At Work With John Janick, CEO of Interscope Records
Coming out of a decade of upheaval, the music business has never been such a challenging — or thrilling — place to work. What does a career in music look like in 2020? How do decision makers balance the traditional philosophies of their industry with new responsibilities, the endless flood of new music, and even more changes that lie ahead? In Rolling Stone‘s new series At Work, we’ll explore this shifting landscape from the perspective of a different industry leader each week.
Up first is longtime music executive John Janick, who co-founded indie label Fueled by Ramen as a college student, led Warner’s Elektra Records, and shepherded acts like Panic! at the Disco, Ed Sheeran, and Bruno Mars to stardom. Janick became president and chief operating officer of Universal Music Group’s Interscope Geffen A&M — which encompasses the long-running hit factory Interscope Records — under Jimmy Iovine in 2012 and took over as CEO and chairman in 2014. Beyond coaxing hits from the likes of Selena Gomez and Robin Thicke, he’s spent the past year overseeing releases from newer artists like Juice WRLD, DaBaby, Summer Walker, and Billie Eilish. At Interscope, he manages some 200 employees and oversees a roster of artists that regularly sweep the charts.
Starting at the very beginning: What time do you get up in the morning, and what’s the first thing you do?
I wake up between 6 and 6:30, and the first thing I do, for better or worse, is look at my phone, look through my emails. And then I spend time with my kids, getting them ready for school. I try to spend an hour with them in the morning while balancing the emails and texts from work, seeing what’s happening. And I try to do some type of 20-to-30-minute workout before I really get into the full — but I’m kind of in it already, between emails and phone calls. Once I drop my son off, it’s off to the races.
Do you have a routine when you get to the office?
I walk up the five flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator, because I feel it’s good exercise. I’m always on the phone rushing into some type of meeting. I’m a creature of habit in certain ways, but in other ways I also get really bored doing the same thing — so in my job, things are constantly changing and I bounce around a lot. I’m making calls from the minute I drop my son off at school, but it could be something on the operational side, something with marketing, something with an artist. On Fridays I have a two-hour meeting going through things happening that we need to address and think about in the future, but there’s no real typical day.
What are your craziest days like, and what makes them crazy?
On the craziest days — which is unfortunately a lot of days — I’m doing meetings and calls from 9:30 a.m. to 7 o’clock at night. Pulling up my calendar now while we’re talking: It’s really all over the place. We’re designing a studio across the street right now so I’ve been going to work on that; the other day I went to a screening for two hours to see a film we’re talking about having our artist put their music in, and then I had a meeting about what we’re doing on the documentary-film side. In the evening after work, I might have something like a show or a dinner. My house is in the opposite direction of what normally goes on as far as dinners and shows in L.A., but I try to go home for half an hour to see my kids if I have to go out at nighttime.
I grew up in awe of Dr. Dre and Eminem and No Doubt and Nine Inch Nails, and I’d notice the Interscope logo on the records, so every day I have to pinch myself thinking that I’m working with those artists now and running this company. Every so often I’ll be going from Gwen Stefani in the studio to flying to Vegas to go see Lady Gaga’s new music or something, and I keep myself from getting caught up in problems by remembering “Oh shit, these are the people I get to work with.”
There’s so much new music these days. How do you keep up with it? Where do you go to discover things on your own time?
Every day I check out everything on Instagram, Spotify, Apple, the related artists tabs, then things like YouTube, TikTok’s trending videos…I find myself going down the rabbit hole and discovering a thousand different things. Beyond hearing about new artists from word of mouth and hearing about different scenes from work, I ping-pong back and forth between Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok all day.
What was the best advice you’ve received in your career in the music business — and do you think that advice would still hold true in today’s music business?
The best advice I got was to be patient. I was always running my own company, and I felt constantly like we always had to move quickly and couldn’t let things sit for a minute. I’m still that way — I think being entrepreneurial is important — but I learned how to also think about the bigger picture. I’ve been at Interscope now for seven and a half years. I walked into a great company that had great history, but it needed to be changed, and things don’t happen overnight, especially in the music industry, because you sign artists and you have to give them the time to grow and you shouldn’t rush the development. So I came into the company with a need to make change but also a responsibility to the artists and people who work at the company. I learned how to be patient and let things happen while blocking out the noise. And I look at Interscope now and see that the core principles are there, but we’ve taken it into 2020, and I’m proud of that. I think patience was, and still is, really good advice.
“The best advice I got was to be patient. I learned how to be patient and let things happen while blocking out the noise.”
As the head of a label, what do you do most differently from your counterparts?
Most labels our size have a separate A&R side and a marketing side and an operations side, but I like to get my hands dirty in all of it because that’s what I know, from running my own label. And Interscope has always been slightly left of center, trying to move culture. So we have the best relationship with the film companies and have done partnerships with Disney on Black Panther, Warner Bros. on A Star Is Born. We just did a big partnership with Apple to launch the new Selena Gomez video shot on iPhone, which was the first time we’ve been able to make great art and find a creative way to present it to the world. Instead of just putting up a song and shooting a video and trying to get it on the right playlist, we wanted it to have that special shine.
I think there are so many opportunities to break a song, whether it’s traditional things like TV, film, radio, radio in another territory, or new things like YouTube, Amazon, social media influencers — I want to pour the gasoline on all of that.
How do you deal with artists? Particularly when it’s difficult?
You have to build a trust with artists. When I came in here, I was a new person and a lot of the artists had been here for a long time. So I try to learn about every artist’s career as a journey — for instance, look at Lady Gaga, whose career is Artpop then the Tony Bennett album then the Super Bowl halftime show and performing at the Oscars — and the key is building the trust and making sure that you can go in and have a conversation knowing exactly what they want. Then, hopefully, they’ll start to trust you enough to ask your opinion and ask you to help them figure out what’s next.
But for younger artists, artists who are the hottest thing everybody wants to sign or whatever, sometimes I also have to sit with them and tell them, “You have to want to be at this company.” It’s about getting to know each other and having that relationship where if things are great, then good, we did it together — and if things aren’t great, we have to be a team and figure it out rather than just pointing the finger at somebody. You want to do best for the artists every day so it feels like you’ve built a family.
The relationship between artists and labels has changed a lot in the streaming era, with artists arguably gaining more autonomy than ever before. Do you feel that’s altered the way you approach your work?
I think it’s made it, in a lot of ways, easier for the label and easier for the artist. Before, you either had to just jump behind a single or not. Now, it’s easier to see what’s working. And it’s easier to see the way people react to music, the way people move on from things — and you can quickly see how strong a reaction is to a certain song or album or video.
You started Fueled by Ramen in an earlier era of the music business. If you were starting a record label today, would you do it differently?
I think I started a record label at the right time, because the internet had just started taking down the barriers to entry in the music business. I broke artists through street marketing and through the internet. If I were starting a record label now — I’d have even more tools to break artists and make money, but there is also more to look at. With a new artist, you have to think: What do we think of the music, and how are people engaging with it? We look at metrics across the board — views, followers, engagement, what tickets they’re selling, and what numbers they’re doing in merch — and start to see how passionate the fan bases are.
Is there a particular thing you do every day to unwind from work?
I think the one thing is that I make sure to see my kids and wife before they go to sleep. That’s the one thing that’s super, super important. My two boys are four and seven, and on the rare day I take off, I spend it with my family.