Flamethrower Interview: Janet Billig Rich, Rock and Roller, Entrepreneur and out-of-the-box Broadway Musical Producer

Janet Billig Rich is a woman without a mission who’s on a mission. She is one of the hardest-working and most widely-diversified people I’ve ever met. She’s done everything from managing rock bands to producing a Broadway musical to launching an eyewear company. Tony-nominated ROCK OF AGES is set to close its 6-year run on January 18, 2015 and in my personal opinion it is one of the most original and funny musical productions I’ve ever seen in my life. The story of how it made its way to Broadway is worthy of a book, as Janet and her producing partners did it without any previous experience and managed to surprise Broadway-veterans along the way. Although when you read her interview you’ll see that she says that fear is a part of her everyday life, the reality is she doesn’t let that fear stop her from accomplishing what she wants to accomplish. She might FEEL fear but she doesn’t let it get in her way, which is what makes her such a great subject for a Flamethrower Interview. Janet is also mom to busy pre-teen twins and lives with them and her hubby in Los Angeles. To find out more about Janet and all her great work visit Manage This Media. http://managethismedia.com

Ember Living: What is your mission, life’s work, purpose for living?
Janet Billig Rich: I wish I could be that clear and have a mission statement. I am usually able to look in hindsight and think “that was full of purpose, I’m glad I did that” but in my personal and professional life, I have always just followed my instincts, if something feels good, go with it. Sometimes it leads to huge successes and sometimes to massive failures – and often times a mix of both!

EL: How did you figure out/choose a mission for your life? How old were you when you chose it and how long did it take you to get to the point where you felt like you were realizing and living your mission?
JBR: Like I said, I never thought about what I would do and what I would be when I grew up. I loved music and I was good with people. I went out often – mainly to clubs that had live music, I was lucky to live in NY which has a very vibrant live music culture. Just being out and around in the music scene, I ended up getting some cool opportunities at a young age (selling tee shirts for bands at local clubs in NY was my first music biz job at 16, which lead to going on tour with bands, which led to working at Caroline Records and doing publicity and A&R for bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Primus, Hole, White Zombie, Pussy Galore and those early opportunities evolved into my career. I think I was about 22 when I realized, “Hey I have $ in the bank, I manage a bunch of rock bands (Nirvana, The Lemonheads, Hole, The Breeders, Walt Mink, Dinosaur Jr), I work with a team of people I like, I suppose this is my job,” and it is a career….but it always seemed to be day to day or month to month – it still does.

Now, I don’t solely manage rock bands and I work in a more project-based world. I prefer to take on projects that have deadlines – so there are real hard end dates. Such as “this TV spot has to be on air on a particular date” – so all the work has to be finished by then. But once it is done, I better have more projects lined up – or I will be out of work! So for me, I am always developing and getting involved in various projects that have different timelines – so I always have many balls to juggle to get to the finish line and eventually, get paid!

EL: Tell us about one (or more) speed bumps that you hit on the way to figuring out and/or realizing your mission.
JBR: ONE! Ha! I can give you dozens of bumps in the road for every project I ever worked on! Let’s see – what are some juicy ones…Well, Rock of Ages, is a highly successful musical (Tony-nominated!) I am a producer on. It has been a massive success and an incredible journey but the road getting there…painful. It took half a decade to get to Broadway and the whole thing almost fell apart a million times! We spend years of time and money developing the concept and we thought the show was rock solid after a couple of workshops in LA. We got a deal in Vegas and thought we were going to win huge, but that was a total bust and for a year after Vegas, we barely even worked on getting the show to the next phase – we were totally deflated.

