Over the past four decades, Clive Davis has established and maintained universal recognition as the music industry’s leading visionary. In 2003, his abounding passion for music extended itself to academia, with the establishment of the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University. As a division of the Tisch School of the Arts, the department aids the university with the “development” of aspiring music entrepreneurs in a manner that matches Clive Davis’ professional leadership of the successful artists that have been under his care.
In honor of Clive Davis’ influence and accomplishments, both within and outside the music profession, New York University honored the music mogul with a Doctor of Fine Arts degree on May 18, 2011, during its 179th Commencement Exercise. Shortly thereafter, Clive Davis managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on “the art” of artist development, the founding of J Records, and the cultural impact of LaFace and Bad Boy Records.
Clayton Perry: Prior to your career as a music mogul, you pursued your passion for law – as a Harvard Law School graduate – by joining CBS’s legal team in 1960. What reflections do you have on your transition to becoming a music executive?
Clive Davis: I got into this by luck. I was unprepared for it – but I learned the hard way. I had a strong work ethic – and I studied everything about music. It was then that I miraculously found out that I had something that I knew that I did not know I had: an ear for music.
Clayton Perry: In the current music landscape, it has been said that “artist development” is a dying art. What immediate reaction do you have to such a statement?
Clive Davis: Artist development is a vital part of the record business and a vital part in the building of who an artist is. It should not be a dying art. The challenge is that there are more artist selling singles who are not able to make the important transition to albums. An album solidifies an artist’s identity – especially if the practice is done right. Nobody wants to be a singles artist with only digital singles. There is a lot of work that needs be done in order to educate the listener that they are more than a single record.
Clayton Perry: Next month, J Records will celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Alicia Keys’ classic debut, Songs in A Minor. When you reflect on this particular project, what “artist development” strategies do you credit for her introduction to the music industry and her longevity within it?
Clive Davis: With Alicia the songs were already there – but we were not sure where it would fit in radio. When “Fallin’” came out, the urban stations wanted something with a faster temper. And the pop stations, they felt that it was too urban – unless it went to the top of the urban charts. So I brought Alicia everywhere that I could. Whether I was keynoting a Billboard or a radio convention, I showcased her. I made sure everybody saw her. But one day, I wrote a letter to Oprah [Winfrey] and told her that she needed to do for new artists what she does for authors. At this point in time, there was a new wave of “neo-soul” artists, akin to D’Angelo, and there were three great artists in particular. One was on my label and two were not. So I asked Oprah is she would have a show introducing these three artists: Alicia Keys, India.Arie and Jill Scott. She wrote me back the next day and called me. The reaction from these opportunities of exposure was spectacular. And when her album was shipping, the excitement from that show and various other places allowed it to enter the chart at #1. Eventually, radio gravitated to “Fallin’.” You can give any artist the opportunity to perform, but they have to be able to deliver in-person. Alicia did that every single time, which is essential in the development opportunities for an artist.
Clayton Perry: Alicia Keys’ husband, super-producer Swizz Beatz, was named as the first Producer in Residence at the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University. When the department was founded in 2003, what short-term and long-term outcomes aligned with your professional life and mission?
Clive Davis: I founded and endowed the school because I knew that the only schools in music over the last few decades were really devoted to jazz and the American idioms of jazz or classical music. Berklee [College of Music] and a few other schools are wonderful, but they are very highbrow and did not have anything to do with contemporary music. In contrast, with the art of filmmaking, budding screenwriters can find experimental offerings at USC [University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts] and NYU [New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts]. But for contemporary music, I knew there was a wide gap open. In fact, the response has been so overwhelming that I agreed to make a much greater impact with another endowment, which will double the faculty and expand the number of courses for the upcoming [2011-2012] school year. I was told by Mary Schmidt Campbell – Dean of the Tisch School of the Arts – that the department in my name has the highest ratio of applications. There has been incredible interest and demand, nationally and internationally, so the level of instruction and the satisfaction of students will continue to increase.
Clayton Perry: It is undeniable that you have an eye for talent. From Alicia Keys to Whitney Houston, each artist is unique in their own way, but what distinguishing characteristic do you think binds them all together?
Clive Davis: In my mind, they are all individual and they are all different. In the case of Alicia and Whitney, they are both incredible artists. In some cases, the singers write their own material. Patti Smith and Annie Lennox are two examples. And each is distinctive. Whitney is more in the mold of Billie Holiday and Lena Horne – vocal geniuses. In that area, you have artists like Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Jennifer Hudson. They are only similar in that they interpret the music of others. Their voices are completely different, however. You will never mistake their voice. When you hear it, you know instantly – within seconds. You’ll never mistake them. Yeah, they’re great, great singers of their respective age. Aretha, Whitney, Dionne.
Clayton Perry: Jazz and R&B vocalist Will Downing firmly believes that a ballad lasts forever. Looking at your current J Records roster, this thesis especially holds true when taking Alicia Keys, Monica, Fantasia, and Marsha Ambrosius into consideration. To date, their most-successful singles have all been ballads: “No One,” “When I See You” and “Far Away” respectively. Why do you think that has been the case?
