Mo Ostin, Longtime Warner Bros. Records Chief, Dies at 95

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Mo Ostin, who presided as a top executive at Warner Bros.-Reprise Records for more than three decades, during which the artist-friendly company enjoyed a glittering, hit-making run, died Sunday of natural causes. He was 95.

“Legendary music executive Mo Ostin passed away peacefully in his sleep last night at the age of 95,” said Warner Records’ co-chairman/CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck and co-chairman/COO Tom Corson. “Mo was one of the greatest record men of all time, and a prime architect of the modern music business. For Mo, it was always first and foremost 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 era of revolutionary, culture-shifting artistry. Over 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 extraordinary life doing what he loved, and he will be deeply missed throughout the industry he helped create, and by the countless artists and colleagues whom he inspired to be their best selves. On behalf of everyone at Warner, we want to thank Mo for everything he did, and for his inspiring belief in our bright future. Our condolences go out to his family at this difficult time.”

Added Max Lousada, CEO of Warner Recorded Music: “In an era when creative entrepreneurs are revered, we celebrate Mo Ostin as a pioneer who wrote the rulebook for others to follow. Warner Music Group and Warner Records wouldn’t exist without his passion, vision, and intelligence. He not only helped build one of the world’s greatest music companies, but he inspired a culture driven by bravery and ingenuity. Mo saw artists for who they really were and gave them the space and support to fully realize their originality. Our condolences to Michael and the whole Ostin family. Mo was a legend, and he will be deeply missed.”

In 1960, Ostin was hired away from Norman Granz’s imprint Verve Records by Frank Sinatra, who, while he failed to purchase Verve, was impressed by the savvy of the label’s 33-year-old controller and brought him on board as his general manager.

Ostin weathered three years of humdrum sales by Reprise’s roster of old-school pop stars and jazz musicians, and moved into a larger 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 a hit in England, in 1964, and inking the Jimi Hendrix Experience, then making noise in the U.K., in 1967. (He was unafraid to bring on more eccentric talents as well, bringing in performers such as the freewheeling Greenwich Village band the Fugs and the trilling, ukulele-strumming singer Tiny Tim.)

In the wake of those signings, Warner-Reprise accumulated the most envied talent roster in the music business. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s it numbered among its acts 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, R.E.M., Steely Dan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day, and, via a distribution deal with Sire Records, Madonna and Talking Heads.

Ostin was promoted to the presidency of Warner-Reprise in 1970 and assumed the post of chairman/CEO two years later; he would hold the latter title until his exit from the company amid corporate tumult in 1994.

Following the 1969 purchase of Warner-Reprise, Atlantic Records and Elektra Records by parking magnate Steve Ross’ Kinney National Services and Ostin’s ascent, the allied labels, previously sold by a network of independent regional wholesalers, established their own national branch distribution firm, ultimately known as WEA.

Within five years, WEA commanded nearly a quarter of the U.S. music market, and Warner-Reprise was the top label in the country. In 1977, the exclamation point in the label’s history came with the release of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” which spent 31 weeks at No. 1 domestically and ultimately shifted 20 million copies in the U.S.

Ostin witnessed both the record business’ most devastating low (the industry-wide sales crash of 1979) and its skyrocketing high (the sales explosion spurred by the commercial introduction of the compact disc in the early ‘80s). However, the finalization of Warner Communications’ merger with Time Inc. in 1990 led to a protracted period of corporate intrigue and executive changes that led to Ostin’s departure in 1994.

With his son Michael, a Warner A&R executive, and former Warner A&R chief and president Lenny Waronker, Ostin joined DreamWorks Records – the label arm of the diversified entertainment company founded by David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg – in 1995.

There the ex-Warner execs tried to build a new roster of cutting-edge talent, and their signings included Elliott Smith, Eels, Morphine, Rufus Wainwright and Nelly Furtado and, in 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 exited the company. He quietly returned to Warner Bros. Records in a consulting capacity in 2006, holding the title of chairman emeritus.

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 honor of his contribution to the landscape of modern 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 headed the school’s music society. He studied economics at UCLA, and, via an acquaintance with Norman Granz’s brother Irving, landed a finance job at Verve in 1953.

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Mo Ostin with the Rat Pack Warner Records Archive

He was still with the company when Frank Sinatra lost out to MGM Records in a bid to purchase Verve. After starting up Reprise, Sinatra took attorney Mickey Rudin’s advice and hired Ostin to head day-to-day business for the new imprint.

Though Reprise scored few major hits under Sinatra’s aegis besides the singer’s own albums, Ostin believed that his boss’ vision of a musician-friendly operation was the wave of the future.

“He divined that the thrust of the company should be its artists,” Ostin said in “Exploding,” Stan Cornyn’s 2002 corporate history of Warner Music Group. “It all seems logical today, but back then it was truly revolutionary.”

It was an idea that Ostin embraced throughout his tenure at the top of Warner. The company’s creative, sometimes risky signings (many of them made by Waronker, who was installed as president of the label in 1981) were supported by smart, hip marketing (much of it concocted by Cornyn, the firm’s longtime head of creative services) and a powerful distribution arm (operated by execs Joel Friedman and Henry Droz).

Under Ostin, for decades employment at Warner was considered a job for life, but a series of corporate dominoes began falling following Steve Ross’ death from cancer in 1992.

Ostin, who had previously reported directly to Ross, came into conflict with the newly anointed Warner Music chairman/CEO Robert Morgado. Within months of Morgado’s appointment of former Atlantic Records chief Doug Morris to head Warner Music’s U.S. operations in July 1994, Ostin announced he would not renew his contract with the company, and exited at the end of the year.

The following August, he, his son and Waronker, who had rejected an offer of Ostin’s job, had joined the start-up Dreamworks. Ironically, that MCA-distributed label would soon be joined by imprints operated by former Warner Music execs Bob Krasnow and Morris, who became head of the newly minted Universal Music Group in 1995.

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Warner Records Archives

At the end of his tenure at Warner, Ostin told company historian Cornyn, “In this business, the company should never underestimate the power of its artists. But…while artists are what a music company is made up of, management has some real value – and it should never be underestimated.”

In 2011, Ostin donated $10 million for the construction of 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 Ostin Basketball Center.

Wife Evelyn Ostin died in 2005; his son Randall, an exec in Elektra’s promotion department, died of cancer at 60 in 2005. He is survived by his son Michael. His son Kenny died in 2004.

As news of Ostin’s death spread, tributes from across the industry praised his leadership, business savvy and ears.

Said Universal Music Group chairman Sir Lucian Grainge: “Mo was a great mentor. He lived by a set of values that taught me so much about business, and how to be a leader, and about life.  My respect for him as both an executive and family man was total.  His ‘nose’ for talent was the stuff of legend, but he was also an incredible connector of people; something sorely missed in the business — and the world — today. My deepest condolences to Michael and the entire family”.

Songwriter Carole Bayer Sager posted a photo of herself and Ostin:

Flaming Lips manager Scott Booker called Ostin a “visionary”: