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COLUMN ONE

Music Is Listening to Him

The record business once spurned tech geeks like Ted Cohen. But he's now a guru in an industry desperate to adapt to digital tastes.

November 23, 2005|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

Ted Cohen is an unlikely rock star.

The 56-year-old computer fanatic has a high-pitched giggle and thinning gray hair. Instead of slinging a guitar over his shoulder, Cohen carries a backpack filled with nine cellphones, three iPods, two portable video players and enough wires, cables and tape to mummify Mariah Carey. At 5 feet 8 and 240 pounds, he will never be mistaken for one of the crooning waifs on MTV.

But among music executives, Cohen is something of an American Idol. As senior vice president of digital development at EMI Group, home of Coldplay and the Rolling Stones, Cohen has been in on the ground floor of dozens of online music ventures, including Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store. And he's one of the most sought-after speakers on the recording industry's endless conference-and-gala circuit.

During a recent Santa Monica symposium, so many people wanted a moment of Cohen's time that he resorted to holding back-to-back meetings in a hallway, where petitioners stood in line to win a brief audience with him.

"Ted is very high-profile," said Mitch Bainwol, chief executive of the Recording Industry Assn. of America. "He's part ambassador and part evangelist." Cohen's celebrity is surprising, even to him. For decades, technologists were relegated to the lower levels of the music business. Then, in the late 1990s, when peer-to-peer computer networks such as Napster Inc. made music easy to steal, techies became outright pariahs.

But now, after half a decade of fighting high-tech change, the recording industry is rushing to embrace it. As consumers spend billions of dollars downloading songs and ring tones online and via cellphones, music executives have become desperate to convince Wall Street that they understand the Internet marketplace.

Suddenly, Cohen and other tech-savvy executives capable of translating between Silicon Valley and Tin Pan Alley are essential. The once-spurned geeks are becoming some of the music world's most respected leaders, and as they ascend, they are changing the industry's culture.

"What Ted is working on is embedded in everything we do as a company now," said David Munns, CEO of EMI Recorded Music North America.

Such change was on display last month when Cohen joined a panel on innovations in music distribution. One by one, speakers from the nation's largest music, computer and peer-to-peer corporations launched into serious forecasts of the industry's bleak future. Cohen managed to keep quiet for almost three minutes before the dire predictions proved too much.

"Listen to this!" he said, cuing the Beatles' "Help!" on his cellphone. "Isn't that great?" he shouted into the microphone.

From then on, it was Cohen's show. In the space of a quarter-hour, he challenged a Yahoo Inc. executive to a mud-wrestling contest, high-fived a friend in the front row, snickered when another speaker mentioned an outdated music player and weighed in on half a dozen other subjects.

"The future has never been more exciting!" he told the room. "We're going to figure out how to make this work!"

When the panel ended, people rushed the stage like groupies at a concert. Cohen's fans, like those of Bono or Cher, hailed him by his first name: "Ted!"

"Ted has made music fun again," said Gabe Adiv of Gracenote, a music software company, as he looked on.

But Cohen's antics are more than eccentricities. They are the key to how he bridges the disparate worlds of music and tech. Under Cohen's guidance, EMI has negotiated with just about any high-tech entrepreneur who stood still long enough to talk.

Sean Ryan, who helped create Listen.com in the late 1990s, said, "EMI was in front of everyone else because Ted was willing to talk to anyone."

It's more than friendliness, Cohen says. It's strategy.

"I try to embody what the industry should become," he said.

*

Music's love-hate relationship with technology is as old as the recording industry itself.

It began in the early 1900s, when songwriters, fearing for their jobs, begged the federal government to outlaw what they called "ungodly machines": player pianos. Instead of criminalizing the new invention, Congress created the copyright system that exists today, and songwriters relented when they began receiving royalty checks.

It was the start of a pattern: Innovation led to panic, which slowly turned to celebration when profits soared. In the '50s, recording executives said FM radio would kill the music industry. Then they discovered that broadcasts helped sell albums. In the '70s, record companies warned that cassette tapes would make piracy rampant. Then Sony released the Walkman, and music sales hit new heights.

In the 1980s and '90s, some insiders cautioned that the compact disc would make it easier for listeners to steal perfect copies. But when sales skyrocketed, the industry embraced the new format. By 1999, music corporations were larger than ever, shipping $14.6 billion worth of albums and growing at 6% a year.

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