A Conversation With Fueled By Ramen's John Janick
Mike Ragogna: Hi, John. First off, happy 15th anniversary!
John Janick: Thank you, very much.
MR: Let's discuss Fueled By Ramen's history, a label that you started with Less Than Jake's Vinnie Fiorello. The first thing you released was a cassette sampler packaged like Chinese takeout. Can you tell the story of how Fueled By Ramen began?
JJ: Basically, I was in high school. It was 1996, and I was graduating high school. I'd started a little label because I was really passionate about music. I wasn't in any bands or anything, but I grew up in a small town and I'd traveled to shows in the surrounding area to discover new music...and I mail ordered ordered records. I was really into the underground rock-punk-alternative scene, and I loved finding and discovering new artists. I was actually a fan of Less Than Jake early on--they were growing in Florida and started to become really big. They had just signed to a major label, and Vinnie and some of the other guys in the band just happened to be from this small town that I was from in Florida. They were in Gainsville then, because they went to the University Of Florida. I got to know them because they were from this small town that was about three hours south of Gainsville, and I just happened to be going to the University Of Florida for school that year. The little label I'd started wasn't working out, and when I moved to Gainsville, Vinnie and I decided to partner up and started Fueled By Ramen.
MR: There had to be some initial investment in this--did you guys just pool your money to make it happen?
JJ: It was really interesting because it wasn't like we just put a ton of money into it. Really, I had--I don't remember the exact amount--about a thousand dollars in savings bonds that I'd gotten as a kid because I had family members that for every birthday would give me a fifty or a hundred dollar savings bond, and I always had them stocked away in some safe in my parents' house. I ended up cashing them in and putting the money towards the company--I want to say it was no more than a thousand dollars--and then Vinnie did about the same. It was kind of random. As we needed things, we'd put money into the company. We built it little by little, by doing small deals. We'd put out a 7" and sell it, and make a little bit of money on it, and just keep putting all the money back into the company. Then, we'd put out another 7", then we'd sign a band and put out a CD, etc. So, basically, we started with a small amount of money and it grew very organically. As we made money, we'd put everything back in--we didn't take any money. We didn't get paid anything for probably the first five or six years.
MR: Wow. So, the Chinese takeout cassette sampler basically compiled a lot of the acts that you had discovered because of your passion for music.
JJ: Yeah, Vinnie had the idea even before I had partnered with him. He had some bands that he really liked that he was touring, and I had some that I was into also. It was just a really cool, creative idea that was different. I gotta give him credit for it because he conceptualized that thing on his own.
MR: What were the acts on the cassette?
JJ: Oh, man. It's funny...I should be looking at it, because we have one here and I haven't looked at it in a while. But from what I remember, I think it was Supermarket All-Stars, The Hippos--I don't remember who else was on it but I want to say there were three or four bands on the cassette sampler. It basically was an old Chinese takeout box that we actually assembled by hand, and then we put a Fueled By Ramen sticker on the front. Each box had a catalog inside that was like a Chinese takeout menu that was upcoming stuff we were working on. It had the cassette sampler and it had a fortune cookie and a sticker.
MR: It was a really cool little item. So then the label started growing, what acts came on board?
JJ: It took a little while, but two of the first bands we signed were The Hippos, which did really well. They were kind of like a ska punk band from southern California. I don't remember how many copies of that album sold, but it sold a lot of copies. We actually worked on it with somebody else, another label, and the band. It was more of a licensing deal. But I want to say, at the time, it went on to sell--in the first year, probably--20 or 30 thousand copies, and then it went on to sell a lot more. Then, we signed a band called The Impossibles out of Austin, Texas, that was another band that went on to sell, like, 15 or 20 thousand albums in the first year. For being a small, independent label who was just putting a lot of sweat into these records and coming up with creative ways to market while still being smart about how we spent money, those were good successes for us.
