Mo Ostin, Legendary Warner Bros Records Executive, Dies At 95
Mo Ostin, the legendary label executive who led Warner Brothers Records through a storied time of both artistic and commercial success for more than 30 years, died in his sleep on 31 July at the age of 95.
Ostin, who signed and/or worked with such acts at The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, R.E.M., Randy Newman and many more, was “one of the greatest record men of all time, and a prime architect of the modern music business,” said Tom Corson, co-chairman and COO, Warner Records, and Aaron Bay-Schuck, co-chairman and CEO, 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 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.”
Mo Ostin, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and who received a Trustees Award from the Recording Academy in 2017, was born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky in New York and moved to Los Angeles, attending Fairfax High School and UCLA. After starting 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. Quickly thereafter, 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 imprints until he retired as chairman/CEO in 1994. With an artist-first mentality, the labels became the home to an astonishing range of artists over the next during 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.
Though Prince left the label in 1996, after accusing it of “slavery,” only to return in 2014, Mo Ostin regarded Prince as a genius, comparing him to Sinatra in a 2016 interview with Billboard following Prince’s passing. He recalled the first time he heard Prince and how Warner Bros’ attitude towards artists–and a canny offer– led to Prince choosing the label:
“Our head of promotion [at the time], Russ Thyret, got a demo from our promotion guy in Minnesota, 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 about him — A&M and Columbia were trying to sign him, and it became very competitive. But A&M wanted his publishing and he wouldn’t give it up, so he passed on them. Columbia would only give him a two-LP deal, so we decided that we would give him a three-LP deal because we believe in him so strongly. And also, because we valued artists, he signed with us.”
Many artists stayed close with 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 beloved. I am so grateful that he was a part of my life; his stories, his humour, his love for his work, he is the greatest person I ever met in the music business. He made me feel valued, understood, and welcome, when I was a confused kid with a lot of growing up to do.”
Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar added a comment on Flea’s Instagram, “Signed some of the greatest artist of all time nothing but love and respect for Mo Austin…wonderful post Flea.”