When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced that Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner would be stepping down from his longtime post as chairman next year, the big question was whether changes would be on the horizon for the storied institution. John Sykes, iHeartMedia’s president of entertainment enterprises, pledges that there will be. “It will continue to evolve,” Sykes tells Rolling Stone. “Because if it doesn’t, it will become irrelevant.”
Sykes will succeed Wenner — who founded Rolling Stone in 1967 and co-founded the Hall of Fame in 1983 before taking over as its head following founding chairman Ahmet Ertegun’s death in 2006 — on January 1st. He spoke about his plans for the foundation’s scope, ambitions, and future legacy.
How does it feel to be taking the reins from Jann?
I feel like I’ve known Jann since I was 15 years old. I’m incredibly honored to follow in his footsteps because he was an icon to me when I first saw his name on the masthead of Rolling Stone when I was 15. He still is, today. He’s been an iconic figure in my life since I was only living on an allowance. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is an incredible success story: Jann and Ahmet overcame insurmountable odds in the Eighties with no money, nothing but an idea, and they built it into a cultural institution. If you take a step back and look at it, the Hall of Fame has become the Cooperstown of rock & roll — it took [a hundred years] for that to happen in baseball, and they did it in three decades for rock music.
So where do we go from here? What’s the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s relevance for modern music audiences and what’s its future?
We’re in the music business, and music leads change in our culture. Nothing stays the same in music. Therefore, really, the institution that honors it has to evolve with all the music. Just like hip-hop is very much a part of the Hall of Fame now, everything we do — the board members we have, the events we build on — has to reflect a changing culture without ever disregarding or turning our backs on the ideals and fundamentals of the Rock Hall.
How do you reckon with the brand’s name being inextricably tied to rock & roll, in a time when the genre isn’t nearly as present in pop culture?
I’ve always thought that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — having been involved in it myself for 25 years now — is no longer about a single genre of music. It’s about a spirit that connects with young people. Jon Landau, who heads up our nominating committee, always reminds us each year at our induction meetings that Berry Gordy put on every single one of his Motown records the words “the sound of young America.” I think that’s what it’s all about: the sound of young America. It will continue to evolve. Because if it doesn’t, it will become irrelevant.
“We have to look and feel like the artists that come into our Hall. That’s just the natural transition.”
There has been criticism of the Hall of Fame under Jann’s tenure as an institution that plays favorites or denies entrance to certain types of music. How do you plan to contend with that?
I think Jann, Ahmet, and [Sire Records founder] Seymour [Stein] built an incredible Hall of Fame that reflected the state of music in the time that the institution was built. And Jann himself has said that it’s time to evolve. His work has been to make 1.0, and it’s time to take the Hall to 2.0. That means a more diverse board, that means more women, people of color, people who reflect the kind of music that’s now being inducted. We have to look and feel like the artists that come into our Hall. That’s just the natural transition. To Jann’s credit, the first year of induction had Sam Cooke, Jeff Barry, Ray Charles — it could’ve just been a bunch of rock bands. Jann’s view is that he’s done his job and gotten it to this level, and it’s time for the next generation to take over and grow it. It was his idea to step down and pass the torch.
So do you envision the Hall of Fame stepping more into broader conversations in music?
What we’ve done so far is focus on building a group of inductees that have made it credible enough that all artists want to be part of it. They understand we really take the process very seriously and look at the artists that have truly impacted culture. We want to be involved in the broader conversation, yes — but only as it relates to what music truly shapes the lives of young people. Anything beyond that, we’re not interested, because there’s probably someone else who can do that.
What’s been the biggest takeaway from your time on the board and from working with the founders? How does that affect what’s next?
What Jann taught all of us is that you really lead with your passion. None of us get paid for this — I’m still keeping my day job and running a division of iHeartRadio. Jann was financially secure from the day he thought about the Hall of Fame. It wasn’t about the money; it was about preserving this incredible music and culture. I remember when he and the others wanted I.M. Pei to do the museum. In some ways, that’s so counterintuitive to rock & roll — but it was also a way to tell the world that rock & roll was serious business, and what better way to hire the man who designed the addition to the Louvre? Jann understood how to keep it pure, but legitimize it in the eyes of culture.
Moving forward, as far as goals for the foundation: The obvious goals are to continue to financially support the museum in Cleveland, which is a separate board, and work closely with the museum to create state-of-the-art exhibits but also really take advantage of technology and social platforms available to take the Hall of Fame beyond Cleveland into every single house, car, and iPhone in America. But most important is to build out the board of the foundation — board members that really reflect diversity in music right now. That, to me, is hopefully what I’ll be able to contribute in the next year of the Hall: a Hall of Fame that really is a mirror to the incredible change in music that’s coming out now.