A Sendoff to Sony Music Chief Exec Doug Morris: 'Doug-isms' & Lessons Learned From Iovine, Lipman & Others

Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage
Morris with Beyoncé at a 2006 Universal Music Group Grammy Awards afterparty. 

It has been said that Doug Morris is the record man of his generation. In fact, you could say that of several generations.

In a career that spans five decades, during which the 79-year-old served as the only executive to lead all three major labels -- Atlantic and Warner Music from 1980 to 1994, Universal Music from 1995 to 2010 and Sony Music since July 2011 (he hands over the keys to Rob Stringer on April 1) -- Morris saw vinyl leave and return, 8-tracks give way to cassettes, the boom of the CD era and the crash of the post-Napster years. He also helped rap music cross over by launching Interscope, brought Rhino Records into Warner Music Group (WMG) and built Universal Music Group (UMG) into the world's biggest music company.

He was one of the first executives to mine industry and consumer data for A&R finds, which is how Atlantic Records came to sign Hootie & The Blowfish. Morris also learned from the industry's past mistakes. After MTV built an empire on music videos funded by the labels, Morris sensed an opportunity in an on-demand service and helped create the video platform Vevo. Even in the streaming age, Sony achieved gains under Morris as services like Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora accounted for 35 percent of Sony's recorded-music revenue in the first nine months of 2016 versus 25 percent in 2015.

Along the way, Morris found himself the victim of corporate infighting. In 1994, WMG's management was upturned when then-chief executive Bob Morgado installed Morris above industry veterans Mo Ostin and Bob Krasnow. The out-of-his-depth Morgado was soon ejected and replaced by HBO chief Michael Fuchs, who butted heads with Morris and eventually fired him. At UMG, where Morris oversaw the acquisition of PolyGram, the company's market share grew from a combined 24.5 percent in the United States at the end of 1998 to 31.4 percent by the end of 2010, according to Nielsen Music, just before another leadership change forced out Morris (ageism reportedly played a role) and Lucian Grainge replaced him.

It was ironic that Morris was embroiled in so many ego battles, because he subsequently became known as a leader who encouraged teamwork and corporate harmony. And so Sony, which itself had been plagued by infighting on the heels of a merger with BMG, turned out to be the great stabilizer for Morris, who realigned labels Columbia, Epic and RCA and instilled experienced leadership in Stringer, Antonio "L.A." Reid, and Peter Edge and Tom Corson.

Throughout his career, Morris generally stuck to the business principle put forth by his mentor, Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun: "It's all about having hits." But more than an A&R whiz who relied on his ears, a skill that Morris often deferred to his lieutenants, the New York native was a discoverer and nurturer of executive talent. Says Stringer: "The most important thing you can have is someone who trusts in you and wants you to win."


Music Biz Friends + Colleagues Reminisce


"A 'Doug-ism' I've used in many areas of my life that is always right: 'Whenever a record sparks, no matter how small that spark may be, you make sure to get everything that walks and crawls in the building all over it.' "
-- Jimmy Iovine, Apple

"One of the finest human beings I've ever met."
-- Berry Gordy, Motown

“In 2011, Doug wasn't finished. And Sony got a very valuable six years and I got someone who has my back, which I was very grateful for because I'm not sure I had that before. That's the most important thing: to have someone who trusts you and wants you to win. And he’s mentored a lot of the great executives, and that's part of a constant development process for the industry that's also his legacy."
-- Rob Stringer, chairman and CEO, Columbia Records

"The undisputed boss of bosses, Doug has called me every Friday for the last 15 years to say, 'Listen, pal: You just have a nice weekend and don't let anything stress you.' "
-- L.A. Reid, chairman/CEO, Epic

"Doug is certainly one of the greatest music execs of all-time and most definitely should be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's truly done it all!"
-- Seymour Stein, founder, Sire Records

"Doug's most lasting legacy is that he has become the architect of so many people's dreams."
-- Sylvia Rhone, president, Epic

"Two words Doug drilled into my brain was to always 'be nice,' even under the most difficult circumstances. Sounds simple, but it's never that easy. How he treated people with respect and dignity serves as one of the most valuable lessons I've learned in this business."
-- Monte Lipman, chairman/CEO, Republic 

“Almost every morning for the six years we have worked together, Doug has come into my office and asked, ‘What are we missing… What should we be doing to make the company better?’ No matter how successful he is, he has never rested on his laurels."
- Julie Greifer Swidler, EVP Business Affairs and General Counsel, Sony Music

“As a young and not yet seasoned attorney, he treated me with respect and kindness. Later on, during the creation of Interscope Records where I represented Ted Fields, Doug made an early bet on the company. He was also an early backer of Jimmy Iovine’s in bringing him into the label. And the rest is history.”
- John Branca, Partner, Ziffren Brittenham

