<p>From left: Selena Gomez photographed on December 4, 2020 at Industria in Brooklyn. John Janick, DaBaby, and Billie Eilish photographed on November 30, 2020 at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles.</p>

From left: Selena Gomez photographed on December 4, 2020 at Industria in Brooklyn. John Janick, DaBaby, and Billie Eilish photographed on November 30, 2020 at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles.
Austin Hargrave

How Interscope Landed On Top In 2020

The mindset that drove John Janick as a scrappy indie founder still guides him at Interscope, where his beyond-diverse roster and all-hands-on-deck team have pivoted amid a pandemic to dominate 2020.

It has been less than a year since one of the biggest nights in the 29-year history of Interscope Geffen A&M (IGA). But for chairman/CEO John Janick, it may as well be a lifetime. At the 2020 Grammy Awards held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Jan. 26 — before awards ceremonies became virtual and “social distancing” entered the cultural lexicon — 18-year-old Darkroom/Interscope superstar Billie Eilish became the first artist in 39 years to sweep the Big Four general categories (album, record and song of the year, and best new artist).

The typically reserved Janick has never been one for late nights at industry events, but that night he made an exception, first stopping by the Universal Music Group (UMG) afterparty at Rolling Greens Nursery, then repairing to a private gathering for Eilish, her family (including her older brother and producer, Finneas O’Connell), Interscope staff and label partners. The atmosphere was electric, Eilish and her team still on cloud nine; hugs were exchanged at a time before physical contact was considered hazardous. “Take a moment and really take this in,” said Steve Berman, Interscope’s longtime vice chairman, to the rest of the label team. “How can you beat this feeling?”

Six weeks later, the Grammy high had fully worn off: By mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic had torn through the music industry, leading to shutdowns across the United States, tour postponements (including Eilish’s first as an arena headliner) and album delays (like for flagship Interscope artist Lady Gaga’s highly anticipated Chromatica). The Interscope staff dove into reworking rollout plans and promotional strategies — all before the police killing of George Floyd sparked a nation- and industrywide reckoning with racial injustice, leading into the caustic U.S. presidential election that kept anxiety high through the fall.

“It’s hard not to look at this year as a really difficult one,” says Janick today. A 42-year-old father of two, he has like so many adjusted to working from home and Zoom meetings. “Supporting each other as a company through all of it, and learning and growing, I think that’s probably the positive for us,” he continues. “Whenever you face difficult things, you kind of see who people really are. Sometimes people freak out — and sometimes people are the calm in the storm.”

Since his college days building maverick independent Fueled by Ramen from the ground up, through to joining IGA in 2012, Janick has relied on his entrepreneurial spirit to turn his labels into vibrant, authoritative presences in the industry. At Interscope, his investment in long-term artist development and cultural-disruptor signings helped pave the way for next-generation superstars like Eilish (whom he signed amid heavy competition when she was just 14) and Selena Gomez.

“What drew me to Interscope is not only the talent they have, but really just John,” says Gomez, who scored her third Billboard 200 No. 1 with Rare this past year. “In my hard times, or if I couldn’t figure something out, he was always on my side. And we’re like best friends — I can call and ask him about anything. He’s got a heart in this crazy industry.”

It’s that empathic approach and gentle touch that have helped Janick not only navigate a tumultuous 2020, but also finish on top. IGA is the No. 1 label on Billboard’s year-end charts for the first time since 2013, while Interscope rules as the top Hot 100 label (with 118 tracks hitting the chart in the tracking period) and IGA as the top Billboard 200 label (with 68 albums, 25 of which hit the top 10) — the first time a label group has swept the three lists since 2007. Interscope also leads in U.S. current market share (for equivalent album units, with on-demand audio), with 11.74% year to date as of Nov. 19, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data, more than double its market share for the whole of 2016, when it had 5.15%.

“We have all been working toward this goal since I arrived at Interscope almost eight years ago,” says executive vp Joie Manda. “Building our internal team, identifying great joint ventures led by some of the most talented young entrepreneurs in the business and, of course, signing and developing artists over many years. To attain this goal is an accomplishment that the entire IGA family shares.” (Post-publication, Manda announced he'd be leaving Interscope at the end of 2020 "to pursue new endeavors.")

In the middle of it all is Janick, whom one colleague likens to a chess master from The Queen’s Gambit — a shrewd but disarming executive who’s often rocking a hoodie and always thinking five steps ahead. Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music and a longtime supporter who brought Janick to Warner Music Group (WMG) in 2004, compares him to a more classic TV character: “I know I’m dating myself when I bring up Columbo, but that’s John Janick,” says Cohen. “Curious, but has done all the work necessary to know what’s going on.”