Clive Davis: Ballads aside, a great record is a great record. And hopefully, a great song can last forever. I have worked on five albums with Rod Stewart. They include classics from the Great American Songbook. A great song can be reinterpreted. And a great song can last forever. Ballads have a tendency to last longer historically. But there are several up-tempo songs that are classic, too. Along with the melody and song, these songs help to define moments in time. When you compare “[(You Make Me Feel Like) A] Natural Woman” and “Respect,” who knows which will last longer.
Clayton Perry: With the founding of J Records in 2000, did you have any concerns about the shift, in spite of your previous string of successes with Arista Records?
Clive Davis: No – because I was very fortunate. We were given 150 million dollars to start J. This is the most any label has been given in the history of the industry. We were also given 10 artists – five of which were platinum sellers. And in the wings were Luther Vandross and Busta Rhymes. So we were an instant major label. Probably the most gratifying thing of my career: every department head came along with me – from marketing to the A&R team. So thankfully, it was business as usual, since we were founded at the height of Arista’s success – Santana’s Supernatural and Whitney Houston’s My Love Is Your Love. In many ways, we kept the same company, so if it wasn’t broke, then we didn’t fix it.
Clayton Perry: A decade removed from J Records’ first year of operation, when you examine the footnotes of your professional evolution, what lesson or skill have you found to consistently bring success?
Clive Davis: I pinch myself – because things have been so kind – and the successes have been so gratifying. I have discovered that you learn lessons all the time, if you’re open. I never look at my track record and think that certain things are going to happen. Radio changes – and I bring charts home with me everyday. Records that were hits 5 year ago are no longer hits today. You cannot be too encrusted in the past. And you have to keep you ears fresh. That is a basic rule that I always follow.
Clayton Perry: In the post-Motown era, during your stay at Arista, two record labels have been prominent in defining the sound of young America: La Face and Bad Boy. When you look back on the impact of these two labels, what do you consider to be their biggest – or unrecognized – contributions to the contemporary music landscape?
Clive Davis: Both labels – in their own way – broadened contemporary music. I first started LaFace – with [Antonio] “L.A.” [Reid] and [Kenneth] “Babyface” [Edmonds] – because I knew that R&B music was changing. During my time at Arista, I worked with Ray Parker, Aretha Franklin and Gil Scott-Heron; but I knew that hip-hop was coming and that urban music was changing. This is how I began my relationship with L.A. and Babyface. They were looking for me to ease the way for their music. Coming into the deal, they already had 19 #1 records. But they never had a #1 pop record. So we created LaFace together. And L.A. and Babyface were able to be cutting-edge with Outkast, Pink, Usher and TLC in particular. They changed and broadened Top 40. But when rap came about stronger and stronger, I knew that we didn’t have the street. We had blue-collar – edgy pop and edgy R&B. But with L.A.’s consent, I started Bad Boy with [Sean] “Puffy” [Combs]. He had a mission to change Top 40 with his urban artists. It was a tall order, but he did it. He broadened it to include the best of hip-hop. This was quite similar to the start of [Kenneth] Gamble and [Leon] Huff’s Philadelphia International Records during my time at Columbia Records. [Billy Paul’s] “Me and Mrs. Jones” – that’s what got me in. And shortly thereafter, with Earth, Wind and Fire, I was able to do quite a bit through my A&R. You have to be selective. You don’t just give a label deal to someone just because they have a few hits. I bet right on L.A. and Babyface and Puffy. They must be given credit for broadening the sound of contemporary music.
Clayton Perry: Many veteran artists rarely get the opportunity to shine, even when their musical talents have not faded. What important lessons can we take away from the massive success of Santana’s 1999 revival – with the release of Supernatural?
Clive Davis: Supernatural was a unique and special event. It is very exciting to discover a new artist – like Janis Joplin – and there is no substitute for it. But in addition, and in an equally fulfilling way, it is exciting to identify those artists whose career could continue for decades. And so therefore, among the artists that I sign, you will not only see new ones. It is betting that a Dionne Warwick could come back as she did with “That’s What Friends Are For.” The same could be said with Aretha after she had her classic hits with Atlantic Records. But she went on to record “Freeway of Love,” “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” and her career was extended further. We also enjoyed success with Luther Vandross prior to his tragic premature death. And most-recently, with Rod Stewart, we have sold 18 million copies of his collection of hits from the Great American Songbook. Santana’s case was very special – very unique – because his band was one of the first that I ever signed. Since 1969, Carlos and I enjoyed hits, like “Black Magic Woman.” And fast-forward 28 years, how exciting to re-sign him, when his career which had gone into a more progressive direction similar to [John] Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. He had gotten away from Top 40, but we made a deal: I would pick half of the songs for Supernatural and he could pick the other half. And together, we created the 6th best-selling album of all-time. We produced it together – and it was quite a reunion. But the album also became an inspiration for other artists.