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HITS Daily Double

JOHN JANICK: THE HITS INTERVIEW

Interscope Geffen A&M boss John Janick had a sizzling 2023, once again contending for top overall market share for much of the year (as he has for the last five years), enjoying massive chart successes with a diverse roster and capping things off with a dominant showing when the Grammy nominations dropped. All this success foregrounded the company’s remarkable strength in artist development as Billie Eilish (who recently snagged another Oscar nom), Olivia Rodrigo, KAROL G, boygenius, Kali Uchis and other breakouts went from strength to strength and IGA’s global growth—thanks in large part to its canny HYBE deal and the rapid growth of Interscope’s Miami division—leveled up.

First of all, congratulations on an incredible year.

Thank you.

I thought we’d start the macro of where we are now in terms of A&R. I’m hearing a lot about how, post-pandemic, the emphasis has changed somewhat in that the role of analytics has shifted. How is this affecting your direction and perspective on A&R?

I think that we have the same approach that we’ve always had—investing in artists that we feel are going to move culture and have long careers. But for the business, I think it’s good that there’s been a bit of a reset. Compared to when streaming really started to take hold, and then going into the pandemic, it felt like there were some shortcuts. We’ve always paid attention to the data, but tried to find acts we could really develop for the long term and build into career artists. For a while, there were artists or songs that you could jump on that were moving, and the data would show that. But even during that time, we didn’t want to sign artists or songs for the moment. We always want to find career artists.

But we continue to do what IGA has always done, which is real artist development: having vision, working with the right artists and building for the future.

So where, in your view, do analytics fit into the equation?

I think you need the analytics and data to spot the right artists sometimes. After all, there’s always been data. Early on, I was finding artists who were drawing kids to shows and that kids cared about. But whether it was radio research, record-store research or show research, you always had to be able to look at that data and then figure out what was right. That’s where the real A&R comes in, and good executives are able to sort through all the information, make the right bets on the right artists and then help guide them through their careers. There are multiple levels to being a great A&R executive—spotting the talent, signing, making records, guiding artists through their careers. We try to make sure that we’re able to do all of those things.

Some artists are just great artists and should be successful no matter what. But the right team can add a lot more to their career. So how can we be the best in class at helping artists build their careers and brands globally? Obviously, music is at the center of everything that we do. It’s the most important piece; you can’t screw that up, and you have to have long-term vision there. But also, how are you helping them execute their visuals? How are you helping them make sure their performances and touring are right? How do you approach merchandise and other opportunities, whether it’s making films or doing interesting and exciting things in gaming? Or doing the right brand deals? How are we creating an infrastructure that’s going to help an artist build their brand?

You seem to be enumerating the ways in which the notion of a record company has been completely transformed over the last decade or so.

Which is why I took this job. When I was in Florida running my own music company, we were doing mail order. That was a big business for us. We started making the merchandise, selling shirts at retail, fulfilling artists’ touring merch. The company grew over time, and eventually I’d sold my company and had more resources, but the idea of coming to IGA was: How do we build the music company of the future, build an amazing team and work with great artists? But also: What should a music company look like in the future? That was the key. And I think we’re constantly trying to evolve that in the right way, making sure that we’re ahead of the curve.

And it seems that in some respects, the record company of the future is, at its core, not dissimilar from the record company out of one’s trunk.

One hundred percent. So how do we create an infrastructure that can super-serve the artist and their team? We have hundreds of people in the U.S. and thousands internationally, so how do we act as a small, nimble company that’s entrepreneurial, but with all the resources you could possibly want and need from relationships to money to ideas, being able to execute on everything and dream up anything? That’s what we talk about a lot at the company: It’s good that we want to be the best at checking the boxes and doing all the things that you want a music company to do traditionally, but we have the ability to dream up any idea, whether it’s a business or a marketing idea or just something super-creative and surprising. How do we avoid putting boxes or walls around what we could dream up and, if they’re great ideas, go execute them?

