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The first time John Janick met Lyor Cohen, Cohen gave him a copy of "Follow the Music," Jac Holzman's memoir about the creation of Elektra Records. Five years after that meeting-during which Janick sold a stake in his Fueled by Ramen label to Warner Music Group, where Cohen serves as chairman/CEO of recorded music for the Americas and the U.K.-Janick is presiding over Elektra alongside Mike Caren, executive VP of A&R at WMG's Atlantic Records.
"I was always about building Fueled by Ramen as a brand," says Janick, 32, of the company he started in 1996 while an undergraduate at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "And Elektra is such a great brand with so much history. So to be asked to revive that-it's an amazing thing. Mike and I wanted to come in and rebuild the label to what it was before: being about the artist; putting out great, eclectic music; and trying to adapt to what's going on in the industry right now."
The two co-presidents are off to an impressive start: In February Elektra is up for a bevy of Grammys, including record and song of the year, both for Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You," which Elektra artist Bruno Mars co-wrote and co-produced. Additionally, Mars' Billboard Hot 100-topping "Just the Way You Are" was nominated for best male pop vocal performance, while "Nothin' on You," his hit collaboration with rapper B.o.B, will compete with "Fuck You" for record of the year. And as one-third of the Smeezingtons, Mars is also in contention for producer of the year, non-classical.
"To be honest, it's exactly where I wanted us to be," says Caren, 33, of the Grammy showing, which comes a mere 18 months after Elektra's official relaunch in June 2009. "The Grammys aren't nominating many artists that sell less than 20,000 copies. For the most part they're focused on the artists who've had some sort of commercial success, who are considered the highest talent among our peers. That's what we're after." Caren laughs. "John and I are both fans of HBO, and that's kind of our idea for the Elektra brand: critically acclaimed and mass-consumed."
Founded in 1950 by Holzman, a 2011 inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Elektra first became known as a folk label, releasing records by Josh White and Judy Collins. In the mid-'60s Elektra moved into pop and rock with the Doors, Love and the Stooges; the '70s brought a merger with David Geffen's Asylum Records and its stable of West Coast singer/songwriters.
With Bob Krasnow at the helm throughout much of the '80s and early '90s, Elektra issued blockbusters by Metallica, Tracy Chapman and Natalie Cole. Sylvia Rhone took over in 1994, breaking such acts as Busta Rhymes and Third Eye Blind. Then in 2004, Elektra was folded into Atlantic following WMG's sale by Time Warner to a group of private investors led by former Vivendi Universal executive Edgar Bronfman Jr.
"When Edgar bought the company in 2004, I sent him a note of congratulations," says Holzman, who'd spent his post-Elektra years in a variety of music- and tech-related pursuits, including heading up Panavision. "Of course, being me, I couldn't resist making some comments about mistakes I thought the company had made. This was on a Sunday, and within 20 minutes I had a long response from Edgar, which led to lunch the next time I was in New York."
After said lunch, they repaired to Bronfman's office. "He asked me what I was interested in, and I told him digital initiatives," Holzman says. "I saw the playing field shifting." Bronfman hired Holzman to work on exactly that, "and about a month after I went back, they decided to put Elektra to sleep for a while."
The decision didn't upset Holzman. "My feeling was that Elektra had lost its way," he says. "Up through the management of Bob Krasnow, it had been magical. But I thought Elektra had gone downhill since then-the label had lost its interest in legacy artists. So when Edgar said we needed to let it lie, I agreed: Let's treat it like a fine orchid and let it lie dormant until it comes to life again, either on its own or because some bright young talent comes along to do it."
According to Atlantic co-chairman/COO Julie Greenwald, that talent arrived in the form of Janick and Caren. "These were two outstanding execs in our camp, with great ideas about marketing and promotion and artist relations," she says, pointing to Janick's success with Fueled by Ramen acts like Paramore and Gym Class Heroes and to Caren's with records by B.o.B and Trey Songz.
Greenwald says that she and Atlantic co-chairman/CEO Craig Kallman "believed it was their time to be promoted and to give them a company that they could build upon. We'd been waiting to rebirth Elektra, but we needed the right people to be at the helm of it. And these two guys were ready."
"Mike and John are really the consummate record men," Kallman adds. "I hired Mike when he was 16 years old [to work in marketing for Kallman's Big Beat Records], and even back then he was super-entrepreneurial and an incredibly passionate music fan. John is an entrepreneur, too, who's built a beautiful brand in Fueled by Ramen and has a great aesthetic sense and terrific marketing instincts. We felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to introduce the two of them as partners to reignite such an important brand."
Both men say the offer was immediately appealing. As a DJ, Caren says he has "always had a special place for Elektra," thanks to such early-'90s hip-hop acts as Brand Nubian and Leaders of the New School. "The label has this combination of cool and crossover, and that was something I tried to do with Vice Records, where we had all this great international repertoire that didn't have a home at Atlantic. We brought in Vice to cleverly market that stuff, but they didn't have any interest in actually crossing anything over." When another hip imprint, Downtown Records, left Atlantic in 2008, "I felt there was an essential need for a subsidiary that could really handhold these super-creative artists, as well as handle international repertoire," Caren says.
In addition to Mars and Green, Elektra's current seven-act roster includes French singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, U.K. electro-pop star Little Boots and reggae artist Laza Morgan, as well as Uffie and Justice, both integral members of the dance scene centered on Paris' Ed Banger Records.
As the co-presidents' division of labor shakes out, Los Angeles-based Caren is predominately A&R-oriented, he says, while New York-based Janick oversees the bulk of the label's marketing efforts. "But we both do a little of everything," Caren adds. "We complement each other."
Janick says the relationship has grown "organically" and that the spirit they've fostered so far isn't unlike the one he built at Fueled by Ramen. "It's about being scrappy to a certain extent and paying attention to every little detail," he says. "And it's not just about selling records, but selling tickets and merchandise and building long-term careers for our artists." Hence 360 deals for acts that, Caren says, have become the norm at Elektra.
"The nice thing about being your own little boutique-y label is that you have the ability to dream and take risks," Greenwald says. "We've tried to give them the freedom to experiment."
An example of that nimble thinking, Mars says, was Elektra's rollout of "Fuck You," a virtually irresistible song with built-in marketing challenges.
"We wrote this song that nobody knew what to do with, and they came up with this plan to e-mail everybody they knew with an e-mail that said 'Fuck you,' " he remembers with a laugh. "You open it up and it had that video, and the next day it had 2 million views on YouTube. I thought that was genius. That was them being ahead of the technology."
Green recorded the song "to be ridiculous," the singer/rapper says. "I thought it was the most absurd, outlandish thing I'd ever done. So it was safer to assume where it wouldn't work than where it would. But we were all in on the joke, and we were all willing to win, lose or draw."
Holzman says, "Look, nobody in this industry knows what they're doing right now." But he thinks the revived Elektra is in good hands. "These boys are very smart, and my gut sense is that they're the right team for this label in this century. I've been thrilled to see my baby reborn again."