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THE JANICK-BERMAN Q&A, PART ONE: REWIND

After coming to Interscope in September 2012 as Jimmy Iovine’s heir apparent, John Janick wasted no time making changes to the company, working closely with Vice Chairman Steve Berman. By the time Janick ascended to the chairmanship two years later, coinciding with Iovine’s move to Apple, he had most of his executive team in place, including his former Atlantic colleague Aaron Bay-Schuck, whom he installed as President of A&R. Under Janick’s leadership, with savvy marketing moves and sage council from IGA veteran Berman, Interscope has continued to rack up hits and break new artists, just as his legendary predecessor had done, while also maintaining profitability and solid marketshare; IGA’s Q1 share is just north of 7%, up a notch from 2016, and the release schedule is loaded. Clearly, what the entrepreneurial Janick has been doing is paying off big time. Now they have a splashy new Kendrick Lamar set just about to hit the marketplace, among other big releases. We recently sat with Janick and Berman for an in-depth conversation, and neither seemed the worse for wear after enduring a couple of hours in the HITS offices. 


DENNIS LAVINTHAL: Looking back at the changes you made at Interscope when you got there, it seemed like you were rearranging the A&R part of the company, that you were bringing in people, rearranging people internally. But the rest of the company appeared to stay similar to what it had been.

JOHN JANICK: It was about getting the perfect balance of the great superstars that have always been at Interscope and bringing in the right fresh blood so you have a good mix. I know I’ve said this a few times other places, but both Jimmy [Iovine] and Lucian [Grainge]told me the company would be mine to run as I saw fit. They really delivered on that promise and let me do what I needed to do.

STEVE BERMAN: There was a great creative energy with Jimmy and John around the music and really getting that part right at the company. John also understood where the marketing was moving, that there were places in other parts of the company that needed to be looked at as the transition was really beginning. Our goal is to be the best in the business in every area, and we took it on. No one was immune from it, no one could hide, it was really clear: “Are you going to adapt to what’s going to change in the business? Are you going to follow this direction?”

DL: At what point did you know that streaming was going to reshape the way the music business operates?

JJ: We always thought that streaming was going to take hold at some point but didn’t know exactly when. Last year it felt like it was really moving quickly.

DL: At the beginning of 2016, it came down corporately inside Universal about doubling down.

JJ: I think it was two things. Philosophically, on the music side, Lucian is always pushing us to find the best and most relevant artists that we can work with. That’s always been the mantra from him, because he’s so focused on making sure A&R remains the core of what Universal does, and it’s gotten louder here every day over the last couple of years as the A&R side of the company solidifies and gets stronger. But to your point about streaming, you could see the marketshare moving in that direction, and then beyond that how fast the streaming audience was moving into subscription. The other thing that you could start to see was how rapidly the download business was deteriorating, and there was a moment a couple of years ago where we all said, “OK, this is happening.” Also, when Lucian and Jimmy were bringing me in, we all knew Jimmy was going to launch the Beats streaming service. It was then that it fully clicked in my head that it’s going to be something that’s really important.

DL: Right, he had already drunk the Kool-Aid. Does he check in every once in a while?

JJ: We see him all the time. I talk to Jimmy a lot; he’s a mentor.

DL: I know he’d like Interscope to continue to be successful; it’s part of his legacy.

JJ: And we treat it that way.

SB: Look, not only did he hire both of us—two decades apart—but it’s who he is.

DL: Steve, how did you start at the company? Who was there when he hired you?

SB: The story is, I was working at WEA, and Interscope wanted someone in marketing and sales who understood the WEA system, because they were distributed through Atlantic. I already knew Tom Whalley from when I worked in the mailroom at Warner Bros. But most importantly, my wife Frances —who was my fiancée at the time—was working in management with Ron Laffitte, and they recommended me for the job. So I went over and interviewed. I walked in and it was Ted [Field] in one corner, Jimmy sitting on top of the couch—not how normal people sit on the couch—John McClain, Tom, Michael Papale, Marc Benesch and David Cohen all in the room. And I said to them that day, “I want to start working now. I don’t care what you pay me—this is where I want to be.”

BUD SCOPPA: What was the gig they hired you for?

SB: Same job I have today. [laughter] No, it was marketing and sales. But the record business was a much different place in ’91; their vision was I would be there to support the promotion effort.

DL: Tom had worked inside record companies; Jimmy hadn’t.

SB: Everyone had different backgrounds in music and different strengths. There was never a formula, so we were able to see the opportunities as times changed before almost everyone else did; how the business was going to transform and how to reach people differently. And the structure—or lack thereof—enabled Jimmy to focus on becoming arguably the greatest marketer ever. We were nimble. And that DNA is still here in the company today.

LENNY BEER: Speaking of marketing, what was your plan for Gaga leading up to the Super Bowl?

JJ: We started talking to the NFL prior to the 2016 Super Bowl, when she sang the National Anthem. Berm was in the middle of that; he beat down the doors to make sure we set her up for this Super Bowl. We did multiple meetings; we brought Gaga in to play Joanne early on.

DL: It was a huge February for her last year.

JJ: She did the Grammys, the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl. And that January, she won a Golden Globe for American Horror Story.

DL: But at that moment in 2016, did the NFL already want her for the 2017 Super Bowl halftime?

SB: Their process is they’re going to explore a lot of different avenues, and they want to really understand where an artist is in their cycle. Literally, they are in it right now for next year.

JJ: And no one sells Gaga better than Gaga. She was extraordinary in the meetings, really passionate about it.

LB: Her choice of material was genius. My problem with the Grammys was there was so much unfamiliar music. And at the Super Bowl, she came out and blasted fucking smashes the whole time.

