Starting a music business class in the most devastating time the music industry has ever seen might seem like strange timing. But Chuck Morris, former CEO of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, says the business has always been a labor of love.
“When I’ve spoken at colleges, I try to convince them in the first five minutes not to go into the music business, because it’s so difficult,” Morris said. “And my speech has always been, I don’t care what you do - wash floors at KBCO, or answer the phones at (record store) Twist and Shout … Do anything - get your foot in the door.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily — and in some cases permanently — shuttered music venues large and small around the world, Morris says he believes there is still a future for the industry - even if right now exactly what that will look like is uncertain. When the longtime concert promoter and manager got his start in 1970, he didn’t have a clue what he was getting himself into.
“I never had a plan in the music business,” Morris said. “I just followed my gut and I was lucky, made some good moves and had a long career, which is hard.”
Now he’s following his gut again. This fall, Morris is launching Colorado State University’s new music business program.
“This has been a dream of my lifetime,” he said. “That when I accomplished everything I wanted in my almost 50-year career, I wanted to teach.”
The program will begin as a one-course elective, with the goal of expanding to a minor and, eventually a major. Classes will be open to students of all disciplines, not solely music or business majors.
As chair of the department, Morris plans to do some teaching but also will bring in special guest lecturers, like Colorado’s own Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
“Michael Franti already sent me a note - he heard about it - he said, ‘when can I come to Fort Collins?’” he said. It will also include lectures from executives Morris has worked with over the years - from entertainment lawyers to agents to accountants.
“People in the music business … we like to be under the lights like artists and being able to sit there and talk to a bunch of people, especially about what we love, it’s a real easy ‘yes,’” he said.
Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Morris came to Colorado to get his Ph. D. in political science at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He dropped out to manage Boulder music venues The Sink and Tulagi’s, where then up-and-coming artists like The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt would perform. He later moved into management and promotion, eventually creating the concert promotion giant AEG Presents Rocky Mountains.
Morris, who was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2018, will continue to consult with AEG to help keep his finger on the pulse of the industry. He plans to use his decades of experience and vast connections to help students get internships and jobs upon graduation. Opportunities Morris says he would have loved to have had when he was getting his start.
“When I came into the business in 1970, I don’t think there was a school that had a (music business) class, let alone a department,” he said.
Now there are a host of programs across the country, including Nashville’s Belmont University. But it is lacking in Colorado, a place that has seen enormous growth in the music industry in recent years.
“I loved the attitude that (CSU) wanted to build is as big as I want to build it,” Morris said, noting that Fort Collins has also become an interesting music hub thanks to the opening of The Music District and artists such as Pretty Lights and The Subdudes.
And in many ways - the current pandemic shutdown notwithstanding - the music industry overall is in a better position than it’s been in for a long time, he says.
“I hate the old timers that hate the business because there’s so many lawyers and accountants and people like that,” Morris said. “I think it’s great, because it protects the artists, protects the customers - the fans, protects everybody.”
For now, he says this fall’s Intro to Music Business class will focus on the industry as it was “the day before the virus went crazy and closed down our whole country.” But it will also make room for the “new normal” yet to be revealed.
“At this point, we don’t know where it’s going, or how long it’s going to last,” Morris said. “And if anybody says so, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”