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Q&A: Record producer Clive Davis talks past, present, future of music industry

Record producer Clive Davis, who is credited for launching the careers of musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Alicia Keys, will be a guest lecturer for Music Industry 110: “Music Business NOW” Wednesday. (Courtesy of Clive Davis)

By Nick LaRosa

April 7, 2015 12:00 a.m.

One of the biggest trends in the music industry over the last 49 years is not a sound or style, but a man – Clive Davis. Fondly referred to by his industry peers as “the Man with the Golden Ears,” Davis’ ability to identify top-level talent has cemented him as a titan in his industry. He has won four Grammy Awards, the Grammy Trustees Award, the President’s Merit Award, and, in 2011, the theater inside the Grammy Museum was named after him. He is also credited with launching the careers of Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston and many more, which earned him an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer.

On Wednesday, Davis will give a lecture for music lecturer Jeffrey Jampol’s Music Industry 110: “Music Business Now” course to share what he has learned over his long and influential career. The lecture will be open to all students, taking place in Schoenberg Hall.

The Daily Bruin’s Nick LaRosa spoke with Davis to discuss his past experiences, current trends and the future of the music industry.

Daily Bruin: You’re coming as a guest lecturer to speak at Jeff Jampol’s “Music Business Now” course. How did you meet Jeff and the rest of his teaching team: Steve Berman, Tom Sturges and Arron Saxe?

Clive Davis: I know Jeff and have worked with him on a few matters, but I’ve mostly been working with Tom (Sturges), and I’ve known Tom for many years. He was head of (Universal Music Publishing Group) and before that … he was head of Chrysalis Music. We met when I was looking for a duet for George Michael and Aretha Franklin. We found “I Know You Were Waiting for Me,” and Tom Sturges came up with that song. That was the early 1980s, so I’ve known Tom for many years.

DB: You often emphasize the importance of education and even founded the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at your alma mater New York University. What does it mean to you to be a true student of the music industry?

CD: It means that music is one of the most important life forces that moves and influences you. If music is in you, it’s not a 9-to-5 job, it’s not something that you look at your watch to stop – it’s something that defines and exhilarates you, something that you want to know everything there is to know about. The reason that I founded the institute in my name is because, growing up, when it comes to contemporary music, there were no real schools that specialized or gave students the opportunity to specialize in music. There were classical or jazz schools and courses, but none that dealt with contemporary music. From my perspective, the best way to give back was to found an institute where, whether you are a performer or a producer or someone who just loves music and wants that as their profession, you would have the opportunity to pursue that in the same way as someone who had been studying classical music or even film.

DB: You wrote in your autobiography, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” that at the time you began working for the legal department of Columbia Records, you wouldn’t have considered music a hobby of yours. How did you go from that state to describing music as “the professional passion of your life”?

CD: This was an accident that I got into music. I was in my 20s when I started at Columbia Records, and, initially, in order to practice law, I wanted to learn everything there was to know about the record industry. I had no clue that I would find out that I had the ears. I had no clue that I was entering into a unique and special phase of my life. So I read everything that I could, I listened to everything that I could and I wanted to know as much about it as I could because I didn’t want to serve as general council or advise executives unless I felt that I knew their business.

DB: While music itself may not be experiencing the degree of revolutionary change that it was when you entered the field, the industry surrounding it certainly is. With means of distribution, exposure and recording changing so rapidly in the last decade, where do you see the music industry in, say, five years?

CD: I do think that there is a growth in streaming, so I do believe that more and more the percentage of music that is consumed that way will continue to grow. The CD itself, the physical CD, is still potent and, for its sound and a variety of other reasons, is staying around. But the trend is certainly towards the continuation of the digital revolution. I think that’s what we are seeing, whether it be through Spotify, Pandora, (Apple Inc.) or Jay Z’s new Tidal company.

DB: What do you do to stay sharp and maintain your knowledge of the industry?

CD: I read as much as I ever did. I certainly read every article published on music and the music industry. I get a compilation daily, so whether an article is in the Los Angeles Times, or Time magazine or a UK paper, I read that daily. I probably get a two-inch thick copy of every article in music everyday. And, then, to keep my ears current because I’m still producing artists, every week or so I bring home the top albums from each genre to see what’s new, because there are subtle changes taking place in radio and, when you stop, that’s when you go over the hill. You don’t leave things to chance; you have to stay an expert.

Compiled by Nick LaRosa, A&E contributor.

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