On the roof deck of his Santa Monica office, Interscope Records' Chairman and Chief Executive John Janick took a break between meetings late on a Friday afternoon. The 36-year-old, dressed in an unassuming gray T-shirt, was just three months into his tenure as the second CEO of one of music's most successful major labels. It had been a strange week.
Three days earlier, U2, one of Interscope's marquee acts, released its new album, "Songs of Innocence," by pre-uploading it for free to half a billion iTunes accounts.
"People in the crowd were so surprised," Janick said of the band's unannounced live performance at Apple's iPhone 6 unveiling inside the Flint Center in Cupertino, Calif. "They thought they were just going to get a phone, and then, 'Oh, here's this one last thing.'"
It was the kind of all-in move that many associate with Interscope and its most recent chairman, label co-founder Jimmy Iovine. Much like Chris Blackwell's Island Records or Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records, Interscope has long reflected Iovine's big personality and assertive management style.
But with Iovine's exit to Apple in late May with his Beats Electronics partner Dr. Dre, Interscope acts inclucing U2, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar are answering to a new, much younger face in Janick.
He has his hands full. The music business has changed more in the last 10 years than it had in the last 50 — and almost none of it for the better in terms of the bottom line. Beyond the devastation wrought by illegal downloading, almost all of the recent developments — from a la carte digital single sales to the ascension of streaming services like Spotify — have come at the expense of the old record-label business model. Even iTunes saw its digital download sales dip 13% this year, and U.S. music sales are roughly half what they were at their 2000 peak.
Big gestures by famous rock bands don't have the same impact they once did, either. After a successful partnership with Apple, which began back in 2003 and included a special iPod in 2006, U2's "Songs of Innocence" experiment (for which Apple invested some $100 million) annoyed many iTunes users.
Bono later apologized on Facebook before the album got a traditional physical release on Interscope in October. At the same time, 81 million people heard at least part of the album on iTunes or Beats, and there have been 26 million full downloads. The mixed reaction to U2's effort underscores the challenges that artists and labels are up against today as they navigate new media, technologies and a frightening commercial climate.
If there's going to be a brighter future for major labels, then it's probably up to Janick to figure out what's next.
So far, Janick's strategy seems to be to do less, but do it better. It's a contrarian bet in an age of fly-by-night YouTube stars and slipping sales prospects even for major stars. But it's one that might yield longer-term dividends.
"I still act like I'm spending my own money here, which I think Lucian [Grainge, chair and chief executive of Universal Music] appreciates," Janick said, laughing. He's kept most of Iovine's top management team onboard and has been methodical in championing artists. "When we're signing acts, I tell artists to take other meetings, go talk to other labels. What we do is find left-of-center, interesting and different acts that will then become the mainstream."
Many longtime Interscope acts, who rose to stardom under Iovine's charismatic and profitable guidance, have taken a shine to Janick's light-touch approach. For Gwen Stefani's forthcoming solo album, the singer and Janick batted around ideas as unorthodox as doing the album visuals first and making the record after.
"I remember driving around on Coldwater Canyon talking to him on the phone and thinking, 'You're the record company CEO! You can't say that there are no rules, to try everything and see what happens,'" said the No Doubt singer. Her new single "Baby Don't Lie" is her first solo cut in the Janick era.
"It's a scary time now," she admits. "Artists don't make money in the same way, and we don't know who is watching or who even cares. But in the end, John is all about the song, and he's so passionate about just making something great, that I have to hope that will prevail in the end."
For all of pop music's obsession with youth, major labels typically reward experience and consistency. Janick (whose boyish complexion and low-key, plainspoken demeanor are rarities atop major entertainment companies) is one of few young music executives today with both.
He started his career in 1996 while attending the University of Florida. To document his college town's scrappy punk scene, he founded the indie label Fueled by Ramen out of his bedroom, shipping packages and handling A&R himself. Even at that scale, he took the buck-stops-here responsibility of entrepreneurship seriously.
