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Ostin, Mo - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Mo Ostin, Social and Economic Impact

records warner bros business

DreamWorks SKG Records


Legendary record company executive, Mo Ostin as the longtime head of Warner Bros. Records, has established a revered status in an industry known for its cutthroat competition and concern for the bottom line. Ostin has approached music making from the principle that the artist is primary, and he has created a supportive environment that has caused a host of the most influential artists in the pop and rock world to flourish, from Sinatra to Jimi Hendrix. All have been extremely loyal clients of Ostin who is admired for his honesty and creativity.

Personal Life

Born March 27, 1927 in New York City, Mo Ostin was originally named Morris Meyer Ostrovsky. He adopted the name Mo Ostin after entering the music business because he thought it was easier for people to remember. Ostin’s parents were Russian immigrants who had fled Russia during the revolution. When he was 13, his family, including a younger brother, moved to Los Angeles where his father opened a tiny produce market near L.A.‘s Fairfax Theatre. Ostin attended Fairfax High School, while living next door to Irving Granz, the brother of jazz entrepreneur Norman Granz, owner of Clef Records and a leading jazz concert promoter in the 1940s and 1950s. Granz started Ostin’s career in the music business at Clef Records. Ostin attended UCLA where he was an honors student in economics and graduated in 1950. The same year he married his wife Evelyn. They had one child, Michael, who followed his father into the recording business. After college, Ostin attended law school at UCLA but dropped out in 1954 to support his wife and son, and took a job as a controller for $100 a week at Clef Records. At the time artists at Clef included jazz greats Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Ostin was excited to be exposed to the music world, but as he recalls, “I still didn’t have any real goals at that point. It wasn’t like I was dying to be in the record business. I was just trying to support my family.”

As the head of Warner Bros. Records, Ostin was instrumental in shifting the company’s emphasis from pop and comedy records to rock and creating a family atmosphere at Warner Bros. that helped nurture a wide spectrum of recording artists from the 1960s to the 1990s. The unassuming and self-effacing Ostin often resisted publicity and instead, was usually at his office from 10 in the morning to around 7, spending much of his time on the telephone. As he has said, “It’s discourteous and bad business not to return phone calls.” As Island Records founder Chris Blackwell has observed, “The reason he’s the best record executive there has ever been is that he’s not off running all over the place like his competitors. This is a guy who’s at his desk every day working hard.” Ostin’s hard work and dependability, as well as his honesty, have been important factors in gaining the respect of his artist clients. As Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wrote in a song he recorded when Ostin left Warner Bros.: “Mo, Mo, why do you have to go? You’re the first record company guy That looked me in the eye.”

Career Details

Ostin began his career in the recording business at Clef Records, which later became Verve Records, where he worked for six years making a number of important policy decisions in sales, marketing, and finance. Frank Sinatra, who had left Capitol Records in 1960 to start his own record company, Reprise, first tried to buy Verve, but later settled for hiring Ostin as the administrative vice president of Reprise. Ostin credits Sinatra with helping to form his artist-oriented philosophy. As he recalls, “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 was not 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.” Sinatra sold the company to Warner Bros. in 1963, who took the company as part of a package to secure his service as an actor in Warner Bros. films. Ostin became the president of Warner Bros./Reprise Records in 1967 and chairman and CEO in 1969, a position that he would hold until 1994.

Under Sinatra, rock music was banned at Reprise, but with Warner Bros. Ostin began to augment the albums with emerging rock artists. Ostin personally hired Jimi Hendrix; as Ostin recalls, “I signed him in the spring of 1967 based on all the excitement he was causing in the English press and after hearing his first single, ‘Hey, Joe.’ I thought the record sounded great. I also loved the way he looked, the whole image.” Over the years, Ostin added many pop, rock, country, dance, punk and heavy metal artists to the label, forming a who’s who of musical talent. Artists included Madonna, Prince, James Taylor, Talking Heads, Miles Davis, Fleetwood Mac, Black Sabbath, the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, U2, Neil Young, R.E.M., and many others.

Chronology: Mo Ostin

1927: Born.

1950: Graduated from UCLA.

1954: Hired as controller of Clef Records.

1960: Named as head of Reprise Records.

1963: Reprise Records acquired by Warner Bros.

1964: Promoted to vice president of Warner Bros. Records.

1967: Named president of Warner Bros./Reprise Records.

1969: Appointed chairman and CEO of Warner Bros./Reprise Records.

1994: Left Warner Bros. Records.

1995: Named to head DreamWorks SKG Records.

The end of Ostin’s long and extremely productive reign at Warner Bros. began in 1993 over disagreements with Time Warner management and complaints that sales had slipped because he was too loyal to older, unproductive artists, and Ostin stepped down as the head of Warner Bros. Records in 1994. As Ostin explained, “It was the toughest thing I’ve ever been through in the business and it shook me to the core. It made me doubt myself. It made me wonder whether I was just living on my laurels like my critics were saying or what? I even went to a shrink. But it just wasn’t true. The company was doing terrific. The idea of leaving Warners really troubled me, but I decided I just could not continue working here under those conditions.” Ostin agreed to head Dream-Works SKG Records in 1995, along with Lenny Waronker, an equally influential record producer, and Ostin’s son Michael. The trio is expected to build the music division of the entertainment conglomerate, DreamWorks founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Social and Economic Impact

There are few other business executives who have exerted such an influential role in helping to shape American music as Mo Ostin. As head of Warner Bros. Records Ostin turned his company into the world’s largest recording company, while cultivating the artistic careers of a legion of the era’s top performers in virtually every musical genre from pop to rock, country, punk, heavy medal, and rap. In the history of modern music Ostin has an important place for discovering new talent and creating a business environment to help artists develop and flourish. With his artist-first oriented philosophy, Ostin proved that allowing individual performers the time and conditions to mature and evolve made both artistic and business sense. Ostin’s own diverse musical tastes and uncanny sense of talent and the marketplace were important factors in shaping the musical tastes of listeners around the world for over forty years.

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over 5 years ago

Mo had three sons. Randy, Michael and Kenny not one child.

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over 2 years ago

what has happened to kenny. knew him late 70'S whent to giant lost touch in the late 90's

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over 3 years ago

All three of Mo and Evelyn's sons followed their father into the record business.