Power 100: Clive Davis Holds Court on Being a King
Gavin Bond

Clive Davis’ legacy is inextricably tied to the classic artists he’s worked with, from Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, to Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston, to Alicia Keys and Santana. But that legacy is just as vital—and continues to be felt—through the executives who’ve been elevated under his leadership through the decades at Sony Music, many of whom appear on the Power 100.

Those include RCA president/COO Tom Corson and CEO Peter Edge (No. 21), Island Def Jam president/COO Steve Bartels (No. 54), Universal Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan (No. 41) and Epic Records chairman/CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid (No. 56). Last year Billboard honored both the artist and business halves of his impact by giving Davis the inaugural Music Visionary Award, which this year will be renamed the Billboard Clive Davis Visionary Award. This week, Billboard will present Joe Smith—former president of Warner Bros., Capitol and Elektra—with that distinction at a reception for the Power 100 honorees in Los Angeles on Jan. 22.

At 81, Davis’ current projects include the upcoming Jennifer Hudson record as well as an Aretha concept album that he describes as “classics reinterpreted by the greatest singer of our lifetime—Dinah Washington going through Sarah Vaughan and Tina Turner, and songs like ‘At Last’ by Etta James, songs from Whitney, songs from Adele, Alicia Keys.” There’s also a live CD/DVD compilation of Houston’s greatest performances.

Billboard Power 100 Hall of Famer Davis recently spent an hour in his penthouse suite atop the Sony building on New York’s Madison Avenue discussing his definition of vision, the challenges facing the music industry and his favorite albums of 2013 in a Q&A with Billboard, excerpts of which appear below.

Last year, Billboard named you our inaugural Music Visionary, which this year will be renamed the Clive Davis Visionary Award. How do you recognize vision in artists—and executives?
Accurately, the word “vision” should be used sparingly. When John Hammond brought me Bruce Springsteen and I dissected the lyrics and what he was writing about, I felt that Bruce was capable of being a visionary. And Patti Smith doing things differently than anyone before her—combining poetry with rock in such an unusual way. I also would put Alicia Keys in that category. You don’t have to just be a visionary lyrically. When Alicia first played her songs for me and Peter Edge, you knew that she would be a visionary to know where and how urban music will be meaningful in the decades ahead.

I have also found in working throughout the years with Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, the word “visionary” applies to each of them. They had a tremendous natural gift to hear a song, study the lyric written by someone else and find meaning in that song that I don’t believe the composers knew was there when they first wrote it.

As far as executives, I’ve had incredibly talented people work for me—many of whom have become presidents of labels. But using the word “visionary” as it applies to executives, there’s a difference between very skilled, very able, very talented, very dedicated executives that you want on your team, and a small number of them who have those qualities and the quality of leadership as well. The executives with the quality of being able to anticipate where music was going, and be a part of formulating strategies and plans to cope with where the music business was going, those are the people who could be visionaries.

In your autobiography “The Soundtrack of My Life,” there are notable moments where your vision differs from the artist’s. What are some instances where yours prevailed and succeeded? And when does vision mean empowering the artist in spite of more pressing commercial needs?
I’ve been involved with some of the most individualized artists, whether it was Patti Smith or Lou Reed or the Grateful Dead or Gil Scott Heron. You are attracted to that talent because of their vision for themselves. There was some executive frustration that they could have had a hit, but you always have to defer.

I remember with Barry Manilow, being the musician and composer that he is, when his first record “Mandy” went to No. 1, for him we agreed I’d be able to come up with two songs per album [that he didn’t write]. Initially Barry did them, realized he was benefitting from them, but there was some general resistance. But I didn’t really know how Barry felt until after my book came out, and I received a beautiful letter from him: “I no longer question whether this song was right or wrong. You earned your spurs after ‘I Write the Songs.’ After the first time you played it for me, I didn’t question whether you were right or not.”

Of course another experience was Taylor Dayne, where she and Ric Wake came to us with that big hit first record, “Tell It to My Heart.” And then my A&R staff and I gave her 10 hit songs in a row. And she decided that she had to write and I said, “OK, no rancor.” You take the lead from the artist. And now we’re standing 20 years later when in a wonderful way she and I met and she said, “Why didn’t you give me shock therapy? I was too young with everybody grabbing at me and wanting to increase the piece of the action . . . I’m singing as great as ever.” But the moment had passed. It’s one thing to compete at 25, but another at 45, she had said.

This is Billboard’s third Power 100 issue. Where do you see power rest in the industry today?
From a business point of view, the most intense battle we face today is fully adapting modern technology and overcoming the sizable part of the public that still feels music should be free. Music is acknowledged to be as vital today in people’s lives as ever. At the school I’ve endowed at NYU in my name [the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music] I get questions from students: “Should I go into music?” The answer is “yes.” As Billboard prepares for a new era, the challenge of “Is the music industry still worth covering?” The answer is “yes.”

So in one sense the power is really the commitment and willingness to continue the legal vigilance to fight this terribly wrong concept that music should be free. At a time when you know the public is paying more and more and more to see their artists live, there’s something tremendously contradictory about this. It’s been a very tough battle, but we must for the future growth of music really combat this dangerous, unfair idea, that our creative artists, writers, producers, arrangers, companies should not get paid for their creativity.

Your signature Grammy party returns this weekend. What can we expect?
I just looked at yesterday’s guest list and I see former Speaker [of the House] Nancy Pelosi is coming, I see art dealer Larry Gagosian coming, Metallica for the first time is coming. People from all walks of life, and that makes me feel good. It’s a tradition of celebrating music the night before the awards and presenting artists because it’s not just having people schmooze, eat and what have you—it is putting on a show. And putting on unexpected performances, whether it’s Rod Stewart and Lou Reed or Alicia Keys performing with Aretha Franklin.

And also the breakthroughs that have come from that party. I brought Santana out at my Grammy party and put him on with Rob Thomas doing “Smooth” and Product G&B doing “Maria Maria” and said this was not just a gesture but something unique and special. I look forward to this year continuing in that tradition.