PLAYBOY: Is it stoppable?
DAVIS: We’ve made progress. In 2011 we ended up selling more digital, CDs and records combined than we had the previous year. Last year it was level. One hopes the decline is over and that we’re now overcoming it.
PLAYBOY: Should kids be arrested if they pirate music?
DAVIS: I am very clear on this. Piracy is illegal, and whatever is needed to protect our creative artists must be done. In no way is anyone entitled to someone else’s creativity for free. It’s like going to the theater and feeling you should be able to see A Streetcar Named Desire for nothing. We must all protect our musicians. It’s terrible that technology has allowed a segment of the public to feel they should get music free. It’s not fair. It’s not right. We have to legally enforce these laws. Are you going to accept it if a 17-year-old robs a bank? If a person is not law-abiding at 15, 16, 17—whatever age—they have to be, and should be, held accountable. Creativity must be protected, and people should not be allowed to steal music any more than they should be allowed to steal anything else.
PLAYBOY: Is the solution to shut down file-sharing sites and prosecute those who illegally download, or is it to convince kids and others that piracy is stealing and they should pay for music?
DAVIS: It requires all of that.
PLAYBOY: But if, after years of attempting to solve the problem, more music is pirated than sold, the efforts aren’t working.
DAVIS: New technology may help. Some of what is changing is the way people get music, so maybe they’ll be less inclined to download it. Spotify and streaming are generating revenue. But the most important fact in all this is that we’re dealing with something that is still a basic need. I know that music is a need. We’re not dealing with a product that is dated. Now it’s a matter of finding a solution as to how to get music in a commercial, profitable way—fair to the originators and satisfying to the consumers—so it can continue to grow. But the need for music is still there.
PLAYBOY: Because it’s now harder for artists to make money selling records, does the lion’s share of their income come from performing?
DAVIS: That’s accurate for established artists, for veteran headliners, whether it’s Madonna, Springsteen, Elton John or Rod Stewart. They fill arenas all over the world, which makes a fortune compared with their record sales. Lady Gaga is a big breakthrough, so she still probably makes more from live performances, but her albums sell 2 million, 3 million, 4 million copies. That was pretty significant as a breakthrough. The biggest-selling rap artist is probably Lil Wayne at 2.5 million. Eminem does some touring, but his albums are major sellers. Others are Kanye West and Jay-Z.
PLAYBOY: Are they on your iPod?
DAVIS: I don’t have an iPod. I have an iPhone and an iPad.
PLAYBOY: Is that what you use to listen to music?
DAVIS: I listen on CDs. I have a home in Westchester, about an hour away, and I go there on weekends. I’ll listen in the car going there and coming back. I also use Spotify on occasion. I watch videos to see what competitive artists look like as they break.
PLAYBOY: Do you go to clubs?
DAVIS: That was a long ago thing. Now you get videos, though for established artists, or an artist on your roster who is performing, you go. Barbra Streisand goes back so many years that I have to go to the Hollywood Bowl when she performs there. Alicia Keys is touring, and I’ll see her. I just saw Sting and Tony Bennett at a charity dinner.
PLAYBOY: You’ve worked with the biggest stars in the world by now. You’re about to turn 81. Do you think about retiring?
DAVIS: Look, your health has to be good to enable you to come to an office every day. I am still at the office a minimum of eight hours every day. Besides, you can work in this job as long as your track record is good. You get report cards every Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday is radio, when they release the Top 40; Wednesday they release the SoundScan results, which track sales.
PLAYBOY: Is it harder to break records these days, when radio stations have such formulaic playlists? On most stations, DJs have little opportunity to play what they want.
DAVIS: Actually, the size of the playlist has always been pretty much the same. What you do miss is the free-form album stations. There are definitely fewer rock stations. With fewer rock and free-form stations, how do you find the next Dylan? Where is the next Springsteen? The artists who broke in the past few years primarily came out of the singles world—out of electronic dance music—and they don’t show the artistry of a Dylan or a Springsteen. Also, albums aren’t what they used to be. The public will buy 5 million copies of a single but only a few hundred thousand albums at most. There’s not the curiosity to hear more of the artist. People buy only the particular song they like. There are exceptions, but it’s a serious problem when it comes to developing careers, not just breakthrough singles. I’m trying to think of the last solo folk-rock artist to break. It might be harder to break a Patti Smith now—someone completely new.