That was kind of the start, and one of the first breakthroughs was when we worked with Jimmy Eat World. We put out the EP before Clarity. It had "Lucky Denver Mint" on it and it really took off, and then from there, it kind of snowballed. We did an EP for Yellowcard right before they did the Ocean Avenue record, which did really well. Then, I signed Fall Out Boy, and that was kind of our big breakthrough, because we did Take This To Your Grave. That went on to sell a quarter of a million units over a two year period, and then we released From Under The Cork Tree, which sold probably over three million albums around the world. Then, Take This To Your Grave went on to go sell another three or four hundred thousand copies--over six hundred and fifty thousand copies now. And then from there, it just kept on going, fortunately. From working with Panic! At The Disco to Gym Class Heroes to Paramore to Cobra Starship, all these different bands.
MR: You took away all my questions! (laughs)
JJ: (laughs) I'm sorry, I tend to ramble.
MR: No, this is good, John, very nice. So, how does your association with Atlantic work...is it a distribution deal, or is Fueled By Ramen actually an arm of Atlantic?
JJ: You know, it started--like everything else we do--it started very organically. We worked with ADA, which was the independent distribution arm of Warner. We had a deal with them--and we kind of did our own thing--but we had the option to work with one of the bigger labels, which was Atlantic or Warner Brothers if an artist got big enough. We didn't want to lose our artists--we never wanted to have a ceiling for our artists, and we always wanted to be attached to them. We'd find them as babies, and we'd work with them to help grow their career, and I'd had instances in the past where an artist would leave because a major label would come by and say, "Hey--Fueled By Ramen's not able to offer what you need. You should sign with us." And, even though we have contracts with our artists, I always wanted to make sure we were doing right by people and not holding people back. I wanted to have those resources there. So we did this deal--I had had a similar deal before, when I'd signed Fall Out Boy and we had worked something out with Island, so there was an upstream there also. But the people who were at Island had left and now were at Warner, so we ended up doing this deal with them. It was very organic--it was through ADA, the distribution--there was this little upstream thing. Then my partner, Vinnie decided he wanted to leave. He was kind of done with it, so I ended up working it out so that I could acquire his piece of it--and it was an amicable split. He just wasn't wanting to do that anymore. Then later on, I partnered with Warner. We became more partners on things, and now we're--I guess--more of an arm, where we're sole partners with everything. Fueled By Ramen still has the small staff of people--a lot of the people that worked in Florida. Some of them have been working with the company for ten years. We still have the same view on everything. We focus on building an artists' career and foundation through street marketing and online marketing and being creative and doing different things, but by also having the resources and the bigger company that is also a part of Fueled By Ramen--in radio and video and international and all those other things.
MR: You also associated with the amazing Lyor Cohen.
MR: He's been such a major figure in the music business. He's put together a lot of great deals and been responsible for the signings of a lot of good artists and labels like Fueled By Ramen.
JJ: Yeah, he was--as far as the Warner company goes--he was the person who had reached out to me. I dealt directly with him, and he was very supportive of everything we did. As far as with the bigger company, he helped drive my vision and what I was doing and made sure that we were getting the right attention. A lot of people come into these bigger organizations and they'll get lost. Then people hate the situation, and their company will get screwed up. I have the best of both worlds. I don't think anybody has the same type of company that I have. We operate like an indie label that's very small and nimble and can do their own thing, but we have the resources of a major company. And we have great partners, all the people here and everybody that's in the Warner/Atlantic company have been really good partners to us in making sure that we can continue with the vision they trusted, what we wanted to do and the brand we had built, and making sure that we can continue to do it the way we've always done it.
MR: Nice. In this business, those relationships that are based on loyalty and commitment and dedication last for years and years and really add quality to everybody's lives. And the DIY attitude is one thing that has always been missing from the major labels. The whole scene has really changed now, because of social networking and all of that. What do you think are the major differences between the DIY setup now and the DIY setup of 15 years ago?
