Doug Morris and the Barbarians

spin the black circle–executive division

These days, being a major label executive is something like being a Republican pundit–in discussion, it takes an awful lot of spinning to make the facts come out on your side. So when the head of Universal Music Group, Doug Morris, in his recent Billboard interview, repeats the claim that download piracy is killing music sales, that online video represents a huge untapped revenue stream–therefore justifying Universal claiming not just licensing fees but a stake in any company that streams their videos–and that MTV got rich off the labels’ money, you can take most of it with a grain of salt.

But the spin doesn’t just apply to the present and possible futures, it also applies to Morris’ past. In the longer online version of the interview, Morris talks about his days in the mid-sixties at Laurie Records, where he learned the business and had his first hit record. Morris appears to have a phenomenal memory–at least for business details and business contacts. It was over 40 years ago, but he remembers everybody’s name, from the producers (Kasenetz-Katz, who would later, as the producers behind the Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Company, bring bubblegum music into the world), to the music director at the radio station that broke the record, to the distribution guy at Laurie who took orders for records from music stores around the country. He also remembers all the details of the deal: how much he paid for the record, what the royalty rate was, and even the catalog number: Laurie 3308.

What he doesn’t seem to remember is the title of the record itself or the name of the performer. He never mentions either one, and consistently refers to the record only by its catalog number (and Billboard, even parenthetically, doesn’t spill the beans). Of course, with that number in hand, it’s not hard to find out what the record was, or why Morris might be a little hesitant to brag about his role in its success. Laurie 3308 was none other than The Barbarians’ classic ode to gender misidentification, “Are You a Boy Or Are You a Girl?”

Could it be that Morris is embarrassed? But why should he be? Everybody needs to start their career somewhere, and the story of how Morris made this a hit is a good illustration of how the industry worked in those days, and, to a certain extent, works now. Besides, Morris says that he “believes” this was a number one record, and why would any label executive be embarrassed by a number one record? Unless, of course, what Morris is really covering up is the fact that, contrary to what he believes, Laurie 3308 didn’t even make top forty (it peaked on the Hot 100 at 55). That was probably because those damned kids were taping it off the radio and passing it around to their friends. Still, it’s interesting how his prodigious memory stops short at anything that doesn’t make him sound like a record industry God.