Ted Cohen is an unlikely rock star. The 56-year-old computer fanatic and former Microsoft consultant has a high-pitched giggle and thinning...

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Ted Cohen is an unlikely rock star.

The 56-year-old computer fanatic and former Microsoft consultant has a high-pitched giggle and thinning gray hair.

Instead of slinging a guitar over his shoulder, Cohen carries a backpack filled with nine cellphones, three iPods, two portable video players and enough wires, cables and tape to mummify Mariah Carey.

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At 5-foot-8 and 240 pounds, he will never be mistaken for one of the crooning waifs on MTV.

But among music executives, Cohen is something of an American Idol.

As senior vice president of digital development at global music giant EMI Group, home of Coldplay and the Rolling Stones, Cohen has been in on the ground floor of dozens of online music ventures, including Apple Computer’s iTunes Music Store.

And he’s one of the most sought-after speakers on the recording industry’s endless conference-and-gala circuit.

During a recent symposium in Santa Monica, Calif., so many people wanted a moment of Cohen’s time that he resorted to holding back-to-back meetings in a hallway, where petitioners stood in line to win a brief audience with him.

“Ted is very high profile,” said Mitch Bainwol, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America. “He’s part ambassador and part evangelist.”

Tech star rising

Cohen’s celebrity is surprising, even to him. For decades, technologists were relegated to the lower levels of the music business. Then, in the late 1990s, when computer networks such as Napster made music easy to steal, techies became outright pariahs.

But now, after a half-decade of fighting high-tech change, the recording industry is rushing to embrace it.

As consumers spend billions of dollars downloading songs and ringtones online and via cellphones, music executives have become desperate to convince Wall Street that they understand the Internet marketplace.

Suddenly, Cohen and other tech-savvy executives capable of translating between Silicon Valley and Tin Pan Alley are essential.

The once-spurned geeks are becoming some of the music world’s most respected leaders, and as they ascend, they are changing the industry’s culture.

“What Ted is working on is embedded in everything we do as a company now,” said David Munns, CEO of EMI Recorded Music North America.

Such change was on display last month, when Cohen joined a panel on innovations in music distribution.

One by one, speakers from the nation’s largest music, computer and peer-to-peer corporations launched into serious forecasts of the industry’s bleak future. Cohen managed to keep quiet for almost three minutes before the dire predictions proved too much.

“Listen to this!” he said, cuing the Beatles’ “Help!” on his cellphone. “Isn’t that great?” he shouted into the microphone.

“The future has never been more exciting!” he told the room. “We’re going to figure out how to make this work!”

When the panel ended, people rushed the stage like groupies at a concert.

“Ted has made music fun again,” said Gabe Adiv of Gracenote, a music software company, as he looked on.

A history of worries

Music’s love-hate relationship with technology is as old as the recording industry itself.

It began in the early 1900s, when songwriters, fearing for their jobs, begged the federal government to outlaw what they called “ungodly machines” — player pianos.

Instead of criminalizing the new invention, Congress created the copyright system that exists today, and songwriters relented when they began receiving royalty checks.

It was the start of a pattern: Innovation led to panic, which slowly turned to celebration when profits soared. In the ’50s, recording executives said FM radio would kill the music industry.

Then they discovered that broadcasts helped sell albums. In the ’70s, record companies warned that cassette tapes would make piracy rampant. Then Sony released the Walkman and music sales hit new heights.

In the 1980s and ’90s, some insiders cautioned that the compact disc would make it easier for listeners to steal perfect copies.

But when sales skyrocketed, the industry embraced the new format. By 1999, music corporations were larger than ever, earning $14.6 billion and growing at 6 percent a year.

But disaster loomed. As computer users began trading illegal copies of songs online, music sales began a free-fall that has yet to hit bottom.

Cohen was about to find himself in the right place at precisely the right time.

An early adopter of technology and a music fanatic, he’d begun collecting clunky reel-to-reel recordings and computer prototypes in high school. Working as a concert promoter in those days, he hoped to accomplish what were then his two goals: learning how to be cool, and earning enough money to buy the gadgets that fascinated him.

After dropping out of Ithaca College after his junior year in 1968, Cohen scored a low-level job with a record label accompanying rock stars such as Alice Cooper and the band Van Halen on tour.

But he failed to vault up the corporate ladder.

“Technology was not seen as a good career move,” he recalled. “You got promoted by finding the next hot band or schmoozing with DJs.”

Cohen kept at it, visiting computer companies in his spare time. In the late 1970s, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, co-founders of an upstart company called Apple Computer, couldn’t get record executives to return their calls.

Cohen, then charged with learning about new gizmos for Warner Music, helped trade a stereo for one of the first Apple computer systems. Cohen spent much of the 1990s working on interactive videos at technology giant Philips Consumer Electronics, then became an independent consultant, helping computer companies such as Microsoft, Amazon.com and Liquid Audio sell music online.

Then, in 1999, he was offered the CEO position at the new peer-to-peer music company named Napster.

He accepted a job at EMI instead, but the message was clear: Being a techie had suddenly become an asset.

Since peer-to-peer music sharing networks became popular in 1999, U.S. shipments of recorded music have dropped by more than 30 percent, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, and U.S. music sales have fallen or remained flat every year.

Seeing bright future

In 2001, Cohen urged EMI to be the first company to make its entire repertoire available to newly created digital music services.

The next year, Cohen helped EMI cement distribution deals with nine Internet companies, more than any other major company.

EMI also was the first among its rivals to allow listeners to download permanent copies of songs, transfer tunes to portable music players and make copies to blank CDs.

Cohen helped hammer out the licensing agreements upon which the iTunes Music Store was built.

This year, EMI released a new song by the band Coldplay via cellular phones, offered listeners “podcasts” from the band OK Go and launched download services in China and Latin America.

Then, in September, Cohen negotiated to release the Rolling Stones’ latest album on a memory card playable on mobile phones and computers.

“The only way we win is if we’re willing to try everything,” Cohen said.

EMI’s operating profit has declined in each of the last three years. And although U.S. digital music sales are growing, they still have not offset the decline in CD purchases.

So far no company has provided an online service compelling enough to drive most music fans away from file-sharing networks that offer free, illegal downloads.

But to hear Cohen talk, the future has never been brighter.

The other day, when three executives from a cellphone technology company arrived at his office for a visit, they found Cohen sitting under a “sound dome” speaker the size of a manhole cover.

Gold-plated records hung on his walls, just as you’d expect. But there were also the trappings of a techno-geek: a huge video game terminal, a refrigerator full of Red Bull and a baseball cap that read simply, “Napster.”

When Cohen received an e-mail from EMI’s chairman, Eric Nicoli, he laughed then shared it with the room.

“It says, ‘I have no opinion. Once you tell me what the answer is, then I’ll have an opinion,’ ” Cohen said giddily.

Not so long ago, EMI’s chairman would not have known Cohen existed, much less sought out his counsel.

Now, after years of waiting, Cohen is improbably cool.

He turned to his guests, his face flushed.

“OK!” he said. “Let’s invent a new business!”