Foreword to Clive by Daniel J. Levitin

Bestselling Author of This is Your Brain on Music

One of the most mysterious and least-understood jobs in the entertainment industry is that of the A&R executive, a combination talent scout, product manager, idea person, marketer and gopher for the company president. The job holds the allure and promise of being able to share your musical taste with the world, and turn millions of people on to an artist that no one would have ever heard of were it not for your behind-the-scenes advocacy.

Don Silver held this job at one of the great record labels, Arista, working for one of the greatest music business talents of all time, Clive Davis. His account is gripping, taking us inside the inner sanctum of a closed society. I held the parallel job working for a much smaller label, 415 Records, affiliated with Columbia/C.B.S. The stories Don tells are specific to Arista, but accurately capture what I and my counterparts at other major labels lived through.

One of the strangest things about the entertainment business – and this applies to music, film, and TV – is that hits occur without any real pattern or foreknowledge. For every song that becomes a hit, there are at least 10 that failed, and that the very same executives bet just as much money and firepower on succeeding. And some of those failures are great music. I’ve heard many A&R note that some of the best music they’ve ever heard is music that the public has never heard, and never will – records and CDs that didn’t even make the cut-out bin because they never got released, or were released in only small “test-the-waters” runs. Neil Young probably said it best when he noted that there are thousands of singer-songwriters better than he is, but they never make it through the turnstiles of the music business for one reason or another; most often it is luck, or lack of it, that decides the fate of musicians and songwriters.

It’s sobering to recall that The Beatles were rejected by every major label until George Martin, who ran a novelty label at EMI, decided to take a chance on them, not because they were good writers, but because he found them personally charming. Steely Dan reportedly sent out their songs in the mid-70s to every major label under an assumed name, and were soundly rejected by all of them, even their own: an A&R man at their label wrote that “although this is redolent of Steely Dan, it has none of the charm or quality of that group.”

The great promise of the internet is that it has become a democratizing force in music. Today artists can connect with their fans directly without the intervening forces of industry. Anyone with a laptop and access to decent microphones can make a recording that sounds better than any Rolling Stones record, and they can release it for free. Bands whose primary success is on YouTube, such as Pomplamoose (one of my favorites), may have never gotten through to the right A&R executive, and their music might be unknown to most of us.

There are still major labels, and still A&R executives. Most of them, like Don, love the music and are eager to find the next big thing. Not to make money, but for the pure love of sharing great music with a deserving audience.