A Conversation With Incoming Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Chairman John Sykes

Interview by Simon Glickman

On top of his duties as iHeartMedia President, John Sykes recently stepped into the Chairmanship of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, succeeding longtime chief Jann Wenner. Sykes has served on the board of the Hall for some time, and now it’s his turn in the spotlight—which, unfortunately for John, means we know just where to find him.

Congratulations on the new gig.
Thank you. Right off the bat, it’s important for me to really acknowledge Jann Wenner and to acknowledge that the Hall of Fame is an incredible success story. Ahmet Ertegun, Seymour Stein, Allen Grubman and Jann—it’s important to mention all four of those names. They overcame insurmountable odds in the ’80s, and they built an idea into a cultural institution. You can safely say that really the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has become the Cooperstown of rock & roll. It’s the gold standard that every artist wants to attain. It’s packed with fans every day. In fact, last year we had over 600,000 people going through the turnstiles.

The part that I’m becoming the Chairman of is the nonprofit foundation, which is why I’m continuing to work at iHeart, just as Jann continued to run Rolling Stone during his years. This is so near to my heart, because music shaped my life and my career, and now I get a chance to really celebrate and honor those artists who changed my life forever.

What’s first on your agenda?
Well, there are three items. Number one, raise funds so that we can expand the actual physical plant in Cleveland. Number two, implement technology that will foster a state-of-the-art connection between fans and music. That could mean it goes beyond bricks and mortar. And number three—and probably one of the most important mandates—build a diverse board that has more women and more people of color, and really reflects the music that’s now eligible. Because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is no longer about a single genre of music; it’s about a spirit that connects with young people. We need to maintain that spirit as the music that drives it evolves.

The definition of rock & roll is an ever-widening one, in the sense that pretty much any popular music genre that had the kind of audience impact that the greatest rock acts achieved would qualify.
Exactly, and Jon Landau, who heads up our nominating committee, reminds us every year when we have our meeting that every Motown record had “The Sound of Young America” written across the label. That’s really what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is now all about, the sound of young America. That was once rock & roll; it’s evolved into funk and hip-hop and R&B. Which is why Public Enemy, Run-DMC and N.W.A are all in the Hall, and got in practically during their first year of eligibility—and this year, the Notorious B.I.G. could be eligible. If he is, he could very well get in. It really reflects the diversity of the artists that we’re inducting. Therefore, one of my mandates is to have a board that reflects the artists that we’re inducting and the fans that are going to the Hall of Fame, because as we induct more hip-hop artists, then the audience going to come to the Hall is going to become more diverse, and that’s our goal—because that’s what rock & roll is all about.

"The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is no longer about a single genre of music; it’s about a spirit that connects with young people. We need to maintain that spirit as the music that drives it evolves."

You were talking about making the constituency more diverse. Is there anything about the process that you would like to change to serve the same kinds of goals?
Well, it’s a credit to Jon Landau that we have aggressively made that committee itself more diverse. My goal to is to continue to do that, but also to make the actual board of directors of the foundation as diverse as the artists that we’re inducting. That doesn’t mean removing board members—we can make the board bigger. We just want to widen the aperture of the board to be as inclusive as possible.

Clockwise from top left: Sykes with Tom Freston and Bono in the VH1 days; with Freston and Billy Joel; with iHeart compatriot Tom Poleman and Elton John; with Jon Bon Jovi and iHeart's Rich Bressler, Poleman and Bob Pittman.  

Rock is struggling now, as a genre, to maintain the hold that it once had. I’m wondering what, if anything, you think the Hall can do to address that balance.
Well, I think that the Hall of Fame, if we do our job, will reflect the music the public is falling in love with and embracing—and that’s going to look different than it did 15 years ago, because culture shifts. We’re doing something that we’re excited about because we get to reinvent—so we don’t become Grandpa’s Hall of Fame.

Right, it isn’t just dad screaming at everybody that their music sucks.
Exactly. It will always feel a little bit dated in that, in order to make sure an artist is truly eligible, we have a 25-year rule for eligibility. I think rock music itself will always have a place; I mean, Green Day got in just a few years ago, and you’ll have bands like Dave Matthews Band, who became eligible recently. So, I think what’ll happen is rock will no longer be the dominant genre, but it’s one of the genres. 

“We need a more diverse board in order to make sure
that we’re speaking to the audience."

What is the status of the Hall’s deal with HBO?
Thanks to Allen Grubman, Irving Azoff and Joel Peresman, we’ve extended the deal with HBO. So next year, in 2020, we’re going to go live for the first time ever from Cleveland rather than being a taped show. It’s part of our commitment to reinvent the Hall, and event television today basically must be live to succeed. Taped TV events are tougher and tougher to connect with, because the fans have such access to social media. So we want to be live and instantaneous and relevant. We’re excited to make that change.

As much as I geek out about the performances on the RRHOF show, I always really enjoy the featurettes about the inductees. It feels like that kind of storytelling, particularly for established artists, has more cultural impact than ever.
You hit the nail on the head when you said storytelling. That’s exactly what those vignettes do so well. And you’re going to see more of that, because before YouTube made videos available 24/7, it was always a wonderful and rare sight to see an artist perform live onstage. Now it’s a commodity—you see them everywhere. So what can we deliver to the fan that is truly a unique experience?

So no one’s going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s nothing wrong with the Hall of Fame now; it just needs to evolve with the audience. And that was Jann’s decision. I didn’t lobby for this job; he called me up and said he wanted to nominate me, and that the board supported it. It was a total surprise to me. Above all, it’s an honor that I get to follow in this guy’s footsteps, because he was an icon to me when I saw his name on the masthead of Rolling Stone when I was 15 years old—and he still is today. So I couldn’t be more excited.

We’re looking for new ideas. I’m going to be leaning on the board much more than anyone has in the past for creative ideas and for inspiration.

A "star" is born. (9/15a)
The vinyl renaissance is in full swing. (9/15a)
Another of Beer and Glickman's 12 picks for the eight spots (9/15a)
A close reading of star-crossed (9/10a)
The Toronto Raptor strikes again. (9/10a)
A chronicle of the inexplicable.
We make yet more predictions, which you are free to ignore.
2022 TOURS
May we all be vaxxed by then.
Power pop, global glam and the return of the loud.

 First Name

 Last Name


Captcha: (type the characters above)