"For me the business aspect was always really exciting. I had this vision for a partnership where the artist would be always be protected from all that," he said. "People who run major labels now aren't usually entrepreneurs. In school I tried to use my label to get credit for an entrepreneurship project and [at first] they wouldn't accept it." Janick laughs at the irony.
His first major success was with Fall Out Boy, a then-little-known pop-punk band from Chicago that would became one of the biggest rock bands of the mid-2000s. That group's aesthetic — spiky guitar pop with radio-ready choruses and big onstage personalities — set a template that Janick continued with future signings, including Panic! at the Disco, Paramore and the Grammy-winning act Fun.
And yet, Janick said, "at that point I was still having so many doors slammed in my face, like 'Sure, kid, so you signed Fall Out Boy, what's next?'"
The ongoing success of his indie roster persuaded Warner Music to distribute his imprint and later, in 2009, name him co-president of Elektra Records, where he helped nurture mainstream acts like Bruno Mars. Meanwhile, in 2012, Interscope co-founder Iovine was planning to end his tenure at Interscope to focus on his company Beats Electronics, which Apple would later buy for more than $3 billion.
Iovine, who helped make major stars of volatile hip-hop acts like Eminem and dark rock bands like Nine Inch Nails, wanted a successor who would maintain the label's legacy but wouldn't necessarily be beholden to his own image.
"You've got to run it in a way that's comfortable for you, and [Janick has] already been doing an incredible job," Iovine said. "He's much more practical than I ever was, which I appreciate. But labels have to innovate, because up until now they've left the path of innovation up to everyone else. John knows how to manage a record company, but he's also a great A&R guy with a feel for the business and he can move with the flow."
'Couldn't say no'
Janick came to Interscope Geffen A&M in 2012 as its chief operating officer and president, where he ran the day-to-day operations of the label in quiet preparation to assume its top job. Leaving Fueled by Ramen was "heartbreaking, and risky to leave what I'd built," Janick said. But he couldn't say no to a chance like this: "When Jimmy set it up, he told me 'You'll have the keys to the car.'"
In his two years at Interscope, quiet changes in style and approach are already evident. Janick has continued his particular talent for taking slow-burning, indie-spirited acts up the pop charts. Hit singles from thoughtful, challenging acts like Lamar, Lana Del Rey and Disclosure attest to Janick's long-game approach to artist development, letting acts find their audience over a span of months or even years. He's generally let his stable of legacy stars like Eminem and U2 pursue their own career and creative visions, and prioritized relationships with producers like Mike Will Made It and Alex Da Kid, who cross genres to craft unexpected singles for a variety of acts.
"With a lot artists I work with, I connect with them as friends first, and with John I have that same bond," said Emile Haynie, the pop producer behind hits like Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven" and Lana Del Rey's LP "Born to Die." "It's never forced — sometimes we'll just hang out in the studio and order food and play each other music. In this business, there are definitely [executives] you just don't connect with, and with John it's the opposite."
In 2013, Interscope Geffen A&M was the top-selling label in America, with a 7.72% share of albums and tracks sold. Still, Lady Gaga, once Interscope's most indomitable pop star ("And she still is," Janick said) has to recover from the commercial and critical misfire of her last solo album. And Robin Thicke's "Paula," the follow-up to his 2013 smash "Blurred Lines," ranks among this year's biggest flops.
With a new EDM partnership with Electric Daisy Carnival's promoter Insomniac and a stable of ambitious hip-hop acts like Lamar and ScHoolboy Q, Janick will have to prove that his ear for building long-term careers can extend outside of the pop-rock sphere.
Back on the Interscope roof deck, Janick finished his coffee and took a long look toward the ocean before his next meeting. For a young music executive with vast, uncharted territory ahead of him, it's an appropriate view.
"Artists like Lana, Kendrick, Imagine Dragons, they all have a story to tell and strong points of view," he said. "At the end of the day, it comes down to the music. If you get that right, you don't need to get too worried about the rest."