How I Made It: John Janick’s journey from DIY label head to managing the world’s biggest artists

Los Angeles Times - August 1, 2017
By Jack Flemming

John Janick, 39, is chairman and chief executive of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, a label boasting artists such as Lady Gaga, U2 and Kendrick Lamar. Handpicked for the spot by his predecessor, legendary music executive Jimmy Iovine, Janick quickly sought to apply his old-school approach to the rapidly shifting music industry.

Helming the Santa Monica label since 2012, Janick has developed a fresh, diverse stable of artists, including Selena Gomez, Tame Impala and Rae Sremmurd. Interscope has nearly 200 employees.

DIY roots

Janick grew up going to $5 DIY shows; bands would make their own shirts and travel the country, and all ticket sales would go toward a tank of gas or a bite to eat after the show.

“You pay $5 and actually get to meet the band, and you become empathetic to what they’re doing and how they’re building themselves,” Janick said. “It makes you want to help them out.”

That type of relationship, Janick said, is the foundation for everything he’s done in the music industry, especially coming into his current role.

Dorm room label

Janick started indie label Fueled by Ramen out of his University of Florida dorm room in 1996 with Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie Fiorello. Sleeping on an air mattress, he spent all his free time developing the label: signing bands, marketing, cutting royalty checks and everything else.

“I had my fingers in every single piece of the business,” Janick said.

Janick’s two loves were music and introducing people to music.

Chip on his shoulder

Janick had plenty of doors slammed in his face before signing and developing the label’s first hit band, Fall Out Boy. But after that, the doors still kept slamming.

“People started saying, ‘You could’ve just gotten lucky,’” Janick said. “They started asking who the next Fall Out Boy would be.” His response: “I don’t know yet, but I’ll have it.”

He found it soon enough, signing Panic! at the Disco and selling 4 million albums worldwide. Janick said even now, he’s motivated by proving people wrong.

The payoff

After spending 16 years developing Fueled by Ramen and also serving as co-president of Elektra Records from 2009 to 2012, where he signed Bruno Mars and Fun., Janick sat across the table from Iovine and Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge on a porch overlooking the Interscope building.

Over sandwiches, Iovine, after 10 minutes of conversation, told Janick he wanted him to run Interscope Records.

“I told him I didn’t believe him,” Janick said. “We’d spent a total of an hour and a half together over the last four years, and he’s telling me that everyone will report to me and I’ll have complete control to do things my way.”

After eight months of soul searching and realizing that Iovine meant what he said, Janick agreed.

Out with (some of) the old

Janick’s first mission when he arrived was to change the culture while still respecting Interscope’s history.

“Interscope is the New York Yankees of the music industry in terms of executive talent — a dynasty — so I tried to be respectful of the tradition established here,” Janick said. “But at the same time, the culture needed to shift.”

He interviewed everyone. He restructured the company. He redesigned the entire office, which now resembles a chic hotel lobby more than a place for work.

Murals by French street artist Space Invader showcase some of the label’s finest releases, including Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP” and Tupac’s “Me Against the World.” The open-concept space highlights Janick’s emphasis on communication across all levels.

“I’m fiercely protective of the culture of this company, and I’m relentless and competitive enough to not let anyone change it,” Janick said.

In with the new

Part of the reason Fueled by Ramen succeeded early on was Janick’s embrace of emerging technologies such as Myspace, PureVolume and YouTube, and he’s taken that same philosophy to Interscope.

In May, the label released a “vertical video” on Spotify for Selena Gomez’s single “Bad Liar” so that users could get the full experience without having to turn their phones horizontally.

Innovation also comes in the form of partnerships. Janick considered director Damien Chazelle a genius after seeing his film “Whiplash,” and arranged a meeting to figure out a way to collaborate.

As a result of that meeting, Interscope released the soundtrack to Chazelle’s newest film, “La La Land.”

A signed photo of Lady Gaga sits in the office of John Janick, chairman and CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M Records
A signed photo of Lady Gaga sits in the office of John Janick, chairman and CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M Records (Christina House / For The Times)

Celebrity status

Any Google image search of Janick reveals the CEO arm in arm with the biggest names in music. Lady Gaga. Lana Del Rey. Pete Wentz. Selena Gomez. Nate Reuss. Hayley Williams.

He’s quick to point out, however, that those relationships don’t just happen.

“When I came to Interscope, the first thing I did was call the artists and say, ‘Whenever you need me to be anywhere, I’ll be there,’” Janick said. “My job is to find artists with a vision and amplify it.”

With Janick, nothing is forced. Backstage handshakes and phone call pleasantries naturally evolved into hanging out and playing each other’s music, and before long, he was hanging out with Lady Gaga every day in the recording studio as she crafted her latest album.

Extra effort

Simple as it may be, Janick credits his rise to hard work. With a more prestigious title, his days have gotten even longer.

He starts answering emails and taking phone calls about 6 a.m., spends about 10 hours in the office, and then goes home for more emails and calls until midnight — all while trying to spend a few hours with his wife, Mia, and two children.

“I love the game of it all,” Janick said. “What music does and how it moves people, that’s what keeps me going.”