Because I think of you as the leading edge of artist development, I wonder if you can walk me through a couple of artists’ careers that you have been developing over the past five years or so and how you’ve gone from discovery to domination with them. Can you talk about the path you took with Billie?

Well, first you have to find the great artists. I try not to play Monday-morning quarterback and say you knew something would be successful from the start, but with Billie, I knew when I sat with her that she was special and that we had to sign her. You can’t claim to have known exactly what an artist was going to be and how big they’d become. But meeting Billie when she was 13, having a great partner in Darkroom and Justin [Lubliner], everything was about the long term and not taking shortcuts. She and FINNEAS were so young at the time, so giving them the time and space to create the music and figure out visually what they wanted to do was essential. Billie and Finn’s parents also understood the long-term vision and were on board. They’ve instilled such great values into their kids, and they’ve been an integral part of the team from day one.

It all came from Billie and Finn, with us providing the right guidance and serving as a sounding board as we moved along. But they were driving the ship; we were just trying to figure out how to support them the right way. And again, thinking long-term. Because there are lots of shortcuts to take, whether it’s going to radio really early or pushing the artist to do too much too quickly. We tried to be measured, and to make sure we were building fan by fan.

At the end of the day, it’s all about finding great artists who have vision, supporting them and helping them build their foundation and their fan base—to attract fans who will be there no matter what gatekeeper opens or shuts the door for them. And ideally you get the support of the gatekeepers, the platforms and so on, but the artists’ careers aren’t going to live or die based on that. We want to make sure that artists can communicate directly with their fans and put out their music and get to them.

I think we did that over the long term with Billie, along with her managers Danny Rukasin and Brandon Goodman and Darkroom, building up the shows and putting out visuals and music regularly, finding the right partnerships along the way and really taking that three-year approach to doing the real artist development. And then when she put out her debut album, obviously she did tremendously well and the shows got bigger and she won the Grammys and then we positioned them for the Oscars and all those other pieces. But again, it’s important that it’s all from them—we can help amplify what they do, globally—and that we’re measured in everything that we do.

You’ve also had such great global success with Olivia, whom you and your team signed and who has become a superstar. How did she characterize what she wanted to do when you first met her?

The first time I met Olivia it was really clear. I remember her sitting in my office. We talked, and she had such strong vision. She was so determined and she was a star.

Her main emphasis was that she is a songwriter first. And from the very beginning I recognized that was true.

She originally wrote “drivers license” and all these great songs for an EP. We knew “drivers license” was an amazing song but thought it was going to take time to develop because it was a ballad. But obviously it exploded as soon as it came out. Olivia decided right away she wanted to make an album rather than an EP, because she felt—and we agreed—that she’s an album artist. She wrote a handful of additional songs while she was finishing high school and also filming High School Musical at the time. We made the “drivers license” video in Salt Lake City, where she was filming. She was so driven and focused and she really set the tone for all of us.

Olivia knew what it should all turn into. She’s a brilliant artist and has a clear vision for herself.

It’s also about having the right team around the artists. With Olivia we have the pleasure of working alongside her managers, Aleen Keshishian and Zack Morgenroth of Lighthouse Management + Media, who are so strategic and are so forward-thinking. They’re great partners who think big.

A very important element with all of our artists—and you’ve seen it many times throughout the history of Interscope—is what we call world-building. Music is always at the center, but all the other pieces that come with it, the videos, photos, performances, production, touring, merch, all of it, should fit together the right way. Our mission is to help an artist and management team connect all those dots.

You’ve always been adamant about the importance of partnerships and working with artists’ teams. Tell us about what’s happening with Playboi Carti and his Opium label and your partnership with Yo Gotti’s CMG.

Again, with Billie, we have a great partner in Darkroom. That’s certainly also true with CMG and Yo Gotti, and what he’s built with GloRilla, Moneybagg Yo, EST Gee and all of his artists. We’re working with Playboi Carti on his music, and we work closely with Erin Larsen, the COO of his Opium label, which has Ken Carson, Destroy Lonely and Homixide Gang. Carti is one of the most culturally important artists, and we’re lucky to be able to work with him and his team on those artists and help them execute their vision. The foundation of this company has always been built on partnerships with artists, entrepreneurs and other creative people. Both Carti with his Opium brand and Yo Gotti with CMG continue to push music and culture forward in powerful ways.