JJ: Well, I think we were fortunate in that we were starting when the internet was starting to gain traction, I guess. We really took advantage of that. We were very early to get on MP3.com, we were one of the first labels on Myspace, and we were one of the first labels on YouTube. We built a strong following, and if you look at today, it's a testament to how good our artists are. We have great fans, and kids are into the artists and support the label and the brand. You're able to do so much more than you were back then. Back then, I had to make samplers that we had to give out for free--samplers or cassette samplers were how you spread music. It was street marketing, which is still important today, but it wasn't as easy as streaming songs online or viewing videos online. In order to get your video shown, you either had to go to the local public access or there was MTV or VH1 or MTV2 and those things. Otherwise, you had no way of getting your video shown. Now, you can just post it online and people can see it. So, obviously the YouTubes and the Facebooks are super important. Before those, there were the Myspaces and the PureVolumes and the MP3.coms. And obviously, these companies either evolve or someone else new comes in and takes over. There's a lot of that. And it's just a lot easier, it's at your fingertips. With that, there's a lot more out there for people to sift through. Hopefully, what we're able to do is find great acts and develop them and present them in the way the artist wants to be presented to the world--with their vision--in the right way.
MR: Excellent. By the way, there's this very ballsy, punky, ska-ful, wild band called Utopia Park that's doing a 41-city tour right now. Don't be surprised if I send Utopia Park your way. (laughs)
JJ: Totally, send it over. I always love to check out new music.
MR: Very cool, thanks. And speaking of new acts, what advice do you have for new artists these days?
JJ: Music is the foundation of everything, so having good music is most important. The other thing is not waiting for somebody else to come in--artists shouldn't be just sitting around waiting to be signed. They should be making their music better, trying to make sure that they're getting out to people and playing shows--just developing. What we do when we sign an artist is try to make sure we come up with an overall plan of how we're going to take them from the point of no one knowing who they are to playing in hundred person clubs to five hundred to a thousand and beyond. There's nothing greater than being able to see an artist grow from nothing into playing in front of thousands of people who are singing every word. So, I think that an artist needs to go out, and they need to play shows, and get in front of people, and make their live show great, and make sure that they're getting their music recorded, and get out their and not rely on somebody else to just come in and do it for them.
MR: So, because you have Paramore, do you also have The Transformers soundtrack?
JJ: No, we don't have The Transformers soundtrack, that's through Warners Brothers, but Paramore recorded the song "Monster," which was a single on The Transformers soundtrack. But Paramore is a very important band to us. They're one of our flagship artists, so we're very active in marketing it to make sure that Paramore is supported. And, obviously, Warner Brothers is our sister company.
MR: Can you tell the story of the signing of Paramore?
JJ: I had met Hayley at random through one of Paramore's managers, and I thought she was amazing. I thought she was really great, and we clicked right away. She was young at the time--I want to say she was 14 or 15--but so on the same level as I was at the time. I must have been in my mid-'20s then, probably 24 or 25 or something. Even though she was ten years younger, we just clicked. The next day, I got to see a show she and the guys were playing. So, I went and saw them and got to meet everybody and it just clicked right away. We kind of just dove right in and did the deal and we made the first record, All We Know Is Falling--which I think was them kind of figuring themselves out, because they were so young. It turned out to be an amazing record, and that went on to give a great base for the setup of Riot!, so they could find themselves. It was a great album and it went on to be a gold record. It was a really exciting thing, and to this day...I've been involved with them now for probably seven years, since they were young teenagers, now being in their early '20s. they're such great people and so talented. It's been an amazing ride.
MR: Panic! At The Disco?
