HITS Daily Double


Clive Davis spent the better part of Thursday sitting down with respected journalists to discuss his annual Pre-Grammy Gala, this year with Jay-Z as the Grammy Salute to Industry Icons honoree. HITS was allowed in the room with him after we promised to keep our crayons far from his nice suit.

So what did we talk about? Jay-Z, The Soundtrack of Our Lives documentary, hit singles and why Anthony Braxton was once Barry Manilow’s labelmate.

On Jay-Z: “He’s been a tremendous influence on music in many ways, certainly creatively. The length of his career is tremendous, and he’s still vital today. He’s leading the way as an entrepreneur; he’s a leader with great ideas. I think it’s great Jay-Z’s being honored by the Recording Academy.”

Booking acts for the Gala: “I’m not a slave to the Grammys. I’m mixing it up—not just Grammy nominees but people with hits who are going to lift people up out of their seats. People at the party expect that. The artists are the ones whose magic I want to share. You will see someone, an all-timer, on Saturday. I just want to make sure that the new artists in the audience—Future, Dua Lipa, Camila Cabello—see some of the old-time greats. Sharing is the motivation for artists performing Saturday.”

The importance of a being a good live act: “If you don’t know how to fill a headlining slot, you’re going to have a limited career. One of the great artists of last two or three years would be Ed Sheeran. He’s come up with a different approach to live; he’s a riveting artist. Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, they’re riveting live. You’re at risk of having a career shorter than you aspire to. One of the proudest things in the documentary is that artists interviewed 20, 30, 40 years [after recording for Clive], these headliners are still selling out concerts all over the world.”

Concerns about the future of music: “I worry that hip-hop is dominating so much that I wonder where the next Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston is coming from on the urban side. From a rock point of view, where’s the next Springsteen or Bob Dylan? As much as I think hip-hop and rap are fresh and innovative—people like Chance the Rapper—I don’t want it to dominate so extensively that other artists don’t have a chance to be heard. I encourage more diversity. You want to make sure that all new talents are given a chance to be exposed.”

How to tell an artist you don’t hear a single: “The subject comes up all the time. It’s very delicate. You have to be sensitive to an artist’s creativity but share your expertise because they’re all interested in whether [their music] will sell. I ask: Do I have the ingredients to find a sizable audience? When I met with Bob Dylan about Nashville Skyline, the subject of singles came up. Without singles, there are very few albums that sell. In case of Bruce Springsteen, he turned in Greetings From Asbury Park and I listened to it. I called him up and I said, ‘Sensitive subject. I love your music, love everything about you, love that John Hammond signed you, but I’m a little concerned there’s not a radio-friendly cut that’s sparking right now.’ Sometimes an artist can be defensive.

“People who say labels don’t matter don’t understand that if you have a good relationship with the artists, that it’s going to be collaborative—it’s not going to be me against the artist. In the documentary, Paul Simon, Patti Smith, they tell you how it worked. Springsteen says of 'Blinded by the Light' and 'Spirit in the Night,' [he doesn’t] think he would have written either otherwise.”

Arista’s roster—Manilow, Patti and avant-garde jazz: “I was always following the role model of Columbia Records. Because Miles Davis was there—and threatened by Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears—he introduced me to Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and, from there, Weather Report. I had so much respect for Miles and the artists he associated with, I wanted to sign jazz and jazz-fusion artists when I started Arista—I was always open to all types of music. First thing I did was make a deal with GRP with Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin for jazz-fusion artists. I felt very comfortable providing recording opportunities for progressive artists [such as Braxton, Air, Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake, etc.]”

Next up?: “I’m in the studio with Jennifer Hudson. Urban mainstream has got to be mindful that there’s a huge appetite for the next Whitney, the next Aretha. It could be anybody. I think it’s Jennifer.”

Can TV competition shows create stars again?: “I did [American Idol] for six, seven years, and I think it’s a matter of the material that an A&R staff can furnish. Too often, they let the artist do their own material, and I think that’s a mistake. We should give recognition to the pro songwriters—it never hurt Frank Sinatra. These new artists have to get great material. Could it happen? Yeah.”

The invite-only Pre-Grammy Gala will be Saturday at the Sheraton New York Times Square. We keep checking the mailbox, and it’s nothing but offers to get out of debt.