How I'm Living Now: Clive Davis, Music Industry Icon

Clive Davis - Getty - H 2020
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

With the coronavirus keeping Davis in Palm Springs with three friends, the executive opens up about the hardest adjustments he's had to make, his favorite newscaster and catching up with Taylor Swift's 'Miss Americana.'

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.

For more than two weeks, Clive Davis has been quarantined in Palm Springs, where he’s passing time in a "beautiful home" with three friends. This is no desert vacation, however. The music industry giant, chief creative officer for Sony Music, says he still puts in long days juggling multiple projects while keeping tabs on current musical trends. (He even plugged into one of WME partner Richard Weitz's private Zoom parties this past week, where he watched Josh Groban perform a Simon & Garfunkel classic.) 

Davis, who was due to support late protegé Whitney Houston at the now postponed Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony, had his own tribute postponed at NYU Tisch School of the Arts gala this month. He talks to THR about his new schedule, heeding the advice of medical experts while ignoring Fox News, his favorite comfort food and how he'll celebrate his 88th birthday.

Let’s start easy: how are you?

Thank you for asking. I'm well, though I'm obviously very concerned like everybody else and trying to follow all the guidelines from the doctors, scientists and medical experts.

What does your day look like now?

Now, I get up between 8 and 8:30 a.m. because I'm up late. I’m more of a night owl, going to bed at about 1:30 a.m. I’m really working like I do in my typical life, always, but I would normally get up anywhere from 7:15 to quarter of 8 a.m., sleeping about five and a half or six hours. The first thing I do is read The New York Times, my same routine as it would be at home in New York. Then, based on timing on the East Coast, I try to check in daily with my family, just to review the previous day to know all is well. During the week, I certainly stay on a work schedule. 

What are you working on?

Education has always been my priority in life and continues to be with the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU. I’m using this period of quarantine to educate myself and study new music, either by listening to the newest singles that make the charts or by watching hit music videos. First to be aware of them and then to keep my ears as current as they can be. If you can be in it, as I am as chief creative officer at Sony Music, you always want to be prepared and educated.

I’m also in talks with Anthony McCarten, the writer of Bohemian Rhapsody and The Two Popes, and Pat Houston and Larry Mestel [Primary Wave founder] at the Whitney Houston estate about doing the definitive Whitney Houston biopic. We’ve all been conferring about that. On a day-to-day basis during the week, I’m working closely with Brian Grazer, too, on the Nat Geo's Genius series covering the life of Aretha Franklin. I have been dedicated to making sure that her incredibly legacy is never forgotten.

Your birthday is on Saturday. Happy Birthday — how will you celebrate?

It’s a difficult time to celebrate a birthday. If I were home, I certainly would’ve been together with family and close friends. Everyone is postponing, we’re all quarantined, following all the guidelines. So, we’ll celebrate when we can look forward to a more normal schedule.

The coronavirus is most devastating to people over the age of 65. As someone who is about to turn 88, do you have any fear about that?

I don’t think about age, not that I want to be cavalier about it and think that I’m younger. I’m very fortunate to be my age — my parents died very young because high blood pressure was rampant and not curable. Mentally, I try to stay the age of the person I’m with at that time. And I’m healthy enough to still be very active. I’m not doing anything totally different than I would if I were in my 50s or 60. Mentally, I’m there, so I operate without being cognizant of my chronological age. 

What has been the easiest or hardest adjustment?

The easiest adjustment has been to catch up with everything. For example, to see the great documentaries that I missed, whether it was Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana or my dear friend Quincy Jones’ documentary or the classic The Kid Stays in the Picture about Robert Evans. Or revisiting those that I love that I want to study more like the Roosevelt miniseries, learning more about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m grateful for the time to educate myself some more or have the luxury of going back to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The most difficult is being quarantined and away from family. I have four children and eight grandchildren. We try to do dinner every Sunday night, so that has been difficult. And I’m a foodie. When I’m in New York, I go out to dinner every night. I do have a great chef here, so it’s not that I’m not eating well, I just miss being out because I love people. I love the interaction and the excitement of New York. I miss people. I miss the connection to family and close friends and, of course, to life itself, and live music events and the theater. It’s always been a part of my life. 

