Grammys 2011: A question-and-answer session with Clive Davis
With the Grammy Awards nearing, Clive Davis cites Lady Gaga and Eminem as examples of what is right with the music industry.
Year in and year out come Grammy time, perhaps the hottest ticket in town is the one granting admission to the bash hosted by veteran music mogul Clive Davis. It was the occasion he used to introduce a promising young singer and songwriter named Alicia Keys a little more than a decade ago and where he’s brought together an A-list of performers and party guests for more than three decades.
Davis, 78, is getting a special salute night from the Grammy Museum downtown for his patronage of the fledgling facility — his name now adorns the 200-seat theater where the museum hosts a regular series of performances and question-and-answer sessions with key players in the music business. On Wednesday, he’ll be the first honoree of the museum’s “Icons of the Music Industry” series. (“It's a real thrill having the theater at the Grammy Museum named for me,” Davis said. “Day after day I see the incredible musical events that take place there, and I know it's bringing great joy to many people.”)
Davis’ track record for identifying and nurturing new talent stretches from the 1960s and ‘70s, when he signed artists as diverse as Janis Joplin, Santana, Bruce Springsteen, Barry Manilow, Patti Smith and Aerosmith. In the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s he scored megaplatinum successes with Whitney Houston and Keys, and his latest discovery, singer and songwriter BC Jean, the co-writer of Beyoncé’s megahit “If I Were a Boy,” is about to release her debut album.
The Grammy Awards give the industry a chance to celebrate its successes, so with that in mind, what do you think is going right in the much beleaguered business today?
There certainly is freshness: There is, and has been, the emergence of Lady Gaga; when you look and you see the great album Eminem did, there certainly have been some very strong records that have come out in the past year.
What are the issues that concern you the most?
We’ve got to make sure that music is not homogenized, that music does not exist only to fit into a radio format — which is just encouraging rhythm and tempo and discouraging artistry.... We’ve got to be careful that we not just concentrate on having hit records but that we launch the careers of stars. That’s what the business has always been for me: equal parts discovery of new artists like Whitney or Alicia, but also showing, in effect, how long a career can last. If you begin with a young Aretha or Luther [Vandross] or Rod [Stewart], if they are only allowed to make records that fit into a dance tempo radio format, you can’t do that. I would welcome more diversity. No one’s trying to stem the tide of newness and freshness, but we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the opportunity to build new artists that have careers that will last 10, 20, 30 or 40 years.
Conventional wisdom says the CD is dying, the album format is passé and the individual track you can download from iTunes is king. Do you buy into that line of thinking?
This is certainly a very challenging and tough time for music based upon the transition to digital overall. We just have to make sure we don’t just become that industry convert to singles and abandon albums. We need the full panoply, we still need the great album artists, whether historically that’s been the Who or Pink Floyd or Bruce Springsteen. With some of the new artists like Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons, I’m hopeful we’re not going to be that homogenized. It’s more difficult for the unique artist to break through today, [but] I have confidence the situation will right itself…. I have overall confidence that music is playing a vital part in more lives than ever.
Your annual pre-Grammy Awards party has typically offered testament to the notion of stylistic diversity. Can you give us a sampling of who’s onboard this year?
I’m looking at the RSVP list and it goes from Akon to Earth, Wind & Fire and Jeff Beck, Sacha Baron Cohen, Keyshia Cole and Jermaine Dupri, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, Dr. Luke, Whitney Houston, Magic Johnson … and that’s just up to the Js.
Do you strive to keep upping the ante each year, and what can you tell us about what’s in store Saturday night?
Historically, I’ve always started my shows with a rock artist, whether we’re going back to the Foo Fighters or Velvet Revolver or Kings of Leon. I think it’s important to showcase the diversity of music and also salute and welcome new artists…. [In the past] we’ve put together Alicia and Aretha, Lou Reed and Rod Stewart, and last year we had Fergie and Slash doing a Guns N’ Roses song. It’s the unexpected; it’s really sharing the music that I love…. It is a healthy diversity that showcases great talent that lifts people out of their chairs all night long. That’s always been my criterion: You don’t slacken the pace. Every artist that performs, you want them to lift everyone up out of their chair. For 35 years, it seems to be working.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo credit: J Records