Wired’s Seth Mnookin has written an excellent profile of Universal Music’s Doug Morris, who in any other era would be the unquestioned king of the music business, as UMG is the biggest label on the planet. But UMG’s size doesn’t protect it from the forces blowing up the rest of Big Music: piracy, apathy and Apple’s (AAPL) Steve Jobs.
Music industry folks are already giggling over Morris’ admission that he didn’t know anything about technology during Napster’s heyday (and the implication that he doesn’t know much more now):
Morris insists there wasn’t a thing he or anyone else could have done differently. “There’s no one in the record company that’s a technologist,” Morris explains. “That’s a misconception writers make all the time, that the record industry missed this. They didn’t. They just didn’t know what to do. It’s like if you were suddenly asked to operate on your dog to remove his kidney. What would you do?”
Personally, I would hire a vet. But to Morris, even that wasn’t an option. “We didn’t know who to hire,” he says, becoming more agitated. “I wouldn’t be able to recognise a good technology person — anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.” Morris’ almost willful cluelessness is telling. “He wasn’t prepared for a business that was going to be so totally disrupted by technology,” says a longtime industry insider who has worked with Morris. “He just doesn’t have that kind of mind.”
Easy enough to paint Doug as a man out of time, and Seth does so convincingly. Here’s the thing, though. We don’t spend much time defending very well-paid music label CEOs at this site. But…
… here’s our question to the digerati in the peanut gallery: What music label boss did have a working crystal ball in 1999? And while we’re waiting for your answer, another request: Please tell us — which one gets it now? And one more: Say you run one of the major record labels today, so you still make the majority of your money selling compact discs. How do you transition to the digital future, where people buy songs for $1 (if you’re lucky) instead of albums for $10?
This last one is most interesting to us, because we’ve been watching the music business shrivel for 10 years, and we’re not sure what other route the major labels could have (realistically) followed. The suggestions that we’ve heard so far — get into other lines of business, like selling concert tickets and t-shirts! sell your catalogue for pennies and make it up on volume! — have yet to convince us. Can you do better? Sound off in the comments below, or drop us a line at pkafka AT silicon alley insider DOT com.