Mo Ostin, who presided as a top executive at Warner Bros.-Reprise Records for more than three decades during which the artist-friendly label enjoyed a glittering, successful run, died Sunday of natural causes. It was 95.
“Music legend Mo Ostin passed away peacefully in his sleep last night at the age of 95,” Warner Records co-chairman/CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck and co-chairman/COO Tom Corson said in a statement. “Mo was one of the greatest record executives of all time and a leading architect of the modern music business. For Mo, it’s always been about helping artists realize their vision. One of the pivotal figures in the evolution of Warner Music Group, in the 1960s, Mo ushered Warner/Reprise Records into a golden age of revolutionary, culture-changing art. During his next three decades at the label, he remained a tireless champion of creative freedom, both for the talent he nurtured and the people who worked for him. Mo lived an amazing life doing what he loved and will be deeply missed by the entire industry he helped create, and by the countless artists and colleagues he inspired to be their best selves. On behalf of everyone at Warner, we want to thank Mo for all he has done and for his inspiring belief in our bright future. Our condolences to his family at this difficult time.”
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Added Max Lousada, CEO of Warner Recorded Music: “At a time when creative entrepreneurs are celebrated, we celebrate Mo Ostin as a pioneer who wrote the rule book for others to follow. Warner Music Group and Warner Records would not exist without his passion, vision and intelligence. Not only did he help build one of the biggest music companies in the world, he inspired a culture driven by bravery and ingenuity. Mo saw artists as they really were and gave them the space and support to fully realize their originality. Our condolences to Michael and the entire Ostin family. Mo was a legend and will be greatly missed.”
In 1960, Ostin was recruited away from Norman Granz’s Verve Records imprint by Frank Sinatra, who, while failing to buy Verve, was impressed by the 33-year-old company controller’s ability and brought him on as his general manager.
Ostin overcame three years of heavy sales from Reprise’s roster of old-school pop stars and jazz musicians, and moved into a bigger executive role after the label was bought by Warner Bros., the label arm of the Burbank studio.
He quickly began to move Warner-Reprise into step with the times, personally signing the Kinks, already successful in England, in 1964, and inking the Jimi Hendrix Experience, then making noise in the UK, in 1967. (He was not afraid (also bringing in more wacky talent, bringing in artists like Greenwich Village band the Fugs and ukulele-singing singer Tiny Tim.)
Following these signings, Warner-Reprise has assembled the most enviable roster of talent in the music industry. In the late 60s and 70s his acts included Randy Newman, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, The Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Paul Simon and Rod Stewart.
Warner Records Archives
In later years, these top-selling artists were joined by Van Halen, Prince, the Who, Dire Straits, REM, Steely Dan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day and, through a distribution deal with Sire Records, Madonna and Talking Heads.
Ostin was promoted to chairman of Warner-Reprise in 1970 and assumed the position of president/CEO two years later. he would hold the latter title until his departure from the company amid corporate turmoil in 1994.
After the 1969 purchase of Warner-Reprise, Atlantic Records, and Elektra Records by magnate Steve Ross’ Kinney National Services and the rise of Austin, the allied companies, previously sold by a network of independent regional wholesalers, established their own national branch distribution company. known as WEA.
Within five years, WEA commanded nearly a quarter of the US music market and Warner-Reprise was the top label in the country. In 1977, the exclamation mark in the label’s history came with the release of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” which spent 31 weeks at No. 1 domestically and eventually shifted 20 million copies in the US.
Ostin experienced both the record business’s most devastating low (the industry-wide sales crash of 1979) and soaring highs (the boom in sales caused by the commercial introduction of the compact disc in the early 1980s ). However, the finalization of Warner Communications’ merger with Time Inc. in 1990 led to a prolonged period of corporate intrigue and management changes that led to Austin’s departure in 1994.
With his son Michael, a Warner A&R executive, and former Warner A&R head and president Lenny Waronker, Ostin joined DreamWorks Records – the diversified entertainment arm founded by David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg – in 1995.