"He took Warner, Universal and Sony all to new heights. Never afraid of making mistakes, he believes in the people around him. He is also one of the few people left in our business with whom a handshake is a contract. With Doug, it has always been about the music."
-- Bill Curbishley, manager of The Who

“I still plan on checking with him on whether he thinks a particular song is a hit or not.”
- Marty Bandier,  Chairman/CEO, Sony/ATV Music Publishing

“I’m lucky to have had the honor of sitting with Doug every Wednesday for the last three years. He is a true mentor and a true friend. He has taught me almost everything I know about the music business and countless life lessons and he challenges me daily."
- Adam Alpert, CEO, Disruptor Records; Selector Songs

"Doug is a great leader because he gives you great advice and guides you to a solution and he says, ’But you decide!’ It’s a great way of directing an outcome but also empowering the person who works for you to come to a decision."
-- Peter Edge, Chairman/CEO, RCA Records

"Coming into Atlantic at a time when the label knew it needed a refresh and reimagining, Doug was the one to boldly and bravely invest and go hard and rebuild."
-- Craig Kallman, chairman/CEO, Atlantic

"Doug is as much a coach as he is a boss. In one of our first meetings where he laid out his vision for RCA I got an idea of how much Doug believes in his executives. He said, ‘I want you to make yourself proud.’ I said, ‘I want to  make you proud of me,’ and he replied, ‘No, you should make yourself proud of your work. It was simple but that was very powerful for me. "
- Tom Corson, President/COO, RCA Records

“Doug was the first CEO of a music group that, in my experience, took a moment to ask about you and how you were doing and your family, before he got down to business. And he actually took the time to listen and to care. That permeates throughout the company.”
- Joel Klaiman, executive vice president, Columbia Records

"One Dougism was 'talent is crucial but seldom does an artist's career last more than a few years. I invest in executives because a great executive's career lasts decades' ... Doug is, in the most personal of terms, the older brother I never had."
-- Jim Urie, president of Universal Music Group Distribution

“Doug is supportive, kind and loyal. You know exactly where you stand with him and he completely backs you — 100 percent — every day of the week. He gives each and every one of us the confidence to win."
- Jason Iley, Chairman and CEO, Sony Music UK and Ireland

“Doug’s taught me a lot about how to read a hit record. I admire his management style — pick your people and back them to the hilt. He’s the most loyal leader I’ve ever seen. Doug’s fixation on songs is inspiring. Often he plays me country and western songs with amazing lyrics and melody!”
- Patrick Moxey, Ultra Music

“My favorite ‘Doug-ism’: ‘It’s going great, isn’t it.’”
- Richard Story, Sony Music

“Meeting with Doug - if you really love music - each second is a treasure. Last time I saw him, I was vacationing in New York, we met up and just listened to music.  [He’d say], ‘Listen to this! Do you think it’s a hit? Check out these lyrics. How’s Shakira?’ I feel very much at home with him.
- Afo Verde, Chairman/CEO Latin America, Spain and Portugal, Sony Music Entertainment

"Doug’s greatest skill was the art of human relations, and he was particularly at his best when you were at your worst. Everyone who has worked in this business has inevitably had a cold streak. And at that point, he would show unwavering support.”
- Avery Lipman, President/COO, Republic Records

“When I first met Doug, I was just coming up at MTV. Tom Freston said, ‘Stick with Doug. He’s one of the good guys. And you will learn a lot.’ So I’m very happy to be in his orbit today, still learning. Doug’s a natural teacher, the kind who comes with a legendary soundtrack.”
- Judy McGrath

"He is a giant from the era when the record industry was run by creative entrepreneurs,  yet he was able to transition into the corporate arena. His skill in spotting and developing artistic and executive talent is unparalleled.  Not to mention his skill in managing the egos above and below him. In sum, he’s the man!”
-- Don Passman, attorney

“Doug says you should never let anyone go home on the weekend worried about where they stand. No matter how difficult the week was and what may have gone wrong, don’t let them take it home and worry until Monday morning. Such a simple concept and so motivating to people who want to be part of a great company culture.
- Dennis Kooker, president, Global Digital Business & U.S. Sales, Sony Music Entertainment 

“Doug’s keen insight into the music business is something I have been fortunate enough to experience every day. Working closely with him these past six years has been just a wonderful opportunity.”
- Kevin Kelleher, Sony EVP and CFO

"I learned from Doug how to treat and respect the creative community." 
- Mel Lewinter, EVP, label strategy at Sony Music

An abbreviated version of this article originally appeared in the April 1 issue of Billboard.