Since taking over as chairman and CEO of Interscope Records from industry icon Jimmy Iovine a year ago, 37-year-old John Janick has begun putting his own stamp on one of the industry’s most successful record labels.
Under his leadership, the imprint, among the top at Universal Music Group, has had its share of hits and misses, signed some artists and dropped others, and endured a few slip-ups, including the chaotic digital release of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” But Janick has been quietly streamlining the industry giant, which had perhaps become diffuse under Iovine, who steered Interscope by sheer force of personality for its entire quarter-century existence.
“I want this to feel like a boutique label, even though we’re a major company,” says Janick, who parted ways with several artists from “American Idol,” as well as rappers Azealia Banks and Chief Keef.
But despite the seismic transition of leadership, Janick has managed to keep internal defections and grumbling at bay. The switch-over was smooth enough to suggest he’s been running the label for longer than a year — which in fact, he has been. Janick served as Interscope’s de facto head under Iovine for more than a year prior, while he learned the ropes. That year turned out to be one of the most dominant periods in the label’s history, with an industry-leading market share thanks to massive hits from Robin Thicke, Imagine Dragons, Maroon 5 and Eminem.
His first artist meeting at Interscope was with Lamar and his Top Dawg Entertainment group, then preparing to release Lamar’s major label debut, “Good Kid, MAAD City,” which sold just shy of a million and a half copies on its way to making the artist one of the defining rappers of his generation.
It was an impressive first act, especially considering Janick had been diagnosed with cancer in his first month on the job.
“I had surgery, and came back to work three days later,” he recalls, in an interview at Interscope’s Santa Monica headquarters. “I actually did a meeting the day after surgery down the street from my house. But I took it as, this is how I always ran my label. I act like this is my company, like it’s my own money I’m responsible for. It’s just how I’m wired. I can’t spend too much time doubting myself.”
In his first official year as Interscope chief, Janick pulled off a number of new signings, including hip-hop act Rae Sremmurd, Aussie psych-rockers Tame Impala, indie pop chanteuse Ryn Weaver and singer-songwriter Borns. Last fall, he signed former Disney Channel star Selena Gomez, who has already notched her first hit for the label, as a featured vocalist on DJ and producer Zedd’s “I Want You to Know.” (Janick personally introduced the two.) And after a slip in sales for “Artpop,” the third full-length album from Interscope’s flagship pop star Lady Gaga, Janick helped her regain her mojo in a most unexpected way — on a jazz duets album with Tony Bennett.
“What’s most important to me is being able to spend the time with an artist, and not just trying to get (a song) on every radio station,” he says. “(To do that), you have to keep the roster in check, and make sure that you’re not doing what a lot of labels have done in the past, where you sign a bunch of things and see what sticks. You sign who you believe in, and you stick with them, like an indie label would.”
Janick took some static when he was first appointed CEO for his lack of a hip-hop background. But he’s perhaps turned that to his advantage. Interscope maintains a strong roster of artist-affiliated sub-labels, allowing him to defer to tastemakers within their particular fields. Hip-hop producer Mike Will has his own imprint, which brought Rae Sremmurd to Interscope’s attention. Rapper J. Cole recently set up shop there, as did Pasquale Rotella, organizer of the EDM flagship fest Electric Daisy Carnival, who kicked off Insomniac Records through Interscope. And Lamar’s TDE has already produced another rap star in Schoolboy Q, whose Interscope debut topped the charts in 2014.
Janick was practically still in grade school when Iovine first partnered with car-racing magnate-turned Hollywood producer Ted Field in 1989, launching Interscope Records on the back of novelty hits from the likes of Gerardo and Marky Mark. By the time Janick founded his first label, Fueled by Ramen, in his freshman dorm room at the U. of Florida in 1996, Interscope had already established itself as the world’s most controversial major imprint, thanks to genre-defining gangsta-rap albums from 2Pac, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
And when Janick finally succumbed to the lure of the majors, partnering Fueled by Ramen with Warner Music Group, and helping to develop, as co-president of Elektra Records, Bruno Mars and Fun, Iovine was enjoying his reputation as a full-on industry Brahmin, with Interscope one of the pillars of parent company UMG.
In fall of 2012, when Iovine brought Janick into Interscope as chief operating officer, speculation was rife that the younger man was being groomed for the top spot. “I had bumped into Jimmy in the past, but it’s not like we knew each other that well,” Janick recalls, from the patio outside his office. “If we ran into each other on the street, he wouldn’t have known who I was unless I reminded him. But I had met with (UMG chairman) Lucian Grainge, and he suggested I meet Jimmy. So I came to Jimmy’s office for lunch. We ended up spending two hours out here, and pretty much in the first five minutes of the conversation, he said, ‘I want you to come into this company, and you’re gonna be the head of the label.’ ” (Iovine was unavailable for comment.)
It was a radical gesture, taking a young exec whose previous start-up had a staff of 12, and pushing him to the head of a 180-employee company. And that was partially the point.
“John’s unburdened by the industry’s legacy way of thinking,” Grainge explains. “He represents a new generation of leadership.” Janick adds that Iovine also wanted to avoid the ongoing industry game of musical chairs, the type that had seen veterans like Barry Weiss and Doug Morris move back and forth from one label to another.
“If you’re gonna keep recycling the same people, and doing the same thing over and over and not try to shift things, then the business is gonna continue to just putz along,” Janick says.
At first glance, Janick and Iovine seem to be cut from entirely different cloths. Iovine is a brusque, fast talking Brooklynite; Janick an understated, polite Floridian. Janick has a knack for sniffing out underground rock acts with purest pop pumping in their veins (Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Fun); while Iovine has a genius for taking rappers and hard-rockers (Eminem, 50 Cent, Marilyn Manson), and strong-arming the pop mainstream into accommodating them.
But entrepreneurship and DIY-intuitiveness run through both men’s careers. Janick’s early label experience saw him do a bit of everything, from A&R to scouting, merchandizing to marketing, corporate strategy to physically cutting the semi-annual royalty checks.
“Even considering he’s the head of the label, I personally treat John more as if he was an A&R,” says DJ and producer Zedd. “He’s very hands-on. He was a part of every single song on my last record (‘True Colors’), and helped me get collaborators who I’d really wanted to get in touch with.”
Janick caught the music bug early, yet he never pursued a career as a musician, recognizing intuitively that his precocious talents lie elsewhere. As a high schooler, he routinely made the hourlong drive to the nearest independent record store, and released his own compilation album. After starting Fueled by Ramen, he took a semester off from college to accompany foundational act Less Than Jake on the Ska Against Racism tour.
“I was able to convince my school that going on tour with a ska band was work experience, but then I couldn’t convince them that me running a label for four years was enough work experience to get me into the MBA program,” he notes with a rueful laugh.
By the time Fueled by Ramen was starting to rack up serious sales in the early 2000s, the label was ahead of the curve maintaining an online store and engaging with fans via social networking. “He thinks creatively about artist development, and is digital to the core,” Grainge says of Janick.
Which is why it’s a bit ironic that Interscope’s three highest-profile mishaps during Janick’s run have all been digital-related.
Last fall, Interscope artists U2 managed to elicit the worst press of their careers by giving their newest album away for free as an iTunes promotion. This winter, Madonna saw half of her “Rebel Heart” album released early to combat piracy, and by the time the full album hit, it became her first record since 1998 to fail to reach No. 1. And finally, Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which nonetheless debuted at No. 1 amid rapturous reviews, was abruptly released a week early, then suddenly removed from the iTunes Store for several hours, leading TDE head Anthony Tiffith to blast the label on Twitter.
Janick says that while the Lamar snafu “had nothing to do with Interscope” and was a matter between UMG’s distribution arm and Apple, he confesses that keeping all the trains running in the new digital marketplace can be “complicated.”
“Complicated” could also describe the label’s approach to the streaming space, which might be poised to change again when Iovine unwraps whatever streaming-music venture he and his new bosses at Apple have been cooking up.
Like other label heads, Janick sees the task of growing the number of paid users on streaming sites as crucial to success. “People think you can just put music up (on social-media sites) and it’s all just promotion. And it is, to a certain extent, but you have to look at the bigger picture. I think some services have been built on the back of content where we’re not getting paid, and they’re becoming billion-dollar companies.”
But Janick’s interests are less about distribution than the content itself. He hopes to keep Interscope a mainstream label home for less-than-mainstream sensibilities.
“There were so many times I had doors slammed in my face. ‘I don’t get that,’ or ‘that’s not a hit,’” he recalls of his early indie days. “And then later (something) would end up becoming a big hit, and because it was left-of-center, it became something that was more interesting. That’s what Interscope was (too). You think about 2Pac and Dre and Primus and No Doubt, Eminem, Gaga, all these artists that, when they were signed, I don’t think anyone looked at them thinking this is gonna be the next big thing. But they became culturally important and changed what people listened to.”