There are living legends of the music business, and then there is Clive Davis.
In a career stretching across half a century, Davis has played an instrumental role in the prosperity of talents ranging from Janis Joplin to Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Paul Simon, Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Usher, Gil Scott-Heron, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Alicia Keys.
One name, however, will always slightly stand out from the rest: Whitney Houston, who Davis tracked down and signed to his own label, Arista, in 1983.
An uncommonly trusting creative companionship was struck with Houston, whose records Davis A&R’d from her 1985 debut LP right through to her tragic and untimely death in 2012.
Other massive commercial successes dusted with the Davis magic have included a raft of records made in partnership with fellow entrepreneurs.
In 1989, Davis and Arista co-founded La Face Records with producer/writer Babyface and LA Reid. The R&B-leaning label broke superstars including Outkast, TLC, P!nk, Usher and Toni Braxton.
Four years later, Davis once again partnered with a young impresario. This time it was Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy, for Bad Boy Records – which brought the world Notorious B.I.G, Mase and Faith Evans, while smashing down doors for hip-hop culture at mainstream radio.
He had a terribly traumatic start in life, with both of his parents dying within a year of each other when he was a teenager living in Brooklyn, New York.
Davis went on to receive a scholarship to Harvard Law School, and eventually joined CBS/Columbia’s legal department in 1960. Within seven years, he was running the label.
Following a titanic run of success at Columbia, in 1973 Davis was unceremoniously fired – and publicly shamed – for allegedly misappropriating company funds.
As shown in the new Davis documentary on Apple Music – ‘The Soundtrack Of Our Lives’ – the exec bounced back with astonishing force, creating Arista Records in 1974 and forging one of the most successful music corporations of all time.
Davis eventually left Arista in 2000 to found the quasi-independent J Records. It was supported by nine-figure financing from BMG, before promptly being majority-acquired by the company.
Today, Davis is Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music Entertainment in New York, and is currently working on new material from the likes of Jennifer Hudson and Johnny Mathis.
Aretha Franklin calls Davis, “The greatest record man of all time.”
Simon Cowell admits, “Deep down, we all wanted to be Clive Davis.”
MBW recently had the rare chance to sit with Davis – and collect his thoughts on A&R, US radio streaming’s impact on the music business, the most talented executives he’s worked with and much more…
How are you Clive?
I’m good. It’s a very special time right now. You’ve got to identify when things are special and appreciate it.
What do you hope an executive making their way up in the music business today might learn from ‘The Soundtrack Of Our Lives’?
In life, a lot of things occur by accident. You’ve got to see the opportunities and take advantage of them.
My whole story is based on early luck. Originally I never thought of working in music.
“There have been a lot of ‘what if?’ moments in my life.”
The first law firm to hire me didn’t work out because their major client got merged – it left them vulnerable. So I had to move to another firm, where Columbia Records was a client.
There have been a lot of ‘what if?’ moments in my life like that – you’ve got to stay aware of that.
Not everything in your life has gone your way, though…
I was fired from Columbia and had to endure a painful two year witch-hunt – and I can tell you that getting vindicated in the [media] doesn’t get the same size headlines as when people are speculating that you’ve done God-knows-what level of wrongdoing.
Resilience is something this movie [The Soundtrack Of Our Lives] will inspire.
“No-one’s life goes up, up, up – and music is an especially tough business.”
No-one’s life goes up, up, up – and [music] is an especially tough business. You’ve got to deal with crises, hopefully not in abundance. You’ve got to be able to face adversity and count on resilience.
The other thing this film shows is just the wonder of music; how it accidentally came into my life and then totally transformed it.
I certainly don’t have to be working in music today, I choose to be. It totally fulfils me.
Would you relish running a label now as streaming takes over and listening habits change?
I’ve always relished it. It certainly was a tough period prior to streaming; the public felt that music should be free, and labels were economically affected with reductions in staff.
Because of my good fortunate I’ve endowed an institute at NY – The Clive Davis Institute Of Recorded Music. I felt I could make a difference and provide career opportunities for those [young people].
“music seems healthy and economically secure again, but there are things we’ve got to be vigilant about.”
But when I would go down there for a few years, they got scared: ‘Are we preparing for a career in an industry that has no future? Is this a business in jeopardy?’