PLAYBOY: Has anything replaced radio as a way to break artists?
DAVIS: Yes. Online is one way. The web gives people an opportunity to hear and see an artist, but not too many artists break off the web, at least so far. Besides online, a lot of new artists have come from reality-TV competitions. No one has developed meaningfully from the competitions in the past two or three years, but before that we found Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry. I did The X Factor with Leona Lewis for her debut album. Still, it’s not easy to break artists who don’t fit in the mainstream. It’s not easy to break a rock artist; reality shows are pop music. But like I said, people want music. That hasn’t changed. Music is as vital as ever, which is why I’m encouraging students to go into this industry by starting the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU. I want the best people to go into this business, and I want them to understand its potential.
Popular music has a remarkable history. It’s tied with the culture’s development, yet it hasn’t been treated with the same seriousness as other music forms. There was no place to study music—except for very elitist music, maybe classical or jazz at Berklee or the conservatories. Mainstream contemporary music, however, which has so much of an impact around the world, wasn’t taken seriously as an art form. There was no place to seriously study it, to be trained so you could push this industry further. Now there’s a school of popular music where the future of the music business is learning and collaborating.
I endowed the institute for another reason. I’ve always been bothered by the image of the record executive as the gold-chain-wearing, finger-snapping, almost shady character. Well, that’s not what it’s like. It has always bothered me that the profession I chose has that stereotype. I look back at the people who have shaped this business: Warner Bros. Records under Mo Ostin and Joe Smith, A&M Records with Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert. Going back years before me there was Alan Livingston of Capitol Records and, more recently, Richard Branson of Virgin, Chris Blackwell of Island, and David Geffen. I can go on and on. These executives were behind music that we still listen to and that changed the culture. You can argue that the history of music is far more in-depth than that of film. The real leaders of the music industry have been incredibly bright, talented minds, and entrepreneurial. The future leaders should know that tradition, and they should have more opportunities at an early age to learn more, digest more, put their talents to use. They should know they can be part of what comes next, the most exciting next thing.
PLAYBOY: What excites you now?
DAVIS: I was very glad to see the arrival of Mumford & Sons. And Adele—I was very glad to see how she soared over everybody else. I have nothing to do with those artists, but it’s encouraging for the future of music that artists outside electronic dance music are finding success. Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes, is also strong.
PLAYBOY: When you’re listening to the radio and songs come on by artists you’ve worked with—Aretha, Bruce, Janis, Whitney—do you feel a particular pride?
DAVIS: The answer honestly is yes. I do have a definite sense of pride. Like the Mamas and the Papas; sometimes “California Dreamin’?” comes on. A song like that or a Simon & Garfunkel song. I’m reminded that what Paul Simon did was incredible. Paul Simon should always be considered in the same breath as Lennon and McCartney. And there’s a thrill when I hear Bruce Springsteen. There’s an extra thrill when you’re involved with them personally, when you were there from the beginning.
PLAYBOY: Are you as excited as when you discover something new?
DAVIS: Hearing the old music is not necessarily better than the feeling of finding someone new, working with someone great coming up. Over the past three or four years I did “Bleeding Love” and “Better in Time,” which broke Leona Lewis after she won The X Factor. I worked with Kelly Clarkson with “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Already Gone.” I did “Spotlight” with Jennifer Hudson. I did Whitney’s final album, and I supervised her recent greatest hits album. I did a network TV special, A Grammy Salute to Whitney Houston. I’ve just signed Aretha to do another album. I signed Rod Stewart. I’d never worked with him before, and then I did five volumes of The Great American Songbook, which sold almost 20 million copies. I’m still working with Santana. I’m just locking up the rights to bring My Fair Lady back to Broadway. I’ve written my autobiography. It remains exciting. I’m still looking for the next thing, the next artist.