Universal Music CEO: Record industry can't tell when geeks are lying to us about technology

Universal Music's CEO Doug Morris did a Wired interview in which the 68-year-old man said that he didn't really understand technology, that the record industry couldn't respond to Napster in 1999 because it didn't even have the in-house expertise to figure out whether a technologist was lying or not -- also, he compares his industry to a character from the comic strip Li'l Abner (which, New York magazine reminds us, stopped running in 1977).
"There's no one in the record industry 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 recognize a good technology person – anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me."

Link (via Michael Geist)


  1. Why am I shocked?

    I personally thought it was just pure stubborness or crankiness that the music industry hadn’t thought of it first so lashed out like a little child.

    Complete incompetence, amazing. Truly amazing.

  2. I’m still on my way to read the article (bad form to comment this early on, I know, on the mere snippet) but oh, wow, how that makes me giggle! Worse– It’s very, very sad, obviously, but… God. The mere idea makes me guffaw semi-hysterically, like one might to avoid crying.

    Poor rich powerful white men! They could not hire specialists nor educate themselves! The world was suddenly too complex for them! How unusual a position they found themselves in!

    How fear rules us.

    Okay, now I go get a snack and start reading the whole thing.

  3. “I wouldn’t be able to recognize a good technology person”

    Isn’t that why we have recruitment agencies, who *can* identify people with the appropriate skillset for the job?

    I can’t work out whether I’m more shocked that the CEO of such a large company is evidently that stupid or that this shocks me…

  4. Well, the good news is that record company CEO’s can be aware of not-lying. It disqualifies them for a career in politics, of course, or a career as a grumpy but brilliant diagnostician.

  5. “…anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.”

    Typical. A liar assumes everyone else is a liar too.

  6. @2: Can you rephrase that without making recourse to ridiculous straw-men?

    How about this: the record industry (which only exists because the phonogram producers of a hundred years ago “stole” compositions from sheet music publishers before the law was passed that legitimized their piracy) deserve no sympathy if their best excuse for their inability to keep up with change is “We couldn’t figure out how to recruit people who understood technology.”

    Or this: Technological shifts have always resulted in copyright shifts. In the past century, US copyright law has been changed to legalize widespread ‘piracy’ in the form of sound recordings, radio broadcasts, cable, jukeboxes, and VCRs. Each one of these changes has had winners (the public, and the companies that capitalized on change), and losers (the companies that didn’t capitalize on changes, the artists who bet on them). The record industry exists due to the legalization of a form of technological copyright infringment a century ago, and the fact that they responded to the current change by suing 20,000 American music fans speaks poorly of their sense of history and their business acumen.

    If you’re going to condemn my stance on copyright, at least try to represent it beyond some kind of silly cartoon polemic. It’s not as though Boing Boing lacks for lengthy expositions explaining the nuance.

  7. seriously #2, shame on that type of comment, and yay or #7 for saying what I wanted to so perfectly.

    Either way, this is a perfect example of why he should be fired. If you’re in charge of a project (in this case project = Universal Music), and you don’t understand the marketplace, then you should not have your job. If someone gave you 12 years to understand a new form of industry and that wasn’t enough time to see how you could adapt and change then you should quit and go sit on a beach somewhere.

  8. I bet Doug Morris has some great stories about the music industry’s past but by his own admission he is in a post beyond his competence. Why doesn’t he resign?
    If I were a Vivendi shareholder I would be asking
    questions at the next agm.

  9. “I wouldn’t be able to recognize a good technology person — anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.”

    You aren’t actually going to take that lame excuse seriously are you? Come on.

  10. I am so, totally, utterly, unsurprised.

    I mean, it’s not a CEO’s job to understand technology. His role is to make business decision, based on information provided to him by his cronies. Business is “people” skills, not “techie” skills.

    However, this does indeed not excuse the company’s continued incompetence. After all, content industries are inherently dependent on the technology housing/transporting their content. But most importantly, if they lack the proper skills, they have to obtain them. As other commentors pointed out, there exist agencies for this kind of thing. I’m surprised if the CEO has to be on the front line of the recruitment effort!

