Doug Morris: The Greatest Hits

How a $25-per-week songwriter became the world's most influential record executive.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2018
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In his excellent 2015 book How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention, Stephen Witt ’11JRN tells how the record industry, personified by Morris at Universal, was nearly consumed by the flames of digital technology.

In 1996, a highly compressed audio-coding format called MP3 was patented in the US. This innovation allowed people to store songs on their computers and transmit them online. Soon, digital-audio exchanges like Napster (launched in 1999) appeared, attracting millions of erstwhile CD purchasers who could now download music for free.

“File sharing,” they called it. Morris preferred “stealing.”

In Witt’s account, record executives, attached to the lush margins and unmatched profits of the fourteen-dollar compact disc, were slow to respond to the digital revolution.

Piracy spread, CD sales plunged, and the industry was upended. Thousands of jobs were lost.

At first, Morris wasn’t sure what to do. He wasn’t a tech guy. He knew rhythm and blues, not algorithms and bytes. He also knew ledger balances and copyright law. And he took it personally when artists got cheated. It was Morris who, through the Recording Industry Association of America, brought the legal fight to Napster (shuttered in 2001) and LimeWire (found liable for copyright infringement in 2010). And it was Morris who got pilloried in the tech press for suggesting that the record industry, made up of music lovers and not technologists, was naturally unprepared to adapt quickly and efficiently to the Internet. Tech pundits derided him as a relic, out of touch, the face of an outmoded industry.

“What people don’t realize,” says Morris, “is that there were huge companies that tried and failed to monetize digital music. Microsoft, Sony. People said, ‘Why didn’t you guys do it?’ Because we’re musicians, we don’t know how. ‘Why didn’t you hire someone?’ Well, if Microsoft and Sony couldn’t do it, we weren’t going to do it.”

The guy who did it was Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs. In 2001, Jobs came to Morris’s office and “articulated a clear thought that went from buying songs on iTunes to downloading them onto the iPod — it made a lot of sense,” Morris says. Though his bosses fretted because the new scheme would “unbundle” the album — letting consumers buy individual songs for ninety-nine cents apiece — Morris reasoned that most of Universal’s music was being stolen anyhow. And so he licensed all of it to Apple.

Today, in the post-CD era, the American record industry generates about half of the fifteen billion dollars it earned in 1999. But revenues are rising. “We’re coming back slowly,” says Morris, pointing to popular streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music and to the online music-video platform Vevo, which Morris cofounded in 2009 with the idea that if you sifted out the premium music videos from the junk-filled seas of the Internet and gathered them in one place, you could sell ads, licensing rights, and subscriptions.

Vevo now gets twenty-five billion views per month, and grossed $650 million in 2017, breaking even for the first time, with profits expected in 2018.

“I don’t know anything about technology,” says Morris, his arm stretched out on the sofa back. “I know common sense.”

The phone rings. Morris picks up.

“Good morning, Jimmy,” he says, breaking into a warm, bright smile. Morris and Iovine still speak every day, a habit of thirty-five years. “I just read the article. I thought it was terrific.”

Morris is referring to a Billboard piece in which Iovine, now the head of Apple Music, disputes what he sees as a too-optimistic Wall Street report on the economics of music streaming. “It’s interesting,” Morris tells him, “because you’re going against all the conventional wisdom. It’s gonna cause some controversy, Jimmy.”

As Morris talks, it’s plain that his magnetism is bound up in his lively interest in others, in the refined pleasure he takes in their gifts. “Really smart, Jimmy,” he says. “Really, really smart. All right, kiddo. See ya later, pal.”

Iovine calls Morris “one of the greatest executives for executives ever,” and Morris is as esteemed in the industry for his recruitment and nurturing of executive talent as he is for his hit-making. In 1990 he hired Sylvia Rhone to run Atlantic’s East West Records — the first Black woman to head a major label and soon the most powerful woman in the business (she now runs Epic Records). There’s Craig Kallman, CEO of Atlantic Records (“I knew who he was and what he would become”), Monte Lipman, CEO of Republic Records (“I met him and knew he was something special”), and many more. “It’s all about recognizing the brilliance in other people,” Morris says.

This spirit extends to his management philosophy, which he sums up in two words: be nice. “Everyone has feelings and the need to feel included, and that’s what I always did. I never wanted anyone to leave the office and have a bad night. Everyone likes to be respected, paid well, appreciated for what they contribute. And when you do that day in and day out, people start believing in you.” Morris gives a verbal shrug. “I like to be treated nice, and I figure everyone else does. It’s not rocket science.”

Not for Morris, it isn’t. You like it or you don’t. It’s not how you go down, it’s how you get up. And if you don’t have a song, you have nothing.


Morris has songs. Again.

Shortly after speaking with Columbia Magazine, Morris, never down for the count, announces a new venture. He has secured the funding for an independent record company called 12 Tone. Nearly fifty years after founding Big Tree, Morris is getting back to his roots: heading up his own label.

This time, however, there won’t be vinyl or CDs. With streaming, you don’t need any sort of disc. Technology has changed, but music is still music. And Morris is still a passionate suitor.

“The one thing I learned is, no matter how you push to do other things, fight to make a living doing what you love,” he says.

Of all Morris’s maxims, this one carries the full weight of a sixty-year career.

“I’m telling you,” he says, like a songwriter reworking a line, finding the kernel, the universal vein. “If there’s something you love, you fight for it.”

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