Universal and Sony to Swap Execs, But Who'll Come Out On Top?

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Doug Morris

As the major labels prepare to play musical chairs (again), will 72-year-old Doug Morris be Sony's saving grace?

Is Doug Morris’ move to Sony Music a matter of when not if?

A report in Monday’s The Guardian points to his ascent as a near certainty, positioning the 72-year-old music veteran as the most likely candidate to take outgoing chief executive Rolf Schmidt-Holtz’s job. This would mark Morris’ third stint at a major label, having held top positions at Atlantic Records in the 80s, Warner Music in the 90s and Universal since 1995, starting at the now dormant MCA and upon its merger with Polygram in 1998, Universal Music Group. It’s there that Morris and Co. have seen market share dominance for the better park of a decade, outpacing runner-up Sony much to the annoyance of the company’s top brass.

But in this game of musical chairs, nobody holds any grudges when they’re knocked off the stool. Barry Weiss, who ran Sony’s RCA Music Group, home to Britney Spears, Usher and Pink, is headed to UMG at the end of his contract this May, where he’ll run operations from New York. Weiss’ move comes after the realization that he was likely not in line for the Schmidt-Holtz gig. Key among the obstacles standing in his way: Columbia-Epic Label Group chairman Rob Stringer, brother of Howard Stringer, chairman and CEO of Sony Corp., who many say was gunning for the promotion. According to the Guardian story, which cites several unnamed sources, accusations of nepotism may have derailed that plan along with the matter of failed Epic president Amanda Ghost, whom Rob Stringer appointed and supervised.

When Universal sanctions Morris’ exit with an early release, which several reports have presented as a virtual fait accompli, though his contract does not expire until 2012, it will rearrange the chess board so that two former colleagues, Morris and newly installed chairman Lucian Grainge, will face off in a war of market share, each hoping to collect a few more crumbs than the other from an ever diminishing pie. Morris has the track record and the tenure, but most executives his age would be gazing longingly at a dock in the south of France, not debating the complexities of cloud-based streaming. Still, you can’t argue when the company he ran controls nearly a third of all music purchases in the U.S. And Sony’s not all that far behind, with 27.4% of the market in 2010. 

A Universal rep did not respond to a call for comment, but Tommy Boy Records founder Tom Silverman, who worked alongside Morris for much of the 80s and into the 90s, thinks Morris at Sony is a good fit. “Doug Morris is a brilliant record executive and an old school indie-minded kind of guy,” Silverman tells THR. “He's certainly been around and he has ideas that are still really valid and great. As music men go, he's one of the great ones.”

While few outside of the executive circle directly affected truly know what back-room negotiations may be happening right now, one thing we can count on is the continued migration of each side's strongest players to and fro. In fact, that’s already taking place. Last week, it was revealed that Larry Jackson is leaving his post as EVP of A&R at RCA Music Group to take the same title at Universal’s Interscope Geffen A&M Records. Staying true to Grainge’s mission of beefing up the creative side, even on the heels of recent layoffs, it’s clear Universal means business, but the question remains: will Sony step up with the help of Uni’s longtime troop leader?