Longtime Executive Steps Aside at Sony BMG
By JEFF LEEDS and ROBERT LEVINE
In a shake-up that reflects the new realities of the music business, the renowned hitmaker Clive Davis is making way for a younger executive known for having an ear toward the pop charts but also an eye on controlling costs.
On Thursday, Sony BMG Music Entertainment said that Mr. Davis would give up his corporate role as head of its BMG division and control of its RCA Label Group for a new creative post.
Barry Weiss, the chief of the company’s Zomba Label Group, will become chairman and chief executive of the BMG Label Group, overseeing RCA and Zomba, and an array of artists like Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, OutKast and Kelly Clarkson.
The announcement surprised many in the music industry, as Mr. Davis, who has survived several executive suite setbacks only to rise again in a career that spans five decades, seemed to be playing a hot hand. This week’s No. 1 album is the debut from Leona Lewis, the latest in a long string of divas that Mr. Davis, 76, has signed and shaped.
The latest album from Ms. Keys, who Mr. Davis mentors, has sold 3.4 million copies since its release last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and his division operated at a profit.
But the pop hits that Mr. Davis is known for delivering typically require the kind of expensive videos and marketing campaigns that labels are reluctant to finance at a time when music sales have been sliding. Sony BMG’s decision to promote Mr. Weiss underscores the idea that hits alone cannot save the industry.
Mr. Weiss, 49, who also personally oversees many of his artists’ creative decisions, has enjoyed his share of chart success with acts like Chris Brown and T-Pain. But he also has a reputation for tightly managing expenses, and being savvier about the digital revolution. T-Pain’s hits, for example, have had considerable success as ring tones, the kind of high-margin, low-glamour products that are becoming more important to labels’ bottom lines.
Besides a generational change, the reorganization signals yet another management shift at Sony BMG, a joint venture of Sony and Bertelsmann that has suffered several bouts of management discord since its founding in 2004.
As part of the move, the chief operating officer, Tim Bowen, is leaving the company, as is Mr. Davis’ chief lieutenant, Charles Goldstuck. Richard Sanders, now president for global market, with become head of international.
Mr. Davis, who started at Columbia Records in the 1960s, became an industry legend for his “ears,” his ability to hear a hit, match singers with songwriters and create the kind of best sellers that major labels rely on. Like other executives of his generation, he also became something of a rock star in his own right.
Mr. Davis will continue to work with some acts and report directly to the Sony BMG chief executive, Rolf Schmidt-Holz.
Many of Mr. Davis’s recent successes came from “American Idol,” which places certain artists with various divisions of BMG.
BMG tried to move Mr. Davis aside once before, in 2000, ostensibly because of a mandatory retirement policy. Antonio Reid succeeded him at Arista, the label Mr. Davis founded in 1975. But after vocal protests from artists and executives — and a considerable amount of media coverage — BMG executives made a deal to commit $150 million to start J Records as a joint venture with Mr. Davis. (BMG bought the remaining half of J in 2002.)
Although Mr. Davis’s employment contract was not up until next year, this will give the company a succession plan.
“The business is under tremendous pressure, and it’s very tough to maintain profits as they were in preceding years,” said Danny Goldberg, a former record company president who now runs the management firm Gold Village Entertainment. “So it’s clarifying that they would turn to Barry Weiss, who is on the one hand responsible for signing talent and on the other hand has shown a discipline about cost-cutting.”
Mr. Weiss will now have to apply his touch across a far larger organization. “The goal is to maintain separate label identities, but maybe we can bring some of our business-minded, entrepreneurial approach to the other side,” Mr. Weiss said, referring to Mr. Davis’s RCA division, “and maybe there are some lessons from their side that I can bring to our side.”
Although Mr. Davis came to be known as the consummate record man, he began his career as a lawyer, and his first job in the music business was in Columbia’s legal department. In 1967, he became president of the label, which he steered toward the then-emerging rock sound by signing artists like Janis Joplin, Laura Nyro and Chicago.
In 1975, after being fired from Columbia amid allegations, unproved, that he used company funds to pay for his son’s bar mitzvah, Mr. Davis founded Arista. At that label, which was eventually acquired by the German company Bertelsmann as part of BMG, he signed Whitney Houston and started joint ventures with urban labels like Mr. Reid’s LaFace Records and Sean Combs’s Bad Boy Records.