    Dinosaurs, you say?

  11. @10

    The guy is 68 years old, and whether it’s any kind of excuse doesn’t really matter. It’s his version of the failures of the industry to thwart its sworn enemy. So, yeah, I buy it.

    After all, they’ve spent millions fighting a battle that can’t be won for all the money in the world. Conspiring with entities like MediaSentry to “poison” torrents; suing Kazaa users and struggling to convince everyone else that all other P2Ps are equally vulnerable; uploading fake or incomplete songs to countless networks in the hopes of maybe fooling ten kids for three minutes; and sending out takedown notices to everyone with music blogs and webcasts. Come on, indeed.

    It’s shameless, but also very revealing. Historically, even the best of the major labels have treated their own artists like garbage, so how many filesharing experts do you suppose might offer their services to Universal? And how many would it take to remedy the problem? Once the hull’s breached, even the dumbest engineers flee the vessel.

  12. This story doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.

    I’ve worked in the music industry off and on for years…trying to keep it off because I’d rather focus on my job as an educator at a major university but might have to go back to pay the bills that are slowly piling up (it is sad when educating others becomes more of a hobby and writing crappy pop songs is actually more secure…I guess it goes to show you what people find worth while).

    The last time I was dealing with the industry came about purely because folks knew I was one of these ‘technologists’ and understood the internet. Flown to NYC and LA to talk to these guys and you almost think they are getting it. Understanding the culture and what is possible, and then some jackass comes in says exactly the opposite. Yes, we can put software on everyones computer and track each and everything they have on there. And would say so in a way that doesn’t sound invasive or immoral.

    I gotta say, the people in the big offices are not idiots. Most are former artists themselves (though usually not as known). Most want the same things nerds do…but they have an investment they think they need to keep and this is truly understandable. Not everyone can write a decent song. Not everything can take a good song and put the polish on it that the masses want. Not everyone can publish and promote these songs in a way that pushes their 3 minute piece of fluff infront of millions and have everyone who listens to it feel it is their own song, imparting a sense of uniqueness to all the listeners.

    I understand why they want to protect their works because they worked eff’n hard on them.

    And guess what? 99% of the public really doesn’t understand technology. They will believe anything said to them in a rational way that has the answers they are looking for. I see it in education. I just had to sit through a meeting where a bunch of jackasses that promised everything and claimed it could be done simply and easily couldn’t deliver. And then blamed us for unrealistic expectations. And they were…(err…against my advice).

    It is nearly impossible to find experts that understand the subject areas and the technology and fashion a reasonable argument. I know in my last dealings with the industry, if I had shown up with polished answers given by a team of experts and presented by a PR Man that had no expertise but could read the cue cards, my job would have been different.

    Hucksters are in every field and seem more competent than the ones that actually know what they are doing.

    (Ironically, this is one of my bigger arguments against GPL’ing my software…it is easy to say that I could still make money off of support and otherwise, but the bigger issue is that a bigger company with slicker presentations will come in with my own works and both out bid me — because they don’t need an expert on site, just a fast talker who is going to make everyone in your area look bad…ok, that is off the subject, but I know a lot of people on this site care about things like that).


  13. @2: If you’re going to blather that tired old meme, at least admit you’re a paid schill for the MafRIAA and/or the WiMPAAs.

  14. The link points to NY Mag’s blog. (Which has a funny take, & is one of my daily reads, so nothing negative is implied here.) But the link to the actual Wired article is http://www.wired.com/entertainment/music/magazine/15-12/mf_morris?currentPage=all

    I have a low opinion of music industry execs, but a reference to the Schmoo, from Lil Abner, is actually a sign of cultural literacy, albeit from a jerk.

    Just to get the taste of throwup out of your mouth after reading about these assholes, why not return to Steve Albini’s classic digestif?


