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A CONVERSATION
WITH JOHN SYKES

If John Sykes seems to be everywhere at once, it’s not an optical illusion. During a career spanning more than four decades, the ever-youthful 67-year-old exec has made his mark across the music-business spectrum as a co-founder of MTV, president of Chrysalis Records N.A. and VH1, EVP of artist acquisitions at EMI Music Publishing and chairman/CEO of Infinity Broadcasting (now Entercom), among other posts, before becoming president of entertainment enterprises for iHeartMedia in 2011.

So it wasn’t surprising when, at the top of 2020, Sykes took on an additional role, succeeding Jann Wenner as chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. During the succeeding three years, he’s led the effort to bring the Rock Hall into the 21st century, diversifying its board and doing his part in broadening the definition of rock 'n' roll to reflect the tastes of the last several generations of young people.

We tracked down this consummate multitasker as he was helping reconfigure the Rock Hall show following the death of original inductee Jerry Lee Lewis, handling his myriad iHeart responsibilities and getting ready to network at the City of Hope’s Spirit of Life dinner honoring Monte and Avery Lipman. Amid all that, Sykes took the time to field our questions about the state of the Rock Hall, including the imminent retirement of Jon Landau as head of the performers nominating committee, the selection of Rick Krim as Landau's successor and the plan to bring the induction ceremony to music centers beyond New York and L.A.

Why are you doing the induction ceremony in L.A. this year?
For a long time, there was a feeling in the music industry that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was a New York-focused entity. When I took over this position, I thought, Why doesn’t the Hall have a presence in Los Angeles when half the music industry and most artists are based there? We're now going to rotate the induction ceremonies among Cleveland, New York and Los Angeles and hopefully one day hold them in Nashville and London.

What’s the show looking like a week out? Anything you can talk about specifically?
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction shows have become legendary for once-in-a-lifetime moments like Prince’s guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in 2004, Stevie Nicks and Harry Styles in 2019, Taylor Swift singing Carole King’s ”Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” as a surprise open to the 2021 ceremony as well as LL Cool J’s performance with surprise guests Eminem and J.Lo. We have more of those moments planned for Saturday night. And what excites me most about this year’s show is the diverse group of inductees, which reflects the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s commitment to celebrating the artists who created the sound of young America.

In other words, this is no longer your grandfather’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Over the years, for some reason, rock 'n' roll became reductively known to many as "rock." The fact is that rock 'n' roll was created in 1955 from an amalgam of rhythm & blues, gospel and country music. It's never been one definitive sound but a spirit and attitude that moves youth culture. If you look back at our list of inductees over the last 37 years, it includes a diverse group of artists such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Hank Williams, The Staple Singers, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Donna Summer, Public Enemy and JAY-Z. It’s my commitment to continue to honor that diversity of artists and sounds as we take the Hall into its next chapter.

That explains why hip-hop is starting to get more recognition in the Hall.
Precisely. Hip-hop comes from the very deep roots of R&B and blues. Because there is a 25-year wait time after the first album before an artist can become eligible for induction, over the last 10 years more hip-hop artists have been inducted, and we expect many more to follow. I personally loved the moment in last year’s ceremony when, during his moving acceptance speech, JAY-Z held up his statue and said, “Now that’s rock 'n' roll.”

You also vowed to diversify the board. I believe Jon Platt and Jody Gerson have come onto the board since you’ve been there.
Right. In order to remain relevant to music and the culture, the Hall of Fame must have both a board of directors and nominating committees that understand the music of the artists who are eligible and can help us grow the Foundation. Jon, Jody, Michele Anthony, Pam Kaufman, Pharrell Williams, Oliver Schusser, Troy Carter, LL Cool J and Kelly Coffey are all now part of our board, and Darryl McDaniels, Tom Morello, Dave Grohl and Questlove have been added to our nominating committees. We now have a group that not only understands where music is now but also where it’s going.

On the same subject, you told us three years ago, just before you started this job, “It’s a credit to Jon Landau that our nominating committee has remained relevant to the ever-changing sounds of youth culture.”
Jon, throughout his nearly 30-year tenure leading the performers nominating committee, has shaped the look and sound of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame we see today. He possesses an incredible mind for music and over the years has consistently updated the committee membership and encouraged the group to keep pace with the evolving sounds that have moved the culture. Jon was an early proponent of the Hall of Fame's recognizing hip-hop as an important driver of the evolution of rock 'n' roll. He notified us after overseeing this year’s ballot that he was stepping down after having delivered yet another group of iconic performers. We will miss him.

What about your choice of Rick Krim to take over from Landau as head of the performers nominating committee? What was it that made him the obvious person to take on this responsibility?
I’ve had the privilege of knowing Rick from our very early days together at MTV and VH1, and I’ve watched him firsthand grow into a gifted talent executive. Rick has a rare combination of knowledge and passion that has made him a valuable member of our nominating committee for 15 years. What makes Rick the perfect person for this position is that, like Jon, he can manage a diverse group of committee members without leading with his own opinion.

You’ve also created formal committees in the three Special Award categories.
Another priority when I took the position was to build a 100% transparent process of how we choose inductees for the Musical Excellence, Early Influence and the Ahmet Ertegun Award categories. We now have three separate committees in place, each made up of seven music professionals and artists, who nominate and choose the inductees. No one person can make these decisions on their own, and much like the performers nominating committee, the membership of these special committees will evolve to stay relevant to those eligible for induction.

How do the Foundation and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland interact?
At the Foundation, we work hand in hand with our partners at the museum in Cleveland. We nominate and choose the inductees each year, and a separate team under the leadership of Museum Chair Greg Lowe and President Greg Harris operates the facility in Cleveland. Our Foundation president, Joel Peresman, speaks with the Cleveland team daily to coordinate our partnership and financial support. The museum is currently undergoing a major expansion that will create an incredible new exhibit space, which breaks ground in 2023.

Sounds like you’ve got a lot going on.
I feel we’ve made real progress over the last three years, but we’re just getting started. I’m grateful to our iHeartMedia CEO and my friend of 40 years, Bob Pittman, for supporting my taking on this role. This is an unpaid position, but it’s a dream job of a lifetime that I take very seriously. Artists work their entire lives to achieve the rare honor of being inducted into this revered institution, so it’s very important to me personally that we have a best-in-class selection process in place, because those inductee plaques on the wall of the museum in Cleveland will be proudly displayed for decades to come.


The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place 11/5 at the Microsoft Theater in DTLA. HBO will air the show on 11/19.

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