Now music seems healthy and economically secure again, but there are things we’ve got to be vigilant about.
I love great voices. I stand for great voices, and I believe in them.
I’m very concerned that [US] urban mainstream [radio] is becoming so dominated by hip-hop that the big voiced artist – which is such a part of our history – might be relegated to an ‘adult’ format that doesn’t allow them to become as vital and important to us as Aretha and Whitney were.
“Where’s the next Aretha coming from? Where’s the next Whitney coming from?”
I’m nervous about that. Where’s the next Aretha coming from? Where’s the next Whitney coming from?
For me, Jennifer Hudson has that voice. But radio is still the most important format to trigger an artist breaking through.
Also, where will the next Springsteen and Dylan come from?
I like EDM, I like hip-hop, but not to the point that it homogenises all music – and you don’t get the kind of stars that I’m so proud of having been part of my life.
I’m just glad I was there at the beginning, understanding that this could happen – maybe not quite to the extent that it’s now happened – but that there would be a revolution and that hip-hop could be vitally important in mainstream music.
Even before the Bad Boy deal I signed Gil-Scott Heron who was one of the original hip-hop artists.
“[Hip-hop’s] growth is healthy, but not if it puts blinders on urban mainstream radio.”
But as I said, it’s healthier if hip-hop doesn’t dominate so much that it makes us forget that we need the next Aretha Franklin and the next Whitney Houston.
[Hip-hop’s] growth is healthy, but not if it puts blinders on urban mainstream radio so they don’t give the next Luther Vandross the opportunity to do for the next generation what Luther did for the last generation.
Streaming is heralding a new era of data-led A&R – using statistics to root out the next big artist and trend. What do you think about that?
The challenge is the same as it ever was. I don’t care where you find the artist, or which data you use, you’ve got to look for the next headliner – the next truly great artist.
Otherwise you end up with a single, not a career; people buy a hit record and have no curiosity about what the rest of your album sounds like.
“I don’t care where you find the artist, or which data you use, you’ve got to look for the next headliner – the next truly great artist.”
Artists I discovered 30, 40, even 50 years ago are still headlining all over the world; whether it’s Springsteen, Billy Joel, Santana, Barry Manilow – that’s the key.
And what gratification that this hasn’t been an ephemeral career, not a one-hit-wonder; it’s artists that decade after decade the public remain interested in.
Which modern day label leaders most have your respect?
Oh, I’m not getting into that! Each of those dominating market share and doing so with artists that are special – those people have my respect.
It’s hard to respect those that have no hits and don’t command any market share, although they might be nice men or women.
There was a big change at Sony recently, with Rob Stringer taking over from Doug Morris as CEO. Does it feel like a different era has taken hold?
The same aspect that has distinguished Sony under Doug and Rob is so similar; they’re both true music men. Both have been guided by music all their lives.
“Doug and Rob are both true music men.”
So to answer your question, it’s actually the same era. They’re wonderful colleagues. Doug has had a wonderful career and Rob is enjoying a wonderful career.
I’m glad that the prevailing spirit within that is a respect for music and artistry – and that spirit is identical in both men.
Do you think LA Reid will be back in the music business?
He’s a very talented executive, and he’s always been very talented. Of course I expect him to be back.
What is it about you that’s able to spot executive talent in the likes of Sean Combs?
It was all from interviews – sitting and talking with Puffy about his vision that hip-hop could dominate. He wanted to be with the most successful label in the Top 40, which was Arista.
As he says, he would come every other week to ‘school’; to sit in my office and soak it up. [Hip-hop] wasn’t a field that was my area of expertise but it resonated with me.
“One thing I’m most proud of is the fact that Arista – and the family that it came to represent – never bought another company.”
One thing I’m most proud of is the fact that Arista – and the family that it came to represent – never bought another company, never paid a multiple, to gain market share. Everything was homegrown.
In financing La Face with LA and Babyface, financing Bad Boy Records with Puffy Combs and financing and starting Arista Nashville, we did it all from scratch.
You lost both parents when you were a teenager. What impact on your desire to succeed in your career did that have?
The most impact of any event in my life. You never get over it.
Losing both within the same year; having to uproot myself from Brooklyn to go live with my only sibling who was seven years older than me.