I may be the one doing these interviews, but there are hundreds of people at IGA and then there are our artists and their teams. It’s hard work, what we do, and crazy at times, but we live it.

Why was Olivia the best choice for the relaunch of Geffen?

We were trying to build a team of great people at Geffen, which is what we aim for in everything we do. We wanted to form a tight team that could be super-focused on artist development, and in the time before “driver’s license,” It felt like a good opportunity for Olivia. We’ve assembled these great people who can be hyper-focused, from A&R to marketing to digital and all the other pieces, and we felt like it would give her even more attention and focus.

The idea when we started Geffen was, How do we build another multi-genre label brand that has resources, but feels bespoke? Between Olivia, Kali Uchis, Yeat and doing the deal with HYBE and putting it through Geffen—as well as a bunch of other great things—I feel like it encapsulates what is exciting about music right now. And we built it from the ground up, in a very entrepreneurial way.

Tom March came over from Polydor to oversee Geffen. He’s been at the company for almost two years now. Bringing him over was a great move, because Polydor was our sister company in the U.K., so he knew how we worked and had worked with several of our artists. He’s very thoughtful while also being aggressive in how he moves.

It’s pretty remarkable what everybody’s been able to do in connection with the wider IGA team. The whole idea was we have the people whose sole focus is Geffen, but we all still work as a team, and we share much of the same support infrastructure.

So you have that efficiency of structure, but you still have that boutique kind of energy.

Exactly. So everybody works together and we figure out what goes where and how we do it and find the balance between Interscope and Geffen. And we’ve been able to attain a kind of seamless collaboration between the two label brands.

It strikes me that in some ways there is a throughline from Fueled by Ramen to this moment with Olivia and boygenius, which seems to suggest that rock is somewhat resurgent—and also that its future is female. As someone whose roots are in that world, do you feel rock music, guitar music, is on the verge of a big revival?

I do pay attention to rock music and guitars. But growing up in a small town in Florida, I listened to music that I thought was moving culture, though I wouldn’t have expressed it that way at the time. I listened to punk rock and hip-hop because those felt underground. In this small town, with no Internet, I somehow just latched onto these things. And obviously I liked exposing people to something new. I feel like Fueled by Ramen evolved over time into different sounds. I think there was always a rock element to it, but I didn’t ever want to be boxed in creatively.

Interscope was always about moving culture, and that’s part of our ethos to this day. It usually starts with youth culture, and then it can age up and down from there. So when I look at the artists I’ve worked with at Interscope so far, a lot of them are artists that, if I’d had a blank canvas, I would’ve evolved Fueled by Ramen to become that. I would’ve loved to have signed Billie, Playboi Carti, Juice WRLD, Olivia. All of those artists are rock stars to me, but I don’t think it has to do with guitars; to me, it’s just about individuality.

When I was a kid, it was about your group and your formats; the gatekeepers delivered music to you based on whatever box you ticked. And that was a big part of your cultural self-definition. That has completely been flipped on its head in the streaming era, which has of course changed the nature of the music business.

Yes, for sure. That’s how I grew up too. But at the same time, I didn’t care—I was into everything. But when I was building a label, I tried not to be stuck in a certain genre. At first, Fueled by Ramen was a ska-punk label. Then it was an emo label, then it was a pop-punk label. I saw other indie labels that had a very specific sound, and it could be hot for a couple years and then it would burn out. And I didn’t want that to happen to my company. 


A label that has a sensibility and a connection to culture, as you say, is one that has longevity. And certainly the legacy of Interscope, from Nine Inch Nails to Tupac all the way to the present, has never been about genre.

