When someone like legendary music mogul Clive Davis writes yet another tome extolling his endless virtues and successes, critical backlash is inevitable and satisfying. But what you probably wouldn’t expect is a response that’s kind yet honest; heartbreaking, yet fascinating.
Don Silver is an everyman music fiend who finessed his way into a dream job. Thanks to one ballsy letter and dozens of phone calls, the inexperienced Silver was given the chance of a lifetime: to work as an A&R man at Arista Records under Clive Davis, the man who discovered legends like Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Billy Joel, and Whitney Houston. Almost before he knew it was happening, Don was scouting New York music clubs, sifting through piles of demos, opining in front of Clive Davis himself, and performing the unenviable task of telling aspiring musicians “as nicely as possible that they sucked.”
His memoir of the experience, Clive: Working for The Man in the Age of Vinyl, recounts the story of a middle class boy who was fascinated by rock gods and full of the kind of earnest ambition that’s usually (and quickly) crushed by guys like Clive. And yet he’s so damned nice about the experience because, after all, what really mattered—and what continues to matter most—is the music.
Clive gives an insider’s perspective that’s instantly relatable—no small feat where the music industry’s concerned. In the spirit of all good barstool-type conversations, Don chatted us up about his time in the record biz, his theories about music and, of course, the specialness of vinyl.
I suppose I should start out by asking if you’ve read all of Clive’s autobiography.
I got about a third of the way through it. I’d take my version of things over his. [Laughs] I think it was an extraordinary first job. Part of my burden, or the thing I carried into this experience, was a naiveté about how I was going to show up on somebody’s doorstep and they were going to love me like they were my dad or something. And it was probably a pretty common experience for very ambitious people who start out in the workforce.
I was very intrigued by the “loophole” you were searching for in all this. As you described it, you were looking for an “illusory exemption from the ennui of ordinary life.” How early on in your life did you realize that you wanted to escape the ordinary?
Thank you for noticing that. I think if it’s not articulated, it’s at least a common feeling for most kids. Before school breaks your spirit—or whoever breaks your spirit is going to break it—you have this dream of walking what, I believe, Carlos Castaneda called “a walk with heart.” Just some activity that you could indulge in that’s similar to childhood, like walking along a stream bed on a Saturday with no awareness of time or restrictions. It seems like our society wants to redirect that, to put it mildly, or to kill it off.
So, we go off to school and we start to get beaten down and pushed into certain directions and then it comes time to check the career aspiration box of what you’re going to be, and that further narrows down your options. I don’t think a lot of people ever really like that it’s happening, and I don’t think I ever accepted the fact that it had to happen. I think it was a gift from my parents, particularly my dad, to say, “Don’t pay attention to that.” You can have what he called a healthy disrespect for authority. Then when I met my best buddy Bob, and we compared notes and realized that we had the same fantasy and called it “the loophole.” You can have your own private ideas of things, but when you find somebody else who affirms those ideas, particularly if you’re stoned as I was at that point, you feel like you’re authorized to carry that fantasy into your whole life.
We did that for each other, and we do that to this day. I think a more mature way of phrasing it now would be that we look for a path with heart—something that you can do and respect yourself as you do it and lose yourself and lose an awareness of time and not feel like you’re just selling out.
Do you think that somebody like Clive Davis had felt the same way at some point, or was it always about business with him?
[Laughs] That’s a great question. I have no data to support this, but it is my personal view that it was always about the markers of success for him—money, status, and power. He found that he had a great gift, and he had a terrific enthusiasm for that gift, but he is not like me or the people like us or however you want to say it, where the music comes first or the art comes first, and then you find any way you have to make that work. He basically stepped in shit when he got his first job in music and realized that he actually had an ear. He does have an ear, and it’s a great ear.
And yet you talk about how he was trying to find melodies in disco songs, which are obviously more beat-driven and don’t focus on the melody. He just wanted hits and more hits in the way he thought they should be.