What restaurant do you miss most?

It's like asking, "Which kid do you miss the most?" I like Italian, Chinese, Japanese, everything. I’m certainly a great fan of Jean-Georges and Wolfgang Puck. I do go to Craig’s when I’m in Los Angeles. I love Carbone in New York. I miss the variety. 

What have you learned about yourself in this period?

That I still love learning new things. I’m very proud of the past but I still have a work ethic. I still love living in the contemporary and being a part of the current civilization and enjoying the best talents, the best creativity.

What are you watching, reading, playing or listening to as a reprieve?

I am riveted late at night, from about 11 to 1:30 a.m. watching CNN and sometimes MSNBC, keeping current on everything that’s going on, especially, up until recently, all that’s been going on with the political scene. I also keep up on articles and social media coming from The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline, Hits Daily Double, to keep current with all the entertainment news. 

What or who has become your go-to news source during this period?

I respect the job that CNN is doing. I do not trust Fox News. I do not trust any reports that said the coronavirus was fake news or all of the misleading statements that have had to be corrected time and time and time again by Fox News, by President Trump, by this administration. I do like and watch Chris Cuomo. I think [New York Gov.] Andrew Cuomo is doing a great job. I am a supporter of Andrew and Joe Biden. I watch Anderson Cooper, though I watch Chris Cuomo the most. I enjoy MSNBC and applaud their standards. 

What has your go-to comfort food?

At breakfast, instead of being satisfied with merely a cold cereal like Raisin Bran and calling it a day, I will add a pancake or two. This chef makes great French toast, so I will have that or an omelet. 

I don't think I've ever seen you at an event not in a suit and tie. How would you describe your corona-era wardrobe?

It’s warm where I am, so I'm up wearing my white pants and a polo shirt, either short-sleeved during the day or long-sleeved at night. If it gets chilly, I'll add a sweater. I think it’s good-looking casual. For me, when I go to work, I feel better when I wear a suit and tie. I’m amazed when I go to a great restaurant — Crosby, Le Bernandin — and I see short sleeves without a tie. It’s not that I’m that formal, I just wear what I look good in -- or what I perceive I look good in [laughs]. 

What’s the best advice you’ve given or received about staying sane during this period?

Heed every advice at this crucial time that we’re getting from the top medical experts and scientists. It has been so upsetting, whether it's on the issue of the coronavirus or the issue of climate change, to see the initial rejection from either Fox News or President Trump questioning that advice. Climate change is one of the most important issues of our time and to have it dismissed as fake news is upsetting, or even to see the dismissal of the Obama-era guidelines on carbon emissions by the Trump administration this week. Even Sean Hannity questioned the severity of coronavirus. There’s got to be much more respect given to scientists and medical expertise. We have to observe the quarantine strictly. That doesn’t mean your life has got to stop. As we’ve discussed, you can keep the importance of staying current, vital and take advantage of it. It’s painful in many ways but it’s an advantage to do things you would otherwise not have had the time or opportunity to do.

In these times, what cause is most important to you?

I’m giving most of my money to make sure that the institute in my name at NYU expands, flourishes and grows. I’m knocked out that within Tisch and within NYU, it is the most applied to division. We’ll be continuing to make sure that they are healthy and on top of everything heading into the future. Contemporary music is here to stay. [The music industry] was going through a crisis a few years ago, but now with streaming, it’s only growing. 

What’s atop your to-do list once this is all over?

The first thing on my agenda is to physically be with my family. We were all going to Miami on April 8 — kids, grandkids, a close relative — there were 17 of us joining together. I try to do that as a family at least two, usually three times a year. I’m really looking forward to reuniting with them and spending anywhere from five days or more together where we can reunite and compare notes.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.