What do Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, the Sex Pistols, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have in common? The answer is Mo Ostin, arguably the most powerful record executive in the history of the music industry.
Ostin began his career at Warner Brothers Records, where he served as the company’s Chief Executive Officer for twenty-five of the thirty-one years he worked there. In 1994, to the astonishment of many, Ostin parted ways with the company (that is now called “Time Warner”) to accept a position at Dream Works SKG, the company founded by media moguls Stephen Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. Ostin was attractive to Dream Works not only for the success he had enjoyed at Time Warner, but also for his reputation for taking risks on artists who paid off. He is well-known for developing positive relationships with artists, encouraging their creativity and earning their trust.
Mo Ostin was born Morris Meyer Ostrofsy. His parents were Russian. They immigrated to the United States in 1917 at the height of the Communist revolution in their homeland. They settled in New York City, where Mo (nee “Morris Meyer Ostrofsky”) was born in 1927. However, in 1930, when Mo was thirteen, the family moved to Los Angeles, where his parents opened a small produce store. Mo likely became interested in the music industry thanks to his next door neighbor. The neighbor was the brother of Norman Granz, owner of Clef Records. Granz was a well-known jazz concert promoter.
Ostin attended UCLA and majored in economics, and shortly after graduating, entered the music business. He decided his birth name was too difficult to remember and changed it to “Mo Ostin.” He began traveling with Norman Granz, where his job was to sell concert programs at a cost of twenty-five cents each. Although he went back to college to attend law school, he dropped out in 1954, as the commitment was too great. By this time, Ostin had a wife and child to support.
Instead of completing a law degree, Ostin took a job at Clef Records as their controller. The line-up of artists during those years included the jazz legends Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. However, even working with great artists such as these, Ostin still felt he lacked direction. He was only working, he felt, to support his family. He had yet to find his passion.
Things changed for Ostin in the late 1950s when the beloved crooner Frank Sinata formed his own company, Reprise Records. He asked Ostin to come with him, and Ostin agreed. (Note: Sinatra had earlier attempted to buy Clef (by this time called “Verve Records”) but was unsuccessful. Verve later was purchased by MGM Records.)
At Reprise, Ostin found his calling. His commitment to was to the artists; this was far from the case at many, if not most, record labels. In a rare interview Ostin granted to the Los Angeles Times Calendar, Ostin explained the company’s philosophy, which he helped develop: “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. That wasn't how it was anywhere else. You had financial guys, lawyers, marketing guys. Their priorities may not have been the music. One of the great things about Warners, I always felt, was our emphasis and priority was always about the music."
Despite the goodwill towards artist, Sinatra’s blindspot was his adamant refusal to sign any rock and roll artists. This lack of progression contributed to the eventual demise of the label in 1963. Reprise was sold to Warner Brothers in 1964. Ostin returned, with the understanding that he was to be free to sign rock acts. Among the first soon-to-be stars he signed was the British rock band, The Kinks. By the end of 1965, The Kinks produced six singles which hit the Top 40.Ostin’s success with The Kinks made him more confident in risk-taking. He then signed the legendary rock guitarist and vocalist Jimi Hendrix and his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
In 1972, Ostin was named president of the Warner Brothers/Reprise division. Two years later, he was promoted to Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, where he would remain for the next twenty year. During this time, Ostin focused on outdistancing the industry leader, Columbia Records (now Sony). By the end of the 1970s, he achieved his goal. There were several moves that contributed to Ostin’s, and Warner Brothers/Reprise’s success: the company launched its own distribution systems and pressing plant; they also went international. Ostin kept the label’s acts fresh too. When rock and roll began to experience a decline in popularity, Ostin signed country, rap, dance, punk, and heavy metal bands. The eclectic artists included Miles Davis, Madonna, the Talking Heads, Black Sabbath, Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, and Fleetwood Mac.
Ostin’s long run as CEO of Warner Brothers came to an end during his contract negotiations in 1993. The conflict was primarily with Warner Music Group chairman, Robert Morgado. Morgado insisted the Ostin report to him. Ostin refused to give up his autonomy. He also intensely dislike Morgados “slash-and-burn” techniques regarding both artists and company staff. In the wake of Ostin’s departure, many others at Warner resigned. Band who trusted Ostin left Warner as soon as their contracts allowed them to do so. The mass exodus nearly paralyzed the once seemingly-unstoppable company.
Ostin moved to Dream Works in 1994. In 2003, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Paul Simon, Neil Young, and Lorne Michaels.
A 2003 inductee (non-performer) in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Morris “Mo” Ostin is one of the most respected individuals in the history of recording, and is credited with the signing to record labels of many of the most successful groups and individual performers, including Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra (who so admired Ostin that he recruited him from MGM Records to manage his own recording company, Reprise), the Kinks, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Dire Straits, Steely Dan, Paul Simon, U2, The Who, the Beach Boys, and many others. His notable signings of performers from the jazz world was equally impressive, including Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday. Many of these recording artists were signed by Ostin following the acquisition of Reprise by Warner Brothers Records.
Ostin was so successful at signing so many great acts because of his reputation as an executive willing to take risks and willing to allow performers the freedom to explore and experiment with their music. That kind of artistic freedom was exceedingly rare, and made whatever recording company with which he was affiliated an attractive studio with which to sign. He currently serves Warner Brothers Records in the capacity of Chairman Emeritus, and the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center at UCLA, made possible by a $10 million donation by Ostin, should be completed during 2014.