Clive Davis remains one of the most powerful people in the music industry. From his office on the 35th floor of the Sony Building in New York, the 82-year-old chief creative officer at Sony Music remains relevant. Clive is responsible for the breakout of many rock-era artists and the signing of new ones. A remarkable career for a guy who lost both parents in his teens and grew up poor in Brooklyn. Fortunately he was brilliant and had drive. He received full scholarships to New York University and then Harvard Law School. When he graduated, he wound up at Columbia Records, where he signed Janis Joplin, Laura Nyro, Chicago, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and many others, helping the label double its marketshare in three years. [Photo of Clive Davis, above, by Dorothy Hong for The Wall Street Journal]
In today's Wall Street Journal, I interview Clive on his modern house and guesthouse in northern Westchester County, an hour outside of New York (go here). What fascinated me most about our chat was how Clive stays in tune with the marketplace. Back in the 1980s when I was coming up at The New York Times and other publications, the people in charge always did the most reading. It's how you reached those positions, because reading helped you stay informed and enabled you to develop an innate instinct for what worked and how to stay ahead of the curve. So I began reading multiple daily newspapers and plenty of magazines, a habit that's still with me today. [Photo of Clive Davis's home, above, by Dorothy Hong for The Wall Street Journal]
"Music is my life, so I do a lot of listening up here on the weekends. Each Friday, my assistants burn the songs that entered Billboard's music and radio-airplay charts that week. Music is constantly changing and I need to be aware of what's trending and why. In the country, I can give these unfamiliar songs a special level of attention. Looking at the trees, the water and the lawns, your heart beats slower and you absorb music differently. I never listen to music in a hurry, even in the city, but there is a calm here that allows for greater attention to detail."
In other words, Clive has remained relevant and in play not by dismissing new music and sticking with what he knows but by remaining open and training his ear to know what's hot on radio and sales charts, why they're hot, and making recommendations based on that self-training. Mind you, I'm not advocating that what sells is good and what doesn't is bad. But Clive's job isn't to recommend investing in music that few will want to buy but to find artists who will capture the imaginations of the masses. As long as there's plenty of choice out there for everyone (and there is), I'm fine with music I may not like or understand. [Above, Clive Davis, center, with Paul Simon, left, and Miles Davis]
The takeaway here is to remain curious and to make an effort to find and listen to the good stuff in every genre. Such exposure makes you a more seasoned listener and sharpens your taste and perspective, allowing you to develop an ear for music outside of your comfort zone. I love jazz, as you know, but it's also exciting discovering new music that I enjoy and few people have heard.