By RICK GERSHMAN
Published May 29, 2005
TAMPA – Maybe this is what Dorothy thought when Toto pulled back the curtain.
It’s true that John Janick, president, CEO and co-founder of Fueled By Ramen Records, is no Wizard of Oz. He’s tall, lean, casually handsome.
But a visit to this hot independent label, which has helped launch alt-rock bands like Jimmy Eat World and Yellowcard to mainstream success, isn’t what you might expect.
For one thing, it’s buried in the very back of a drab industrial office park just north of Tampa International Airport.
For another, label co-founder Janick – who signed this crew of (mostly) punk rockers and calls many of them friends – is an unassuming, preppy-looking guy with an MBA.
But that’s how it works at Fueled By Ramen, whose success is a testament to the growing power of the Internet to help musicians reach fans directly, sometimes without the old starmaker machinery of radio airplay, hit singles and slick marketing.
The label was co-founded by Vinnie Fiorello, the drummer-lyricist for the band Less Than Jake, but that band’s own success means Janick usually runs the Tampa operation.
“John has the qualities that I don’t have and vice versa,” Fiorello said. “I travel a lot with Less Than Jake and I trust him with my name and reputation (associated) with Fueled By Ramen.”
The label’s already-strong cachet with young bands and fans is getting a boost by the success story of Fall Out Boy.
After earning a big underground following with Fueled By Ramen, the Chicago-based rock group watched its new release, From Under the Cork Tree, debut at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
Fall Out Boy’s diligence was key to the top 10 premiere, but it also is representative of their label’s philosophy: Sign bands whose members work incredibly hard, and are easy to get along with.
If a band doesn’t meet those criteria, it’s not joining Fueled By Ramen.
“When we meet bands, we tell them we’ll work as hard as you will,” said Janick, 26. “It’s a team effort. . . . This label’s very family-oriented. We’re a very artist-friendly label.”
Fueled By Ramen’s name, of course, pays homage to ramen noodles, the staple of many a cash-strapped collegian’s diet. No doubt plenty of ramen was consumed back in 1996, when Janick was a freshman at the University of Florida. The business originated in Janick’s dorm room and Fiorello’s apartment, also in Gainesville.
Janick had met Fiorello at a concert the year before but was already familiar with Less Than Jake, since Janick and the band members are all from Port Charlotte.
How the label functions is as utilitarian as its namesake. Behind the offices, Fueled By Ramen employees run the merchandising operation, using a heat press to add designs to T-shirts promoting the label’s groups.
The label’s digs aren’t glamorous, but Fueled By Ramen bands are breaking through to the national stage.
Outside of the cable music video channel Fuse and Alternative Press magazine, both early supporters, Fall Out Boy’s only national exposure was on the Internet and on tour. Still, the band’s 2003 Fueled By Ramen release, Take This to Your Grave, ruled the AP Reader’s Chart for months.
The band and label developed an underground following by constant touring and creating a wide-reaching Internet presence on hot sites such as MySpace.com and LiveJournal.com.
“With the Internet, it’s the Wild West frontier all over again,” said Joel Leach, professor of music industry studies at California State University-Northridge.
According to Leach, to date there has been no major recording act launched solely through the Internet. However, these days “major labels won’t even look at a new band unless there’s a proven record of marketing yourself on the Internet.”
Internet buzz is high for The Academy Is . . ., a melodic Chicago-area rock band on the Fueled By Ramen label. Vocalist William Beckett recalled how the group joined the family.
“John flew up and he ended up staying with us at the apartment for three days. We stayed up all night talking about music. It was a really refreshing thing. We were talking to somebody who was a music lover.”
Janick and Fiorello, Beckett said, “sign bands they’re in love with, not just bands they think are going to sell a lot of records. They respect artists . . . You go over to the offices and there’s kind of a family feel.”
In that family, some of the label’s bands appear closely related. It does seem like almost every Fueled By Ramen band is four or five young white guys paired with blaring guitars, melodic overtones and the occasional killer hook.
But there are exceptions. When Janick’s phone rings during an interview, the ring tone is Papercuts, an infectiously funky tune by the label’s rap group, Gym Class Heroes.
Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz recommended this multicultural band, which plays full-instrumentation rap music along the lines of the Roots.
The label also has Tennessee-based Paramore, which has a female vocalist, and Panic! At The Disco, a Las Vegas-based dance-rock band. Panic! is one of a few bands under the umbrella of Decaydance Records, Wentz’s imprint within Fueled By Ramen.
More success and more bands has meant more work at the label whose motto is “No Food. No Sleep. Just Records.”
Fueled By Ramen is largely fueled by super-caffeinated Red Bull, and Leach warned that it won’t get any easier.
“It’s not easy to launch a label by any means, and the bigger you get, the more consuming it becomes,” he said. “But the music industry does draw zealots.”