Mo Ostin, music executive who shaped the industry, has died

Mo Ostin, the music executive who helped transform Warner Bros. Records into one of the most admired music labels in the world and who has earned the respect and enduring loyalty of musicians from Los Angeles to London for his artist-friendly philosophy, died Sunday. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by multiple sources close to the executive branch. The cause of death was age-related.

During his 31-year career at Warner Bros., Ostin championed changes that would help the then-small record label challenge and ultimately surpass industry leaders in the ’60s and ’70s, an era of adventurous and diverse music styles. From Frank Sinatra to Jimi Hendrix to Prince, Ostin has signed a variety of musicians to the label and then given them the freedom they needed to be creative.

But by the late 1990s, with downloads replacing actual recording and piracy eroding industry margins, Ostin resented the growing corporate culture at Warner Bros. and left, only to find himself with former rival David Geffen at DreamWorks a year later to unite and return as a dominant figure in the recorded music industry.

“Unlike other executives we spoke to, Mo seemed genuinely interested in our music,” former REM bassist Mike Mills told The Times. “But the best thing about him was that he seemed honest. So we trusted him and it paid off – hugely.”

A man playing guitar sings into a microphone

Jimi Hendrix.

(Ken Davidoff / Authentic Hendrix)

Born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky on March 27, 1927 in New York City, Ostin’s parents were both immigrants who fled Russia during the Revolution. Ostin was 13 when he and his family, including his younger brother Gerald, moved to Los Angeles and opened a tiny grocery store near the Fairfax Theater.

Ostin attended Fairfax High School and then UCLA, where he earned a degree in economics. He attended UCLA Law School but dropped out to support his wife Evelyn and young son.

A childhood neighbor, Irving Grantz, introduced him to music. Grantz’s brother, Norman, owned Clef Records, whose stable of jazz stars included Charlie Parker, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Before long, Ostin—who changed his last name because people seemed to stumble across Ostrofsky—was the company’s controller.

In the late 1950s, Sinatra tried to buy Verve Records, which had taken over Clef. The label eventually sold itself to MGM Records, and Sinatra decided to start his own record label, Reprise Records, asking Ostin to manage his new venture.

In 1963, Sinatra sold his company to film mogul Jack Warner. Ostin, who worked with Warner Bros. Records, helped launch major acts including British rock band The Kinks, which he personally signed. The band’s success – six top 40 singles in the US – motivated him to devote himself to the rock genre. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, REM, Madonna, Paul Simon, Talking Heads and the Red Hot Chili Peppers followed.

Years after his retirement, he told Billboard Magazine that he had such complete trust in Prince that he often didn’t hear the music he was working on until the musician came into his office and played the finished product, often singing along while Ostin listened.

“What you have to learn is to trust your instincts,” Ostin said in a December 1994 interview with The Times’ Robert Hilburn and Chuck Philips, the first formal interview he gave during his three-decade career with the company.

Ostin, who was appointed CEO and chairman of Warner Bros. Records in the ’70s, had a reputation for avoiding interviews; it took years of requests and lobbying from friends to get him to agree to the only meeting with the Times. During the interview, he admitted that avoiding the media was “a personal issue” and that for him “the artist is the person that should come first.”

His attitude to building an artist-centric business—a philosophy shaped by his time at Sinatra—was the reason many artists stayed with Ostin. He told the Times that he believes the deal is about freedom and creative control.

“Part of our trademark has always been collaborating with controversial artists, artists on the brink, artists that people thought were weird,” Ostin told The Times.

But by the mid-1990s, Ostin said, Warner Bros. Records had become a different company than the one he had nurtured. When asked to cut his payroll, Ostin balked.

“Yeah, we could have maybe reduced some overhead and made a little bit more money. You can always do that if you’re a penny-pincher,” Ostin said.

Warner Bros. asked him to stay and offered him a three-year extension. But Ostin had had enough. Simon and Young were among the artists who stood by his side as the feud became public.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in the industry — and it shook me to the core,” he said.

A musician with an electric guitar performs on the stage

Prince performs in St. Paul, Minnesota on December 25, 1984.

(David Brewster/Tribune News Service)

But his hiatus was short-lived.

In October 1995, Ostin confirmed that he would join the newly formed record label partnership DreamWorks SKG, formed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, with whom Ostin fiercely competed but whose admiration he had also earned. He was joined by Ostin’s son Michael and longtime colleague Lenny Waronker, both former Warner Bros. Record executives.

“The idea of ​​starting from scratch, doing something new, redefining my life at this stage in my career, is very appealing to me,” Ostin told The Times.

While he ran DreamWorks SKG, the company signed talent such as Nelly Furtado, Papa Roach and Jimmy Eat World before being sold to Universal Music Group’s Interscope Records in 2004. Ostin retired soon after.

In 2003, Ostin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was introduced by Young and Simon.

“A record executive who knows music is more than a business,” is how the Hall of Fame described him. “He encourages creativity and risk-taking and knows a future star when he hears one.

In 2006, Ostin received the Recording Academy’s President’s Merit Award at its Grammy Salute to Industry Icons for his contribution to shaping the modern music industry.

In 2018, Ostin was recognized and honored for his long and distinguished career during the 17th Annual Silverlake Conservatory of Music Gala. That evening, Anthony Kiedis, co-founder of the music school, said of Ostin: “Mo is of historical importance to this world. … It was because he loved music. It was his giving heart caring about music that inspired us to make great records and allowed us to start this school.”

A longtime LA philanthropist, Ostin and his wife donated nearly $25 million to UCLA. Two of her largest donations are $10 million for the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center and $10 million for the Mo Ostin Basketball Center. At UCLA, he served on the boards of the School of the Arts and Architecture and the Herb Alpert School of Music. At USC he was a member of the Board of Councilors of the Thornton School of Music.

Ostin is survived by his son Michael. Sons Kenny and Randy died in 2004 and 2013, respectively; his wife Evelyn died in 2005. Mo Ostin, music executive who shaped the industry, has died

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