Interview with Rob Janicke of indie label SoundEvolution Music

We discussed in-depth with Rob Janicke of Soundevolution Music about the day to day life of an indie record label, how listening habits have changed, his music mentors and upcoming projects with the label's artists.

By Savannah DavanzoMusicngear Editor

Article photo - Interview with Rob Janicke of indie label SoundEvolution Music

Rob Janicke was born a music lover. He grew up headbanging to Iron Maiden, secretly humming along to The Beatles, and jamming hard to Bad Religion, but it wasn’t until three years ago that Janicke tested the waters to see if he could swim.

He can. Running a modest music blog for fun called SoundEvolution Music while maintaining a full-time job, Janicke realized that the 9-to-5 life wasn’t cutting it for him, but quitting his job was a family decision. “[Quitting] gave me the time and the headspace and the energy to be as creative as I could be,” Janicke told MusicNGear. “My kids are young, but [they] give me the drive and the energy to keep doing it so that when they grow up, they’ll realize they can do anything they want as long as they try and they work hard and they don’t quit. Whatever moves you, whatever you’re supposed to do, go do it.” Armed with the belief that passion should drive us, Janicke quit his job, partnered with old friend Mike Pellegrino, and began checking things off their entrepreneurial to-do list. Once the guys penned their mission statement, nailed a logo down, and scored the state registrations to launch a business, SoundEvolution Music -- the record label, this time -- was born.

People listen to music differently now. We mirror how people listen to music today as opposed to how labels first began

For the past three years, Janicke has burst into the industry with unrivaled tenacity and a genuine love for what he does and the artists he serves. That’s the thing about Janicke -- he doesn’t build artists like clay. He knows that they’re malleable, sure, but they’re not for us to mold. Instead, he fosters them, equipping his roster with the tools that will allow them to brand themselves and present themselves as the artists they want to be. That’s also why SoundEvolution is essentially genre-less -- citing Miles Dives’ legendary quote “Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is” as a big influence on the way he views the business, Janicke told us that the truth is that “people listen to music differently now. We mirror how people listen to music today as opposed to how labels first began.” With this in mind, he signs artists he believes in, regardless of genre, because he knows that music lovers are less likely to box artists (and themselves) into one genre these days because we’re all just listening to what we love.

SoundEvolution’s current roster boasts young brooding singer-songwriter Hayley Richman (whose voice is like a ghost, a haunting wisp), feminist acoustic-pop duo Dolltits, Brooklyn-based electro-pop songstress ÅMBE, blues-punk crooner Radiator King, and producer Alan Goldsher combining classic jazz with modern dance music. Because each artist is at a different point in their career, each creating such wildly different works, Janicke juggles their needs and anticipates opportunities every day. Though the SoundEvolution team is fairly scattered and he’s often the sole point person for the bigger picture tasks, Janicke thrives because of the team he’s built and the support system he’s lucky to have. Developing a trustworthy, hardworking team was “imperative. It had to happen,” Janicke says. “I may have had the idea to start it and the direction I thought it should go in, but there were so many things I couldn’t do or see if I was the only one focusing on it. Everybody has a different skill-set, so it’s made my life so much easier to have different people to bounce ideas off of. It’s so encouraging to get different perspectives.” Janicke’s not doing this alone. Backed by his business partner, a creative team, a grateful roster, and a loving, supportive family, he’s able to grow SoundEvolution and let it flourish.

Busy and bustling, Janicke took some time out of his frenzied day to chat with MusicNGear about running his own label, how listening has changed over the years, his music mentors, and more. Read on for our exclusive interview with Rob Janicke below and keep up-to-date with SoundEvolution Music on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and their website. Oh, and if you believe in Janicke as much as he believes in music, give a listen to two musicians he recommended to us: Dave Hause and Jared Hart.

Article photo - Interview with Rob Janicke of indie label SoundEvolution Music

MusicNGear: What were you doing before you made the shift to music business? What was the catalyst for even making that shift?

Rob Janicke: In my mind, I was always in the music business, except no one knew that but me! So what I did (all while thinking about how to break into the music business) since graduating college was all sales and marketing-type jobs. Somewhere in the radio/TV world and in the last five or six years, before making the official jump into the music business, was in logistics.

