Sweet Talkin’ Guy – Doug Morris, CEO Sony Music on Leadership

I was privileged to meet Doug Morris, CEO of Sony Music the other week at The University of Oxford Said Business School, thanks to Steve Mostyn who contributed the Led Zeppelin case study to the book “The Music of Business“.  Doug Morris is widely regarded as the most influential music executive in the industry. Throughout his career, he has worked in many different capacities with some of the most popular and influential artists of the past four decades, including The Rolling Stones, Phil Collins, Pete Townsend, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Nicks, Bette Midler, Tori Amos, INXS, Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder and U2, among many others.  Morris wrote “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” for The Chiffons, produced “Smokin’ In The Boys Room” for Brownsville Station and was behind “You Sexy Thing” for Hot Chocolate.  He became President of Atlantic Records in 1980, working alongside Ahmet Ertegun.  Later on, he renamed MCA records as Universal Music, to erase the well-known view of MCA as Music Cemetry of America.  He gave a superb talk and I was delighted when Doug accepted copies of “The Music of Business” and “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll“.

Doug Morris

He’s a Sweet Talkin’ Guy – Meeting Doug Morris at Oxford University Said Business School

Here’s Oxford University’s own report on the evening – Oxford University.  From my own point of view, here are some parallel lessons about music and business:

Doug Morris on Personal Development

Focus – Morris started life with an economics degree and started life as a songwriter after a brief spell in the army.  Although its clear from the opening song in this blog that Morris has a fine ear for writing hit songs, he realised that he was better at sales than writing songs and changed direction.  Perhaps that’s the first important parallel, finding what you are really good at.

Passion – He came from a family of lawyers and doctors and his parents were horrified when he said he wanted to be a songwriter.  Turned out that he was right to take this career direction, pursuing his passion.


Oxford University Said Business School – The Premier location for Business Excellence

Doug Morris on Business

Simplicity – Doug pointed out that some of the most successful records on the planet came out of the first, fourth and fifth chord progression.  It’s the sequence that “La Bamba”, “Twist and Shout” and many many more songs are based on for the non-musicians.  Businesses and musicians forget this point when they invent complex things which nobody ‘gets’.

Love – Morris described his relationship with Ahmet Ertegun as one of a great friendship, recalling that they would listen to what each other was playing in their adjoining offices.  “If I heard something I loved, I would bang on the wall and if Ahmet heard a sound that grabbed him he would do the same”.  At the end of each day there would always be laughter and hugs.  Doug applied the lessons of “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” to his dealings with artists he wanted to sign, often telling the musician’s wives or girlfriends how good their partners were, and then sit back and watch the artists decide to sign with Atlantic Records.  Testimony for Morris’ power of attraction comes from people like Jay-Z who has mentioned him in several of his songs.  I must say that I found Doug magnetic, warm, focused and charming.  I would also hazard a guess that he does not suffer fools gladly.  All qualities of great leaders.

Talent management – Morris was asked “what makes a successful record” and he pointed out that there’s no answer.  However he went on to say that he has always relied on people who could ‘see round corners’.  The quality of foresight is just as relevant to leaders in business as it is in the music business and I would say from Doug’s answer that this is still largely an intuitive rather than an analytical process.  Doug told a wonderful story of how he missed the chance to sign Bob Seger because Ahmet Ertegun passed up on it, rather than going with his own judgement.  He reflected “If you believe in something, don’t pass on it”.  We discussed how intuition is undervalued in business in the post ‘Basic Instinct‘.

The Future – For the first time in over a decade, profits in the music business have begun to grow.  Morris believes that this is the beginning of a turnaround for the music industry as it is pulled up by approaches to monetisation by related industries.

The title of Doug Morris’ talk was The A – Z of Music – From Adele to Zeppelin – let’s finish with examples from both artists:

To get your copy of The Music of Business and / or Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll, get in touch direct by e-mail peter@humdyn.co.uk and I will deliver at at an author discount.  Here’s an updated preview of the new book:

Postscript:  Here is the lecture in it’s entirety:


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk


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