It’s usually the artists who are the best-known names in the music industry, but there have been a handful of executives who have become well-known, such as Clive Davis at Columbia Records and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic. One of the greatest was Mo Ostin, who was recognized as a champion of music and musicians. During his 30-year career at Warner Bros, Ostin, who died at the age of 95, was instrumental in building the careers of many of the most acclaimed artists of his day.
After working for Norman Granz’s Verve jazz label in the mid-1950s, Ostin was chosen by Frank Sinatra to run his Reprise label. After being bought by Warner Bros, Ostin helped bring the Kinks, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, Madonna and Prince into the world, while Paul Simon, Tom Petty and REM also thrived under his sympathetic rule.
By the mid-1970s, Warner-Reprise had become the number one label in the United States, and the WEA group of which it was a part controlled almost a quarter of the American music market. Fleetwood Mac’s 30 million-selling album, Rumors, proved a success for the company.
Another high-profile signing was Neil Young, who inducted Ostin into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. “Mo’s just the greatest,” Young said, “and he brought something into my life that made a big difference, and that was creative freedom.”
In response, Ostin described the key lesson he had learned: “It is a business of creativity, risk-taking and passion, and, in the struggle between art and commerce, the artist must l ‘carry.”
He was born in New York as Morris Ostrofsky, Berta (née Shaffer) and Abraham Ostrofsky, who had fled Russia to escape the Bolshevik Revolution. When he was 13, he moved with his parents and brother, Gerald, to Los Angeles, where they lived in the Fairfax neighborhood and ran a small fresh produce market.
Ostin attended Fairfax High School, where he ran the music company, then went to UCLA to study economics. His introduction to the music industry came from family neighbor Irving Granz, whose brother Norman ran the jazz label Clef Records. While still in college, Ostin traveled with Granz’s Jazz on Philharmonic concerts, selling programs. He had earned his degree in economics, but then dropped out of UCLA law school to become a controller at Clef. The label was renamed Verve and was home to jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.
In 1960, Ostin found himself hunted by Sinatra, who, after unsuccessfully trying to buy Verve, recruited him as general manager of his new label, Reprise. Sinatra aside, Reprise’s roster centered on Sinatra’s Rat Pack buddies and seemed outdated, but broader horizons opened up when Reprise was purchased by Warner Bros.
Ostin’s ears were well aware of the revolutionary upheavals that were transforming the music industry, as he demonstrated by signing the Kinks in 1964. The group scored six Top 40 hits in the United States at the end of 1965.
In 1967 he signed Jimi Hendrix, when the guitarist had barely heard of it outside of Britain. Other far-sighted additions were Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull and the Grateful Dead. While Sinatra was never able to learn to love rock ‘n’ roll music, Ostin appreciated how “Frank’s idea was to create an environment that, both artistically and economically, would be more appealing to the audience. artist that anyone else had to offer… One of the great things about Warners, I always thought, was our priority and the priority was always the music.
Assisted by his A&R manager, Lenny Waronker, who assembled an impressive talent scouting team including Ted Templeman, Russ Titelman and Gary Katz (known for his production work on Steely Dan albums), Ostin was able to develop a roster that included many distinctive and influential artists. Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell and Taylor lined up alongside Bonnie Raitt, Van Dyke Parks, Little Feat and Van Morrison, while Young became almost an internal talisman at Reprise, his aura attracting other gifted artists to the label. By 1970, Ostin had become chairman and CEO of Warner-Reprise, a position he held until 1994.
Ostin’s magnetism ensured artists kept making their way to his doorstep – he ran the Warner-Reprise operation from the so-called “Ski Lodge”, a multi-level wooden building at Burbank – with Van Halen, ZZ Top, the B-52s, George Benson, Petty, Simon, REM, Rickie Lee Jones, Rod Stewart and Dire Straits among them. A distribution deal with Sire Records also brought Madonna, the Ramones and Talking Heads into the fold.
Ostin was particularly proud to have signed Prince in 1977, when the budding superstar was 19 years old. Ostin recalled how they heard a demo tape of Prince “and we were absolutely blown away and wanted to sign him immediately. There was a lot of competition because other people knew him…Because we value artists, he signed with us.
In 1994, Ostin’s era at Warners began to draw to a close as he found himself in a power struggle with Robert Morgado, the chairman of what was now known as Warner Music Group. Ostin resigned, temporarily throwing Warners into chaos. “Warner is now a different company than the one I was raised in,” Ostin explained. “And in the end, I found it impossible to operate in that kind of environment.”
In 1995 Ostin, Waronker and Ostin’s son Michael joined the new management team of DreamWorks SKG Records, part of the entertainment monolith created by David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. However, despite signing Rufus Wainwright, George Michael and Nelly Furtado, the label failed to live up to its potential. Ostin retired from the music industry in 2004, after being sold to Universal Music Group. In 2006, he took on a consulting role at Warner Bros. Records, with the title of Chairman Emeritus.
Ostin’s wife, Evelyn (née Bardavid), whom he married in 1948, died in 2005. Two of their sons, Randy and Kenny, also predeceased him. Ostin is survived by Michael and Gerald.