He says as much in his autobiography—the first third anyway. He describes very clearly how it was first about getting the money and the status and the power. He’s very open in the chronology and fact patterns, but he doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion. His conclusion doesn’t fit the facts. His conclusion is that he’s a great music man and a patron of the arts, and the arts come first and all that. But it’s clear from the storyline that he’s a guy who went to Harvard Law School and was very ambitious, and did all the things he had to be successful monetarily… and then found himself suddenly as an arbiter of musical tastes and realized he could do it.
Reading your book left me feeling disappointed by the lack of mentoring you got. It all seemed so pointlessly brutal, but you treat everything that happened to you with a sensitivity you were never afforded. One of the lines you used to describe Clive really stuck out to me: “…while what Clive and others did was creative, it had very little to do with art.” If you had Clive’s job today, what would you do if someone came to you with the out-of-the-blue pitch you gave to Clive?
Oh, boy… that’s a tough one. You know what? I probably could talk all day about how the commercialization of art is not art itself, which is really my fundamental dis to Clive. He’s just a business guy. All the self-aggrandizing that goes on is irrelevant, because he’s just a business guy. Artists are artists, and even a poor artist is a better artist than Clive is if you’re gonna consider him an artist.
So, the first thing I’d try to do is ascertain from the person pitching me whether they want to be a business person or want to be an artist. Of course, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I felt like an artist inside, but I wasn’t good enough or willing to work hard enough or be poor long enough to pursue that. Nobody could’ve dissuaded me.
But I also think that I would never be in the Clive position. I’d want to run a really lean company that could somehow make money or at least float without huge commercial success. When I look around today and see how technology and YouTube and recording costs are so low, and the distribution channels are so open, I get really excited on behalf of people who want to do what I did back then. Because the barriers to entry are much, much lower. You can make an album for under $10,000 that sounds amazing. That would have never been possible thirty, forty years ago. You can post it and distribute it for peanuts; you don’t have to kiss the ring of a guy like Clive. You can just put it up; the big thing is to get noticed, and that’s pretty hard.
But you can do it standing on a street corner or playing “Whisper Down the Lane.” I would encourage someone if they want to be a business person or an artist and if they want to be an artist, they should probably not be thinking about commercializing art as a very satisfying thing. Then I would say, build a business model that works in today’s climate, where you don’t have to feel like you’re selling out, and you don’t have to feel crappy about yourself.
The “barrier to entry” thing is interesting to me, because while this increased accessibility is exciting, part of me feels like this turns the world into a giant slush pile. Do you feel that there’s a mismatch there?
Yeah, that’s a really good metaphor for it. If you look at our economic output as gross national product, our creative national product is now a giant slush pile, and the people who are gonna decide what lives or dies are consumers—the end user. You need curators who can wade through it and decide if things are worthy of mentioning or promoting a little bit. So, the same function is still going to happen that was happening in A&R, but now it’s going to happen on another level. This is vexing—that’s where it comes down to how much luck do you need, how much money do you need; I would argue that money is not gonna really help here. You can’t really do much with a traditional marketing and publicity push.
I don’t know where I was going with this, but I like your phrase that our creative output is a giant slush pile. Most people who are not music nerds are going to say, “I don’t have the time to go through this. I just want to hear music that gets me excited or music I can get laid to” or whatever they want to do. They’re certainly not going to pore over releases to find the best thing. So who knows whether good music is gonna get out or if good music is gonna die on the vine for lack of attention from curators or end users.
It almost sounds like you could get another book out of that idea.
Yeah, you know what’s funny is that not long after I finished the book, this guy Daniel Levitin read it and wrote the forward. He’s a guy I respect a tremendous amount; he’s from my era, he was an A&R guy and recording engineer. He wrote, This Is Your Brain on Music. That’s a fantastic work, and his forward to my book raises these topics—what’s the model now, and how’s music gonna happen in the future and what’s it gonna look like. I’m really interested in that and also exploring more in an essay form… what changed music in 1974… even from 1974 to 1978—what happened? What happened to who were formerly great artists that made them go more or less mute? What happened to Paul McCartney, you know? [Laughs]
I think of Chicago as a glaring example of a band doing really cool, avant-garde stuff and then transforming right around 1974 into the Peter Cetera Schlockfest Express.