BS: And she strategically threw in the new nugget with “Million Reasons.”

LB: And that was the developing thing she needed. But it was packaged around everything else.

SB: She was so focused. She really wanted that stage to put on a great show. There were non-stop calls with John and [manager] Bobby [Campbell] about where she wanted to go with it creatively. We went down to Houston early and watched the rehearsal, and she was so in the zone. It felt like she wanted to make a statement to every single one of those 117 million people who watch the game in America.

JJ: The great thing is we’re still only scratching the surface. There are going to be so many other things that are going to pop up that set her apart, including Coachella. And then the tour, which is a massive success.

LB: I think she’s going to be on top of the world now for the rest of her career. It’s done.

JJ: She’s going to do this movie with Bradley Cooper—the remake of A Star Is Born—and I know she’s going to kill it.

LB: In the last three months—and what looks like the foreseeable future—everything seems to have coalesced from all the work that you’ve done since you started. It all seems to be coming together.

JJ: When you come into a new place, everything takes time. You go through a roller-coaster finding the right people, signing the right acts and everything else around that. Early last year, we had consecutive #1 debuts with The 1975, Gwen and Kendrick. Then, admittedly, we got slow because we had holes in our schedule. So it was really just hunkering down, figuring it out and shifting the way we were doing things. We planned for September last year to kick-start a whole chain of events, and fortunately it worked out. We started with Gaga in October, we released the MGK record; Rae Sremmurd had come out in August; that took a minute, but then we saw that “Black Beatles” was reacting.

DL: It was magic.

JJ: We started to see it before the Mannequin Challenge happened; [Head of Digital & Revenue] Gary Kelly was sending us notes every week saying, “This song is a smash. It’s happening on the streaming side.” Then we had other impressions, like Kimmel and the video and all these pieces happening. And then the Mannequin Challenge was a lightning bolt. So going into this year, we knew that we had to treat singles as if they were albums, and take the marketing around them to a whole other level. And then the year ended with J. Cole doing the surprise drop on his album. That was an incredibly gratifying moment for me, for [President of Urban Music] Joie [Manda], and for the company as a whole. That was a fantastic way to end the year.

LB: Let’s talk about A&R. You’ve significantly restructured the A&R department. You’ve brought in Aaron Bay-Schuck [as President of A&R]; you’ve re-created Neil Jacobson [as head of the reactivated Geffen].

JJ: I don’t know if I can take credit for the re-creation of Neil.

LB: In any case, it seems that you’ve redone the entire A&R department. We were told that you have something like 44 artists now on the urban side, which is amazing.

DL: Smart too.

LB: Give us your theories about A&R; what you’ve done and where you’re going.

JJ: I figured it out with Jimmy, who was always so hands-on with the A&R at Interscope, and Lucian, who understands the value of investing in talent on both sides of the A&R equation better than anyone. They both really wanted to make sure I had all the help they could offer me to get that right here. And they’re two of the best. I’ve done A&R my entire career. I signed everything I ever worked on coming into Interscope, for the most part. When I was at Elektra, I had Mike Caren as a partner, so we ended up bringing things together. When I got here, I brought Joie in on the urban side, and then we restructured most of the urban team. We already had some really great A&R people, like Manny [Smith], who works with Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, and others; we just promoted him to SVP. It was just finding the right team to let someone like Manny do what he does best. Then, for the head of A&R on the pop/rock side, I wanted to find the right person; I didn’t want to just fill the slot. I’d worked really closely with Aaron for years prior. We’re very good friends, and I think he is amazing at what he does. He was ultimately the right person.

So Aaron came over when I was two years in, and then we started restructuring that area of the company. We also started Interscope Nashville and Aaron hired Kevin Williamson, because there’s so much happening in Nashville—both in country music and beyond. Obviously, we have a very close relationship with [UMG Nashville chief Mike] Dungan, so we’re making sure we stay close to him on everything we are doing there. And then, beyond that, it’s managing all the other partnerships we have and making sure they’re moving in the right direction.

LB: The J. Cole/Dreamville deal is huge.

JJ: When Joie came in, that was one of the first deals he did, which was really smart. Everything that I set out to do in terms of the urban space started coming together toward the end of last year.

LB: And that couldn’t be more important considering what’s happening in music right now.

JJ: Obviously, Rae Sremmurd and Mike Will are really important for us. So is our partnership with Top Dawg on Kendrick and ScHoolboy Q. We did a label deal with Benny Blanco and that resulted in us signing Tory Lanez, who’s got a gold album on his first release.

DL: The urban sector has been so important to Interscope throughout the history of the company, from Death Row to Aftermath to Eminem.

JJ: We’re trying to create more of a structure where we’re also signing things directly to Interscope, in addition to our history of partnering with talent for JVs. The entrepreneurial side of my brain still remembers when I went to the Warner system, “This is my brand. I want the resources and I’m a team player, but don’t fuck with my brand.” So with someone like Paul Rosenberg and Eminem with Shady, or Top Dawg, or especially Dre, who is part of the foundation of Interscope, I focus on making sure they have the resources they need within the company so they can do what they do.

DL: Is Dre doing anything with Interscope now?

SB: We still have the acts that were signed to Aftermath before Dre left to go over to Apple. We have John Connor coming out on Aftermath, and that relationship is really important to us.

JJ: And Eminem and Kendrick, obviously.

SB: Top has a tremendous vision artistically for his label, and a great feel for where the business is, but more importantly, where it’s going. And he understands it from every level, from street marketing to headlining Coachella. And of course, Paul and Eminem are family. Watching the way they’ve managed their music, their brand, and their label over the past 18 years has been nothing short of an education. They’re the best out there, hands down.

To be continued...

 

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