Don’t Call It a Comeback: Interscope Chief John Janick Reveals Cancer Recurrence

Five years into his tenure at the label that's home to Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga and Imagine Dragons, the executive looks ahead.

John Janick Interscope Geffen

Interscope Geffen A&M chief John Janick has overcome plenty of business challenges — the shift from physical product to digital, and from radio to streaming, to name two — but it’s a personal triumph over a recurrence of cancer that perhaps best defines him today. As the 40-year-old reveals, a recurrence of cancer discovered last fall nearly derailed a 20-year career in the music industry.

When Janick took the helm of the Universal Music Group label co-founded by Jimmy Iovine and home to such superstar acts as Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga and Imagine Dragons, among many others, his was an indie success story. While still in college in 1996, Janick launched the label Fueled by Ramen and went on to sign Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco and Paramore. Indeed, Fueled by Ramen was such a success that Warner Music Group bought the label outright in 2008 and retained Janick as co-president of Elektra. Ever the company man, the exec stayed on for four more years. “I was a loyal person,” he says. “I didn’t even want to meet with anybody else.”

But a phone call from Iovine turned into an offer Janick could not refuse, and in 2012, he joined IGA, moving to Los Angeles. He learned the UMG ropes and succeeded his mentor and recruiter in 2014. With Interscope claiming 8.48% of overall market share so far in 2018, Janick looks ahead to the label’s next chapter, and his own, in an exclusive interview with Variety.

You had battled cancer, and it looked like you won. What happened?
I discovered in October 2012 that I had cancer — a very early stage and one of the most treatable forms of cancer. I had surgery then had the option to have chemo or monitor to see if it spread. There was about a 65% chance if I monitored that I would never have to get chemo. I chose to monitor and unfortunately last October the cancer showed up in a lymph node. Again it was a very early stage. The doctor wanted me to get a MRI of my head also and they discovered a benign tumor unrelated to the cancer. I did nine weeks of chemo for the cancer than recuperated for four months and had the brain surgery to remove the pituitary adenoma. I’ve had two scans since finishing the chemo and the cancer has been killed. … They got it out and, knock on wood, it’s good. My hair is growing back and I’m not as pasty as I was.

Many in the industry had wondered if you were ill, but few knew for sure what was going on.
I didn’t want to hide it, but I wasn’t going to make it a big deal. So I brought in my key staff and tried to make it as positive as I could. Being in this business, you don’t want to be vulnerable in any way. For the company and for me personally, I’d rather people know that I’m not invincible, [even though] my mentality is to just power through things and get through it with work.

Will you be curbing that a bit?
Having more balance is actually healthier and makes me better at what I do. To go until two in the morning every night and then wake up with my kids at 6:30, I don’t know if your mind is as sharp as it should be. And if you’re not focused and stretched all over the place, you can’t be as creative as you want to be. I want to be around for my kids and my wife, and there’s the family that’s here. I want to be my best for all of them.

You’re heading into your fifth year at Interscope. What’s a key goal you feel you’ve accomplished?
Interscope was always about finding artists that are slightly left of center and bringing people toward them, instead of trying to create music that’s right down the middle. I think we’ve done a really good job of that, and it takes time to put together the right team. But I feel like we’re just starting to hit our stride, and it’s really going to show itself over the next five-plus years. What we’re seeing right now — and I hope it continues this way — is an album or mixtape released every week. In the last two months, we put out J. Cole with Roc Nation, Rich the Kid, Rae Sremmurd with Mike Will Made It. We signed Playboi Carti and Juice WRLD. We have Jay Rock coming with TDE. Every release culturally means something.

For much of your career as a label executive, you’ve been dealing with a business on the decline…
For the most part, it’s been down and you’re always trying to get your head above water. But now for the first time in my career, the business is going up. I say that, but for me it presents [another challenge]: How do you come into a company that has all these great pieces, through a business that’s changing, and make sure we’re building the music company of the future? I feel like we’ve made great steps towards that, even the relationships we have with all the digital partners, what we’re doing with artists and how we market.

Speaking of digital partners, do you sense that a divide remains between Silicon Valley and the music business in Los Angeles? 
It seems there’s starting to be a little bit more of a connection. Now that YouTube has Lyor [Cohen, global head of music], it feels like they’re deeper in on the music side for the first time. I hope so. They’re talking the talk and making the rounds. We’ve embraced all the tech stuff. At the same time, we’re pretty protective about people building businesses off the back of the content and our artists. So, it’s a two-way street.

One of your biggest success stories is the affiliation with Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment, including the massive “Black Panther” soundtrack, which was wrestled away from Disney. Would you compare TDE to a legacy franchise like Bad Boy?
To me, they’re as powerful as a major label and respected by everybody. With TDE, the brand is everything. And to see all the artists that are still on that label, with Kendrick being one of the biggest artists in the world, and SZA, who’s massive. … They all think about where they came from, and they’re still together. People see that and understand that. When I was a kid, there were certain labels where you would just go and buy records from because you knew that it was great.

Soundtracks have increasingly become your calling card, what with the success of “La La Land.” You have the music to “A Star Is Born” coming up. What can you tell us about it? Will there be a new Lady Gaga single released in advance of the film’s October release date? 
I think it’s more about the whole body of work. Because Bradley Cooper is playing an aging country star, and she’s a singer-songwriter that becomes massive and becomes more pop. It’s not like typical Lady Gaga, and definitely more the character in the film that she’s working off of.

In terms of “La La Land,” I met Damian Lazelle’s agent, she connected me with him and I was just blown away. But we also have [EVP of Film and TV Marketing & Licensing, Soundtrack A&R] Tony Seyler, who’s been here doing TV and film forever. We moved him to focus solely on soundtracks because we feel they’re so important, and also because he has a passion for it. He’ll go be with Baz [Luhrman] on “Gatsby” in Australia for a month while Baz is editing the film.

Signings, notably in the urban realm, are more competitive than ever, with unproven acts seeing multi-million-dollar deals. What’s your take? 
I think people in general are being super aggressive, which in some ways is good. If an artist has built a following and laid a lot of the groundwork themselves, then they should be compensated fairly for it. But at the same time, I’ve never experienced anything like this — people going out and doing crazy deals for things that have just a slight pulse. It’s tough.