Doug Morris has few qualms about Miley Cyrus. “She’s smart. She’s not afraid,” said Morris, the chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, over tea from his office in Manhattan.
To Morris, Cyrus’ reinvention is far from accidental.
“She knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to kill Hannah Montana,” Morris continued, recalling when Cyrus signed with Sony’s label RCA. “And what did she do? She did what Elvis Presley did. She did what Madonna did,” he said, referencing artists known for bucking convention.
If numbers attest, Cyrus’ effort, including her controversial and provocative appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards in August, was effective. While her performance drew the ire of critics, it helped cement Cyrus’ status as one of the biggest pop talents in the country. Her single “Wrecking Ball,” which broke VEVO records with 19.3 million views within 24 hours of posting, quickly rose to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. (Eighteen weeks in, it's still at #9.)
To Morris, Cyrus’ success is far from an anomaly. For the last four decades, first as a songwriter and later as an executive, Morris helped promote some of the most prominent talent in music, from Stevie Nicks to Jay Z. With executive experience at Warner, Universal Music Group and Sony, Morris’ knowledge of the music industry has few rivals. (Disclosure: Morris is a member of the board of directors of SmartPlanet’s parent company CBS.)
A Little Bit of Soul
Though he holds one of the most coveted roles in the music industry, Morris still can recall his time in the industry trenches. After graduating Columbia University with a degree in economics and serving two years in the U.S. Army in France, Morris took a job with music publisher Robert Mellin Inc. There, in the company of Burt Burns – the songwriter responsible for “Take a Little Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin and “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers – Morris co-wrote songs like The Chiffons’ 1966 hit “Sweet Talkin’ Guy.”
Experience on the creative side of the business offers Morris unique insight in his current role. “I know how you feel the first time you hear your record on the radio. I know the disappointment of failure. I know how it feels when you have a little bit of success," he said.
It was later, at Laurie Records, that Morris learned how the music industry really worked. When an order for 300 copies of the 1965 song “A Little Bit of Soul” by the Music Explosion came in, Morris followed up, tracking the supply chain first to the distributor, then the record store and finally to WCUM radio in Cumberland, Md., in order to get a better idea of who influences sales. Jeff Henderson, the music director of the station, had been playing it for a simple reason – he liked it.
“The significance of that moment was that I, in my own way, had lifted up the blanket of what this record business is about,” Morris told students during a lecture at the Saïd Business School at Oxford in March. “It was pretty simple. You’ve got a unique piece of music that I had loved, someone had played it, and there were a lot of other people who loved it, and they went and bought it. I thought about it and said, 'This makes a lot of sense.’ It’s always been the same thing.”
Big Tree Records
Morris could have stayed at Robert Mellin. That fate, he contends, is all too common. “Most people in today’s companies come in slotted for a certain position and they never really go through walls to learn the other positions,” he said. “That’s a shame.”
Instead of falling victim to inertia, he launched Big Tree Records with Dick Vanderbilt in 1970. At Big Tree, Morris didn’t just select the records; he went on the road, promoting artists at radio stations in little towns across the country, meeting disk jockeys and distributors along the way. “The only way you could do it was to do it in person – go in and fight for your record,” he said. (Even today, he can tick off the name of the pop music station in your hometown.)
To Morris, managing Big Tree Records, which licensed Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” and produced Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room,” proved illuminating. “When you have your own business and you have to live and support your family and keep the door open, you learn everything,” he said.
After landing a commercial hit with England Dan & John Ford Coley's 1976 song “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” Morris was paid a visit by Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records. Ertegun, the entrepreneurial son of the Turkish ambassador, was already a legend, having attracted talent like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. During his visit with Morris, Ertegun said, “Listen, I like what you’ve been doing. I want to buy your company. I want you to run one of my companies.”