Exactly. I grew up listening to Nine Inch Nails. I had Pretty Hate Machine very early on. I got Alternative Press when it was the paper magazine that was shipped to my house in Florida. I would tape 120 Minutes to try to discover new artists and then I would drive to the local indie record store, which was an hour from my house, just to go through the bins and find it. But Interscope artists like Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt, Dr. Dre and Eminem were what I was into from high school through college. It was all different genres of music, but it was culture.

Culture is now hyperglobal. And streaming, social media and other elements of digital culture have expanded the influence of music from all over the world. I wanted to speak to your involvement in both Latin and K-pop and how transformative the rise of those forms has been. I also see certain structural changes happening as a result of the growing influence of those forms; Can you speak to that?

We’ve been lucky enough to work on the K-pop side with some great companies. As you know, we formed a joint venture with HYBE and we’ve been developing a global girl group, KATSEYE, for the last two and a half years. So much thought, care and creativity goes into the whole development of the artist. And it’s very much like what I’ve always tried to do with our artists, and it’s so impressive what the Korean labels have achieved with their artist development and operational approach.

Obviously we can learn a lot from their system and working with HYBE, with BLACKPINK’s label, YG Entertainment, and with The Black Label have been both inspirational and instructive for us at IGA.

Since you’ve looked under the hood, what is it about the system that has not existed in our world?

Our approach at IGA is to make sure that we’re both left-brained and right-brained. We try to be the most creative company, but also to run a good business and have process, because when you can put both of those pieces together, they actually help one another and you make the company much better. Which sounds great, but the problem is that most companies are either very creative and can’t run a good business or run a good business but aren’t so creative. But if you can strike that balance, then I think it’s the recipe for something longer-lasting—and great.

Do you think of yourself as more one than the other? Do you need more people with expertise in one direction or another, or do you just feel like you’re in the center and have big teams of both?

I think I’m lucky and have worked hard to make sure I have a great team of people that can do all of those things. Traditionally, most labels are led by a creative person and then an operational person. They’re usually, to a greater or lesser degree, co-heads. Jimmy [Iovine] wasn’t that. Understanding the importance of and the balance between operations and creativity came out of necessity for me as a young entrepreneur. When you start your own company, you have to do everything. So I had the best schooling in the sense that I did everything for the first 10 years of my company, from signing the acts to being involved in trying to put the records together to marketing, to…

Putting stuff in envelopes?

I put stuff in envelopes. I’ve printed the T-shirts. I’ve written handwritten notes in the D2C. I’d have to shut down the company for two days every six months to hand-write the royalty checks. I always wanted the artists to get paid; I was determined not to be the label that didn’t pay its artists. So every shitty job you could possibly do—as well as the fun stuff—I’ve done.

I also wanted to ask you about Interscope Miami and how that has very quickly become a force.

We started about five years ago. We saw that the music was really exciting, and we saw the culture around it. And then I was fortunate enough that the guy we kept bumping into all the time in doing deals, Nir Seroussi, had parted ways with Sony. He had been instrumental in bringing Bad Bunny to Sony and had signed other great artists. I met with him and we did a deal in a week, because I just liked his vibe. He had great musical taste and seemed to be winning out there—and was a great guy with strong values and vision.

For us it was, how do we help ensure that Latin music and artists are not put in a box? How are we making sure that we would treat Latin artists the same way that we would treat a Billie or a Kendrick or a Gaga or an Olivia? We specifically called it Miami because we didn’t want to say it was necessarily just Latin. I think you have to have the right people and understand the culture. Because so often when music execs see Latin or country or K-pop music doing well, it becomes, “I have to have that too.” But there’s something to be said for thinking outside the box. You need to be mindful of where the artist and the music comes from and you need to build the right team of people who live and breathe the culture.

Nir built that great team of people based in Miami—but with a strong connection to L.A.—and we had artists like Selena Gomez and Kali Uchis who wanted to do Spanish-language projects. The question became: How do we support them in what they want to do creatively, but then also market it, set it up and do the right things to make sure that the project was successful? We did music with DJ Snake and we signed artists along the way. But it’s really hitting its stride now after forming our partnership with KAROL G this year and then Ivan Cornejo, and now we have Xavi, who’s exploding. First he had the #1 and #2 songs in Mexico, and then the #1 song globally on Spotify and another three in the Top 10. We have the Los CT label with Natanael Cano and Gabito Ballesteros; we’ve got Chino Pacas music coming out on Geffen. People are impatient, but to build something meaningful in the music business, it usually takes three to five years, because you have to develop the artists, plant seeds and let things grow over time.