JJ: So, I'd signed Fall Out Boy, and obviously, was very passionate about Fall Out Boy and I'd gotten to know Pete very, very well. When I was trying to sign them--I never flew out to see Fall Out Boy, I signed them over the telephone because we were a small company and we didn't have ton of money. Pete and I clicked and he believed in what we were doing, and so did the rest of the guys in Fall Out Boy. But Pete was kind of the business guy. And Pete and I, over the course of Take This To Your Grave, really kind of hit the pavement as far as marketing went. We were really DIY and scrappy--we sold two hundred and fifty thousand units of Take This To Your Grave. When it started out, we sold 1200 the first week, and then we were selling four hundred albums a week, and then I remember all the different points--getting the endcap at Hot Topic, getting this tour, doing this marketing. We just kind of gradually sold records and were so hyper-focused. This is the long version, I apologize. (laughs)
So, I really trusted Pete. I thought he was great, smart guy. He had turned me onto another act, and it took me a minute--but it was The Academy Is...--they were from Chicago. I thought they were really good and I signed them. After I signed them and I started working on it, I said, "Pete, I really love working with you. I think you're fantastic." He and I were friends, and I thought he was really smart, and I felt like Fall Out Boy was going to do really well. I didn't want to do a label imprint just because Fall Out Boy was going to do well, but I believed in him. And so we did it...we put it together, and Ryan, from Panic! At The Disco posted on one of Pete's blogs he had happened to check it out. I remember I was walking my dog, and he called me. It was at night, on a weekend, and he said, "You gotta check this band out. I just got this MP3 and I want to see what you think." So, I said, "I'm gonna be upstairs in a minute, and I'll listen to it." I got on my computer, and I was like, "Oh my god, this is amazing. Call him right away. We gotta sign--this is going to be the first thing we sign to Decaydance." So, that is the long, drawn out story.
MR: No, that's a great story. What about Gym Class Heroes?
JJ: Gym Class Heroes was an interesting one because there was a guy that we worked with on design stuff, and he randomly had sent it to me, and I loved it right away. I was like, "This doesn't sound like anything we have." They did a song called "Taxi Driver" that named all the bands in the alternative rock scene at the time. They made an interesting story by taking band names like Fall Out Boy and Jimmy Eat World and all these other bands. It was creative and different, and it was a full band playing and Travis rapping. It was just a really cool thing. It just so happened that at the same time--again, this is right around the same time that Fall Out Boy was getting big--Pete had hit me up about it too, because he loved it also. I was like, "It's funny, because I just left a message for Travis from the band." So, he was helpful in that process also. I ended up getting in touch with him, we worked out a deal, and it was all great from there.
MR: Let's get to Travie McCoy's "Billionaire" featuring Bruno Mars. What's the story there?
JJ: We were working on the record, and there was an A&R guy here who was A&Ring the project. It was the first time I'd worked with him--it was a guy name Aaron Bay-Shuck. He brought the record in, and we were like "This is fantastic. This is great." And we were talking about the singer on the hook, and about how his voice was great but were we going to replace him because we wanted somebody with more of a name--because Bruno was not, obviously, going on and performing much as Bruno Mars. He was doing little, small clubs in LA but he wasn't signed anywhere. But we loved the song, and we were making the record, and we knew it was great and that it was going to be the first single. And it just so happened that I also run Elektra with my partner Mike Caren and Aaron wanted to sign Bruno, so we ended up signing Bruno to Elektra, which ended up, obviously, being very good. He's an amazing artist--he's really great.
MR: He is, one of my favorites. And how about Cobra Starship?
JJ: I've known Cobra for a long time because Gabe was in a band called Midtown. So, I've known him pretty much since I got into the music business--well, I've been in the music business since I was 16 or 17--but I met him when I was 19 or 20. He was signed to one of my friend's labels, Drive-Thru Records, and I got to know him through that. Then he stopped doing Midtown, and this management company, Crush--who manages Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco and Gym Class Heroes--had managed Midtown and were managing Cobra Starship. I heard the songs "Snakes On A Plane" and then was like, "We gotta sign this." Pete, he was into it too, so we put it through Decaydance, and it's all history from there. But Gabe is a great guy. I've known him for such a long time as a friend. He was doing this really interesting, different thing with Cobra Starship when compared to Midtown.
MR: How do you feel--since this is your anniversary--now, fifteen years later?
