I'm not sure what it is about Billboard's interview with Doug Morris that they think is so astonishing that no less than three separate people there sent out an email to tell me about it, but it does get beyond the level of a snoozesome Dennis Norden-Looks Familiar style memoir towards the end. Morris is asked if the RIAA lawsuits were a good idea:
It was an act to try and publicize that this is stealing and this is wrong. That's one way to look at it. Did it work? I don't know. Maybe it stopped some people from stealing, maybe it didn't . . . Did they deserve to get caught? Probably. People don't like policemen. I understand that. And maybe they're right.
Morris is the most senior person at one of the four companies that controls the RIAA cartel. And asked about a campaign that has seen his industry's public standing tank, that has ruined people financially, led thousands of others to worry, wasted swathes of law-enforcement and court time, and burned through millions of dollars, he can't do better in justification than a shrug and doesn't even know if it was worth doing in the first place.
It's almost like there wasn't any planning at the outset of the scheme, isn't it? Like there was no thought given to how the industry could tell if the lives wrecked and money spent were being done to any good effect; the schmoozing of lawmakers and retaining of lawyers was entered into without any study done to establish a baseline of behaviour they hoped to change, or any targets to measure their success against. Effectively, Morris has revealed the lawsuits to be a serious campaign entered into without any actual reasoning behind them.
As if realising that he's starting to sound ridiculous, Morris rallies into some sort of worn-out justification:
But when you see all the stores close and you lose half your employees and you can't sign bands to record them because people are stealing, we do things to try and stop it. You have a lot of people who think that things should be free. I don't know how they think we should produce it for free, but there's a lot of people who aren't logical.
The stores were closing "because people were stealing", and not because people were shopping online - apparently that's a given, is it, Doug? It isn't because people shifted their entertainment spending to DVDs, or because the record industry stopped making music that interested most of the market and instead targeted itself squarely at a preteen consumer? It's the stealing, is it?
And is Morris being deliberately foolish when he suggests that people want music to be "produced" for free? Surely he's not so far out of touch that he doesn't understand the difference between 'free at the point of delivery' and actually making stuff for free? If he really thinks that is what the debate over digital content is about - that producers should become charities - the Universal group should really be having talks with headhunters and passing the hat around to buy Morris a nice retirement gift.
The other possibility would be that he thinks we're all bloody idiots who can't spot when someone tries to pull some sleight of hand. And if Morris really does treat the customers of his industry with that sort of contempt... well, let's just buy the retirement card anyway, shall we?
Bill Werde, who writes the piece, then goes about as far in a public declaration of love as you can manage without having some sort of official present for the solemnization. 'Doug', says Bill, did it hurt when my old friends were mean to you?
The lawsuits have been rough from a PR standpoint, in terms of developing a real hubris from a certain subset in the blogosphere and magazines like Wired. I felt, and many others I spoke with felt that Wired-a magazine I once wrote for, by the way-took some cheap shots in a November 2007 article that you were interviewed for. How did you feel about that piece?
Oh, those beastly bloggers calling you out for suing grandmothers and single parents without any money. Doug, did it upset you? Do you need a hug, Doug?
They can write whatever they want. I think they see things differently than I do. My job is to protect artists, the people that work here, the copyrights . . . they have a feeling that I stop technology by trying to stop companies from infringing on our products-that we stopped the growth of all these companies because we don't like the use of our product without a license. I think that's their point of view. I have no problem with their point of view. I thought the magazine was funny because it's supposed to be a professional magazine but then they try to ridicule people to make a point.
But that's not the point, Doug - nobody thinks you're stopping technology. That's the whole point - you, the RIAA, haven't stopped anything. What frustrates people is that you're so slow to react to the possibilities of technology, any chance of a safe, legal service vanishes because while you're so busy trying to protect your investment in previous technology, the vacuum is filled with unlicensed services. Then you wail that the services are unlicensed, and try to close them down. By the time you close them down, the users have moved on to something else. Sure, the lawsuits were bitchy, heavy-handed and hateful, but really what irks people is that nobody in charge at any of the labels has given any indication of understanding how quickly technology is changing or any willingness to match the pace.
And, ultimately, the losers are those very people you maintain you are trying to protect - the artists, your staff, your precious copyrights. If people hold you up to ridicule, it's because you are ridiculous.
No, really ridiculous - Morris then starts to trumpet his company's hiring record as somehow justifying the rotten digital strategy:
Meanwhile, what have they [his critics] done? We're running the most dominant company that there ever has been in the industry. We're trying to do it in a way where we're really respectful to people, where the people in this company are treated great, where they're paid properly, where women are working in key positions in the company, where two of our chairpeople are people of color. Our greatest asset in our company is our people.
That Morris thinks employing women and non-whites is so extraordinary Universal deserve praise for not being sexist or racist is laughable in itself - presumably there are plans to invest a plaque declaring 'Gays welcome' to go outside the offices. That he thinks this means anything in the context of the company's approach to digital music - or, indeed, why policies that every company should have in place would be a point of distinction - is just bemusing.
And then Morris apparently slips:
I never listen to people.
There you might have an explanation for how the RIAA has managed to turn perceptions of the companies who bring us our music from 'benign uncle' to 'angry smiting gods'. The head of a massive company, a company which supposedly feels that people are its greatest asset, proudly proclaiming he doesn't listen to people.
Sure, he means 'people who believe something other than I do'. But the point is the same. The man at the top has a conviction he's right, and doesn't want to hear anything else. It's always like that on ships that are heading for the reefs.