The Mogul Speaks: Clive Davis Returns to HLS


Clive Davis noted that coming back to HLS was an “emotional experience.”

Most Friday afternoons, one would be hard-pressed to find a single law student in a classroom on campus. On September 28th, however, Langdell North was filled to capacity with students and professors not only from the law school, but also from Harvard College and even Berklee College of Music. The draw? The biggest name in the music business these days: Clive Davis.

At the invitation of the Harvard Law School Forum, Davis, HLS ’56, spoke for one hour on his rise to the top of the music industry, imparted advice on getting into the business, and answered hard-hitting questions from the attendees.

The event opened with an introduction from 3L Stanley Chang and a short film documenting Davis’s remarkable career in the entertainment business. As a law student, Davis came to Harvard on a scholarship from a working class family in New York City. After graduating, Davis worked briefly at two law firms. The second firm job led to an offer from client CBS Records to join the legal department of its subsidiary Columbia Records, with the opportunity to become general counsel. From there, Davis quickly rose to become president of CBS Records from 1967 to 1973. He later launched Arista Records, which became home to Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow, Dionne Warwick, the Grateful Dead, Aretha Franklin, and other legends. In 2000, Davis formed J Records, signing an eclectic mix of musicians including Alica Keys, Luther Vandross, Maroon 5, and Annie Lennox. In 2003, Davis became head of RCA Records, and a year later rejoined Arista as Chairman and CEO of BMG North America. In 2004, Sony Music Entertainment and BMG entered a joint venture to create the world’s second largest record company.

In addition to winning numerous Grammys, Davis was the first active CEO with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer. In addition to these honors, Davis has received humanitarian awards from the TJ Martell Foundation and the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

With this long list of achievements, it should come as no surprise that when Davis stepped up to the podium, the entire audience rose to its feet to applaud him. Davis began by noting that “coming back to this campus [was] an emotional experience.” He said he never expected he would be in the music business, “so if there’s a lesson to be learned, you know, you don’t know where life is going to take you. Law is a terrific vehicle.” He characterized his journey into the industry as a “quirk of fate,” and stressed the role that luck can play in the paths our lives take.

Davis made sure to emphasize that a career like his takes hard work as well. His first message for the audience, he said, was that to work in any business outside of a private law firm, it is essential to understand the “underlying business.” With no background in the music business, Davis said he simply plunged in, going to every opening night he could. When Columbia was sued as a monopoly, Davis had the unusual opportunity to travel around the country and learn the retail, distribution, and artistic sides of the business.

Davis also advised students that while luck may play a role, “the key thing is learning how to take advantage of an opportunity that may come from a lucky break.” At the time Davis entered the business, there was “a change in the air:” Bob Dylan had just come onto the scene as a composer, and the career of Simon and Garfunkel was just getting started. Davis attended the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where he first heard Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company perform. He quietly signed her to Columbia, along with Blood, Sweat & Tears and, soon afterwards, Chicago and Santana. Davis said he knew he was “in the midst of a revolution that was coming,” but also warned the audience that simply being a musician does not mean you will be sensitive to changes in music. Davis claimed he felt a similar revolution with contemporary urban music, “long before Puffy, L.A., and Babyface.” In 1971, Davis signed a marketing and distribution deal with Gamble and Huff on the Philadelphia International Records label, who pioneered the Philadelphia soul sound.

Davis was raised with a wide variety of music, and was never interested in creating a boutique label. When he formed Arista, therefore, he wanted to capture the new movements that were emerging. Davis said there are two sides to Artists and Repertoire (talent scouting, commonly known as “A&R”). One the one side, he said, there are “self-contained artists,” who write their own material and who comprise 80 to 90 percent of the artists with whom Davis works. On the other side are top artists who need the label to provide material as well. To these artists, Davis takes a practical approach: when Whitney Houston asked Davis if she should write her own material, he responded that, “she should only write if she could write as good as her top hits.”

While many of the greatest artists never wrote – Davis brought Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra as a few examples – Davis faced a similar issue with Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, and Avril Lavigne. The key, Davis said, was to be able to find a balance. In certain musical genres, such as rock and hip hop, artists need to be able to write their own material. Davis drew giggles from the audience with the suggestion that a hip hop artist would hire a writer.

On the other hand, most pop artists are better off relying on professional songwriters, and R&B artists are often dependent on a producer-slash-writer. Davis pointed out that A&R was responsible for Clarkson’s hits “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Breakaway,” and most of “Behind These Hazel Eyes.” Davis did note, however, that some artists, such as Dido and My Morning Jacket, always wrote their own material, and Aguilera and Lavigne began writing later in their careers. Davis did not directly address his conflict with Clarkson this year over her third album, “My December,” whose release was delayed due to label concerns over its dark tone and the less commercial nature of Clarkson-written songs.

Davis then gave the audience a lesson on “what makes a star a star.” After Davis re-signed Santana ten years ago, they created a blueprint for his albums, where half the material would come from artists who had been influenced by Santana. For the album “Shaman,” Davis and Santana recorded four different versions of “The Game of Love,” one of Santana’s hit songs which ultimately won a Grammy for “Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals,” with Michelle Branch on vocals. Davis played three versions for the audience: the original demo version, the second version with Macy Gray, which Davis said simply didn’t provide the “edge,” and the Michelle Branch version that was ultimately released. Davis then said that the last version they recorded could not be released because the artist decided she was going into semi-retirement and could not do a music video or television promotion. While Davis said he always regretted this, he emphasized that “in this business, you’ve got to do a video.” He then played the unreleased version, with the unforgettable Tina Turner as vocalist. The song will be released October 16 as part of a compilation of Santana hits titled “Ultimate Santana.”

Davis concluded by suggesting that there are two aspects to being in music: finding those signature artists who write their own material and are at the creative frontier, and finding the entertainers, “on the vaudevillian side of music,” who need the professional community. The role of the label is to put it all together. Davis said that he has found that “having been a lawyer for a record company, and knowing the role that a lawyer can play . . . . You can’t do anything from the ivory tower.”

Students eagerly lined up at the microphones for the chance to ask Davis questions at the end of his talk. In response to a question about the future of the digital revolution and the Recording Industry Association of America’s tactic of suing individual music listeners, Davis said, “the toughest thing we’ve had to combat is th
e idea that music is free.” Davis supported enforcement of copyright laws and emphasized the need to maintain economic incentives for the creative community. While Davis seemed critical of Apple Inc. and its pricing strategy, he also said he thought that “music will be available more widely, freely, and easily than it’s ever been before.” Davis also dismissed arguments that record labels are unnecessary as “terribly misguided,” noting the Grateful Dead’s failed attempt to distribute its own records. The role of the label, Davis said, “seems deceptively easy,” and claimed that with the exception of David Geffen, most artists or managers who try to set up a record company ultimately fail.

The final question came from a student who asked, “Mr. Davis, I just have one question – what are you going to do with Britney Spears?”

Davis responded, “Well . . . I’m going to assume you mean musically?”

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