the way Eminem is describing how he started, and what happened from there; he’s so precise in his wording, and it’s locked into your brain.
“I think the same way sales on hip-hop albums surprised a lot of people in the US when Soundscan was first introduced, it’s happening again with consumption on a global scale.”
On Kendrick’s DAMN., you’re picking up new pieces of what he’s thinking every time, like: ‘Did that really happen? Did Top and Kendrick’s dad really meet?’
That focus on lyricism has always been there. Obviously it helps that there’s so much great hip-hop music right now.
What did Black Beatles, which now has over 500m YouTube views, teach you about breaking a song in the streaming age?
We put out two songs with Rae Sremmurd going into the album. They did well but they didn’t get to the level we were hoping they would – they weren’t big radio records.
We decided to stick with our album release plan because Mike WiLL, Swae and Jimmy all wanted it out – and we knew to trust their instincts. [After the album release] Black Beatles started reacting on Apple and Spotify, so they put it in some of the bigger playlists. We used that data to start the radio campaign.
Every week streaming was increasing, and then radio started playing it. We had a great TV performance on Kimmel and an amazing video. The guys did the Mannequin Challenge at a show, and that was the lightning bolt that took it to a whole other level. And of course Mike and the guys made an incredible album. We knew it would connect at some point.
“it was a lesson in the importance of what a label can do: we piled on and fought our way through a situation where two songs didn’t work as singles, read what was happening and pivoted.”
For me, it was a lesson in the importance of what a label can do: we piled on and fought our way through a situation where two songs didn’t work as singles, read what was happening with Black Beatles and pivoted.
When you have a moment like that, to quickly be able to capitalize and make sure every territory around the world is lined up, it’s exciting. A week later, [Black Beatles] was top of the global charts on both Spotify and Apple Music. And of course, it helps to have a great partner in Mike WiLL – his talent and vision were really critical to the success.
What’s it been like having Sir Lucian Grainge as a boss?
He’s been fantastic. Lucian was obviously there in the very beginning for me, and suggested me [to Iovine] in this role in the first place.
He’s been very supportive and understanding of what the vision is for this company. He’s really good at providing the help we need, but also giving us the space – understanding that we have our own point of view.
Interscope is really unique; it’s a brand that has to be curated in the right way. Lucian’s always been there as a mentor whenever I’ve needed the help.
He’s also always run his businesses allowing his labels – actually, encouraging his labels – to fiercely compete with one another. What’s it like to operate in an environment where Capitol, Republic and Island Def-Jam fight hard for artists?
I love to compete – and I don’t like to lose. So long as it’s a level playing field, I don’t care who I’m competing with. I’m ready for it every day.
If you could give any advice to a young artist today, what would it be?
When I’m sitting with an artist, I’m always most attracted to: ‘Do they have a vision for what they want to do, what the music’s going to be, and what the visual is going to be?’
It’s always encouraging when you see someone who doesn’t care what anybody else thinks they should – or shouldn’t – be doing.
That singular vision is really important, plus the willingness to work really hard. They go hand-in-hand.
You had a serious health scare when you first came into Interscope. What impact did that have on your personal life and your professional life?
It was the early stage of cancer, and luckily it was very treatable. I was fortunate. I literally found out two or three weeks after I started and dealt with it really quickly.
It definitely impacted on me; it made me think a lot about life, especially as I had a newborn son at the time.
“I was diving into everything. I had the surgery and came back three days later.”
Strangely it didn’t affect my work. That was the crazy time when we were restructuring the company – so I was diving into everything. I had the surgery and came back three days later.
I tried to strike a balance of understanding that I was lucky – that life and my family are so precious – but also that a lot of great people were relying on me at this company. If I’m honest, work was probably a really good distraction – I had my blinders on.
Lots of executives seem quite hung up on legacy as leaders of labels. I’m sure you have an ego under there. Do you worry about how people will perceive John Janick in ten years?
What I most care about, at the end of the day, is that I do the best job I possibly can.
I have to be a great advocate of artists and represent this company as it deserves to be represented. Ultimately, if I do all those things right, then hopefully that’s my legacy.
Sir Lucian Grainge has clearly stuck something of a flag in the ground in Los Angeles. People seem to be making the transition more and more – as you did – from New York to LA. Do you see that?
Absolutely. Lucian has said in the past that being close to tech was really important, and that’s true. Also, so many of the great writers and producers around the world have moved here.
When we’re always trying to be creative in how we’re marketing, it’s essential that we’re close to both our music and tech partners.
Whether it’s in San Francisco or Los Angeles, they all have such a heavy presence here on the west coast. Beyond that, being around the creative visual community has become more and more important to us as a company. Visual content is a driving force behind our releases, and it’s great to have this proximity to film, streaming, and online partners.
You ran your first label at a really bad time for the record business – when people weren’t even sure there’d still be a record business. This seems like a very positive era. How optimistic are you feeling about what being a record label means?
All I’ve ever known for most of my career were the years that the business was struggling. Now I’m finally getting to see the other side.
But, for me, that was a double-edged sword: when I started Fueled By Ramen, the barriers to entry in the music business were being torn down by the internet, and I took advantage.
“when I started Fueled By Ramen, the barriers to entry in the music business were being torn down by the internet, and I took advantage.”
You could suddenly get to kids around the globe via the internet. While that was taking down the value of the business, it was creating an opportunity for me as an entrepreneur to break in.
[Fueled By Ramen] caused disruption in the music business back then, and I try to never lose that in what I do.
Today I have the benefit of working at a big company with a lot of resources – but we’re always looking at how to break artists in a different way, and we’re always striving to disrupt.Music Business Worldwide