Clive Davis on his 2015 pre-Grammy bash: ‘It’s overwhelming’

Clive Davis, with Aretha Franklin in December in New York, is preparing for his annual pre-Grammy Awards party on Saturday. He's also receiving the NAACP Vanguard Award on Friday night.
Clive Davis, with Aretha Franklin in December in New York, is preparing for his annual pre-Grammy Awards party on Saturday. He’s also receiving the NAACP Vanguard Award on Friday night.
(Cindy Ord / Getty Images for SiriusXM)

“It’s overwhelming” were the first two words out of veteran music mogul Clive Davis’ mouth when he connected with Pop & Hiss earlier this week to discuss how plans are shaping up for his annual pre-Grammy Awards bash slated for Saturday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

It’s the A ticket party of the year in the pop music world, and just a partial list of pop-star guests who’ve RSVP’d backed up Davis’ remark: Iggy Azalea, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Puffy Combs, Chick Corea, Sheryl Crow, Miley Cyrus, Earth, Wind & Fire, Missy Elliott, Barry Gibb, Herbie Hancock, Beck, Jennifer Hudson, Carole King, Gladys Knight, John Legend, Barry Manilow, Ricky Martin, Joni Mitchell, Matthew Morrison, Usher, Smokey Robinson, Russell Simmons, Sam Smith, Taylor Swift, TI,, Pharrell Williams and Neil Young.

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Davis, 82, also name-checked a few entertainers from other fields, music executives and other movers and shakers whom he expects to see there: Irving Azoff, Tyra Banks, Jackie Collins, Joan Collins, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Apple and iTunes’ Eddie Cue, former Vice President Al Gore, Brian Grazer, Magic Johnson, Napster and Facebook’s Sean Parker, House of Representatives minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Melissa Rivers, Jon Voight and, as Davis puts it, “the heads of all the music networks.”

But, as he likes to point out, “it’s not just about how many celebrities will be there. At other events, that’s all they do—they get together and eat and drink, and that’s it. Here, we celebrate music.”

Many past attendees also celebrate the party itself in a recent special issue of Billboard magazine that devoted six pages to their reminiscences and anecdotes from years past.

As usual, Davis wouldn’t reveal any details about who will perform what over the course of the evening.

But he did talk about consumers’ continuing shift away from physical CDs and more recently, paid downloads to music streaming services—perhaps the most dramatic evolution in the music business in the past century. Through all earlier technological changes, as 78s were supplanted by vinyl LPs and 45s, which were replaced by cassette tapes, which were overtaken by CDs and then iTunes digital tracks and albums, consumers were still purchasing what they heard.

In the move to streaming that’s fully underway, via monthly subscriptions to Spotify, Rhapsody, Pandora, RDIO or other services—which in several cases have free ad-supported versions—music fans are, in essence, renting rather than buying the music they wish to hear.

Is that akin to the difference between owning a home and renting?

“I think the ease of access of [streaming] music is great,” Davis said. “Personally I welcome and encourage new developments that bring music to greater numbers of people. To me, I much prefer to own it. I want the ease of access when I want to hear something, but I also want to own it. Traditionally when you might hear a song you like, you’d buy the album and then pore over the album to learn more about that artist and the songwriters and producers. I’m still a lyric man, I still like to see the lyrics to the songs, and not only get into the melody and rhythm of the track.”

I asked Davis whether he thinks the nature of the connection between fans and the music they like is changing because of the dizzying amount of music available at the click of an app. In AARP magazine’s extensive new interview with Bob Dylan, he talks about growing up with limited resources to discover information about the music that captivated him, and how that has changed.

“If you’re just a member of the general public, and you have all this music available to you, what do you listen to?” Dylan asks. “How many of these things are you going to listen to at the same time? Your head is just going to get jammed — it’s all going to become a blur, I would think….it’s so easy, you might appreciate it a lot less.”

Davis responded, “One could wonder. I don’t have the definitive answer. In the bigger picture, bigger issues is that you worry about certain changes, whether it be products, or aspects of life that have changed radically by technology. What’s clear is that music is not going to be made obsolete by new technology. Once you accept guidelines that everyone should be fairly compensated for the creativity of their work, you have to accept these changes.”

If planning and executing the biggest pop music bash of the year wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Davis also will take time out Friday night to accept the NAACP’s Vanguard Award, which is presented during the annual NAACP Image Awards to someone “whose groundbreaking work increases understanding and awareness of racial and social issues.”

Previous recipients include Aretha Franklin, George Lucas, Russell Simmons, Wyclef Jean, Prince, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kramer.

Davis said the award holds special resonance for him, noting that when he started his career as a lawyer for Columbia Records in the 1960s, the label had few African American artists on its roster.

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“This is a very treasured award,” he said. “When I see the past recipients who have been chosen for their impact on the culture, it was very impactful and meaningful.”

One of the early deals Davis worked on at Columbia was a production agreement with Philadelphia International songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, which brought the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and other artists into the Columbia family.

He’s worked with a cross-section of pop, soul, rock, R&B and jazz acts throughout his career and the numerous labels he’s presided over: Columbia, Arista and J Records to his current position as chief creative officer for Sony Music.

“When I started Arista [in 1974], one of the very first artists I signed was Gil Scott-Heron,” Davis said. “Gil ,as you know, certainly has been a major influence on many artists, like Kanye West and others. Many hip-hop artists put Gil up there as a top influence. I’m very proud of that signing.”

“Whether it was working with Dionne Warwick or Aretha [Franklin] or obviously Whitney [Houston], I never really thought ‘I’ve got to go first to R&B’ with them. Maybe it was youthful idealism at the time. It was always just about finding the best songs. All the hits Whitney had went to all [radio] formats pretty much at the same time.

“Yes, I’m also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I’ve worked with a lot of major pop performers,” he said. “I’m just very proud of the impact the artists I’ve been involved with have had.”

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