How Fueled By Ramen Has Stayed Relevant For 20 Years
The label, started in a Florida dorm room in 1996, is still thriving. Here's why.
Fueled by Ramen, like many record labels, started in a dorm room. Somewhere in Gainesville Rock City in 1996, a young John Janick shook hands with Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie Fiorello, and the hottest property in north-central Florida pop-punk was born. Its first clients? Ska-punk dilettantes The Hippos and The Impossibles, bands you'd only know if you, like Janick and Fiorello, were in it for life.
"We were operating out of a 150 square foot room, maybe less, with bunk beds and CDs, just running everything from my desk," said Janick over the phone from Los Angeles, where he now lives. "I'd go over to Vinnie's apartment to do mail orders. It was an interesting time, and maybe a little bit naive."
Fueled by Ramen had its first major success when it issued the 1998 self-titled EP from an upstart group of Arizona kids named Jimmy Eat World. It sold enough for the still-fresh-faced label to buy its first office space in Tampa, and served as a sign of things to come. Eventually this Florida-bred, rude-boy indie label became a tastemaking stalwart. It's where Fall Out Boy got famous, selling 250,000 copies of Take This to Your Grave over the course of two years. Gym Class Heroes and Panic! At the Disco would soon follow, and they remain signed to this day.
But shouldn't Fueled by Ramen be dead? We've seen this story before. An era-defining label goes rags to riches with some smart business partnerships and a savvy A&R — swallowing up every hot act in the scene until their brand becomes synonymous with the genre itself. Replace the guyliner with MDMA or a couple bodies hung over hotel balconies, and it's the exact same legacy of powerhouses such as Factory or Death Row. If there's one thing we learned about iconoclastic, hyper-specific record labels, it's that the gravy train doesn't run forever. Suge Knight is bankrupt and locked up; The Haçienda is an apartment complex. By any reasonable estimation, Fueled by Ramen should be floundering, or downsizing, or absorbed — that's just how these stories are supposed to end.
But that hasn't happened. Fueled by Ramen continues to thrive. The old mid-2000s guard of Fall Out Boy and The Academy Is… have been cycled out for a younger, hipper, more dynamic generation of acts such as Twenty One Pilots and fun. That's right, fun. — the band who won a bunch of trophies for Some Nights are signed to Fueled by Ramen. Paramore, the long-standing Hot Topic icons, tasted true, transcendent crossover success with their 2013 self-titled record, propelling their name into nondenominational pop radio, and scoring singer Hayley Williams a guest spot on Zedd's "Stay the Night." Gym Class Heroes are still getting on TV, your mom listens to Young the Giant — Fueled by Ramen's current roster remains an influential modern rock record label.
That's no small feat in 2015. Fueled by Ramen might never be able to escape its emo-pop peak, but you'd be hard pressed to come up with any imprint that's been able to stay so relevant for so long. It's managed it, in part, by becoming a subsidiary of Warner Bros., which earned the until-then indie criticism from punk rock purists. But that, like everything else Janick has built, was a means to an end.
"We wanted to make sure there weren't any ceilings for our artists, while also keeping our culture independent," said Janick. "There were other major labels filling artists' heads with stuff like, 'Oh you're being held back by Fueled by Ramen, they don't have the resources.' For me it was about being an indie label with major ties, where we can build the foundation with a big company there to take you all the way."
That environment is what resonated with a 15-year-old girl from Meridian, Mississippi, who was screaming her lungs off in a band called Paramore.
"I remember meeting with John at a Cheesecake Factory," said Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams via email. "I was with our manager Mark, and doing some acoustic shows at Taste of Chaos 2005. We talked about the scene and where I saw Paramore fitting into it. I was so happy to be hanging with a label guy who got it. He didn't see me as some answer to Avril Lavigne's success. He just always understood what Paramore was. Who we were. That sort of thing means a lot to a 15- or 16-year-old kid."
Paramore would carry Fueled by Ramen's banner for years, through the bloody triptych of All We Know is Falling, Riot!, and Brand New Eyes, three of the best albums mid-decade emo-pop ever produced. But then, around 2010, the bubble burst. Two-thirds of Paramore quit and looked for greener pastures elsewhere; Fall Out Boy, who had left Fueled by Ramen for Island, called it a day; and Panic! At The Disco were well past their crossover, VMAs-headlining peak. As far as era-defining labels go, this was par for the course. Eventually pop-culture fixation moves on, and the sound you're known for becomes a lot less hip. But Janick adapted. In perhaps the most important signing in Fueled by Ramen history, he inked fun.