This division, too, seems very Interscope somehow—seamlessly part of the same vibe, even though it’s so different musically.

Again, culture and taste are not things that people can just learn. I think it comes over time, and when you’re building something new, it’s really hard to do.

It took years of investment and commitment to make Interscope Miami work. And it’s the same with Geffen. It takes a lot of foundational work to be successful. At the core, we’re trying to make sure it’s always about the music and supporting the artists and their teams. It’s always about building careers and building real fans; it’s about super-serving the artists in everything that they need: merchandising, branding, films, all of it. But they shouldn’t be carbon copies of one another. Miami should feel like Interscope but have its own twist on that. The same goes for Geffen.

Historically, you could never predict what Interscope was going to do next. I think that’s going to hold true over the next 30 years, but whatever the company does next is likely to move culture and be what other people will try to replicate. When you look at the history, at the artists that were signed or the moves that the company made, it always felt like it was ahead of the curve.

I’d like you to say something about D2C, which has been a part of the larger picture for a while but appears to be in a new phase.

As a kid in Florida, I had to buy records I wanted through mail order. And soon after I started Fueled by Ramen, we had a web store. We were always trying to figure out how to connect directly with fans. I remember, when I bought by mail order, getting those handwritten notes and feeling good that people were paying attention to who I was as a kid who was supporting the music.

Today, again, having that direct connection is crucial. I’m just thinking about all the things that came from Billie 
when she did Barbie. I remember when she and Finn played us “What Was I Made For?” right after they wrote it in Finn’s studio. We said, “It would be really cool to do some Barbie merch.” And Billie literally pointed to the coffee table and said, “John, look at my sketchbooks.” She sketched the Barbie “B” for “Billie,” and we said, “We should be doing this.”

Olivia was super-excited when she was on the cover of Rolling Stone, and talked about how we could make posters and merch off the back of that. We always look at ways of building the momentum with an artist and what fans would want to enhance that connection. No other partner or company can do what we do, because we’re usually first in with an artist, along with the manager and a few other team members. The music, as I said, is the most important piece. And then we’re involved in doing all these marketing pieces, whether it is the cover of Rolling Stone or working with Warner Bros. Pictures and Mattel on the Barbie song. Sometimes the connection is more indirect, as with Gaga’s “Bloody Mary” going off on TikTok thanks to Wednesday. Because we had the relationship with Netflix, we got them to move quickly to use that song in their promotions and trailers, and we did a merch collaboration with them.

We’re on the pulse of everything that’s happening with the artist. We work closely with the manager and the artist and ensure that it all works the right way: their D2C, their brand deals, their touring and the rest, with music always at the center. If you think about the whole chessboard, it creates more synergy and momentum for all the different parts of the artist’s business. Now, how can we be the best in class at executing that while also being highly creative and understanding what makes sense for the artist over the long term?

What opportunity do the social short-form video platforms present?

We try to embrace the platforms that are driven by a passionate audience, and again, we always think about what the artist’s core creative mission is and how to surround it the right way. For instance, with Gaga and “Bloody Mary” on TikTok, it was an opportunity to give a spark to a song that’s been out for a very long time. And working alongside her manager, Bobby Campbell, we capitalized on that, took the song to radio, did the merchandise, did other creative marketing, and it went from being a track on an album to being a bigger song in her catalog.

JID’s “Surround Sound” is having a moment right now on short-form video platforms. All the teams at Interscope and Dreamville have put strategies in place to spread the excitement and build upon the momentum around JID as an artist.

