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The Music Industry Titans | CLIVE DAVIS

Hands on, hands off

Joplin, Manilow, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson. Clive Davis still rocks the pop world, knowing when to handpick a song -- and when to step aside.

January 14, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

CLIVE DAVIS, whose discoveries stretch from Janis Joplin to Alicia Keys, is sitting in his favorite bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, amused to hear what a rival record company chief once said privately about the "American Idol" phenomenon that Davis helps propel: "If 'American Idol' really is the future of the record business, I don't want to be part of this business anymore."

Davis, whose labels release the "Idol" CDs, is too diplomatic to take a pot shot at the executive, who's been fired since that remark two years ago -- though the dismissal apparently didn't have anything to do with the man's view of "American Idol" as shallow and depressing.

Still, it's a popular belief, inside the industry and out, that "American Idol," which begins its sixth season Tuesday, is the antithesis of the creative daring that produced such pop-rock icons as the Beatles, Prince and U2. That's why many pop observers were surprised when the uncompromising rock group Pearl Jam signed with Davis in 2004, becoming, in effect, roster mates of the "Idol" gang.

"I'm well aware that all the success of 'American Idol' puts a taint with some people on my other history, which began with Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and Carlos Santana," the bespectacled Davis says, looking sharp in his nicely tailored slacks and sweater.

"But a discerning person recognizes that when you are running a company, you're dealing with a mixture of commerce and art. The important thing is to know when you are dealing with art and when you are dealing with commerce, and I know that difference."

He's been famously hands-on in picking songs for singers such as Whitney Houston ("Saving All My Love for You") and Kelly Clarkson ("Since U Been Gone"), seeming to find as much enthusiasm for those who interpret songs as those who write them. And when a Pearl Jam arrives on his doorstep, he easily steps back.

"They write their own songs and ... I told them, of course, I'd respect what they do," he says. "The whole conversation took two minutes.

"Ninety percent of the artists I sign are pretty much self-contained, and I would never interfere with them. Take Alicia. She's such a brilliant writer that it would never occur to me to give her someone else's song to record."

Davis' skill in mining hits from a wide range of artists -- spanning Aretha Franklin, the Grateful Dead, Kenny G, "Idol" stars and more -- has given him what some consider to be the most impressive history of any record executive. In an industry obsessed by youth, few top-level executives have been able to repeat their success after leaving one label, but this New Yorker has triumphed with three labels over four decades. At 73, he's still listening for the ever-shifting sound of a hit -- and finding it.

As chairman and chief executive of BMG U.S., he heads a recording empire that includes approximately 170 artists, 500 employees and generates about $1 billion a year in sales. That roster includes such stars as Usher, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Dave Matthews Band and the Foo Fighters.

Oddly, it may have been an advantage for Davis not to have grown up a huge rock fan. Where many rock-minded executives look down on traditional pop, Davis, whose early love was Broadway musicals, respects the craft involved in mainstream pop, and that's left him open to a variety of artists others might have turned away, along with projects like "American Idol."

He and his staff haven't turned all the "Idol" favorites into stars, but some have emerged as bestsellers, notably Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.

"The mistake people make about 'American Idol' is that they think the show itself is enough to make anyone a bestseller, so there is no creativity involved," Davis, a guest judge on the TV program, says in his deliberate, thorough way. "But the show's exposure is only worth about 350,000 to 500,000 record sales for an artist.

"To go beyond that, you have to have hit songs to get on the radio."

Referring to Clarkson's second album, which has sold 10 million copies, he said, "We've broken her in countries where 'American Idol' was never even heard. At the same time, it's not a case of the songs carrying the artists. Kelly is a very strong singer. It's simply a perfect combination of artist and material."

Davis hasn't, however, sold millions of records just by finding new artists and songs. He has also been adroit at helping veteran artists rebound, notably Santana and Rod Stewart.

Most recently, he reteamed with Barry Manilow, whom he hadn't worked with in years. While watching Manilow's concert in Las Vegas, Davis came up with the idea of Manilow making an album filled with ballads from the '50s.

"The thing in the back of my mind was that if Barry singing songs from the '50s was a hit, then there were all the other decades," Davis says. "Barry sings the '60s, the '70s ..."

He smiles, but he's not kidding.

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