JOHN SYKES: THE HALL, THE BALL AND ALL THE REST


Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation
Chairman John Sykes is busy preparing for the 11/3 induction ceremony at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which will stream live for the first time ever on Disney+ and then air as a three-hour prime-time ABC special on New Year’s Day. This year’s festivities will mark the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, and among the inductees will be one of the form’s founding figures, DJ Kool Herc.

Since taking the helm of the Rock Hall in early 2020, Sykes has earned major props for his leadership of the institution—especially for his board’s lightning-fast decision to oust co-founder Jann Wenner (himself a former HOF head) for his racist, sexist remarks in an interview. Unlike Wenner, Sykes has been outspoken about making the Hall more musically and culturally inclusive, and he’s making good on his word.

If that weren’t enough, Sykes, whose day job is President of Entertainment Enterprises at iHeartMedia, is planning this year’s star-studded iHeartRadio Jingle Ball, which will be broadcast as a 12/21 ABC primetime special incorporating performances from 11 different Jingle Ball events.

Sykes also serves on a variety of boards, including Madison Square Garden, Sphere and The Robin Hood Foundation. Yet somehow he found time to chat with us.

What will be unique about this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony?

It’s an exciting year for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame because our induction ceremony will take place in Brooklyn on the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop, which all began in New York City. This year’s inductees include Missy Elliott, The Spinners, George Michael, Rage Against the Machine, Sheryl Crow, Kate Bush, Willie Nelson, Chaka Khan, Al Kooper, Bernie Taupin, Link Wray and DJ Kool Herc, the father of hip-hop.

As chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, did you think clarifying what the term “rock & roll” meant and consequently, how it relates to the artists eligible for induction, would be such a controversial move?

Over the years, for some people, rock & roll became known as rock. That is one part of it, but rock & roll was created in the ’50s as an amalgam of rhythm & blues, country, and gospel. More than any one sound, it was an attitude. Rock & roll invented the teenager: young people rebelling against their parents and defining themselves. I didn’t come into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to turn it upside down or redefine it; I’m just bringing it back to its roots and what it originally stood for―recognition of the sounds that move youth culture. Chuck Berry and Elvis did that in the ’50s. The Beatles, Dylan, Johnny Cash, the Stones and Motown did that in the '60s. Marvin Gaye and Carole King did that in the 70’s. Bruce, Mellencamp, LL Cool J, Bon Jovi, Guns N' Roses and Tina Turner did it in the ’80s. Then came Jay-Z. Drake and Taylor Swift are doing that today. Rock & roll is the ever-changing sound of Young America.

That diversity seems to be reflected in this year’s class of inductees.

Yes. If you look at the list, it knows no one race, gender or sound. They do share one thing in common: attitude.

What were some of the first things you did upon assuming the stewardship of the Hall?

First, it was critical to communicate to artists, industry, and fans that rock & roll is a democracy―all sounds, colors and genders are welcome. The one common requirement for all inductees is that their music moved generations of young people and influenced those artists who’ve followed. At the same time, I saw that we needed to evolve and diversify our board of directors so that it reflects the artists and music we honor today. Our president, Joel Peresman, is helping. We’ve added talented board members like Pharrell Williams, Darryl McDaniels, LL Cool J, Jon Platt, Oliver Schusser, Matt Nord, Troy Carter, Kelly Coffey, Jody Gerson, Michele Anthony and Pam Kaufman. I’m proud of our progress so far, but we still have more to go.

Your induction ceremonies have become known for stage moments where young artists induct their heroes and perform live. How does that play into the ethos of the Hall?

An important part of the induction ceremonies is to shine a light on younger artists whose sounds have been influenced by our inductees. Harry Styles performed with Stevie Nicks. Taylor Swift inducted Carole King and performed “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” And last year Ed Sheeran performed with Eminem, Brandi Carlile performed with Dolly Parton and Olivia Rodrigo sang Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Our producers Joel Gallen and Rick Krim and our RRHOF team do a brilliant job every year of bringing all these once-in-a-lifetime moments together for a four-and-a-half-hour show that really is flawless.

How do you see the Hall of Fame Foundation expanding its reach?

Our museum in Cleveland continues to do incredible business and is growing every year. And just a few weeks ago, we broke ground on a $150 million expansion that will open in 2026. We have also expanded our induction ceremonies to include New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles and—hopefully soon—Nashville and London. We’re also building our first-ever creative marketing group. Like all brands, in order to grow, we need to be ubiquitous.

Let’s segue to your iHeartRadio life. Tell us a bit about the growth of Jingle Ball since its origins with Z100.

Jingle Ball has always been a hugely successful franchise in NYC, thanks to Tom Poleman and his team at Z100. When Bob Pittman, Rich Bressler and I joined in 2011, we thought, if it works in New York, it could work anywhere. So we expanded it to become a nationwide tour and network television show. We then launched five more iHeart-branded national music tentpole franchises that are carried on video partners like ABC, Fox, Disney+ and Hulu. This year’s lineup includes includes Olivia Rodrigo, SZA, Usher, OneRepublic, Sabrina Carpenter, Jelly Roll, Big Time Rush, Doechii, Pentatonix, David Kushner, Melanie Martinez and more. Jingle Ball is not only a celebration of the holidays, but it also shines a spotlight on the artists who were listened to the most all year long by iHeart listeners.

The tour has not only become the biggest holiday music event of the year but also shines a spotlight on the artists who were the most listened to all year long on our iHeart radio stations and the app. I work very closely with Tom Poleman and Marissa Morris on producing Jingle Ball, and it’s important to note the tour is curated by our radio programmers.

Are you working on anything now that you consider especially forward-looking?

For almost 10 years I’ve been fortunate to work closely with my friend Jim Dolan on the board of directors of Madison Square Garden, and now on the board of Jim’s new venture, Sphere. As executive chairman and CEO of MSG Entertainment, Jim has been the creative genius and visionary behind Sphere, which is being celebrated as the future of immersive entertainment with its debut with U2’s residency and Darren Aronofsky’s Postcards From Earth. Sphere is a great example of the kind of ecosystem I love to be part of, dedicated to exploring what’s next in entertainment and in artists connecting with consumers. I think it’s going to change the game for entertainment in Las Vegas and beyond.

What else is inspiring you today?

That’s easy. The fact that I am lucky enough to still be riding an ever-changing wave of music that drives popular culture is a gift that I never take for granted. I have had the good fortune of still being able to learn something new every day and have always lived by the rule of “follow and take care of the talent and you can do no wrong.” In this business, we have been given the gift of working every day with the greatest artists in the world. There is nothing more inspiring than that, and I don’t see ever wanting to stop.

Pictured (from top): Sykes at the groundbreaking of the Rock Hall expansion with Gina Schock, Michelle Phillips, Charlotte Caffey, Sam Moore, Martha Reeves and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum President/CEO Greg Harris; Sykes and Tom Poleman and U2's Bono and Edge; with Elton John; with Ed Sheeran; with Rihanna; Sykes with iHeart/KIIS-FM's Beata Murphy, Olivia Rodrigo and Ryan Seacrest; Spherical greetings; Sykes with Taylor Swift

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