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."
'DOUG-ISMS' AND LESSONS LEARNED:
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
"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
"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
"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
"One of the finest human beings I've ever met."
-- Berry Gordy, Motown
"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's most lasting legacy is that he has become the architect of so many people's dreams."
-- Sylvia Rhone, president, Epic
"He's the man!"
-- Don Passman, attorney
"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
This article originally appeared in the April 1 issue of Billboard.