Mo Ostin, the industry giant and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who led Warner Bros. Records for nearly a quarter-century and worked with some of music’s all-time biggest names — from Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young to Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and the Grateful Dead — died overnight in his sleep. He was 95. Warner Records Co-Chairman Tom Corson and Aaron Bay-Schuck announced the news today but gave no other details.
“Mo was one of the greatest record men of all time, and a prime architect of the modern music business,” Corson said in a statement (read it in full below). “For Mo, it was always first and foremost about helping artists realize their vision. 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 is a tireless champion of creative freedom, both for the talent he nurtured and the people who worked for him.”
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Added Warner Recorded Music CEO Max Lousada in a statement: “In an era when creative entrepreneurs are revered, we celebrate Mo Ostin as a pioneer who wrote the rulebook for others to follow. Warner Music Group and Warner Records wouldn’t exist without his passion, vision, and intelligence.”
One of the architects of the modern music business, Ostin worked at Verve Records before being poached by one Frank Sinatra to help with the launch of his Reprise Records as GM. Ostin was president of the nascent label when he was sold to Warner Bros in 1963, and one of his early signings was a young London-based group called the Kinks. He went on to sign a then-unknown — stateside, at least — Jimi Hendrix after his legendary Monterey Pop Festival Performance.
In 1970, Ostin was upped to president of Warner-Reprise and was named CEO and chairman in 1972. During his reign, which ended in 1994, the labels were home to the likes of Young, Mitchell, the Dead, Simon, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Van Halen, the Who, Alice Cooper, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day.
Warner Bros also had Fleetwood Mac, whose 1977 set Rumors spent more than 30 weeks at No. 1 in the States and remains among the dozen best-selling albums ever, with 20 million units in the US alone. It’s No. 6 all-time among single-disc studio albums.
Ostin was at the top when Warner Bros Records signed REM to an industry-shaking multi-album deal worth a reported $80 million. The group’s first WBR album, 1988’s green, was a sizable hit, but its next two discs — Out of Time (1991) Automatic for the People (1992) — established the former “college band” as among the world’s biggest acts.
Ostin went on to head DreamWorks Records upon its founding by Steven Spielberg, David Katzenberg and David Geffen, and the latter’s Geffen Records release distributed the imprint’s. Its first album was George Michael’s Older in May 1996, followed by eels’ underappreciated debut Beautiful Freak a few months later. DreamWorks Records was sold to Universal Music Group in 2003 and later was part of Interscope Geffen A&M before being shuttered in the mid-2000s.
Born Morris Ostrofsky on March 27, 1927, in New York City, Ostin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 by Young, Simon and SNL creator-producer Lorne Michaels. “For him, before everything else, there was the music — and whoever it was who was making the music,” Michaels said of Ostin in an interview with Stan Cronyn.
Ostin is survived by his sons Michael and Kenny. His son Randall, a longtime music executive, died in 2013.
Here is Corson’s full statement on Ostin:
“Legendary music executive Mo Ostin passed away peacefully in his sleep last night at the age of 95. Mo was one of the greatest record men of all time, and a prime architect of the modern music business. For Mo, it was always first and foremost about helping artists realize their vision. 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 is 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.”