JJ: I feel really good. I feel like, you know--you never know when you should be celebrating something like that. We thought it was interesting because it was 15 years and I think, after seeing everything that's gone on in the music industry for the past decade, fifteen years...it's been a bit crazy to think that, so far, we've weathered through it. We're really proud of our label and the brand and our artists and that we're still here, after fifteen years, I think is an accomplishment. We're really excited. It's awesome that we have such great bands that want to be supportive of the fifteen year anniversary and are proud to be on the label and that we have great fans of the bands and of the label, and that we're able to do this.
MR: Where are you heading in the next 15 years?
JJ: Like I said, we're really excited about where we're at now. I feel like we're all really hungry, and although we have such a small roster, we have great acts. We're hyper-focused on making sure we take care of our artists and continuing to build the brand. Everything's changing with technology and everything else going on, so we'll just try to make sure that we continue to deliver music that people will be into and support our artists' creative vision and we continue to find artists that are going to push the boundaries and do something different and be exciting.
MR: What are the show dates associated with the anniversary?
JJ: We were able to put together three really cool shows in early September. The first is going to be September 7th with Paramore and headlining with Fun., The Swellers, and This Providence doing acoustic. On September 8th, it's Sublime With Rome headlining with Gym Class Heroes, The Stereo, and Recover--The Stereo and Recover being older acts on the Fueled By Ramen roster that are coming back together to do this. And then on September 9th, it's Cobra Starship headlining with The Academy Is..., A Rocket To The Moon, and Versaemerge. All three shows are at Terminal 5 in New York City and are on sale now.
MR: Dude, it's been a pleasure to talk with you, continued best of luck with everything you're doing.
JJ: Thank you so much for doing this, I really appreciate it.
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
AND THE TRIBUTES ROLL IN...
Travie of Gym Class Heroes
I remember getting that first email from John Janick...that kind of made things, for me, super official. So, now, I'm talking to this dude via email, and its time for me to convince him that we're the band he needs to take a chance with. And I think, for the most part, the music kind of spoke for itself. It didn't really take much convincing on our behalf outside the music we were sending them, which was good because I am not really the best salesman.
I've always felt that way. I'd rather just sit back and let the music speak for itself and see how these people are affected upon listening, as opposed to me jumping around like an idiot trying to sell it to them. I remember the first time we met John was in Tampa at the Fueled By Ramen offices. I never saw a picture of the dude, and had no idea what he looked like. Whatever my own preconceived notion was, I definitely didn't expect him to look the way he did. You don't expect him to have his hair all slick back, his own little Banana Republic/ J.Crew swag.
We knew Fueled By Ramen was the place for Gym Class Heroes--it just made sense. They really put a big emphasis on touring. I feel like we grew by just getting out there and touring our asses off, that was our artist development. John basically said that our advance wouldn't be astronomical, in fact it was probably one of the smallest advances in music history. But we weren't really worried about money. We were more concerned about getting a van and a trailer, and a booking agent and just getting out there and playing shows. Once John said that getting the van and the trailer was no problem, we were like, "F**k it, where do we sign?"
Advice For New Artists: Just let your music speak for itself, don't speak for your music...until it is necessary. A lot of the times, people want to jump in and get this grand manifesto about what they're music is all about and who they are as artists. But at the end of the day, the music is going to speak for you. It'll show if everything that you are talking about makes sense or if it just a bunch of smoke being blown up someone's ass. So, let the music speak for itself, get in a f**king van and drive. Murder those shows and give to five people the same show that you give 50,000 people.
Alex Suarez of Cobra Starship
Since the start of Cobra, it's been such a pleasure working with everyone at Fueled By Ramen. It's amazing to see how far it has come, I remember when they were a tiny label out of Florida releasing 7" records of some of my favorite bands back in the day.
Advice For New Artists: Start small and try to build yourself locally, then try to conquer everywhere else.
William Beckett of The Academy Is...
