Fresh from being honored just an hour earlier at the Billboard Midem Breakfast on Sunday, June 7, Sony Music chairman/CEO Doug Morris gave an expansive “Lessons Learned” keynote interview about his early days as a songwriter and a young executive, his subsequent career at the head of each major-label group, his colleagues, his views on streaming and his advice for young professionals.
During the Q&A, Morris also confirmed that Apple will announce its new streaming service at its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday. “It’s happening tomorrow,” he said.
Here are highlights from the hour-long talk, which was moderated by Rupert Younger, director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation.
YOUTH AND EARLY CAREER
“When I was a teenager, I considered myself a songwriter — with no success. My parents were very worried about it — for years, I thought my middle name was ‘Who’s gonna take care of Doug?’ “[His first job was with legendary publisher] Lou Levy at Leeds Music [who] paid me $25 a week to write songs. He introduced me to a gentleman by the name of Jim Fogelson, a well-known A&R executive. He signed me and the next thing I knew I was in Nashville making a record with the Jordanaires, who could sing a lot better than me. The record came out on Epic, which actually L.A. Reid runs today, and can still be found on eBay. I bought it — 40 years later, it’s worth $5.”
“When I was [an A&R executive in the 1960s] at Laurie Records, I released ‘A Little Bit of Soul’ by a group called The Music Explosion, where I really learned about the record business and what it was about. I came in one day and the sales manager, I remember him sitting at his desk with a cigar, taking orders for thousands of single orders [for that song]. I said what is this? And he said, ‘It’s nothing, it’s just a cute song.’ I saw it had been ordered from a distributor in Baltimore and I was curious so I called [the distributor] and asked for the guy in the back room, ‘What’s the reason you’re ordering so many?’ He said, ‘I have two stores in Cumberland, Maryland, and they ordered 100 each.’ So I found the stores, one of them was a Sears, and I found the person who ordered the records. I called her and she said, ‘I had 100 kids on Saturday asking for it.’ ‘How do they know about it?’ ‘WCUL is playing it.’ I called the DJ. I still remember his name, Jeff Henderson, ‘Why are you playing this song?’ ‘I like it.’ I thought, ‘I’ve got a hit.’ I got the info to my bosses, and we made a hit record — it got to No. 2 on Billboard — and in doing so I took the cover off what the music business is. It’s very simple. If people like it they go and buy it. That information opened up a whole new world for me.”
“[In the early 1970s Morris formed Big Tree Records] with my friend Nick Vanderbilt and we had a lot of hits, but I was still on the wrong track. There, I did one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. Our first song was called ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,’ by an artist named Kent LaVoie. I said, ‘Why don’t you change your name to Lobo?’ He did, and it ruined him! He had to go the rest of his life with a dog’s name. It was a sad lesson, it was a mistake. I have learned from that.”
“[At Atlantic in the early 1980s] I wanted someone to produce Stevie Nicks, and Jimmy Iovine was a great young producer. He’d worked with Tom Petty, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, he was on the path to greatness. I called him and said, ‘I want you to produce this Stevie Nicks solo album’ and he said, ‘I’d rather produce The Rolling Stones.’ And I said, ‘I understand you would, so would I, but you’re gonna produce Stevie Nicks.’ And he went out there and produced the record and I was very good friends with Stevie, so I called her up and at her house to find out how she was doing, and Jimmy answered the phone. ‘Hey Jimmy, can I talk to Stevie?’ ‘She’s sleeping.’ ‘What are you doing there?’ And that’s when I realized that when you work with Jimmy, he’s always gonna get a little something extra.”
“I think Jimmy is really a product of his dad. If Jimmy would get up in the morning and make an omelette, his dad would say, ‘That’s the best omelette I’ve ever seen, no one can make an omelette like Jimmy.’ I don’t know if that’s true but that’s what his dad thought. If Jimmy would say, ‘Can you believe I’m going to work with John Lennon tomorrow?’ And you know what the dad said? ‘Lucky John!’ If you’ve got someone like that behind you or a mentor like that, it gives you the confidence to go out and destroy the world.”
RUNNING A COMPANY
“The thing about running a company is to treat people with respect: make the people working for you feel great, make them know you appreciate what they do. I remember when I was coming up people would degrade you, make you feel bad, send you home at night worried about your job. There was one guy who would , ‘I wanna see you on Monday’ and you knew it was something bad and you worried about it all weekend. Those are cruel people and I don’t like to be involved with them. Our companies are based on mutual respect and loyalty to each other. And that works — when you mean it, the people who work with you know it, and when they do something special you pay them a little extra. People are your most important asset. That’s the culture I believe in. I hate screamers, I hate people who abuse other people, and at the companies I’m in charge of, that’s not tolerated.”
“I think the change to streaming signifies a tipping point in the music industry. In the last 10 years the industry has actually been halved: it was a $30 billion business, now it’s a $15 billion business. What caused this? Probably the Internet, I think ad-supported streaming will hurt it also. But I think this tipping point will bring it back to where it was before. The reason I say that is the first mature streaming country was Sweden, and Sweden is back to where it was 10 years ago. There may be a lot of things there that are easier for streaming, but my guess is Europe and the U.S. will go the same way. You can’t have a streaming service without music, so we are really in a great position. I must say Daniel Ek has done an incredible job with Spotify because pushing that boulder up the hill — where he’s gotten it is an incredible, incredible accomplishment in my mind. With Jimmy, Apple has the best music person you could ever meet, so he brings incredible knowledge to them, and what they have that gives them an advantage is $178 billion in the bank and 800 million credit cards, and Spotify doesn’t really advertise because they’re still not profitable. My guess is Apple will advertise, that they’ll make a big splash. I think the result of this will have a halo effect on the streaming business. All the companies will benefit, a rising tide lifts all ships. And I think it’s been the beginning of an amazing moment for our industry. It may not be as fast as we’d like because it takes a while to change people’s buying habits, but in my opinion it’s coming and it’s coming fast. And after what we’ve been through for the past 10 years, we all deserve some happiness.”
ADVICE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
“First of all, you have to know what your talent is. Some people are good recording engineers, some are good at publishing, some can identify great artists — everybody thinks they know a hit, very few do. You have to first look at what you think your strength is, and then you can’t listen to the people who tell you, ‘Don’t go into that business, it’s a dead end, you’re gonna end up starving to death.’ There’s a lot of naysayers who’ll stop you from living your dreams, but it’s your life: live it. Don’t be afraid of anything. When you’re doing something that you love, it’s fun, and when something is fun you actually get good at it. That’s my advice for anyone in this industry: do what’s fun and something that makes it so you can’t wait to go work that day. I can’t wait to get back into my office on Monday to see what’s happening, and that’s 50 years later, so I’m the perfect living example.”