Mo Ostin, the hugely influential music executive who led Warner Bros. Records for over 30 years, died aged 95.
Born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky in 1927, the future music mogul spent his early childhood in New York, before he and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1941. In 1953, after studying economics at UCLA, he earned a job at Verve Records working in the Financial Department. Seven years later, following a failed attempt to buy Verve, legendary singer Frank Sinatra launched his own label, Reprise, and hired Ostin to run it. In 1963, Reprise was purchased by Warner Bros.
Ostin quickly made a name for himself at Warner Bros., signing the Kinks in 1964 and the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1967. In 1970 he was promoted to president of Warner-Reprise; two years later, he would become chairman and chief executive – a title he held until leaving the company in 1994.
Under Ostin’s watch, Warner Bros. amassed a client list that included some of music’s biggest artists including Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen, The Who, Van Morrison, The Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Rod Stewart, REM, Steely Dan , Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day.
Ostin gained a reputation for his artist-friendly approach, something he said he gleaned while working for Sinatra. “He guessed that the thrust of the business should be his artists,” Ostin explained in the 2002 book. Blast. “Everything seems logical today, but at the time it was really revolutionary.”
Although prolific, Ostin’s tenure at Warner Bros. hasn’t always been easy. The label was notably going through a tumultuous period in the early 90s, following the merger of Warner Communications and Time Inc. It was also around this time that Prince began a highly publicized feud with the label, angry that he had no control over the rate at which they released his material. Amid this storm, Ostin decided to leave the company he had helped run for more than three decades.
The famous executive left Warner Bros. in 1994 and hooked up with DreamWorks Records less than a year later. The upstart label has made a name for itself signing an eclectic lineup of artists, including Elliott Smith, Henry Rollins, Eels, Papa Roach, Jimmy Eat World, Rufus Wainwright and Nelly Furtado. Yet by 2003 declining sales and the dawn of online music piracy had had an effect and DreamWorks Records was sold to Universal Music and eventually disbanded.
Ostin was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 by Neil Young, Paul Simon and Saturday Night Live designer Lorne Michaels. “Anyone who was on Warner Bros. during the Mo years knew it was an exhilarating time,” Simon said at the ceremony, “except maybe Prince.”
“I love Mo,” Young added. “This man, Mo Ostin, was behind the music. He was behind his achievement. He was behind it happening, but it was going to happen. And he was behind that happening. And that’s why Reprise and Warner Bros. were the biggest music label of all time as far as I was concerned.
When news of Ostin’s passing became public, many music industry insiders paid their respects. In a joint statement, Warner Records Co-Chairman/CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck and Co-Chairman/COO Tom Corson described Ostin as “one of the greatest record-makers of all time and a leading architect of the music industry. modern music”. For Mo, it was always first and foremost about helping artists realize their vision. Max Lousada, CEO of Warner Recorded Music, called Ostin a “pioneer who wrote the rule book for others to follow”, while Universal Music Group Chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge noted that his ” nose for talent was a legend, but he was also an incredible people connector; something sorely lacking in the company – and the world – today.
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