As Doug Morris Builds New Label, Former Employers Question Cost of His Loyalty to Protegee

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Doug Morris attends the after party for the Broadway opening night for 'Motown: The Musical' at Roseland Ballroom on April 14, 2013 in New York City. 

Doug Morris, founder of the new Apple-backed 12 Tone Music Group, has been widely celebrated for his loyalty, generosity and mentorship to many of the music industry’s top male and female executives over the course of his career, during which he governed at all three major record labels.

Many of the strong personal bonds he forged with these proteges decades ago—from the late Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun to Atlantic Records' current chairman/CEO Craig Kallman—paid dividends for the record companies, each of which increased market share under his reign. But as corporations across sectors rethink their guidelines on workplace culture and conduct, some executives at Sony have been questioning a series of decisions involving one of Morris’s longtime executives, Jolene Cherry.

In 2014, as Sony Corp. was preparing to pay out bonuses to employees, Sony’s Executive VP of Human Resources, Kazushi Ambe, sent an email to Sony Entertainment’s then-CEO Michael Lynton saying that Doug Morris, Sony Music’s then-chairman/CEO, would personally reimburse the Japanese conglomerate for Cherry’s bonus.

It was an unusual arrangement, sources say. Jolene Cherry, a longtime A&R executive, had worked for Morris for years, but she didn’t have much of a track record yet at Sony.

“Jolene Cherry - the amount will be paid by Doug, not by SME,” Ambe wrote in one email, writing in another that “I did confirm that Jolene Cherry's bonus will be reimbursed.”

The emails were among the thousands stolen from Sony by hackers and published on Wikileaks in 2015. None of the parties involved would disclose further details. Lynton, Cherry, Sony and Morris declined comment.

Meantime, Sony had been funding a joint venture with Cherry, The Cherry Party, spending millions to sign about 10 acts to the label and make their recordings, according to a source. Sony also committed about half a million dollars in marketing to each artist, the source adds, though didn’t have to spend that much because the joint label never released a full album. In 2015, the year after the discussion about the bonus, Sony announced that The Cherry Party would be separated as an independent label that it would distribute it through its indie distribution arm, RED, advancing Cherry several hundred thousand dollars for the distribution deal, another source tells Billboard.

A number of Sony executives have since questioned why Sony approved a joint venture, bonus and distribution advance for Cherry, given whatever circumstances would have required Morris to pay her bonus out of his own pocket. A Sony RED press release announcing the distribution deal highlighted that as an SVP of A&R at UMG, Cherry “originally had Streamline Records’ Vincent Herbert develop” Lady Gaga, whom Herbert brought to Interscope through his Streamline imprint, but the release didn’t trumpet Cherry’s other specific achievements at UMG. Cherry worked closely with Herbert but didn’t herself have a hands-on role at Interscope developing “the Gaga project,” a source tells Billboard.

Cherry, a music supervisor-turned-A&R executive known for her rock expertise, according to the RED release, had been close to Morris for decades. She had a joint publishing venture at Warner/Chappell and a consulting deal at Atlantic under Morris’s tenure in the early 1990s, becoming a senior VP of A&R at Atlantic and working on the successful soundtrack to 1994’s The Crow. Morris was fired as head of Warner Music Group’s U.S. operations in 1995, but then filed and won a wrongful termination suit, earning $50 million and a formal apology before landing the top job at Universal Music Group.

Shortly after he took the reins there, he greenlit another joint venture with Cherry, Cherry Entertainment, in 1997, a multimillion-dollar deal, sources tell Billboard, and gave her the title of Senior VP of A&R at the corporate level.

In 2010, when Vivendi announced that Lucian Grainge would replace Morris as chairman/CEO of UMG, Sony recruited Morris to run its record company because he was “an elder statesman,” a source tells Billboard, who hadn’t worked for Sony or BMG in the past. Morris took over at Sony Music in 2011 and Cherry followed him, launching her joint venture, the Cherry Party, with Sony shortly after. A source close to Morris told Billboard that Morris believed the venture could have paid off for the company.

According to a lawsuit filed by the artist Judith Hill against Cherry and her companies in New York State Supreme Court in 2015, Hill was approached in 2013 by Cherry, who claimed to Hill that she had a "close personal relationship" with Morris, and “made a number of false representations about what Mr. Morris and Sony Music would do to promote Ms. Hill's career,” leading Ms. Hill to sign a long-term recording agreement in September 2013 with Sony Music. Cherry told Billboard recently that the suit was a “complete fabrication,” but wouldn’t comment further, due to a confidentiality agreement.

The suit noted that after Sony launched The Cherry Party, “Sony Music then quickly severed ties.” In August 2014, according to the complaint, Cherry sent Hill an email when she was leaving Sony, stating, "Yes, I'm sorry but they [Sony] are [expletive]. You can take all of your tracks and go pending whatever outcome is the final one here. I'm sick of the music business and all of its trash [sic]." Cherry declined to comment on the terms of her exit from Sony.

Cherry then filed her own lawsuit against Prince, one of Hill’s mentors, in Los Angeles Superior Court, accusing him of "tortiously interfering" with Hill’s record deal.

According to a Sony executive familiar with the company’s deals, the Cherry Party was one of several expensive joint ventures that Morris greenlit in his early Sony days that proved to be a drain on the company as he re-staffed: “The early ones he did sucked, but the one with Jolene sucked the most,” the executive told Billboard, adding that Sony funded a swank Santa Monica office for the label. (Kemosabe Records, Sony’s joint venture with Dr. Luke, also cost the company, but other partnerships Morris later approved, such as Disruptor Records with the Chainsmokers’ manager Adam Alpert and dance-label Ultra Music, have been profitable, sources say.)

Morris’s longtime allegiance to Antonio “L.A.” Reid, co-founder of the new Hitco, was also fruitful for Sony, but had a price as well. Reid had worked for Morris at UMG running Island/Def Jam, and followed him to Sony to serve as chairman/CEO of Epic Records, turning the label into a powerhouse. But Reid exited Epic last year following a sexual harassment claim by a former assistant. Reid left Sony with a multimillion-dollar exit package and Sony settled with the assistant shortly after, sources tell Billboard.

Morris ceded his CEO role to Rob Stringer in 2017 and retired as chairman of Sony Music in March, after securing funding to launch his new label, 12 Tone, which has support from Apple.

In her book Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving The Music Industry, which was released in September and has spurred a flurry of interest in the music world’s underbelly, former Atlantic A&R executive Dorothy Carvello remembers Morris as “a parent, teacher and guru all in one,” as well as a “chess master.” She recalls his devotion decades ago to executives still shaping today’s business such as Jimmy Iovine, who led Apple Music until last month, and Sylvia Rhone, who worked for Morris throughout her career as a label leader at Atlantic, Elektra, Motown, and at Sony, where she still serves as president of Epic Records.

“Doug was the consummate leader who always encouraged the executives around him to challenge themselves,” Rhone tells Billboard. “He knew how to attract great talent but if you were going to benefit from his mentorship you had to earn it. Nothing was ever handed to anyone.”