[The Record Breaker, continued]
Nevertheless, Davis emphasized that BMG from the beginning wanted him to remain with the company, offering him a lucrative corporate chairmanship. It was not the first time he had such an offer; years before he was asked to become chairman of Warner's music group. His answer to both offers was the same.
"For me--loving music--to be on a corporate level is not what I [want to] do," said Davis.
Instead, Davis eventually accepted a deal from BMG that gives him a 50-percent equity stake in a new record label that was launched in October. Called J Records, after Davis' middle name, Jay, the label boasts more than four times the financing of any other newly formed record company, according to Davis. In addition, the company is stocked with many top-level executives from Arista and has also acquired several artists formerly with the Arista label. Davis late last year announced the signing of Luther Vandross, who, like Santana, will create an album featuring a variety of other performers.
The new venture, Davis said, makes him "feel as excited and buzzed about music and what I do, and the process and the challenges and the creative opportunities, as I ever did." Davis had other offers, from Internet companies to competing record companies. But nothing compared to the opportunity to start a new company, particularly after enjoying a final year of unprecedented profits at Arista, he said.
"It's better to try to reinvent it with this kind of momentum than to try to top a billion [dollars] in worldwide sales," Davis said. "And I was able to have a situation where I owned 50 percent of the company, so this is not only with no regret, but it is a far better business than every other kind of deal imaginable.
"There were companies offering me different combos of artists [and] unbelievable offers to compare and choose from. I hope that at the end of any contract you have these opportunities. I never felt beleaguered or uncertain."
Davis founded Arista in 1974 and built it into a company that he estimated would be worth $3 billion on the open market. The label made an immediate impact with a number-one hit from Barry Manilow, grew with the record-breaking debut of Whitney Houston, and, as of late, is basking in the success of the Carlos Santana album Supernatural, one of the best-selling albums in history and a musical concept whose very idea was shaped and nurtured by Davis. After he saw Santana play at Radio City Music Hall, Davis knew that the musician still had the skills that made him a guitar god in the '60s. But it's not the '60s anymore, and Davis, who has always prided himself on keeping current in music trends, conceived a way to turn a legend into a phenomenon.
"I felt that someone who had his virtuosity, that if we made a radio-friendly album, Santana could reemerge. [But] never to the extent to which it's soared," said Davis. "So I did architect a blueprint that half the album would be him doing radio-friendly Latin-African rhythms in the tradition of 'Oye Como Va' and 'Black Magic Woman' and 'Evil Ways,' and I would be entrusted with the other half, which led to the [songs] 'Smooth' and 'Maria, Maria,' and Dave Matthews and Everlast cuts that became the hallmarks of this all-time album."
At the Grammy Awards ceremony in February last year, Davis won three awards for producing Santana's and Whitney Houston's albums in addition to winning a lifetime achievement award. The event marked one of three capstones to Davis' career, all occurring nearly simultaneously. In March, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And in April, he presided over a star-studded 25th-anniversary celebration of Arista, later aired on NBC, in which artist after artist sang their hits, and also sang th" praises of the man responsible for the record company. Yet before Arista Records was even born, Davis was already a force in the music business.
* * *
Davis achieved the goal that he set when he went to HLS. He began his career in a small law firm, which he chose over a big firm to "get out of that factory kind of assembly line of performance." Yet the firm lost its major client a year later and was forced to lay off Davis and other associates. He didn't know it then, but it was the best thing that could have happened to him, for he found a new job at Rosenman, Colin, Kaye, Petschek and Freund. The firm trained him in estate planning, contracts, tax, and corporate law. It also indirectly led him to the music industry.
"That is where luck plays a role in your life," said Davis. "You've got to seize the opportunity if it is presented to you, but without question I could have gone to any one of hundreds of firms."
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