There, ex-Warner executives sought to build a new roster of cutting-edge talent, and their signings included Elliott Smith, Eels, Morphine, Rufus Wainwright and Nelly Furtado and, at the label’s Nashville division, Toby Keith and Tracy Lawrence. Such Warner standard bearers as Randy Newman and Randy Travis followed them to the label.
However, declining sales led to the sale of the DreamWorks label to distributor Universal Music Group in 2003, and the following year Ostin left the company. He quietly returned to Warner Bros. Records in an advisory capacity in 2006, holding the title of honorary president.
Ostin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2006, he received the Icon Award from the Recording Academy, “in recognition of his contributions to the landscape of contemporary music.”
He was born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky on March 27, 1927 in New York. In 1941 his family moved to Los Angeles, where he attended Fairfax High and led the school’s musical society. He studied economics at UCLA and, through an acquaintance with Norman Grant’s brother Irving, landed a job in finance at Verve in 1953.
Warner Records Archive
He was still with the company when Frank Sinatra lost out to MGM Records in an attempt to buy Verve. After starting Reprise, Sinatra took the advice of attorney Mickey Rudin and hired Ostin to run day-to-day operations for the new imprint.
Although Reprise scored few big hits under Sinatra’s auspices aside from the singer’s own albums, Ostin believed his boss’s vision of a musician-friendly business was the wave of the future.
“He believed that the driving force behind the company should be its artists,” Ostin said in “Exploding,” Stan Cornyn’s 2002 corporate history of Warner Music Group. “It all seems reasonable today, but back then it was truly revolutionary.”
It was a concept that Austin embraced throughout his tenure at the top of Warner. The label’s creative, sometimes risqué signings (many of which were made by Waronker, who installed himself as the label’s president in 1981) were backed by smart, hip marketing (much of it devised by Cornyn, the longtime head of creative of the company) and a strong distribution arm (handled by execs Joel Friedman and Henry Droz).
Under Austin, for decades employment at Warner was considered a lifetime job, but a series of corporate dominoes began to fall after Steve Ross died of cancer in 1992.
Ostin, who previously reported directly to Ross, clashed with newly anointed Warner Music chairman/CEO Robert Morgado. Within months of Morgado’s appointment of former Atlantic Records chief Doug Morris as head of Warner Music’s US operations in July 1994, Ostin announced that he would not be renewing his contract with the label and eventually left of the year.
The following August, he, his son, and Waronker, who had turned down a job offer from Ostin, had joined the fledgling Dreamworks. Ironically, this MCA-distributed label would soon be joined by imprints run by former Warner Music executives Bob Krasnow and Morris, who became head of the fledgling Universal Music Group in 1995.
Warner Records Archives
At the end of his tenure at Warner, Ostin told company historian Cornyn, “In this business, the company must never underestimate the power of its artists. But… while artists are what make a music company, management has some real value – and should never be underestimated.”
In 2011, Ostin donated $10 million to build UCLA’s music facility, the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center. He contributed another $10 million in 2015 to the university’s basketball training facility, the Mo Austin Basketball Center.
Wife Evelyn Ostin died in 2005. Son Randall, an executive in Elektra’s promotion department, died of cancer at age 60 in 2005. He is survived by son Michael. His son Kenny died in 2004.
As news of Austin’s death spread, tributes from across the industry praised his leadership, business acumen and ears.
Universal Music Group chairman Sir Lucian Grainge said: “Mo has been a great mentor. He lived by a set of values that taught me so much about business, how to be a leader, and life. My respect for him both as an executive and as a family man was absolute. His nose for talent was legendary, but he was also an incredible connector of people. something sorely lacking in business – and the world – today. My deepest condolences to Michael and the entire family.”
“Mo Austin was one of a kind,” said Clive Davis. “And the company that he presided over was completely unique in its very special management and, of course, in the depth of the art that influenced contemporary music and culture so deeply and so historically. Yes, he and I were in competition with each other for many years, but my friendship with him extended to our respective families and I will always cherish our very close relationship.”
Songwriter Carole Bayer Sager posted a photo of herself and Ostin:
Flaming Lips manager Scott Booker called Ostin a “visionary”:
Check out more tributes below:
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