My partner and idol, Matt Weaver then re-inflated the sails, became the General of the ROA army and got us all marching forward to undeniable success. Talk about takes a village – it truly does. I also worked on developing another musical called IT’S ON! I produced two workshops one in LA and one in NY – we had a fantastic cast at each and a great team, the writers are fantastic and I just couldn’t get ANY interest. It was pushing the boulder up the massive hill and it kept rolling back on me…..again, similarly it seemed as if, nothing was going to happen. Then it turned out Jimmy Fallon’s production company was very interested in the property, but wanted to be the sole producers, so basically, I am out as a producer, but thrilled that the musical will get a life….so that was a speed bump for me. Not ideal that I couldn’t get it going, but thrilled that it will have a new life with new blood

For the past 20 years, I have worked with an incredible artist, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, Lisa Loeb. I started working with her when my friend Stacey Sher was producing REALITY BITES, and she was going to put Lisa’s song “Stay (I MISSED YOU)” in the film. Lisa and I met, I became a fan and went to many of her shows and eventually became her manager. IT is a fulfilling relationship and we work well together. We have had great successes and great disappointments. We have released children’s books, created an eyewear line and produced TV shows together. One speedbump I remember was when we were developing a TV show for VH1 – it was in the very early days of reality TV and there wasn’t as clear a roadmap to reality television as there is now – so we made something we were proud of, but VH1 thought Lisa needed to be more racy and basically be in a hot tub with dudes – which is SO NOT Lisa’s style!When we said we are happy with it the way it was, VH1 passed and we were bu. We really wanted a TV show on the air! But several months later we had a meeting at E Television and the timing was perfect and we produced 10 episodes of “#1 Single” and there were no hot tubs at all – although Lisa did show her ass on TV but it was her choice and was done in an authentic and not debaucherous way…the time between the VH1 pass and the E pick-up was one of reflection.

EL: What words of wisdom would you give to someone who is searching for their life’s purpose?
JBR: Well, it sounds corny but the whole ‘do what you love’ – and then find an industry around it. There is an economy around absolutely anything you are interested in. You can really make a career and a life in any world. Also make friends with the people in your peer group who you think are really talented. One friend does well…they sort of bring everyone in the posse up with them. All boats rise with the tide.

EL: What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
JBR: Reality TV for sure – I love Andy Cohen’s “Watch What Happens Live” and Billy Bush and Kit Hoover on “Access Hollywood Live.” I watch both those shows and they do great wrap-ups of all the reality show highlights – so I actually don’t have to watch the realty TV shows and give them so much of my time – but I get the craziness of it all. I also love karaoke. I should only be guilty about that pleasure because I can’t sing well. But I still bust out the jams and love it!

EL: What is your favorite book?
JBR: Somewhere between “She Comes Undone” by Wally Lamb and “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant. I loved Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” recently and I just finished “Orphan Train.” And I am also LOVING audible.com and listening to biographies read by their authors. The latest have been Andy Cohen, Neil Patrick Harris, Lena Dunham and Amy Pohler. It is so great to listen to books in LA traffic or walking my dog – the best! The only problem with audio books – is it gives you this very real sense that you are best friends with the author – if they do a good job reading it – it gives you such a sense of intimacy. It’s a bit of a drag when I realize they weren’t just confiding in ME!
EL: (LOL!)

EL: If your life had a theme song, what would it be?
JBR: Well, it certainly would be a medley. It would have to be “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey
EL: I always think of you when I hear it now!
JBR: …but the Rock of Ages arrangement by sweet Dave Gibbs, mixed with “Tomorrow” or “Maybe” from Annie….there would have to be a few bars of “Nadia’s Theme” thrown in and really the whole thing should just be “Unsatisfied” by the Replacements with a twist of “I still haven’t Found what I’m looking for” by U2. Also, my husband turned me on to Warren Zevon and one of the last songs he wrote called “Keep me in your heart for a while” that just says so much…..and there would have to be a dash of Sondheim as a nod to my mother…”send in the clowns” maybe?
EL: Wow, that is QUITE a theme song. More of a mash-up than a medley!

EL: What motivates you?
JBR: my inbox

EL: Any fears left to conquer?
JBR: Fear is a constant in my life and I really am trying hard to let it go! Also, Fear of liquid eyeliner – or really make-up as a whole – never mastered it – scares me!
EL: Ummm…I think we can conquer that eyeliner fear relatively easily…let’s chat later.