When we signed with Fueled By Ramen six years ago, John Janick flew up from Tampa to see us play at the old Bottom Lounge in Chicago. Instead of shacking up in a downtown hotel, he came out to the northwest suburbs and stayed at the apartment Mike and I lived in at the time. We showed him a few new songs and talked all night about the importance of work ethic and individuality in music. I got the feeling that FBR wasn't just a record label, but a family. They've maintained that tradition to this day.
Advice For New Artists: If I had any advice for new artists, it'd be this:Focus on your songs. Great songs win out over shticks and stage costumes every time. Until you've got great songs and a tight live band, leave the guy-liner in your sister's purse.
Nick Santino of A Rocket To The Moon
I'd have to say the best memory I have of Fueled By Ramen is the day I got the contract in the mail ready to be signed and sent back. That was the day that I knew my life was going to change and my dreams of being in a real rock 'n' roll band were going to come true. We make new memories everyday with this label and I am proud to be a part of a family like FBR.
Advice For New Artists: If you're serious about pursuing music and are doing it because you love playing music and not for any other reason then you need to follow that dream. Keep going for it and working hard at it and all that work will pay off in the end. If you think you're going to start a band and the next day be rich and famous, then you should follow another dream. Making music the number one priority in my life was easy, but there is so much work and time that you need to put into it. If you do it right, then you'll be happy in the end!
Nate Ruess of fun.
I remember back in 2002 when FBR was trying to sign my first band, and it got so far along that a contract was being mailed to us, and at that time, we started getting offers from major labels. So, we decided to go get the biggest deal we could get, and I remember calling John and telling him and he tried to explain how important it was for us to develop so that when we were really ready, it would feel more natural and we would have other things to rely on. I didn't ignore his advice, but I was anxious and thought we would only get one shot, and we did at the major label, where we were quickly tossed aside and forced to do those things ourselves. Almost 10 years and a new band later, we were happy to join the roster and it's surprising how many of those values from our first conversation have held true in the way that the label works, and how we've approached it as a band.
Advice For New Artists: My advice for young artists is to never stop learning and being inspired by different kinds of music. You should never have to typecast yourself because of what inspired you when you first started. It should be a constant evolution.
Dan Young of This Providence
When we first started talking with Fueled By Ramen, I freaked out! Two reasons: 1. I dreamed of being on that label, and 2. Our drummer left the band the same month. I thought they would pass us off as uncommitted, but they believed in us and gave us a shot at our dreams and we've been working our asses off trying to prove they made the right decision since!
Advice For New Artists: Commitment to your music is key. No one is going to believe in you if you don't believe in your music. Evidence of commitment is found mostly in the way you invest your time. Practice, listen to yourself practice on a tape recorder, make it better. Perform, to your cat...gross, dog...to an audience, then tour. Other investments can only help. Empty your pockets, sacrifice your paychecks--buy records, buy an instrument or two, and when you absolutely, positively love what you're writing, suck it up and pay for some good quality demos!
Jonathan Diener of The Swellers
The first stand out FBR moment that comes to me actually happened before we signed to the label. We did a big showcase in NYC and not only did the staff dominate the crowd, but they took us out to dinner at this little Mexican restaurant. The ratio of FBR people to actual crowd at the show was pretty even, which is hilarious. After talking for months online, getting to meet everyone--from merch warehouse staff to John Janick the owner--and seeing how excited they were to potentially work with us sealed the deal. If a label goes out of their way before they sign you, that's pretty impressive. Bonding over tacos can create the longest lasting friendships. Things have been great, so here's to another 15 years!
Advice For New Artists: If you want your band going places, the first step is literally going places. Get online and start booking your band shows around your state, region, and eventually, the country. It will be a rocky start, but that's the beauty of touring. You meet people at the shows, so you can crash at their house for the night and sleep on their floor and you create a bond you'll have forever. We've gotten most of our friends that way and the crowds have been growing every time we come back to each city. It's an amazing feeling. Stick with it.
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008