That means challenging his team to meet his long-term vision, but also laughing with them when, say, they turn an unwitting appearance during the Grammys telecast — Janick was caught on camera grooving to a Diana Ross performance — into an internal email meme. He knows his corporate speak (he has, after all, spent over a decade cycling through the major-label ecosystem), but he’s still enough of a music nerd at heart to gush about the size of the mosh pit at a Machine Gun Kelly show.

“What’s that old saying — ‘True leaders look at crisis through the lens of opportunity?’ ” says UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge. “That’s exactly what John and his team have done — keeping Interscope focused, aggressive and united even when they could not be working together physically.”

When Janick sat down with Grainge in 2018 to discuss long-term strategy for IGA, his idea of success looked a lot like the label’s 2020 output. “It’s like compounding interest,” says Janick. “You have to super-serve the big artists, keep breaking new ones and keep developing other artists that become your breaking ones, and then they become your big artists.”

This year, top-tier vets like Gaga, Gomez and Eminem scored No. 1 albums; newer stars like DaBaby, Summer Walker, Machine Gun Kelly and Blackpink reached wider audiences after long-term development; and reliable hit-makers like Eilish, J. Cole and Maroon 5 put out singles while readying their next full-lengths. Just as Janick imagined, Interscope has transformed into a pipeline of burgeoning talent and big projects — with one of the most diverse rosters among major labels. So even though the pandemic necessitated rearranging strategies surrounding those releases, the label’s leaders didn’t scramble, pivoting once it became clear that touring and live appearances would not resume in 2020.

“I start the fire, they throw the fuel on it,” says DaBaby of the Interscope brass that has helped the Charlotte, N.C., rapper become one of the biggest names in hip-hop. After touring relentlessly last year behind his 2019 album, Kirk, DaBaby released followup Blame It on Baby in April, when the concert business had already shut down. Yet his single “Rockstar” received an assist from white-hot rapper Roddy Ricch, a flashy music video and a timely “Black Lives Matter remix” — all of which made up for the lack of live promotion and led to the track ruling the Hot 100 for seven weeks. “Everybody just had to adapt, find new ways to market themselves and their music,” says DaBaby, “and I feel like we came out on top at the height of the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, with Chromatica pushed from April to May, Gaga had to ditch the planned promotional blitz — but with the help of an enormous online push for her Ariana Grande collaboration, “Rain on Me,” (complete with an Amazon Music commercial and branded ponchos), she scored a Hot 100 chart-topper that gave the project momentum when it arrived. K-pop girl group Blackpink couldn’t travel from South Korea to the United States to promote its debut album, but no matter: “Ice Cream,” its cheeky single with Gomez, launched with a splashy music video filmed safely on separate continents, plus a new ice cream flavor from Serendipity, a brand in which Gomez recently became an investor.

“Something that John has always instilled in everybody is: It’s OK to have to cut bait, and it’s important to find the right time to do it,” says CFO Annie Lee, a 14-year Interscope veteran. “There was a shift in focus of where we would spend our marketing dollars. You can’t do the promo tours anymore, but now we’re funneling that into things that we can do, like digital activations: Maybe we’re not used to spending a certain amount on an influencer campaign on TikTok, but we’re not doing everything else right now, so this is what we’ve got, and we’ve got to shift and do that quickly.”

Part of that nimbleness can be chalked up to Janick’s personal history. In 1996, while still an 18-year-old University of Florida student, he founded pop-punk indie Fueled by Ramen and learned the basics of the industry on the fly, while breaking early signees like Fall Out Boy and Paramore. After Fueled by Ramen entered a partnership with Atlantic, Janick became co-president of the revived Elektra Records within WMG in 2009, helping guide the early careers of Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran. (Today, Fueled by Ramen is part of Elektra Music Group.) Grainge brought him over to UMG in 2012 as Interscope president/COO, as well as the eventual successor to label founder and chairman Jimmy Iovine, who departed for Apple Music in 2014.

“John works very differently than I do, and he’s very effective,” says the notoriously candid Iovine. “He is very structured, very organized, very deliberate with what he does. I always wanted to find somebody to run Interscope that could replace me — I wasn’t looking for someone that could be a No. 2; I was looking for someone that could be a No. 1. And John, from the beginning, was that guy.”

Under Janick, IGA has built a staff of both industry veterans with plenty of institutional wisdom (Berman has been with the label since its 1991 inception) and free-thinking up-and-comers (Michelle An has thrived as executive vp, head of visual creative, while Nicole Wyskoarko was recently promoted to executive vp/co-head of A&R after joining in 2018). Label partnerships have become a priority as a way to align with important talent — the Top Dawg Entertainment deal with Kendrick Lamar, Dreamville with J. Cole, YG Entertainment with Blackpink. Darkroom founder/CEO Justin Lubliner, who signed Eilish in partnership with Interscope in 2016, says that she “really utilizes the vast resources that the label has to offer” — as does he. “I probably speak to Janick or Berman three to five days a week, whether it’s about Billie or future endeavors, or just to seek mentorship and run ideas past them.”

