Jim Urie, the last of the music industry distribution giants, has announced that he is retiring from Universal Music Group Distribution at the end of the year. Urie joined the company as executive vp/gm in 1998, as the No. 2 to industry legend Henry Droz, and assumed leadership of in 2000.
During his tenure, Urie built the distribution company that would take the lead in every issue confronting the music industry's major business issues of the day, including the challenging transition to the digital channel and the pricing devaluation stymieing the industry during the first decade of the new millennium.
In making the announcement to his staff this morning -- a copy of the memo was obtained by Billboard -- Urie said, "I feel like it's time for me to make a change. Some of it is to be free to pursue the entrepreneurial opportunities that I've been eyeing. Most importantly is having the opportunity to do some of the many things that I haven't had the time to do for all of my working life. There's a big world out there and I have a big family to enjoy it with."
Urie joined the company right before it acquired Polygram and was merged with MCA to become the Universal Music Group. Meanwhile, the distribution company's first name, Universal Music & Video Distribution, eventually evolved to Universal Music Distribution Group and finally to Universal Music Group Distribution.
In September 2003, Urie initiated the controversial JumpSTART program, which repriced CDs from a $12.05 wholesale price to about $10.30, a move that his competitors denounced as a career-ending decision. Yet, it reflected the then-pricing reality of the marketplace -- the box stores-led CD devaluation and free music due to digital piracy -- and it eliminated the expensive and much hated practice of pricing and position dollars for prime in-store real estate. The year he implemented JumpStart was the only time since 2000 that CDs sales increased.
As CD sales continued to decline over the next five years, the remaining record companies began embracing similar pricing packages. (By the way, his then JumpStart critics are no longer employed in the music industry.)
"We were the first company to erase the line between digital and physical sales, thus leading the industry through the sometimes challenging transition into the new digital age," Urie noted to his staff this morning, referring to the days of infighting at record labels over whether traditional sales staffs would handle the digital side.
Besides helping the Universal Music Group take care of the nuts and bolts of selling music both digitally and physically, Urie helped the company grow market share by cutting distribution deals that brought the Disney Music Group, Concord Music Group and Big Machine under the UMG umbrella.
In 2005 Billboard recognized Urie by naming him a power innovator alongside such industry figures as Apple's Steve Jobs, Interscope's Jimmy Iovine and Warner Music Group's Edgar Bronfman. UMGD also was named the top distributor three times, from 2001-2002 and again in 2008.
Urie began his career in 1972 as a college rep for CBS Records, and soon shifted to CBS Record distribution company under Paul Smith. There he rose through the ranks becoming the New York branch manager before moving to PolyGram as svp of sales and distribution; and two years later becoming svp of marketing.
After leaving PolyGram he served as a vp of corporate development for Europac, a rackjobber, before returning to the major-label fray as senior VP of sales for Arista Record, where he would stay until 1996 when he was recruited as the heir apparent to Droz, who was near the end of his career.
Other awards that UMGD picked up during his leadership: It was twice name one of five finalists for best U.S. sales organization by the Forbes/American Business Awards; and he was also named best sales executive by that organization. He also was NARM's 2010 recipient of the Presidential Award for Sustained Executive Achievement.
"My leaving in no way reflects on my optimism for the music business," Urie said in his announcement. "There is no doubt that we are at a turning point that will bring us more ways to monetize our product and better marketing of our wonderful artists to a world that is hungry for what only we can give them.
No word yet on a replacement but Candace Berry, Urie's second in command, is expected to have an enhanced role within the company upon his departure. She is already an in-charge executive, running the day-to-day operations of the company.
In response to Urie's announcement, UMG chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge thanked him for his leadership and many accomplishments. "Your expertise and commitment are remarkable," Grainge said. "We owe you an enormous debt of gratitude. Moreover, you have built a first-rate team. Each one of them has made important contribution and they will continue to do great things here."