  15. Is this evidence of a wider problem? Is is part of our culture to not only struggle to prop up the status quo, but to be willingly powered by the inertia of ignorance? From this CEO to the President to Detroit and the energy industry, they all seem happy to be ignorant of the obvious facts that they need to change some things if they want their business, party, country, to survive.

    Maybe not happy to be ignorant, but most of the time they put on a happy face.

  16. I have no sympathy for the labels, which have consistently pushed artistic integrity aside for the bottom line. In business, if you can’t see what’s coming your way and evolve appropriately, then you’re not going to be successful.

  17. To me, the most interesting point is the one Sabeke (6) spotted: Doug Morris absolutely assumes that anyone whose assertions he can’t check unassisted is going to be lying to him. I’d known the music industry was corrupt, but Morris’s explanation tells me it’s much worse than I’d previously thought.

  18. @21-Trs: That’s a perspective shared by management in pretty much all industry. The corporate world is a dark, evil, scary place and morality and ethics are only useful if they can be used to bludgeon an opponent. I’m sure there are exceptions though. :-)

    Now I’m in no way an apologist for the **AA, but I found this admission to be a refreshing insight. And the author’s observation that this CEO, this captain of industry, was ‘cute’ (“like if your grandfather were accidentally hired to run Google”) was spot on I think. These people aren’t evil (well, any more evil than any other CEO making twenty times what most of his employees makes) but rather just clueless.

  19. It’s hard for me to fathom that a record exec wouldn’t want to entirely cut the cost of pressing records. Selling MP3s is way more cost effective than selling CDs.

    Even if Mr. Morris doesn’t know this, it seems he’s in the position to figure it out or at least have someone explain it to him.

    The first corporation to actually give people what they want is going to make a ton of money, in my opinion.

    I, along with most other people, don’t mind paying for a record, assuming I’ll be able to listen to it how I choose.

    Interesting article, nonetheless.

  20. “I wouldn’t be able to recognize a good technology person — anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.”

    But that’s exactly what DID happen, as long as the bullshit story involved DRM silver bullets.

  21. Mockery of Mr. Morris is missing his very valid point.

    As #15 says, few people understand new technologies in depth. If you are the head of a major corporation, you have to hire people to explain these things to you… but you are always at risk of hiring someone who tells/sells you bad or unworkable technology.

    Companies are misled all the time by tech consultants who lead them into expensive boondoggles. It’s a big problem, whether or not smug geek commenters on teh interwebs recognize it.

  22. It might have been wise for Morris to use his children or grandchildren in the recruiting process. I’ve often seen small business owners turn to their children for help understanding technologies that are beyond them

  23. Morris is not being honest (as Clif pointed out with a good anecdote). Of course they hired technologists, and then when the technologists told them what they didn’t want to hear (the genie can’t be put back into the bottle) they decided they must be bullshitters, and went to hire someone who told them what they wanted to hear.

  24. So, Morris is getting paid how much a year? And he couldn’t figure out a way to get around that problem?

  25. This is so true of not just Universal, but most of the big music labels in the business. During my time at Sony I occasionally visited the Sony Music offices and was surprised by their really luddite attitude towards technology, and their incomprehension of the work being done by the rest of the corporation. They didn’t know what we were up to with those computers, they didn’t want to know, they didn’t want to hear about how that rootkit idea of theirs was crazy, and frankly they didn’t even want to talk to me in line at the cafeteria.

    The are probably lots of reasons for this, including the ones suggested in #25 (MaximusNYC) and #15 (Clif Marsiglio), but one day it occurred to me that this may have far more basic personal roots than I had realized: the fashionable, popular kids in high school grew up to work in marketing and management at music labels, and the nerds became the engineers, and they still listen to us exactly as much they did back then. It sounds so trite that I would never believe it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

    Regarding #21 (Ms. Hayden): Regrettably, in corporate boardrooms, Mr. Morris is probably right. As a CEO it is his job to keep everyone else honest. (Of course if he is himself dishonest he can’t do that so effectively, but that’s a different topic.)

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