I bought itThe legendary label executive who led Warner Brothers Records through a history of both artistic and commercial success for more than 30 years, died in his sleep on July 31 at the age of 95.
Signing and/or working with such acts as The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, REM, Randy Newman and many more, Ostin was “one of the greatest record labels of all time and one of the main architects of the modern music business,” said Tom Corsonco-chairman and chief operating officer of Warner Records, and Aaron Bay-Schuckco-chairman and CEO of Warner Records, in a joint statement.
“For Mo, first and foremost was always helping artists realize their vision,” his statement continues. “One of the seminal figures in the evolution of the Warner Music Group, in the 1960s, he led Warner/Reprise Records into a golden age of revolutionary art that changed culture. During his next three decades on the label, he remained a tireless champion of creative freedom, both because of the talent he cultivated and the people who worked for him. Mo lived an extraordinary life doing what he loved, and he will be sorely missed throughout the 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 confidence in our bright future. Our deepest condolences 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, where he attended Fairfax High School and UCLA. After beginning his career at Verve Records, Ostin was recruited by Frank Sinatra to manage Reprise Records in 1960. Three years later, Warner Bros. Records bought Reprise and Ostin quickly captured the zeitgeist of pop, signing The Kinks. Shortly after, he brought Hendrix, Mitchell and Neil Young to the label.
Ostin became president of Warner Bros. Records in 1970, presiding over the Warner and Reprise labels until retiring as president/CEO in 1994. With an artist-first mentality, the labels became home to an astonishing array of artists. during the following years. 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 of course known, Prince, who signed with the label in 1977.
Although Prince left the label in 1996, after accusing him of “bondage”, only to return in 2014, Ostin considered Prince a genius, comparing him to Sinatra in a 2016 interview with Billboard after Prince’s passing. He recalled the first time he heard Prince and how Warner Bros.’s attitude toward artists, and astute bidding, led Prince to choose the label: “Our head of promotion [at the time], Russ Thyret, got a demo from our Minnesota outreach manager, Owen Husney; he later became Prince’s manager. We were absolutely blown away and wanted to sign him right away. There was a lot of competition because other people knew about him: A&M and Columbia were trying to sign him and he became very competitive. But A&M wanted publication from him and he wouldn’t give up, so he left them. Columbia would only give him a two-LP deal, so we decided we’d give him a three-LP deal because we believe in him so much. And also, because we value artists, he signed with us.”
Many artists stayed close to Ostin for decades, even after he left Warner Brothers, including Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, who paid tribute on Instagram: “Mo Ostin was a true gentleman. He was honest, kind and loved. I am so grateful that he has been a part of my life; his stories, his humor, his love for his work, he’s the best person I’ve ever met in the music business. He made me feel valued, understood and welcomed, when I was a confused kid with so much growing up.”
Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar added a comment on Flea’s Instagram: “Signed some of the greatest artists of all time, nothing but love and respect for Mo Austin…wonderful Flea post.”
Ostin ran Warner Bros. from a multi-story brown clapboard building, nicknamed the Ski Lodge, in Burbank. He made it a haven for creativity, with artists frequently visiting and playing new music. “Rickie Lee Jones came in with a guitar and played about two and a half songs, which was all it took for him to realize he was great.” lenny waronkerWarner Brothers Vice President of A&R, Remembered in a 2019 Billboard oral history about the building before Warner Bros. moved to downtown Los Angeles. “I think it was just Ted Templeman and myself. That was a no-brainer. Van Dyke Parks came to 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…although that may have been in the old building. Once when Russ Titelmann and I were releasing the first Rickie Lee Jones album [in 1979], we had a meeting with her in Russ’s office, which was next door to mine, and she had a new idea for an arrangement for ‘Chuck E.’s in Love,’ which was basically to slow it down. She gave him a real attitude.”
After jac holzmanElektra 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 Y Nesuhi Ertegun he helped form WEA, the global distribution system that handled his releases and brought distribution in-house.
Contemporary with Ostin, creative director of Sony Music Entertainment clive davis, remembers him as a fierce competitor, but closest friend. “Mo Ostin was in a class of his own. And the company that he presided over was totally unique in the very special stewardship of him and, of course, the depth of art that affected contemporary music and culture in such profound and historical ways,” he said in a statement. “Yes, he and I competed against each other for many years, but my friendship with him extended into our respective families and I will always cherish our close relationship.”
Executives a generation after Ostin remember him as an influential force. YouTube/Google Global Head of Music lyor cohenwho served as chairman of Warner Music Group from 2004 to 2012, said Billboard, “The great news is that he lived an amazing life. He was a fabulous husband, father and lived a healthy musical life. My heart goes out to Michael and the family. Let’s celebrate his life by listening to the many artists he supported. We should all be as lucky as Mo!!”
“Mo was a great mentor,” said the president/CEO of Universal Music Group. Luciano Grainge in a sentence. “I lived by a set of values that taught me a lot about business, how to be a leader, and about life. My respect for him as an executive and a family man was total. His ‘nose’ for talent was the stuff of legend, but he was also an incredible connector of people; something that is sorely missed in the business, and in the world, today. My deepest condolences to Michael and the entire family.”
“There will only be one Mo Ostin and we all stand on his shoulders and benefit from his incredible feats,” Merck Mercuriades, co-founder of Hipgnosis, wrote on Instagram. “It is very difficult not to choose his Warner Records as the best label of all time. From @sinatra to @neilyoungarchives an incredible man who impacted the careers of so many legends. None of us today can touch the edge of his mantle. With love to Michael and the Ostin family.”
Max Lousada, CEO of Warner Recorded Music added: “In an era where 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 build one of the best music companies in the world, he inspired a culture fueled 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 sorely missed.”
After his retirement from Warner Bros., Ostin kept busy, including co-founding and running the music division of DreamWorks SKG from 1996 to 2004. Later, he served as a consultant and board member for the schools of music at his alma mater, UCLA, as well as at USC. In 2011, he donated $10 million to UCLA for a new facility called the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center.
Ostin’s wife, Evelyn, and two of their sons, Randy and Kenny, preceded him in death. 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 that he never told any of us how to do our jobs.”
Assistance on this story provided by Dan Rys.