Andrew Burke

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How To Doom Your Own Industry
Posted on: 2007-11-27

The latest issue of Wired magazine has an interview with Universal Music CEO Doug Morris. It's not online yet, but has been referenced by boingboing and others. Turns out the reason the record labels haven't done much about digital downloads besides suing people and getting pwned by Steve Jobs is supposedly that they had no clue. He's a CEO of a big publicly-traded company in a somewhat dodgy industry, so we maybe shouldn't take him entirely at face value - but it's still a great example of one of my favourite mottos:

"Never attribute to malice what could also be explained by stupidity."

Sure there's malice in the world - but there's a lot more stupidity, and a lot of the malice comes from stupid misunderstandings.

Here's the key quote that's going around:

"There's no one in the record industry that's a technologist," Morris explains. "That's a misconception writers make all the time, that the record industry missed this. They didn't. They just didn't know what to do. It's like if you were suddenly asked to operate on your dog to remove his kidney. What would you do?"

Personally, I would hire a vet. But to Morris, even that wasn't an option. "We didn't know who to hire," he says, becoming more agitated. "I wouldn't be able to recognize a good technology person — anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me."

Well, reading that again, it sounds a bit like retroactive cover-your-ass stupidity, like claiming "I don't remember any details of that event" when you're being indicted. However, one should never underestimate stupidity, even in high places. He's probably very good at managing a large company, doing complicated business deals, and all that - but he was too busy doing these things to keep up with technology. Obviously someone at Universal knew how this stuff worked and what the future might hold (probably some of their artists), but they were probably low on the hierarchy and young and not worth listening to.

The lesson here, besides keeping up on things and how not to be whiny, is that if you're running a business of some kind or you depend on an industry, keep an eye out for external forces that can change things. Until the MP3 / internet / iTMS revolution, the music industry was used to making its own technological changes - long-playing LPs, stereo Hi-Fi, cassettes, CDs - and making consumers pay for them. The difference this time was that the changes came from outside the industry - and it's not an industry built around fast responses to outside influences.

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