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COMPANY TOWN | The Biz

Universal Music Chief's Winding Comeback Trail

May 12, 1999|CHUCK PHILIPS

NEW YORK — Doug Morris has come a long way since his first big hit: the Chiffons' 1966 smash, "Sweet Talkin' Guy."

Sitting in an office on Broadway near the tiny storefront where he co-wrote that song, Morris now heads the world's largest record corporation, Seagram Co.'s Universal Music Group.

Morris' emergence as arguably the most powerful figure in music follows some very bizarre twists.

The 60-year-old Morris labored quietly in the shadows for years writing, producing and promoting songs before launching his own Big Tree Records label, which he sold in 1980 to Time Warner's Atlantic division. After slowly working his way to the top, Morris was abruptly fired just hours before he was to be promoted to global music head.

He started over in 1995, when Seagram chief Edgar Bronfman Jr. asked him to launch a new label and later to run the company's entire music division, which then ranked last among the world's record conglomerates. With the $10.4-billion acquisition of music giant PolyGram, Morris now sits atop the industry's global leader, with nearly 25% of the market and such artists as country singer Shania Twain, Italian singer Andrea Bocelli, rap's Eminem and the Irish rock group the Cranberries.

In his first extensive interview since the PolyGram deal last year, Morris spoke candidly about his new status at Seagram, his firing at Time Warner and addressed industry skepticism about his credentials to run an international conglomerate in a rapidly changing business.

Question: How does it feel to be sitting on top of the world's biggest record company just four years after many in the industry had written you off?

Answer: It's like a scene in one of those horror movies where the guy is dead and buried and then suddenly, out of nowhere, you see this arm burst out of the ground--and boom, he's back! That's the way I see myself. That's me.

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Q: Bronfman gave you a huge vote of confidence when he installed you as global chief of Universal. While you're regarded as one of the best American record executives in the business, even some of your strongest supporters are skeptical about whether you can run a giant international conglomerate.

A: You know, I hear that a lot and I love it. It's such bull. Can you name one American running any of these companies who has a lot of international experience? Do you think [Sony Music chief] Tommy Mottola flies down to Asia every month to check on sales in Thailand? Do you think [Warner Bros. chief] Bob Daly knows which artists Time Warner should be signing in Europe? Do you think [BMG chief] Strauss Zelnick attends weekly budget meetings in Brazil? I don't think so. It's like anything else. What you do is you get someone who really knows the culture and understands the international side of the business. Then you delegate power to him and to the experts in each country who report to him. If you pick the right guy, you do great. And we definitely got the right guy in [international chief] Jorgen Larsen.

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Q: There have been lots of rumors that you and Jorgen don't get along. Any truth to that?

A: That's not true. I like and respect the guy enormously.

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Q: There's also grumbling about how Universal may end up destroying the unique multicultural vision that helped turn PolyGram into the global leader. PolyGram divided the world into five equal territories, but critics say Seagram has elevated the status of the U.S. over its international arm.

A: That's 100% wrong. Most of the money in this company comes from international. PolyGram had the most exceptional executives in each country overseas and we did everything we could to ensure that they would stay and keep running things. Edgar bought PolyGram because it was the global leader. So why mess with it? Over here [in the U.S.], on the other hand, things were quite dysfunctional and it required a lot of work to fix. We made some big changes in the U.S. division.

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Q: Those changes sparked a lot of criticism regarding the consolidation and how it will impact jobs and artist development in the future.

A: I don't really think there is any criticism out there that holds water. It's tough when anybody loses their job. But I'm very proud of the way this thing has come together so seamlessly in such a short time. Of course, there are always going to be the chirpy birds who gossip about how this person hates that person or how this thing sucks and that thing has to fall apart. People tend to dwell on the negative, but that's just the nature of our business.

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Q: Another criticism is that Universal, with so many superstars under the its roof now, is going to be so preoccupied with keeping the pipeline stuffed with star product that you'll have no time or money left to develop new artists.

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