Yeah! And across the board, it was sort of like Kryptonite was introduced and everybody who had any talent or balls just kind of lost it. Other artists—I hate to pick on him but I can’t help it—like Peter Frampton came up who became a rock god… if you listen hard enough, there’s no “there” there. There’s just postured… he had a good voice, and I guess he could play guitar. He put that silly thing in his mouth and soloed.
So, music changed so dramatically in this one year , and the only person who I think kept making good music for a few more years than everybody else was Bob Dylan. He had Blood on the Tracks as his 1974 release [It was actually 1975 –Ed.] and he had a couple more great works. But everybody else was pretty much shot.
People have speculated that [the reasons for the 1974 cut-off were that] people did too many drugs, and rock artists made too much money and they quit, or that the war in Vietnam ended. There are a lot of good theories out there, but they’ve never been tied together into one, overriding theory.
So, you and Homer Simpson agree—rock attained perfection in 1974.
Well, I’m in good company! [Laughs]
I would argue that there were lots of original, authentic artists after 1974, but their musical uprising was cut off way faster than the leeway given to artists from about 1966 to 1974. Punk came up, then power pop, new wave, hip-hop, grunge—all were pretty much done or buried or heavily commercialized within a year of two of becoming well-known. Even off-shoots and revivals of these genres were cut down pretty quickly, with authenticity sticking pretty much to relative unknowns and out of the mainstream.
Yeah! The life-cycles shortened to the point of ridiculousness. Nothing can develop. That’s a good point. This is a great conversation! [Laughs] This is my favorite thing to jibber-jabber about.
Do you ever blog your thoughts?
I should. I’ve been told all over the place that that’s the way to go. I probably should, but my next book is not about music at all… I take everything too seriously.
You describe yourself in your book as a music fiend, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the resurgence of vinyl. Even though we’re entering into this new era of singles, there’s this undercurrent of love for albums and vinyl records at the same time.
I’m just gonna kind of freeform my answer here. Of course, I’ve had a huge vinyl collection over the course of my life. After a divorce or two… my finest vinyl is in my oldest son’s collection now. I’ve digitized everything and what I’ve found is a bit upsetting because I’ve lost some bandwidth, I’ve lost quality, but I kept the scratches and the pops—which really, really matter!
Like, when an old John Renbourn or Pentangle album comes on or Gordon Lightfoot or something—things I would never be listening to in a digital, modern format—but when they come on and start popping and cracking, my whole physiology changes. The tension leaves my shoulders, and I’m transported the way a lot of music fans are, back to the time period in which I first heard the music. I don’t know anything more magical than that experience.
So, in the same way smells remind us of early experiences, I think the scratchy vinyl audio quality frequencies that we’re hearing are capable of taking us back to a place that’s very special. The idea with vinyl is that you have a twenty-minute program, and it’s going to be made up of four or five songs, and those songs are going to cohere in some way. That’s an art form in and of itself that’s gone in today’s digital format. As you said, we’re single-oriented and people don’t much care whether you hear one or two singles and then move onto another artist. You seldom hear of artists making album sides—and I’m not just talking about concept albums—I don’t think that artists are really putting together material in the same way that they were for albums.
Although, you take someone like Rosanne Cash and she is making albums. Her statements cohere. The fifty minutes of music she puts out in one album really hang together. You really wouldn’t want to shuffle it with the album before or the one that comes next. I’m sort of all over the place here…
No, that’s cool!
These are just some of my impressions. At the same time, the fact that I can carry my… I don’t know how many… 90,000 songs… and I can carry 15,000 to 20,000 of them in my pocket and I can take a twelve-hour airplane ride and shuffle them and have incredible joy from that is also very positive.
A year ago, I filled out one of those living will things and really the only thing that mattered to me is that if I go into some sort of coma, I wanted really good quality headphones and my iPod Shuffle to be playing. Not exactly bury me with it, but that’s really all I need. I don’t really know anything else that could make me happy the way that would. I could never hire somebody to flip albums over for me and play DJ for however long I survived. [Laughs]