The main catalyst for making that shift was really twofold. The first was the fact that I had finally had enough of lying to myself about being happy and feeling like I was contributing something positive to the world while working in jobs I hated. I hit that wall hard and had to finally be true to who I knew I was always meant to be.

The second and perhaps most important catalyst was becoming a dad. I've got two amazing kids (ages 5 and 2 1/2) who I love more than anything. When I was a kid I remember hearing the adults in my life say that you could do anything if you worked hard and put your mind to it. The problem, though, was that advice, in my case anyway, was just words. They were said by people who hated what they did for a living and had many regrets about things they passed up on in life. I couldn't be just an empty mouthpiece to my own kids because I knew the words would ring hollow. I wanted to prove to them that they could do whatever they wanted because they'd have the real life example of watching their dad do just that.

MusicNGear: As a label owner, you wear many hats and the day-to-day is bound to vary. What are the projects and tasks that are usually on your agenda at any given time?

RJ: You don't know how true that statement really is! I've got two partners who have full-time careers outside of the label, so the day-to-day is mainly up to me. I'm lucky that I have a great intern and friend who, through nothing more than a labor of love for the business and this label, is helping me out at the moment. That being said, I'm certainly doing most of the daily activities, which you correctly stated vary.

Just as an example -- today alone I've corresponded with one artist about the status of his contract (as well as the graphic designer working on the album cover) for an upcoming release, spoke with another artist about our ongoing tour planning discussion, artwork for his upcoming release, the status of the tracks being mastered so I can let the vinyl pressing plant know when to expect the files, responded to various emails and text messages from yesterday as well as the ones coming through today, working on setting up a second meeting with a film production company I may be partnering on a project with, worked on getting a guest for my twice-a-month radio show, created and posted my social media content for Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, researched an organization I'm considering joining, looked into two conferences we may want to attend, prepared breakfast and lunch for my kids, and worked on these questions for you. It's not even 3 PM!

Genres mean very little anymore (...) we're all exposed to so many genres and styles of music you can't keep track of. It's easier to listen and so much more acceptable to like just about anything.

MusicNGear: I think what’s most admirable about you is how you seem to recognize and actively analyze the evolution of music -- you know that the industry is changing, that people are listening differently, that there is no (or shouldn’t be) rigidity in music. What changes have you witnessed in the industry over the course of being a listener first and then a business owner?

RJ: Thank you very much! I really like that you used the word "evolution" in this question. As far as being a listener of music, the changes are stark. I grew up first with vinyl, then cassettes, then CDs, then digital downloads, then vinyl again, and now streaming. It's tough to keep track of all the changes in how we all listen to music now.

Another change I've witnessed over the years (which is also true for the second part of this question) is the fact that genres mean very little anymore -- when I was kid it was the exact opposite. Outwardly I was a metalhead. I had a denim jacket with the cover of Iron Maiden's Piece Of Mind album on the back and patches of Black Sabbath, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Motley Crue, and so on all over the rest of it. I was defined and I wasn't allowed to like anything else. Genres mattered. Secretly though, I liked The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Clash, The Ramones, Men at Work, and many other styles of music. But again, I was defined as a metalhead so I couldn't like punk-rock or pop music and worse, I had to hate anyone who did. Today however, it's completely different. The ease with which music can be found and more importantly shared, we're all exposed to so many genres and styles of music you can't keep track of. It's easier to listen and so much more acceptable to like just about anything.

If I were to shuffle my music on any device it would be common to hear Pearl Jam followed by The Four Tops, followed by David Bowie, followed by Public Enemy followed by Tori Amos, followed by Stevie Wonder and hundreds of local bands and musicians no one has ever heard of. As a business owner, I don't really listen all that differently. I started the label so I could work with people who make music that moves me. Music I can be passionate about. Of course, I do tend to give certain songs more time if I think there's something there that other people will love even if it's not my favorite thing. In a case like that -- and it's also true no matter what really -- I have to respect the person making the music and know that they're in this for the right reasons with a tremendous work ethic. If they don't have those qualities, it's hard to justify working with them.

It's essential to dream big and have great expectations. If we didn't, we'd all settle for mediocrity and quitting would be acceptable.

MusicNGear: One of the tough things about being a creative go-getter is that it's often difficult to reel in our big dreams in favor of practical, reasonable goals. How do you personally manage your expectations and hone in on the more practical stuff?

