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New Rock Hall Foundation Head Promises Changes

Jann Wenner in the early days of Rolling Stone

Jann Wenner, the legendary founder of Rolling Stone, is retiring as Chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. The news, announced September 25, notes that the founding member of the Rock Hall will be replaced in that role by music industry veteran and longtime Board member John Sykes. The changeover will be effective on January 1, 2020. Wenner will remain on the Board. There will be more changes.

Wenner had been Chairman since fellow Rock Hall founder Ahmet Ertegun died in 2006. (Ertegun was the influential founder of Atlantic Records.)

In a statement, Wenner said, “I was a lucky man to be given this once in a lifetime mission to honor the history of the music I love. I am delighted to have John Sykes to take over.”

John Sykes (photo via iHeartMedia)

Sykes, 64, is President of Entertainment Enterprises for iHeartMedia. The longtime music and entertainment industry veteran was one of the co-founders of MTV and served in senior roles at MTV Networks for decades.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, published Sept. 26, the well-respected Sykes addressed changes for the Hall, noting that the Class of 2020 induction ceremony will be broadcast live on HBO, for the first time in years.

Sykes also tackled the subject of choosing artists for induction, which is always debated among rock fans. “The most important mandate is to rebuild our board; we have to modernize the way we think and create a more diverse board to reflect the artists who are becoming eligible,” he said. “It’s no longer the artists of the ’50s and ’60s, and we have to have a board with knowledge that speaks to that.”

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland

When asked by the paper specifically about eligible artists, Sykes said: “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is no longer about a single genre of music. It’s about all the music that aspires to connect with young people… It’s about the music that changed our culture. This year Notorious B.I.G. is eligible and I think he has a good shot at getting in.

“We are constantly looking at evolving the committee,” he continued. “Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine came in one time and stood up and said ‘Heavy metal is a category of music of the people. Why aren’t bands like Kiss and Rush in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?’ He was very persuasive. You have to credit Jon Landau [head of the nominating committee], because he said ‘I get it.’ We have to reflect what fans truly love.

Wenner started Rolling Stone in 1967 and its influence grew enormously from a counter-culture paper to what was long considered the most important music journalism publication. He expanded Wenner Media over the years to include such publications as Us Weekly and Men’s Journal.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Foundation are not one and the same. The former includes the museum itself, which opened its doors in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1995, and includes thousands of items in its impressive collection of rock ‘n’ roll and artifacts. The Foundation is run by music industry insiders, a list of whom has not been published. The small, tight-knit committee annually selects the recording artists who will be on that year’s ballot.

The list of nominees is then presented to a much broader voting body to determine who will be in the next class of inductees. Other institutions are far more transparent, such as the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which sets 75% as the required percentage of the vote for admission on its annual ballot for the baseball writers to choose from, and then reveals the detailed results. The Rock Hall doesn’t reveal its voting totals.

When the nomination list is publicly revealed, generally in October, it’s become a parlor game, of sorts, for music fans to pore over the list, debating the artists’ merits and lamenting the worthy candidates who are again missing from the list.

[Best Classic Bands has compiled two vast lists of artists we’ve deemed worthy. Our first list covers acts from the ’50s-’70s such as Bad Company, Jethro Tull and Peter Frampton, who are still on the outside looking in.

Our second list continues with many more deserving acts, from Pat Benatar to Meat Loaf to Motörhead. All of these artists require an admission ticket to the Rock Hall.]

The debates continue roughly two months later, when the selections for the new class are revealed, generally in December, for their induction the following spring.

In recent times, thanks to a multi-year commitment from HBO to broadcast highlights from the induction ceremony, the Rock Hall has been choosing many artists it had previously ignored.

Artists are deemed eligible 25 years after the release of their first recording. Yet, it was only in recent years that such classic rock legends as Chicago, Steve Miller, Cheap Trick and Deep Purple (all Class of 2016), ELO, Journey and Yes (all Class of 2017), Bon Jovi, Moody Blues, the Cars and Dire Straits (all Class of 2018) and Def Leppard and Roxy Music (both Class of 2019), were inducted… decades after they were eligible.

Watch HBO’s Class of 2017 teaser clip

Those acts, and countless others, had been overlooked while many other influential, though decidedly non-rock artists, were selected. These included such performers as Abba, Donna Summer, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Janet Jackson, Madonna, N.W.A, and Public Enemy, among them.

In 2017, Wenner Media sold its controlling share in Rolling Stone to Penske Media, where it’s now part of a larger portfolio. That same year, a biography, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, was published, based on author Joe Hagan’s extensive interviews with Wenner and on original source reporting.

Hagan, the book announcement stated, “lays out the full breadth of Wenner’s life, from his ambitious youth in San Francisco and the uncertain first days of Rolling Stone, to his seismic rise as a 1970s kingmaker of rock and roll and a vainglorious and irascible media mogul of Manhattan.”

Wenner himself was inducted in 2004 via the Ahmet Ertegun Award.

With new leaders come new ways of doing business. Rock fans will be watching.

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