The drive, the need: I had no money [after his parents died], and I certainly had no money to pay for school if I didn’t get scholarships. It motivated my giving back by establishing the Institute in my name at NYU, and it motivated my work ethic to accomplish all this.
Work to me is pleasure, because to me music is not work.
Losing a loved one that’s irreplaceable is forever emotional. It’s regret – regret of things they haven’t seen, of not meeting my children or grandchildren. It’s a hole in your life.
Losing Whitney reminded me of how empty one’s life is when a loved one prematurely gets taken from you.
How do you establish a relationship with an artist that is so strong, you can say to them, This isn’t good enough, and they’ll take it on board without a tantrum?
You’ve got to be very careful before you become too liberal with constant advice.
It’s about getting a track record that gains the respect [of artists], so they know your advice is backed up with being right more often than wrong.
“You don’t give [other people’s] songs to rock artists.”
What we’re talking about is being very careful to recognise the difference between an executive and an artist. Notwithstanding history, I never submit material to a self-contained artist.
You don’t give [other people’s] songs to rock artists.
Some people do today if it means getting them on streaming playlists!
You don’t give songs to Patti Smith! You don’t give songs to Bruce Springsteen! You don’t give songs to Alicia Keys!
But when you become the creative partner for those artists that need material, that when [A&R] is more than just signing them. I found every song that Whitney Houston recorded.
“Artists have their own feelings, they believe what they want to believe and they resist everybody – including myself – if you believe otherwise.”
Your track record is your calling card. And if you have a real good track record it helps your case.
It’s a tough battle. Artists have their own feelings, they believe what they want to believe and they resist everybody – including myself – if you believe otherwise. And so they should.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given in the music business and who gave it to you?
It was actually given to me by my mother.
I was a straight A student at school. And I remember she said, Learning and school work and reading is great, and I encourage you to do it. But people awareness, street smarts – that’s very necessary.
You can’t live in an ivory tower, you must immerse yourself in other people; you’ve got to get to know them. You can’t just be a book-learning smart person.
That’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten.
You’ve shown yourself to be a skilled producer as well as an executive A&R. How important in your mind is some hands-on musical experience and/or ability is in the world of A&R?
It’s very important. That’s how you collaborate, how you get acceptance of advice; how your determine how to bring the best out of a given artist.
For rock artists… stay away! You interpret those artists without bastardising their integrity. So when you have a Patti Smith peeing on stage and spitting down her mouth, let her do her thing; don’t homogenise it.
You’ve got to know when to stand back and do nothing and when to collaborate and be there.
With Whitney, I was the one, with my A&R staff, who narrowed down hundreds of songs to 20. Then she and I would share a hamburger every album and talk about how we’d narrow down the 20 to 10.
Without question, the proudest moment was at the start of J Records.
I was making tens of millions of dollars a year [at Arista]. I’d signed [Santana’s] Supernatural and produced it, I’d produced My Love Is Your Love, and it was the most profitable year in our history.
But [Bertelsmann] wanted to elevate me to a corporate chairman.
Some people had interpreted, wrongly, that I’d peaked or that I was too old or something. There was no way that was accurate. When anyone turned 60 in Bertelsmann they either left or they became a corporate something or other.
So there was this big uproar, and I was ready to leave to accept a huge offer from Universal. And to keep me – because they all-of-a-sudden realised, ‘Oh my God, he’s really leaving’ – [Bertelsmann] gave me the biggest label deal ever made: $150m to start J, plus five platinum artists, plus new artists including Alicia Keys.
So, the proudest moment…. They did not put a limit on the number of executives who could come with me from Arista to J.
I made a list [of who he wanted to transfer over]: from the President, Charles Goldstuck, to the executive vice presidents, Tom Corson and Peter Edge… I went down the entire A&R staff, the heads of marketing, the heads of promotion, the heads of press. The top 18 executives.
I couldn’t offer them a penny more than what they were making [at Arista]. Bertelsmann, however, had the ability to tear up their contracts and offer them double [to stay at Arista] – and in many cases did.
And 18 out of 18 came with me to J Records.
Overnight – other than the few artists staying at Arista – all 18, with families, showed how much they believed in me. It’s still startling to this day.Music Business Worldwide