But we see it in many different ways, whether it’s a sync in a TV show, a film or something happening with an artist in, say, France and then spreading. That’s the crazy thing about the music business: Something can happen at any point that you didn’t even plan for—and completely changes the course of everything. And I want us to be better than anybody else at taking it to a whole other level and maximizing it—tastefully, the right way. But also, how do we go out and create those moments so that we not only get lucky but also create our own luck?

You guys have made big strides this year in gaming. Your partnership with Epic Games and Eminem is a good recent example.

We’ve had a dedicated team in video games and sports for many years now. When we look at where fandom is strongest, a platform like Fortnite really stands out as a cultural phenomenon that has built a true global base of fans. Working together with Paul Rosenberg, who really understands this space and its importance, we were able to work with Eminem to tap into that in a very powerful way, including reaching a new audience of highly engaged fans, and sell them products and experiences along the way. Forward-thinking companies like Epic Games see the value of music and are going to be increasingly important to our strategy for the future. We have some exciting plans in this space for 2024.

Steve Berman has always had his finger on the pulse of emerging platforms, and it’s been no exception with gaming. It’s really hard to overstate the value of an executive like Steve, who has been at the company pretty much since the beginning and continues to play such a pivotal role as Vice Chairman across all aspects of the company.

You’ve been super successful lately with Interscope Films, both commercially and critically. Could you talk a bit about your strategy there?

We work so closely with our artists and their teams on their creative presentation, often from the very beginnings of their careers. Our work together goes far beyond just artwork and music videos. There is a level of trust there that would really be impossible to achieve with an outside film company. So Interscope Films represents a way for us to have deeper relationships with our artists, bringing to life their vision in new and exciting ways, and being their partners for the entire thing. We’re the leader in this space and have been working for years with highly respected, visionary filmmakers to tell these stories in powerful ways. Michelle An has played a pivotal role here. Interscope Films has achieved a level of success both from a commercial standpoint and via awards recognition that we’re all very proud of with multiple projects with Billie, Olivia, MGK, Selena Gomez. Our Tupac project, Dear Mama, is up for a Grammy this year. We have a television project with HYBE about KATSEYE, which will air on Netflix. We’ve had a lot of important partners like Darkroom, Lighthouse Media + Management and others who have been crucial to our success. It’s been a really exciting area for us and one which we continue to develop in a meaningful way.

And of course, we continue to have a lot of success in the motion picture soundtrack area with the Hunger Games series, Black Panther, James Bond, A Star Is Born and so many others.

Can you talk a minute about the team you’ve built at IGA?

We have an amazing team. Obviously, Steve Berman has been amazing in guiding so many things. But it’s really impossible to give you a list of all the people who are integral to our success, because everyone at the company plays a role in making IGA great.

We spend a lot of time ensuring that we have the right people in the right positions, and we empower them to do their jobs. So many of our people have spent the bulk of their careers at IGA, which I am very proud of. I honestly feel that IGA is our artists and our people, and we have the best of both.

Insofar as there as a typical day, can you kind of walk me through what a day for you is like?

I’m a creature of habit and I like structure, but I also don’t like “typical” days. On Mondays we start off with a team meeting, which is usually two to two and a half hours in the morning, and then the calendar can be open after that. Certain meetings happen throughout the day, and Fridays are generally reserved for brainstorming and organizational recapping about where we sit in the company. Usually it’s a mix, ideally a balance of left-brain and right-brain activity. Some days are more about the organizational process, and some days are just highly creative, whether it’s sitting with artists, having marketing conversations, going into the studio, talking with Netflix about our girl-group show and how we’re going to roll it out. And then there are the crazy days where everything feels like it’s going to explode, and the things that should be simple require a thousand conversations. So I don’t know if there is a typical day.

How do you unplug and refocus?

Mostly spending time with family, or something that involves exercise. Obviously I hold my work at the highest importance because there’s a lot of responsibility for artists and the people that work at the company, making sure that everyone is as happy as possible and enjoying what they do and being taken care of. But family is the most important thing. I need to make sure that my kids and my wife are happy and that I get to be in the moment with them every moment I can, before the kids grow up and they’re not at home anymore.