For years, Jann Wenner ruled over the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, viewing his chairmanship of its affiliated foundation as an extension of the cultural gatekeeping power he long wielded as the co-founder and editor of Rolling Stone magazine.
Wenner spoke for the hall publicly, opening its annual induction festivities and posing in chummy photos with music stars. Behind the scenes, he flaunted outsize influence over which of those artists got in and which didn’t, and spoke bluntly about the institution being under his control.
That power came to a swift and brutal end on Saturday afternoon, as Wenner was ousted from the foundation’s board, one day after he was quoted at length in an interview in The New York Times making remarks that were widely criticized as racist and misogynistic.
On Saturday, John Sykes, a media executive who took over as chairman from Wenner in 2020, emailed board members calling for an emergency meeting at 5 p.m. Eastern time. The sole topic on the agenda: a vote on ejecting Wenner.
Wenner responded with a last-minute plea for clemency. “I understand how inflammatory these words appear,” he wrote in an email, “but it is not how I feel in my heart nor have acted in all my years founding and leading the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”
But in a conference-call vote that took just 20 minutes, the motion passed with only two nay votes. One came from Wenner himself, and the other from Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen’s manager and a former Rolling Stone critic, who long held a key role at the hall as chairman of the nominating committee.
“Jann’s statements were indefensible and counter to all the hall stands for,” Landau said in a statement. “It became clear that the vote to remove him from the board would be justifiably and correctly overwhelming. My vote was intended as a gesture in acknowledgment of all that he had done to create the hall in the first place.”
It was a stunning fall for Wenner, who, through his command of both Rolling Stone and the Rock Hall, long held a doubly powerful perch in the music industry, able to boost — or diminish — artists’ careers based on his tastes or whims. Those biases collided with efforts by the hall’s new leadership to address criticism that it has failed to adequately include women and minorities in its pantheon.
In the Times interview, conducted by David Marchese, Wenner, 77, explained why his new book, “The Masters” — a collection of his interviews over the years with rock stars like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Springsteen, mostly from the pages of Rolling Stone — included no women or people of color as subjects. He said that none were “as articulate enough on this intellectual level,” and that he did not view them as “philosophers of rock.”
“You know, just for public relations sake,” he added, “maybe I should have gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism. Which, I get it. I had a chance to do that. Maybe I’m old-fashioned and I don’t give a [expletive] or whatever.”
Those comments drew immediate fire on social media. Just as quickly, alarmed phone calls and emails began circulating among the 31 board members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which includes music and media executives, players from the finance world and star artists including Pharrell Williams and LL Cool J. (The foundation, created in 1983, chooses the artists who are inducted, and is affiliated with the museum in Cleveland.)
“Your words run the risk of undermining the very institution you helped build by propagating a narrative that isn’t just narrow but also exclusionary,” Troy Carter, a former Spotify executive and adviser to the Prince estate, told Wenner in an email to board members that was obtained by The Times.
Interviews with four people with direct knowledge of the board vote, who spoke anonymously because the panel’s deliberations are confidential, paint a picture of urgency and rage inside the institution.
While board members felt personally appalled by Wenner’s comments, they were also worried about the impact on the hall itself, and its vital relationships with artists — some of whom were already beginning to complain. One missive came from Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime songwriting partner, who is set to receive the musical excellence award at this year’s ceremony on Nov. 3 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Heather Taupin, his wife and manager, sent an email to hall officials calling Wenner’s comments “a slap in the face” to inductees and adding, “We feel very strongly he should immediately resign.”
Although the hall oversees the voting that selects the winners, delicate diplomacy often happens behind the scenes to ensure that artists will accept the honor and appear on its annual induction TV show. This year’s honorees include Kate Bush, Missy Elliott, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Rage Against the Machine, the Spinners and George Michael, who died in 2016.
At the board meeting, a few members expressed their dismay over Wenner’s comments. Wenner also spoke briefly, though his remarks failed to sway the assembled directors, who include some of music’s most powerful figures at major record labels, music publishers and in the touring world.
The entire meeting was over in about 20 minutes, and the hall then announced the decision with a brief statement. The vote to remove Wenner took effect immediately.
Representatives of the hall declined to release any details about the vote, other than that there was a quorum of at least 16 people on the call, as required by the organization’s bylaws.
Wenner did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement issued Saturday evening, he said, in part: “In my interview with The New York Times I made comments that diminished the contributions, genius and impact of Black and women artists and I apologize wholeheartedly for those remarks.”
In casting their votes, the board members may have been focusing solely on Wenner’s recent interviews. But the extent of his influence over the Hall of Fame has long been seen by some as a liability for the institution.
In “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine” (2017), a ruthlessly critical biography by Joe Hagan, Wenner was quoted openly describing a kind of autocratic control over the hall. “In a sense, it’s owned by Rolling Stone; it’s a creation of Rolling Stone,” Wenner said. “It’s unfair to some people to say that. But that’s what it is. It’s my thing.”
The Rock Hall has long disputed that position, arguing that its internal processes, while opaque, are properly democratic and fair. Many artists and their business representatives, however, have scoffed at that (at least until being inducted).
Even as complaints about the lack of diversity in the hall began to grow louder over the last decade — according to a detailed study in 2019, just 7.7 percent of the people inducted into the hall up to that point were women — Wenner dismissed the critique.
In an interview with The Times that year, announcing his resignation as chairman, he said, “I don’t think that’s a real issue,” and added: “People are inducted for their achievements. Musical achievements have got to be race-neutral and gender-neutral in terms of judging them.”
Under Sykes, the hall has made a public effort to diversify its leadership ranks and induct more women and minority artists.
The fallout from Wenner’s ouster at the Hall of Fame was immediate. Rolling Stone, which Wenner left in 2019, distanced itself from its founder. His son Gus, now Rolling Stone’s chief executive, told staffers in an email: “While I love him deeply, I do not agree with the comments he made and understand why they are so upsetting and hurtful.”
But his legacy has not been erased. A representative of Penske Media Corporation, which owns the magazine, said that Wenner’s name would remain on the masthead as co-founder.
And Little, Brown, the publisher of “The Masters,” has not changed its publication plan to release the book on Sept. 26.