RJ: You hit on a big and important struggle. In my opinion, you need to have a 30,000 foot view of everything. Look at the entire landscape and try to see as far down the road as you can. It's essential to dream big and have great expectations. If we didn't, we'd all settle for mediocrity and quitting would be acceptable. This way of thinking, however, comes with great responsibility. That's the point you were making about honing in on the practical stuff which is needed in order to reach a much loftier goal. For me, it's all about balance and prioritizing. My family is my first priority and the work-life balance is extremely important. Starting a business is ruthless, though, and it waits for no one, so sacrifices must be made. I try to keep the big dream in the back of my mind at all times -- sometimes I need to swoop in and take a long, hard look at it when times are really tough to remind myself why I'm putting up with this crazy lifestyle. Day-to-day though, I focus on what needs to be done that day, how that work will affect tomorrow, and if this is driving us closer to where we want to be as a company. Being practical is sometimes the greatest skill in dreaming big!

MusicNGear: What have been the most difficult and most rewarding parts about launching SoundEvolution?

RJ: There are many difficult and rewarding parts. This was a life-changing endeavor for me. I was about 42 when I decided to give this a real shot and I'm 45 now. I'm married with two kids and lots of responsibility. I have to give my wife a ton of credit for understanding how important this was for me and how this is simply part of who I am as person, husband, and father. I can honestly say that I couldn't do this without her trust and support.

In terms of rewarding, it's tough to pick one thing. I can tell you, though, that this has been received pretty well by people near and far, people I have the utmost respect for and music industry people who tell me all the time that I'm on the right path. It's also been gratifying to hear from people from my past who I've unknowingly inspired to start their own business. I guess they figured if that knucklehead can do it, then they can too! Recently though, hearing my daughter say she "loves that I work at SoundEvolution" is all the fuel I need to keep going.

MusicNGear: Who is your secret music mentor? You know, either somebody close to you who you’ve got in your corner or somebody in the industry you’ve always looked up to.

RJ: If it's ok, I've got two who fit the bill. I've always considered myself a music historian, at least in terms of needing to know anything and everything about the music I liked and how things got started. This always included the geographical location from which the bands/artists came, who wrote the songs, what music they listened to, and of course, which record label they were on. I was probably 15 or 16 the first time I heard of bands such as Soundgarden, Nirvana, The Violent Femmes, Sonic Youth, Jane's Addiction, and several others. This had to be 1988 or ‘89 and it was because of a mixtape that a high school friend made for me and set me on a musical journey on which I'm still traveling.

Article photo - Interview with Rob Janicke of indie label SoundEvolution MusicJust a couple of years after this, 1991 to be exact, Nirvana happens, Seattle is the most famous city on the globe, and life as we knew it was forever changed! This leads me to study everything about the indie label Sub Pop. I said to myself back then that I wanted to start my own label and I wanted it to be as cool as Sub Pop was. They embodied the definition of what a music scene should be. The look, the feel, the sound, the swagger, it all mattered on such a huge level to me.

Fast forward to about four years ago when my friend (soon to be partner at the yet unnamed label) and I discussed starting a label. Once we agreed we should do it I said to him "I need to speak to Bruce Pavitt" (who if you've been living under a rock for 30 years and don't know, is the co-founder of Sub Pop responsible for the likes of Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and so many more incredibly important bands) and my buddy just shook his head and laughed as if to say, yeah right, you're going to talk to Bruce Pavitt. Well, being the resourceful and stubborn guy that I am, I did some research and sent an email to what may or may not have been a working address. I figured I had nothing to lose.

Not only was the address working, the man actually wrote back! We exchanged a few emails, wound up on a Skype call (in the middle of which my friends’ computer died and I was thinking, great, we just hung up mid-sentence on the man who discovered Nirvana, we're the biggest idiots on the planet. Just a glimpse into the generosity and kindness of Bruce, many minutes after we got everything going again, he was waiting patiently on the other end) and have continued a friendly correspondence ever since. The lessons and guidance (and the belief in what we were trying to build) coming from someone who's been there and done that on a tremendously gigantic level is priceless and extremely appreciated. Not one to rest on his laurels, Bruce is now the co-founder and creative director for a new, revolutionary audio format that allows any listener to remix music like a professional DJ or sound engineer called 8Stem.