EL: What do you do to unwind?
JBR: So many things – I love reading and I love walking/hiking. I love hanging with my husband and kids and doing fun activities. I have a bowling league every other week that is outside my comfort zone and I like that. A Kundilini yoga class is always a quick fix for unwinding and relaxing.

EL: What most stood in the way of you realizing your mission?
JBR: I think fear holds me back often – I have never been someone that makes lists of goals. When I sit down to do a project like that, I can’t think of anything at all – I am not sure if that is because of fear – but I just have a hard time dialing that all in.
EL:You may feel fear, but it certainly doesn’t seem to stop you!
JBR: Maybe it’s not fear, perhaps it’s just that I don’t think in terms of how big can my goals be; and so sometimes I’ve felt like I could have accomplished more if I had dreamed bigger, but that’s just not how I think. I’m a very content person.
EL:That doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me! Contentment is an awesome place to be.

EL: What tools did you need to acquire along the way to realize your mission?
JBR: Confidence is KEY. Even when you aren’t feeling confident – a “fake it till you make it” attitude has always served me well. When I really needed to stop being a manager of rock bands, I put the word out to many friends and colleagues that I was “for hire” and would be available for project-based work. The first call I got was from a friend who was a producer, he said, “hey a TV show I am producing just got picked up and I put you in the budget as the music supervisor,” I said “fantastic, I’m in and thank you,” and hung-up. I had never music-supervised anything before – this was a SERIES for HBO! Holy cow – but I made 100’s of deals for songs in be in movies and TV as a manager and I understood how it all worked – so I just buckled-in, asked a load of questions to helpful folks and got the job done. What was awesome, was after the season ran, HBO ended up hiring me for a few other projects after that. They thought I did a good job! Cool! I faked it till I made it. HA! Don’t tell any of them…please.
EL:Ummm…you know I’m going to publish this on that little thing called the Internet, right?

EL:What who how did you find you find the courage to blaze your own trail?
JBR: Well, I don’t think I had a choice – I never really fit into the corporate structure. I had a job at Atlantic Records in the mid 90’s – and I just didn’t get that sort of corporate culture. I think they just wanted someone on the team that was “cool” and “credible.” I had managed Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr, Hole, The Breeders and worked with Smashing Pumpkins, White Zombie, Primus, Pussy Galore – I had a very cool pedigree to these folks and they thought it would be helpful to attract talent and sign bands, but I never understood how to make those dots connect. It just never synthesized. The artists I worked with had put in years of hard work – touring, making albums, touring more more and more. It seemed like at Atlantic the expectations were for things to happen REALLY REALLY REALLY fast. And if something wasn’t working very quickly, they were on to the next. I was coming from a place where I thought, “these are peoples lives, they spend years making this album and just because in the first couple of weeks – it’s not making a splash, doesn’t mean it will never make a splash” – so I just saw things more long rang. It was hard to disconnect from artists and acts that were actually people. I think you have to come up in that culture to excel in it. And seriously, not to be all feminist about it, in hindsight it was a TOTAL BOYS CLUB and I was just some girl that had some cred. I had no idea that’s what was going on, but it was and I was clueless. I never even knew anyone that worked at a corporation. I grew up in a blue collar world….the people I knew were teachers, social workers, telephone company operators, worked at the electric company….I didn’t know ANYONE in any position in a corporation, and no one in entertainment. Like I mentioned, I was deep in the music business before I even knew it was a business. In hindsight, I should have had a mentor that could have offered me guidance, but that path was never very clear to me. So, blazing my own trail was the only option.

EL: Awesome, love that, so let’s go back to mission, it seems like you do have some themes in your life. Maybe we can take another shot at it: what about “facillitating authentic creative projects” or something like that?
JBR: Yes, I suppose my mission is facilitating the creative vision of people I believe in.
EL: And they are lucky to have you believe in them! Thanks for being a spark in the world.