Mo Ostinthe legendary label executive who steered Warner Brothers Records through a period of both artistic and commercial success for more than 30 years, died in his sleep on July 31, aged 95.
Ostin, who signed and/or worked with such bands at The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, REM, Randy Newman and many more, was “one of the greatest record players of all time and a leading architect of the modern music industry,” said Tom Corsonco-chairman and COO, Warner Records, and Aaron Bay-Schuckco-chairman and CEO of Warner Records, in a joint statement.
“For Mo, it was always first and foremost about helping artists realize their vision,” their statement continues. “One of the pivotal figures in the evolution of Warner Music Group, in the 1960s Mo ushered Warner/Reprise Records into a golden era of groundbreaking art and culture change. Over his next three decades Within the label, he remained a tireless champion of creative freedom, both for the talent he nurtured and for the people who worked for him. Mo lived an extraordinary life doing what he loved, and will be deeply missed by the entire industry he helped create, as well as the countless artists and colleagues he inspired to be their best. On behalf of everyone at Warner, we would like to thank Mo for all he has done and for his inspiring faith in our bright future. Our condolences go out to his family at this difficult time.”
Ostin, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and received a Recording Academy Trustees Award in 2017, was born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky in New York and moved to Los Angeles, attending Fairfax High School and UCLA . After beginning his career at Verve Records, Ostin was recruited by Frank Sinatra to run his Reprise Records in 1960. Three years later, Warner Bros. Records bought Reprise and Ostin quickly captured the pop zeitgeist, signing The Kinks. Soon after, he brought Hendrix, Mitchell and Neil Young to the label.
Ostin became chairman of Warner Bros. Records in 1970, presiding over the Warner and Reprise imprints until his retirement as Chairman/CEO in 1994. With an artist-first mentality, the labels became home to an astonishing range of artists over the of the next. his tenure, including Van Halen, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, the B-52s, Paul Simon, ZZ Top, George Benson, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Green Day, Van Dyke Parks, Dire Straits, Chaka Khan and, famously, Prince, who signed with the label in 1977.
Although Prince left the label in 1996, after accusing it of “slavery,” only to return in 2014, Ostin considered Prince a genius, comparing him to Sinatra in a 2016 interview with Billboard after Prince passed away. He recalled the first time he heard from Prince and how the attitude of Warner Bros. to artists – and a wise offer – led Prince to choose the label: “Our promotion manager [at the time], Russ Tyret, got a demo from our Minnesota promotion agent, Owen Husney — he later became Prince’s manager. We were absolutely blown away and wanted to sign him immediately. There was a lot of competition because other people knew him – A&M and Columbia were trying to sign him, and it got very competitive. But A&M wanted his publications and he wouldn’t give up on them, so he passed them on. Columbia would only give him a two-LP deal, so we decided to give him a three-LP deal because we believe in him so strongly. And also, because we appreciate artists, he signed with us.
Ostin ran Warner Bros. from a multi-story brown wooden building, nicknamed the Ski Lodge, in Burbank. He has made it a haven of creativity, with artists often coming to visit and play new music. “Rickie Lee Jones came in with a guitar and played about two and a half songs, which was all it took to realize she was awesome,” Lenny WaronkerWarner Brothers vp of A&R, recalled in a 2019 Billboard oral history about the building before Warner Bros. doesn’t move to downtown Los Angeles. “I think it was just Ted Templeman and myself. It was obvious. Van Dyke Parks came into my office before his first record, when he was working with Brian Wilson. He had his stuff, and to me it was amazing, him sitting at the piano…even though it might be in the old building. Once, when Russ Titelman and I released the first record of Rickie Lee Jones [in 1979], we had a meeting with her in Russ’s office, which was adjacent to mine, and she had a new arrangement idea for “Chuck E.’s in Love,” which was basically slowing him down. It gave him a real attitude.
After Jac Holzman‘s Elektra Records became part of the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts company (after Warner Brothers Records and Atlantic Records), the founders of Ostin, Holzman and Atlantic Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun helped form WEA, the global distribution system that handled their releases and brought distribution in-house.
Contemporary of Ostin, Creative Director of Sony Music Entertainment Clive Davis, remembers him as a fierce competitor, but a closer friend. “Mo Ostin was one of a kind. And the society he presided over was totally unique in its very special management and, of course, the depth of artistry that has affected contemporary music and culture so profoundly and so historically,” he said in a statement. “Yes, he and I competed for many years, but my friendship with him extended to our respective families and I will always treasure our very close relationship.”
Leaders of a generation after Ostin remember him as an influential force. Global Head of YouTube/Google Music Lyor Cohenwho was chairman of Warner Music Group from 2004 to 2012, said Billboard“The good news is that he lived an amazing life. He was a fabulous husband and father and lived a healthy musical life. My thoughts are with Michael and the family. Let’s celebrate his life by listening to the many artists he has supported. We should all be as lucky as Mo!!”
“Mo was a great mentor,” said Universal Music Group Chairman and CEO Lucien Grainge in a report. “He lived by a set of values that taught me a lot about business, about being a leader, and about life. My respect for him as an executive and a family man was total. His ‘nose’ for talent was legendary, but he was also an incredible people connector, something sorely lacking in the company – and the world – today My deepest condolences to Michael and the entire family.
“There will only ever be one Mo Ostin and we all stand on his shoulders and benefit from his incredible achievements,” Hipgnosis, co-founder of Merck Mercuriades, wrote on Instagram. “It’s very hard not to choose his Warner Records as the greatest label of all time. From @sinatra to @neilyoungarchives, an incredible man who marked the careers of so many legends. None of us today can touch the hem of his garment. Love to Michael and the Ostin family.
Max Lousada, CEO of Warner Recorded Music added, “At a time when creative entrepreneurs are revered, we celebrate Mo Ostin as a trailblazer who wrote the rule book for others to follow. Warner Music Group and Warner Records would not exist without his passion, vision and intelligence. He not only helped create one of the greatest music companies in the world, but he also inspired a culture driven by bravery and ingenuity. Mo saw the artists for who they really were and gave them the space and support to fully realize their originality. Our condolences to [Mo’s son] Michael and the entire Ostin family. Mo was a legend and he will be deeply missed.
After retiring from Warner Bros., Ostin kept busy, including co-founding and leading the music division of DreamWorks SKG from 1996 to 2004. He later served as a consultant and board member for music schools in his alma mater, UCLA, as well as USC. In 2011, he donated $10 million to UCLA for a new facility called Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center.
Ostin’s wife, Evelyn, and two of his sons, Randy and Kenny, predeceased him. He is survived by his son, Michael.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Ostin’s understated style comes from former Warner Brothers executive Stan Cornyn, who praised Ostin during his Rock Hall induction for trusting the people he hired. to work their magic under him: “Mo was brilliant. So brilliant, he never told us how to do our job.
Assistance on this story provided by Dan Rys.
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