In 1978, Morris sold Big Tree Records to Ertegun and joined Atlantic, managing the Atco label for a salary of $120,000 per year. In addition to managing Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones under Atco, Morris signed Pete Townsend and Stevie Nicks. Two years later, Morris was named president of Atlantic.
It was at Atlantic that Morris first had the opportunity to
work with Jimmy Iovine, a producer known at the time for working with John
Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. In 1981, Morris hired Iovine to produce
the first solo album of Stevie Nicks.
“Jimmy, first of all, knows a good song, and a good artist, and then he knows how to put things together,” Morris said. Released in the summer of 1981, Bella Donna went quadruple platinum, selling more than 5 million copies.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Morris said of working with Iovine and Nicks. “The three of us have stayed friends all of these years.”
In 1990, bolstered by this friendship, Morris, then co-CEO of Atlantic Records, made a substantive investment in Iovine’s fledgling label, Interscope. The investment proved fortuitous.
“Atlantic was on its ass before Doug began to rebuild it,” music executive David Geffen told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “He’s made some real smart bets.”
In the years that followed, Interscope signed Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, No Doubt, 50 Cent and Lady Gaga. More recently, Iovine joined forces with Dr. Dre to launch a line of headphones. According to Fast Company, Beats Electronics is scheduled to earn $1.4 billion in 2013.
“He’s a guy who can see around corners,” Morris said of Iovine.
Morris' Favorite Mistake
Though familiar with success, Morris is not afraid to point out his own foibles. His favorite, he said, arrived in the early 1990s when he was still at Atlantic. He had signed a talented artist and hired a sophisticated producer, but when he flew out to Los Angeles to listen to the record something was off. The album, finally complete, was quiet – very quiet – punctuated only by the occasional string section.
“This is an immediate cut out,” Morris recalled thinking. “We just blew $400,000 on something we couldn’t give away.”
Frustrated, Morris flew back to New York. The next day, on the drive to work, Morris gave the record another try. There, without the distraction of noise or ringing telephones, he did a 180. “I suddenly realized that I had blown it, that it was the most beautiful album I ever heard,” he said.
Morris got on the phone. “Listen, you have to forgive me. I really screwed up. This is absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t really hear it till I heard it,” he told the artist.
Released in 1992, Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos was certified double platinum by the RIAA, selling more than 2 million copies across the globe.
Morris calls the incident his “favorite” mistake because it taught him a lesson about “how to really get the best out of an album and my own mistake, which I was happy to acknowledge because I was so wrong,” he said.
The approach to obstacles sets Morris apart. “People make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “As long as the mistakes aren’t intentional, there’s no reason to be upset by them.”
This attitude, coupled with his interest in treating employees well, has given Morris an uncommon ability to hire and develop executive talent.
“You want to set an example by always being there, and then you want to make them feel proud of their accomplishments,” he said. “You want to overpay them a little bit. But the truth is, you want to create an environment where people are motivated, are happy. There is no yelling in this company. The idea is never to give anyone a bad night, any reason to worry about Monday. That’s really important.”
More recently, Morris has been a driving force for change in the music industry. In 2009, while still CEO of Universal Music Group, Morris came up with the idea for VEVO, a video streaming site similar to YouTube. In August 2013, the site attracted 49.4 million unique visitors, according to comScore.
“VEVO was a very simple idea,” Morris said. “If you really watch YouTube before VEVO, you would see all sorts of user-generated product mixed in with the premium videos.”
VEVO split premium content from cat videos, giving the music industry a reason to charge higher advertising rates. In short order, Morris created a quorum with Universal, EMI (which would later be sold to Universal), Sony and Google. Today, VEVO is available in 13 countries.
Ventures like VEVO, Pandora and Spotify are starting to provide real revenue streams for the industry. In 2012, digital revenue helped the record industry grow for the first time in more than a decade, according to IFPI.
These statistics give Morris hope for the future. “To anyone who wants to get into the music business, who loves music, who believes in it,” Morris told the Oxford students in March, “if ever there was a time to take a chance on it, this is it.”