The power of the individual is underestimated in America. For every person who feels powerless there’s another who confronts the headwinds and wins through sheer determination.
Not that there’s not talent involved.
And I’ll argue Clive Davis did not find his niche at Columbia. He takes a lot of credit for signing those Monterey Pop acts, but it wasn’t until Clive took hold at Arista, after Patti Smith, when he embraced Barry Manilow, that Clive truly became who he was.
The Doors without Jim Morrison?
Apple without Steve Jobs?
Sure, Sammy Hagar successfully replaced David Lee Roth in Van Halen, but anybody who thinks the Sammy years are better loved Sammy to begin with. And there’s an exception to every rule. But in this committee-run business we forget how important individuals are. Like Rick Rubin.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Clive knew it was about material. Like that old Orson Welles advertisement, no album was released before its time. If the songs weren’t ready, the deadline slipped. Better to put it out when it’s done than hit the Christmas selling season. An album, when executed properly, is for the ages, not a few months of selling.
And as Clive prepared the album, he promoted the artist. He introduced him or her, and usually it was a her, at tastemaker events, letting the artist shine, giving her his imprimatur. Clive didn’t give this treatment to all his artists, just a special few. And everybody paid attention. Because Clive earned it.
Not that I liked most of these records.
Not that I don’t think Clive took undeserved credit.
Clive was not Mr. Ears. Most of his records were forgettable. But one thing you’ve got to give him credit for, he was unmistakably, one hundred percent Clive.
And he was the exception. Most originals didn’t work for the man. They played alone. Which is kind of funny in today’s mainstream music world, where a faceless label is in control and every producer wants a record deal. If you can’t do it alone, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
Clive was an impresario. A whirling dervish who demanded attention.
Although as Clive has headed into the sunset the paradigm he was a manipulator of has evaporated as well. Clive believed in free promotion. He spent heavily, but on hair and makeup for TV, it was about getting the media to do his work. And when Clive was happening the mainstream media was still king. All we had were the newspapers and TV. Can you imagine everybody in the nation watching the same TV channel today? But that’s how it was in the eighties, when Whitney Houston broke.
So Alicia Keys puts out a single and it stiffs.
Clive never would have allowed this. Artists chafed under his direction, but that was the deal you made, he was king, he was in charge. Without Clive, Alicia Keys is an attractive piano player with middling songs. Clive made her a superstar. She was nothing at her previous label. It took Clive to make her.
So now she’s doing it just like everybody else. Tying in with corporations, like Adidas, going the clothing route, as if that had anything to do with music.
That’s commerce. And once you let commerce get in the way of music, you’re screwed. If you’re tying in with Fortune 500 corporations to spread the word, you’re unaware that you’re cheapening your image and your music, what is unfortunately known today as your “brand.” Music, when done right, sits above commerce, inhabits its own ethereal space, when you tie in with the man you become subservient to his agenda.
Clive knew you had to enter the agora with a stone cold smash.
You could learn a lesson from this. All you white boys playing indie rock wondering where your success is. “Fallin’” was a track so superior you had to run to the record store to buy it. I know I did. Even though it was a rip off of a James Brown cut and the rest of the album was mediocre.
And once you’ve entered the marketplace, once you’ve succeeded, you’ve got to maintain the quality, you’ve got to be the same person. Change and the audience is flummoxed.
That’s what happened with Mariah Carey. Fresh-scrubbed hedonist turns into club rat and suddenly everybody’s scratching their head and wondering who she is.
Who is Alicia Keys?
I won’t say without Clive she’s nothing, but I will say her career is a shadow of its former self.