UPDATED: Doug Morris, the only person to be the top executive at all three major music companies, has secured funding for a new label and will exit his post as non-executive chairman of Sony Music Entertainment at the end of March, sources tell Variety. A report in Hits says that the new company will be called 12 Tone and that former Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels, who stepped down at the end of 2017, will be joining Morris.
While some reports said the new label is part of an unspecified partnership with Apple, a source close to the situation told Variety that those rumors are untrue. Reps for Morris, Bartels, Sony and Apple did not immediately respond to Variety‘s requests for comment.
Morris’ exit from Sony completes a long transition that began with former Columbia Records CEO Rob Stringer being announced as Morris’ successor as CEO of Sony Music Entertainment in October of 2016 and officially taking the reins last April.
Morris, 79, leaves the company in much stronger shape than he found it when he joined the company officially in 2011 (news of his arrival first broke late in 2010). At the time Sony Music was plagued by infighting among executives and was still feeling the after-effects of an awkward merger with BMG in 2003. Morris quickly calmed the waters and led the company and its two flagship labels, Columbia and Epic, to stability and success — particularly in 2015 and 2016, which saw Columbia releasing two giant albums from Adele and Beyonce. Adele’s “25” was not only the top-selling album in the U.S. for both 2015 and 2016, it set an all-time record for first-week sales by moving 3.38 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music.
After graduating from Columbia University, Morris began his career as a songwriter for music publisher Robert Mellin, Inc., writing the Chiffons’ 1966 hit “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” and producing records including Brownsville Station’s early 1970s hit “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.” He also worked for Laurie Records as a writer and producer in the 1960s, eventually rising to vice president and general manager. Later, he launched his own label, Big Tree Records, which was distributed and eventually acquired by Atlantic Records in 1978. This brought him into the Warner Music family, initially as president of Atco Records. In 1980 he was named president of Atlantic Records, eventually rising to co-chairman and co-CEO — with label cofounder Ahmet Ertegun — in 1990. He was named head of Warner Music Group in 1994 but an ugly corporate battle ensued that saw multiple executives leaving the company — ultimately including Morris in 1995. Almost immediately, he was named CEO of Universal Music Group, bringing several former colleagues from Warner with him —not least Interscope Records, the successful label he’d helped launch at WMG but left the company in the Death Row and gangsta-rap dust-ups in 1995. Morris went on to lead Universal to its acquisition of the PolyGram music group in 1998, which instantly made it the world’s largest music company — a position it has held ever since.
He is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music and the President’s Merit Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; among many other organizations, he also serves on the board of directors of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It is no understatement to say that Morris has worked with virtually every major artist and executive over the course of a career that stretches back 50 years, and has helped to develop the careers of many of them.