Davis doesn’t change tune
If there’s one constant connected to the ever-shifting sands surrounding the annual Grammy Awards, it’s that the pre-Grammy night party hosted by veteran music mogul Clive Davis is consistently the see-and-be-seen event of the year.
For more than 31/2 decades, Davis’ celebration the night before the awards are handed out has attracted the entertainment world’s A-list of performers and guests.
This year will be no different. Davis perused page after page of guest lists earlier this week in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he conducts business when he’s in Los Angeles. The 79-year-old Brooklyn native rattled off the names of music, film and television world heavyweights he expects to be rubbing tuxedoed elbows with come Saturday night at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Whitney Houston, Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, Akon, Cee Lo Green, Miley Cyrus, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Jennifer Hudson, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello and Diana Krall are among the music world stars; Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine, Virgin Airlines and Records founder Richard Branson, Spotify exec David Ek, Imagine Entertainment Chairman Brian Grazer, Universal Music Group chief Lucian Grange, Warner Music Group Chief Executive Steve Cooper, Sony/ATV Music Publishing Chairman and CEO Martin Bandier and RCA Music Group Chief Executive Peter Edge are among the executives.
“And that’s just up to the Js,” Davis said with a devil-may-care smile.
He looks at his get-together, which also has served periodically as a coming-out party for emerging acts, including Alicia Keys, Maroon 5, Gavin DeGraw, Kelly Clarkson and Kings of Leon, as something of a United Nations of the entertainment world.
“It’s a great time where everybody can set down their swords, so to speak,” Davis said, seated on an overstuffed divan next to a coffee table cluttered with papers, CDs and videos he’s sorting through during the run-up to his own event as well as the Grammy ceremony that follows Sunday. “This is a tough, competitive business. I was grateful that, inviting them to my home, that they would feel comfortable and just keep coming back, and they’ve kept coming back every year to where it’s expanded to be this incredible haven for musicians.”
Davis is able to pull it off thanks to a track record in the music business that stretches back a half century to when he was a lawyer at Columbia Records who parlayed that job into a career as what used to be called simply a “record man” -- someone who could spot talent in its embryonic stage and understood how to develop that talent to maturity.
His first artist signing at Columbia was Janis Joplin. Over the course of his run at Columbia and then starting his own labels Arista and, most recently, J Records, he also was instrumental in bringing Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Patti Smith, Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Sean Combs, Alan Jackson, Sarah McLachlan, Pink, OutKast and many others into the public eye.
He’s also experienced the volatility of the music business, having been fired from Columbia, rebounding with Arista, then leaving his Arista legacy to launch the J label in 2000. Late last year, J, along with Sony Music-owned Jive and Arista, were put on ice as new management decided to fold all the artists on those labels under the RCA Records name as a way of revitalizing that long-running brand.
“The business itself is not as healthy as it was five years ago. In that way you’ve got to establish brands successively,” Davis said. “I don’t sense the same sense of label loyalty today that did exist in the past ... in this new competition, which involves returning the business to full health. There’s only so many artists you can do [on one label]. I think what’s cost efficient is to do what’s being done now.”
No longer a label head, Davis is putting his energies into his role as chief creative officer for Sony Music worldwide, and at the moment he’s working as producer or executive producer on new albums with artists Hudson and Leona Lewis, exercising his instincts for finding hit songs and pairing them with the right artists.
He’s particularly gratified by the success over the past year of British soul singer Adele, even though he wasn’t involved in the commercial and artistic breakthrough of her “21" album, which has sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“The Adele story is a great message to the industry: When you have an unusually gifted artist, when you have material as strong as this, an album as strong as this, the public all over the world will respond in huge numbers,” Davis said.
There’ll be further reason for his guests to celebrate on Saturday, given the steadily contracting music business in recent years. “We were up this year, weren’t we?” he said. “For the first time the slide was arrested and we sold more than we did the year before, and I think that is really encouraging that we’ve turned the corner here.”
The transition to a digital world is moving ahead, but it’s still a bumpy ride. TV reality music shows sometimes substitute for old-fashioned artist development, and pop radio gets ever more narrow in its scope as satellite and Internet outlets create pathways for musicians to introduce their music to potential fans.
“I’m encouraged now by YouTube and the social media and Vevo and the visual avenues -- there’s going to be much more on the horizon to look at, many more vehicles, many more trigger points. We’ve been so dependent on radio, [and] it’s still the most important vehicle in today’s world. But I think we certainly will be having to look more at nontraditional sources to uncover someone who really can inspire people the way our great artists have done in the past.”
Davis has been involved in producing records for some “American Idol” winners and now is working with Simon Cowell’s “X Factor” first-season winner, Melanie Amaro. Although the once-invincible “Idol” has lost some steam in the ratings recently, Davis, as usual, looks at the bigger picture.
“Clearly the ratings of each of the music reality shows have been affected by the increased competition,” he said. “But if you add together ‘American Idol’ and ‘X Factor’ and ‘The Voice,’ when you add together the music that’s played in ‘Glee’ and the new show ‘Smash,’
And that comes back to what will be on people’s minds on the night before envelope ripping begins.
“I think we’re going to be celebrating breakthroughs of new artists, and I think we’re going to be celebrating these unusual career successes of the masters of contemporary music,” Davis said. “It’s going to be a very healthy celebration that’s not pinned down by whether this one had a Grammy or that one had a Grammy nomination. In this room where the head of every TV network, where the head of so many motion picture studios, where the head clearly of every major music group will be along with the nominees, we will celebrate music. That’s what our objective is for this special night.”