NEW YORK – Mo Ostin, a self-effacing giant of the music business who with rare integrity presided over Warner Bros. Records’ rise to a sprawling, billion-dollar empire and helped discover and nurture artists from Jimi Hendrix to Green Day, has died. He was 95.
Warner Records said Ostin, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, died Sunday “peacefully in his sleep.” In a statement, the company called him “one of the greatest record men of all time.”
“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,” said Tom Corson, co-chairman and COO, and Aaron Bay-Schuck, co-chairman and CEO, in the statement.
Short and bald and mild in demeanor, “Chairman Mo” was never as famous as such rival moguls as Clive Davis or Walter Yetnikoff, but few equaled his power or prestige as rock music officially became big business. For decades, Ostin thrived on the simple, underused idea of taking on talented and original performers and letting them remain talented and original, whether Hendrix and Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Paul Simon, or R.E.M. and Green Day.
“Mo Ostin was one of a kind,” Davis tweeted. “The company he chaired was truly unique in its very special management of artists and the extraordinary depth and range of talent on its roster. Mo’s artists deeply impacted contemporary music and culture profoundly and historically.”
Under Ostin’s leadership, Warner signed Hendrix when the guitarist was hardly known beyond the London club scene, Fleetwood Mac when they were a blues act and the Grateful Dead when their legend was confined to the Bay Area. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Harrison, Nirvana, Madonna, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Prince, R.E.M. and Guns N’ Roses were among the other performers who joined Warner during his reign.
“Intimidation is not the answer,” Ostin, in a rare interview, told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. “I don’t know why, but corporate people have a tendency to think in terms of immediate gratification. Sure, you can squeeze another dollar out of anything, but that’s not what makes a record company run profitably.”
He also assembled an elite and trusted team of executives, including producer-Warner president Lenny Waronker and advertising-marketing head Stan Cronyn. David Geffen, whose Geffen label was distributed by Warner, would eventually hire Ostin to run the DreamWorks music division.
Ostin started at Warner in 1963, became president in 1970, chairman soon after and rarely faltered over the next quarter century as the once-marginal label eventually included Elektra, Atlantic, Sire, Geffen’s Asylum and Madonna’s Maverick Records among others. With corporations finally embracing the music they once disdained, Warner competed fiercely with CBS Records — and its leader, Yetnikoff — for industry leadership. Ostin’s prime was an era of high-level bidding and poaching, whether Warner’s taking Simon from Columbia or Columbia’s convincing Taylor to leave Warner.
Ostin was praised for his judgment and for his patience, sticking with artists such as Simon and Van Morrison even when their albums didn’t sell. He even inspired some songs, including Young’s “Surfer Joe” and Harrison’s playful ballad “Mo,” featured on a six-CD compilation of music that Ostin had helped release.
His ouster in 1994 led to new tributes. “Mo, Mo, why do you have to go?/You’re the first record company guy/That looked me in the eye,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea wrote. Numerous artists and executives left Warner after his departure.
Ostin did have occasional conflicts with artists. Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac would recall his unhappiness when the group followed its mega-selling “Rumours” album with the experimental double record, “Tusk.” Some of Prince’s greatest hits, including his “Purple Rain” and “1999” albums, came out through Warner. But Prince fought with the company over control of his master tapes and how much music he could release. For a time he changed his name, and was called The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. He appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek.
“It bugged me, but I understood where he was coming from,” Ostin told Billboard in 2016, adding that he remained in awe of the late musician. “The guy was so unbelievably talented it was overwhelming.”
Born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky in New York City in 1927, Ostin was the able and lucky son of Jewish immigrants. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was 13 and ended up next door to the brother of jazz impresario Norman Granz, whose Verve label included Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Parker. While an undergraduate at UCLA, Ostin helped Granz sell concert programs and he dropped out of UCLA law school in the mid-1950s to manage the finances at Verve (called Clef at the time).
Ostin fit well into Verve’s sympathetic environment and was noticed by a superstar who in the late ’50s had attempted to buy the label: Frank Sinatra. When Sinatra instead formed his own company, Reprise, he brought in Ostin to run it.
“Frank’s whole idea was to create an environment which both artistically and economically would be more attractive for the artist than anybody else had to offer,” Ostin, who shortened his name soon after entering the record business, told the LA Times. “That wasn’t how it was anywhere else. You had financial guys, lawyers, marketing guys.”
But Ostin became frustrated by Sinatra’s aversion to rock music and moved over to Warner, which had purchased Reprise. He signed up one of Britain’s hot new bands, the Kinks, and followed over the next few years with Hendrix, the Dead, Morrison and others. He took on heavy metal acts (Black Sabbath), light pop (The Association), country rock (the Allman Brothers), comedians (Steve Martin) and novelty performers (Tiny Tim).
His good name and deeds helped him again and again. When Gene Simmons of Kiss learned of an upcoming band from the Los Angeles area, he alerted Ostin and Van Halen soon had a record deal. In 1990, Ostin was outbid for the Chili Peppers by Sony/Epic, but still called singer-writer Anthony Kiedis to wish him well. Kiedis was so surprised that the band ended up dropping Sony and moving to Warner.
Ostin had a close relationship with corporate boss Steve Ross, president of Kinney National Services when the former parking company purchased Warner in 1969. But Ross died of cancer in 1992 and Ostin clashed with Warner Music Group Chairman Bob Morgado, who believed that the company needed to cut expenses.
A breaking point was rapper Ice-T’s single “Cop Killer,” which led to widespread demands that it be pulled, the critics including law enforcement agencies, actor-conservative activist Charlton Heston and then-President George H.W. Bush. Ice-T left Warner in 1993 after agreeing not to put the song on his most recent album and the fallout was widely believed to have weakened Ostin’s standing.
In 1995, Geffen convinced Ostin and Waronker to head the music division of the newly-formed DreamWorks company. George Michael, Nelly Furtado and comedian Chris Rock were among the artists signed before DreamWorks was purchased by Universal Music in 2003.
In recent years, Ostin was a consultant at Warners and donated $10 million to UCLA to help establish the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center, named in part for his wife of 55 years, Evelyn, who died in 2005. Their three sons — Michael, Kenny and Randy — all have been Warner executives. Randy died of cancer at age 60 in 2013.
Mo Ostin was voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, with Young and Simon serving as his presenters. In 2014, he received a Grammy “Icon” award for lifetime achievement, honored as “a true pioneer of the contemporary music era whose life’s work has had a profound impact on the artists he has helped develop and the fans around the world who have benefited from their inspired creativity.”