Two of the biggest film soundtracks of the past several years. Massive chart successes from acts well into their second decade of stardom. One of the last rock bands still ruling the pop charts. An inescapable radio smash pairing a Russian-born DJ and a Nashville singer-songwriter. And a flurry of fast-breaking young acts, including two soulful sirens named Ella and Billie. Not only did Interscope Records have a year to remember, but its hits covered the waterfront of genres more thoroughly than any label in 2018 could have hoped.
For Interscope chairman and CEO John Janick, the past year has offered proof that his steady, unflashy style of label leadership can pay big dividends. Now 40, Janick was an unexpected pick to succeed longtime Interscope head Jimmy Iovine at one of UMG’s flagship imprints six years ago. The Florida native made his name running the self-started indie outfit Fueled by Ramen (launchpad for pop-punk acts including Jimmy Eat World, Paramore and Fall Out Boy), and helped relaunch Elektra Records at Warner. But while some initially wondered if he’d look to remake the house that Dr. Dre and Eminem built in his own image, Janick had other ideas.
At the beginning, “there were definitely people that would go, ‘What kind of music do you want to sign?’” Janick recalls. “Because I came more from the alternative side and crossed into pop, they’d be like, ‘Obviously you want to do that.’ And I said no, ‘I want to do what Interscope has always done, which is find the best artists in every genre.’”
And that’s precisely what he’s been doing. Though a number of Interscope’s biggest 2018 successes came via acts that were already established before his arrival — Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You,” Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” and the double-shot of Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Panther” and Lady Gaga’s “A Star Is Born” soundtracks, which lead a film music push that looks set to continue with the Mike Will Made It-produced “Creed II” companion and the Interscope-backed Elle Fanning starrer “Teen Spirit.” Yet 2018 saw a number of Janick’s newer signings really begin to ascend the upper echelons.
None broke bigger quicker than teenage Chicago rapper Juice Wrld. While young hip-hop acts are increasingly expected to enter into label negotiations with a demonstrable track record of SoundCloud plays and social-media notoriety, Juice was signed the old-fashioned way.
“He came into the office in February of this year, and it didn’t seem like there were a ton of people on him,” Janick says. “He didn’t have much going on in terms of a fanbase, didn’t have that many streams, but the music was just amazing. It was one of those gut/ear things where you know something’s great and feel people are really gonna connect with it.”
Juice promptly broke into rap radio with singles “All Girls Are the Same” and “Lucid Dreams,” and his debut full-length, which dropped in May, “is at platinum or will be platinum by the end of the year.”
New signings don’t always move so quickly. Ella Mai was first spotted back in 2015 by DJ Mustard, with whom Interscope has a label deal. She didn’t break immediately, releasing a slew of EPs, but when San Francisco’s KMEL started pushing her single “Boo’d Up,” the label worked overtime to translate that radio momentum to streaming, birthing a hit. Rapper Rich the Kid, signed in 2017 after years of mixtapes, finally became a household name this year with “Plug Walk.” And Interscope’s most obvious smash of the year, Zedd, Grey and Maren Morris’ “The Middle,” went through multiple versions — and vocalists — before settling into its sweet spot.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always had those records that you wanna get perfect,” Janick says. “Of course you don’t want to just sit on them, but when you have a song you feel will stand the test of time, it doesn’t matter if it comes out six months or a year from now.
“You look at someone like a Billie Eilish,” he says of the now-16-year-old rising Interscope singer. “She had [breakout single] ‘Ocean Eyes’ out when we signed her, but she was a 14-year-old girl. [The song] had some numbers attached to it, but we were telling her and her family, who were her managers at the time, ‘Look, you’re 14, you need to find out who you are and take your time developing, and not be stuck in a system where they do a deal and want a return on their investment right away.’ And I think it’s paid off in a big way.”
Janick, who had to take time off last year to recover from cancer and says he’s doing much better now and is “hopefully past all of it,” aims to continue building with Eilish, as well as nascent talents including Sheck Wes, Yungblud, Lil Mosey and Summer Walker. But there are also times when patience is less of a virtue. Just half a year after the release of the indifferently received “Revival,” no one at the label would’ve been expecting a new Eminem album any time soon, but the rapper and his longtime manager Paul Rosenberg called Janick up to Detroit to spring a surprise late in the summer: A new album, “Kamikaze,” that the rapper wanted to drop unannounced.
“We showed up on a Thursday, and he literally wanted to put it out that Friday,” Janick remembers. “So fortunately we were able to have conversations saying, ‘Just give us a LITTLE bit of time to set up.’ … But obviously, Marshall [aka Eminem] and Paul are so smart, they’ve been doing this such a long time and know their fanbase, so while we always wanna make sure they have all the information, we also listen. That’s how Marshall wanted to release that music, and he was right. I think if he would’ve released it in a different way, it might not have had the same impact.”