The next mentor came along in the most unpredictable way possible. His name is Morey Richman -- if that name sounds familiar to you in relation to the label, it's because he happens to be Hayley Richman's father. Hayley's record, "Marionette/Take My Soul" as you know, Savannah, was our first release as a label. I did not know Hayley, nor Morey, before starting the label. I first learned about Hayley Richman while watching clips of David Bowie on YouTube the day after he died. As YouTube does, they suggested some videos related to what I was watching. One had the face of a young girl who dared to cover Bowie's "Life On Mars". I wondered how someone so young (I thought she was probably in her mid-teens) would know of Bowie and be daring enough to cover him. I clicked on the link, expecting a trainwreck (sorry Hayley, how was I to know?!) and what followed was amazement. She had the most beautifully haunting voice with spot-on music behind her and I was blown away.

As is typical for me, I needed to know more. There was a contact section for her and I sent an email requesting an interview [for his SoundEvolution blog] and several days later, I believe, came the response. In the response was also her Dad's info and the rest, as they say, is history. As time went on, I learned that Morey was a touring musician throughout his early life, then went on to become a label owner himself, thus working successfully on both sides of the music industry. We speak and text on a regular basis (mainly because I'm faced with something I'm clueless about) and Morey's calm tone, insightful and honest declarations, and candid advice, always helps me get through any situation. I'm not sure how I've been lucky enough to get to know Bruce and Morey but I wouldn't trade either experience for the world.

I've been knocked down a few times since starting this and each time I got up quicker and stronger. I would tell people to believe in themselves in good times and bad.

MusicNGear: What insights might you provide to young entrepreneurs hoping to make their mark in music?

RJ: I'm only a few years into this but some people just starting out have asked me this question already. Last year I was even invited back to my alma mater, St. John's University in Staten Island, NY to address almost 100 communications students about my story, including this very question. What's helped me along the way has been a drive and determination like I've never had before. I've been knocked down a few times since starting this and each time I got up quicker and stronger. I would tell people to believe in themselves in good times and bad. Most people think you're crazy when they find out you're starting your own business and maybe, without even knowing it, discourage you from continuing. You have to always believe you can do it, especially when the doubters and haters appear, and they will!

Article photo - Interview with Rob Janicke of indie label SoundEvolution MusicThe other piece of advice comes from people I admire and respect in the music business: Brett Gurewitz, founding member of one of my all-time favorite bands, Bad Religion, and the owner of the wonderful indie label, Epitaph Records, and the aforementioned Bruce Pavitt. Gurewitz once answered a reporter’s question of "What advice do you give kids just starting a band about how to be successful?" and he simply said, "Don't break up, don't quit" and to me that speaks to the drive and tenacity you need to flourish in your chosen field...don't quit!

As for Bruce, he told me once, when talking about the risks and chances of success in the music business, "Throw the biggest, baddest party you can throw and invite everyone you can. If fewer people show up than you expect, at least you threw a kickass party and who doesn't love a kickass party"? I use that line myself now because it's really such a strong and positive message. Give it your best shot, tell the world what you're doing, and have as much fun along the way as you possibly can. What else can you ask for? This stuff will always resonate with me.

MusicNGear: Finally, what’s up next for you and SoundEvolution Music?

Rob Janicke: A lot! We're releasing an amazing three song 7" (as well as a video or two) with Radiator King this fall / winter. Dolltits have finished their follow-up to our release of "Locker Room Talk" from last year and we're hoping to have that out before the year is over. We've got a very cool release coming up with jazz musician Alan Goldsher (Janet Jackson, Cypress Hill, Naughty by Nature, Digable Planets) which will consist of his reimagined covers of Charles Mingus classics called Electronic Dance Mingus. In addition, we've been discussing ideas with Hayley Richman and ÅMBE as well as meeting with some film production companies regarding some pretty awesome projects which we can't announce now but I promise I'll let you know as soon as I'm able to.

About Savannah Davanzo

Savannah Davanzo is a music journalist and social media coordinator from New York. Over the last six years, she has built several websites dedicated to highlighting underrated new music, all while pursuing her Master’s degree in Arts Entrepreneurship. She is the founder and lead editor of ​ The Music Mermaid where she writes album reviews, exclusive premieres, music op-eds, interviews with artists, and more. In addition to her work with TMM, she’s thrilled to be part of the MusicNGear team!

Contact Savannah Davanzo at savannah.davanzo@musicngear.com