"I tried to sign Nate (Reuss) when he was 18 years old and in The Format," said Janick. "But he went to Elektra instead. That was back when we were in Florida and didn't have much money. Five years later we had the partnership with Warner and Nate was still in the Warner system through Elektra – I tried to work with him but he went off to do his own thing. But the third time around he had started fun., and we finally managed to get a deal done. He's one of my closest friends now. They spent a year and a half figuring out what Some Nights is going to be, and it was one of the biggest albums of that year."
Fueled by Ramen has kept an iron grip on a very specific part of the industry — from Jimmy Eat World to Fall Out Boy to Paramore to fun. — for its entire 20-year run as a company. It has shifted with the generations, while never alienating its core audience. It's hard to think of a label that's been more tenacious.
But then, at perhaps the height of its powers, in the moment where Fueled by Ramen proved it could keep up with everyone, Janick left. The primary entrepreneurial force of the company, the man who'd become an icon in the scene, who sat down at the Cheesecake Factory to sign Williams, was leaving his baby after perhaps its greatest crossover success yet.
Janick is now the CEO of Interscope, and working with everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Lady Gaga. For the first time in its history, Fueled by Ramen was out of his hands.
"I'm trying to keep the label moving forward, I'm trying to grow the label, but at the same time I'm always thinking about how John has built this amazing brand and all I want to do is not screw it up," said Mike Easterlin, the current head of Fueled by Ramen. "You try not to freeze up and overthink everything, but sometimes you can't help yourself."
Easterlin worked alongside Janick for years, and got the nod to take the reigns of Fueled by Ramen in 2012. He seems appropriately aware of how daunting it is to become the adoptive father of a label with such a distinct legacy, but he also understands the way forward. If fun. proved anything, it's that Fueled by Ramen is perfectly capable of transcending its kiddy, Warped Tour reputation.
"There was still this perception that FBR was a 'scene' label instead of a modern pop brand that's had dozens of major hits," said Easterlin. "The first one I encountered was with Young the Giant, who were on Roadrunner, and The Devil Wears Prada, who were on Fueled by Ramen. I thought, 'Wait a minute, you guys should be switching,' but I'd be lying to you if I said that Young the Giant didn't have concerns. They still saw it as a scene label, despite the huge success of Paramore and the huge success of fun. I had to convince them that at this point what I wanted to do was grow the label up."
A few months later, Easterlin asked Janick what he thought of the label's progress. His response? "I'd be doing exactly what you're doing."
It's a philosophy that's best exemplified in Paramore's self-titled album, which was the first album Fueled by Ramen released under Easterlin's authority. Poppy, cheerful, and energetic, it was all the things you loved about the band, but now getting play on Clear Channel. It won a Best Rock Song Grammy over Jack White and the Black Keys, the first of Paramore's career. After a decade of incubation, Paramore emerged lockstep in Fueled by Ramen's new, post-Some Nights era.
"I tried to position it that way," said Janick, reflecting on his last couple years at Fueled by Ramen. "I watched labels that were in a specific scene, and I don't want to say they died, but they weren't as relevant anymore because the scene they were tied to wasn't healthy. For me it wasn't about being a part of the ska-punk scene or the emo scene or the pop-punk scene, it was about being culturally important and transitioning in a way that felt natural."
Throughout all this, the shifts in leadership, mission statements, and scene associations, Fueled by Ramen has managed to keep its core group together. Paramore, Panic!, Gym Class Heroes, even never-beens like Cobra Starship. In an industry that relies on turnover, Fueled by Ramen looks out for its own.
"We have a core group of 9 or 10 people who work here, and at the end of this year our artist count will total, like, 14 or 16, and that's it," said Easterlin. "We want everyone to feel a part of the family. There's a band that we're signing that said, 'You guys all seem to really like each other.' We're brothers and sisters, we want a personal relationship with our bands, and because we're small, we get to really, really focus on each of them. I'd like to think we have a very unique situation here."
"There have been plenty of changes, and I know that's pretty normal in the industry, but we've never had a reason to want to leave FBR," said Williams. "We like the history that's there. They have always believed in our vision for the future and they also know our roots. It's having so many people on the team who we grew up with. We like the reminder of where we came from. It's nice to share stories and say 'remember when?' with some of those people. Not to mention FBR actually have put out so many cool punk rock records and they've been a part of so many kids' experience with the scene. Whether it's someone else's idea of punk or not, to me, the fact that two punk fans built a label out of their college dorm means something, and I'm proud to be a part of that."