Overspending, on the other hand, has become a thing of the past. Janick has been shrewd in bidding wars — signing Juice WRLD for $3 million amid heavy competition — and has a reputation for keeping marketing budgets under control. “John is very financially minded, having run his own company,” says Lee. “The way that things were run [before him], with a lot of excess — that completely went away.”

Instead, Interscope has mined opportunities through cross-departmental strategizing — relying on the label’s marketing, A&R, creative and film/TV departments to work together, avoid redundancies and amplify visuals as extensions of an artist’s brand. Janick points to recent soundtrack projects like Lamar’s music for Black Panther and Gaga’s A Star Is Born as commercial wins that required an all-departments-on-deck approach. “The albums obviously helped drive the films from a marketing perspective,” says Janick, “but they were amazing standalone pieces, too.” The Black Panther soundtrack earned a Grammy nod for album of the year; two Gaga tracks from A Star Is Born were nominated for song of the year, and “Shallow” won an Academy Award for best original song.

This year, brand-building visuals ranged from DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s cinematic, politically charged awards-show performances of “Rockstar” to Blackpink’s revealing Netflix doc, Blackpink: Light Up the Sky. Apple has proved to be an especially important partner on this front: Gomez and Gaga kicked off their newest eras with Shot on iPhone campaigns, and Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, an Apple TV+ documentary set for early 2021, was directly commissioned by Interscope (and sold for a hefty price, says a source with knowledge of the deal).

“You try to fit things into a box in 2020, you’re missing out completely,” says Janick. He points to the Juice WRLD-Marshmello single “Come & Go” that topped the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart as just one example of how Interscope has benefited from fading genre barriers in the streaming era. In September, Machine Gun Kelly convincingly leapt from hip-hop to pop-punk with Tickets to My Downfall, a project mixing Warped Tour riffs with guests like Halsey and Trippie Redd that became the first rock album to top the Billboard 200 in over a year.

MGK was promoted relentlessly at alternative radio — which also embraced songs on Juice WRLD’s posthumous LP Legends Never Die, one of the year’s biggest albums with 1.8 million equivalent album units sold. “When I first listened to Juice WRLD, I fell in love right away, because I thought the music was amazing,” says Janick of the late artist. “But it’s [also] how he listened to emo music and hip-hop growing up. He listened to Fueled by Ramen records that I put out — Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco.”

With the prognosis for touring in 2021 still unclear, Janick’s team is entering the new year ready to pivot in uncharted directions. “Looking at where people are right now and will be for the foreseeable future, what are the interesting things we can be doing around gaming, esports, livestreaming, social media?” posits Berman. Some ideas are already in play: When Eilish’s “bad guy” music video reached 1 billion YouTube views on Nov. 23, the platform released its first-ever “infinite video,” a nifty artificial intelligence-generated visual combining thousands of fan covers of the chart-topping smash in countless permutations.

Then there’s Interscope Miami, a bulked-up Latin department two years in the making that Janick expects to fully take off in 2021. He and Manda personally recruited former Sony Music U.S. Latin president Nir Seroussi in early 2019 as an executive vp. Seroussi had never met Janick before then, but he was quickly sold on the idea of a Miami-based Latin division that is fully integrated into Interscope’s development and promotion operations.

“Our goal was to build a specialized Latin team that would have the support of the entire Interscope machine,” says Seroussi. “The world knows that Latin music is global, and we feel that artists that come from that space deserve to have an equal seat at the table.”

Puerto Rican producer Tainy has already become a hit-maker since his label, NEON16, finalized a deal with Interscope in 2019 to jointly sign and develop new acts, including Colombian rapper Dylan Fuentes and Puerto Rican MC Kris Floyd. Tainy recently picked up his first Grammy nomination for his single “Un Dia (One Day)” with J Balvin, Dua Lipa and Bad Bunny. Seroussi also expects Argentine trap artist Khea and actress-singer Lele Pons — both of whom are signed to Interscope and handled by the Miami team — to join Tainy as success stories by the end of next year. A creative studio has been set up in Miami, and Seroussi says his department has been “staffing up” for a busy 2021.

Janick’s mind is on next year, too. It will be Interscope’s 30th anniversary, and he’s excited to unveil a revamped, bigger-staffed Geffen Records and to debut an under-wraps Gomez visual project. Then there’s Eilish, who, with four new nominations (including record and song of the year for “Everything I Wanted”), could once again have a major Grammy night. But no matter what 2021 brings, he’ll be hustling as hard as he did when he was signing bands from his dorm room, figuring out how to secure the next generation-defining superstar for his roster.

“Even though I work for a company today, I still treat it like it’s my own company,” says Janick. “I want to do everything possible to make sure it’s run the right way, that the people are taken care of and we have a great business that’s going to last for a long time, which I think is what entrepreneurs are focused on. They’re not focused on quarters — they’re focused on the long term.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.

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