Mo Ostin

I didn’t know Mo well, but I was intimately involved with his work.

That was the difference between Mo and his competitors, he was not self-aggrandizing. He was a family man, akin to your father, but he ran the best label operation on the planet, FOR DECADES!

You’ve got to understand, it all began with the Beatles. In 1964. They were on Capitol, as were the Beach Boys. And we noted that the soundtrack to “A Hard Day’s Night” came out on United Artists. Yes, we were intimately involved with label monikers, the days of the indie manufacturer of 45s was history, it was now all about albums on majors.

Especially after 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper.” That’s when the rest of the world caught the shift. That not only did rock and roll rule, it was more than music, it was a statement, it was not only an exponent of the youth movement, it was its spiritual guide, its leader!

And starting in ’68, underground FM started to permeate the country. And some of its biggest hits crossed over to AM, like “Sunshine of Your Love,” but not “Purple Haze,” some tracks were just too dangerous for the mainstream population, you had to seek them out, but when you found them you were a member of the tribe, hipper than the rest of the land.

And most of those records were on Warner/Reprise.

I first noticed the Reprise label on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” Sure, other acts featured it, like the Kinks, but “Alice’s Restaurant” was a breakthrough. A guy who didn’t look like a rock star cutting a song unsuitable for AM radio in both content and length who broke through anyway. This was a revolution. It was believed that radio was king, the only way to truly break a record, but this was now history. As for the label, did you pronounce “Reprise” like in “Leeds” or “Pie”? Who knows!

But as left field as “Alice’s Restaurant” was, Peter, Paul & Mary with their late sixties youth group staple that ultimately crossed over to radio, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” were on the label too. And the Association as well. But by the end of the sixties the transition was complete. It was all rock, except for Frank Sinatra, who we ultimately learned started Reprise, with Mo Ostin as its head.

Just like we ultimately learned that John Denver wrote “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” There was a dearth of information in the sixties, and we hoovered up every scrap. We memorized the album covers without realizing it, we just looked at them so many times. We needed to get closer to the music. It was unlike today. Television was moribund, the boob tube. Movies were expensive and always a bit behind the times. But music? Music was up to date, and Warner/Reprise was the operation pushing the envelope. The Mo and Joe show.

Yes Joe Smith was different from Mo Ostin. A Jewish Yalie with a background in radio Joe was the toastmaster at the conventions that no longer exist in the internet era, he signed the Grateful Dead, and he wanted you to know it. Joe had a personality larger than life, he was glad-handing and insulting you simultaneously, but it was all in good fun. But as the years wore on Joe was upset that all the credit went to Mo, and he’d tell you so.

But in reality it was a team effort. A family. It was a vortex. You moved your way up the label food chain, back when execs used to switch labels faster than today’s sports stars, and if you were good and lucky you ended up at Warner Brothers, and never left.

And the whole operation was run by this relative cipher, Mo Ostin.

You’d see his picture in the trades, “Billboard” was godhead back then, and there were “Cash Box” and “Record World” too, the business was flourishing to the point where it could support three trades, and you’d see Mo in trade photos sporting his Vandyke beard. Smiling. But to the public he was two dimensional, all you could see was his visage, and the label empire he created.

And once everybody’s initial recording contract ran out, they’d end up on Warner Brothers. They would be presented as superstars even though they had little cultural penetration. Like Van Morrison. Hell, the Shadows of Knight had the hit with “Gloria” in the U.S., Them were barely known. But when Van started releasing records on Warner Brothers…it was presented like the arrival of the second coming.

And by this time there was too much music to all be featured on FM radio. These records were spread by word of mouth, blurbs in the nascent rock press and…

The Warner/Reprise inner sleeves.

The Beatles gained control of the inner sleeve with “Sgt. Pepper.” That was a huge step. Before that the label owned that real estate, it used it to promote the other records on the label. You were truly powerful if you could create the artwork on the inner sleeve, which too often featured tiny photos of albums you weren’t interested in, from the pre-Beatle era, stuff that never hit, but the Warner/Reprise inner sleeve?

It listed all the acts. You compared them, to see which acts had been added, which ones had been dropped.

And then there were the Loss Leaders, two record sampler albums sold mail order for two bucks. And they were always worth it. They contained a few hits, a bunch never to make it, and undiscovered gems that turned you on to the act.

Like Beaver & Krause. An electronic duo whose album I had to buy after hearing a track on a Loss Leader. And Little Feat. And Tower of Power. And…

It was a club. And if you bought the albums, you were a member.

And the team, they became famous too. Stan Cornyn, the head of creative services, a job that didn’t even exist at other labels. There was an irreverence, a feature of the sixties that’s been forgotten, and wasn’t employed by the other label operations. CBS said “The man can’t bust our music.” and we laughed, how could they be this out of touch?

This was when credibility was key. We needed to believe in you.

And we believed in Warner/Reprise.

If it was on Warner/Reprise…

It was worth checking out.

Until the nineties when Mo and Lenny exited the building, the box from Warner Brothers got the most attention. Every album contained inside may not be great, but you knew there was a reason the act was signed and the album was made. Nothing was done on a whim. Nothing was thrown against the wall.

And then Bob Morgado, today completely forgotten, blew a hole in the Warner Music Group after Doug Morris got in his ear and undercut the west coast operation, three hours behind the time.

The dream was to get to Los Angeles. New Yorkers thought they were superior, still do, but it was all happening in laid back L.A., where there were billboards for records on Sunset, numerous local record chains, it was palpable, you could feel it! And the main driver was Warner/Reprise in Burbank.

Now that’s all gone.

After Mo left the building, the company started throwing records against the wall. They’d sign an act, put out one album and then drop them. There was no investment, no commitment.

And the nineties brought hip-hop and indie rock, and the twenty first century brought Napster and the iPod and then Spotify.

And now it’s 2022.

Most youngsters have no idea who Mo Ostin was or what he built, even though the work produced during his tenure still survives. Maybe because he worried about careers more than sales. That was the rap, Warner Brothers would stop selling singles, let your album go fallow, allow you to follow up with a new album, whereas at CBS they wrung every last sale out of your LP, to the point where people were sick and tired of you at the end and you were starting behind the 8-ball on the next album.

Today major labels release fewer albums. Marketing is king. If it won’t sell, they aren’t interested. As for corporate image? There is none.

Universal is a great operation, but Lucian Grainge’s greatest achievement is taking the operation public and making triple digit millions for himself.

Not that Mo didn’t make bank. This was as a result of the hands-off, coddling philosophy of Steve Ross. There were corporate jets, corporate houses in far-off locations like Aspen and Acapulco and Steve didn’t meddle with you and handsomely compensated you, why would you leave?

But the dirty little secret was the record operation was the most profitable. It built the Warner Cable system. One can argue that Mo deserved every penny. And unlike other labels, acts weren’t constantly bitching they were screwed.

And then there was Prince.

Mo and Lenny discussed it with me at lunch at Peppone. It was a business issue. They just couldn’t make any money with an endless stream of albums with huge advances.

In retrospect, Prince was ahead of the game.

Because the old game died.

Mo and Lenny started over at DreamWorks, but it could never work, the paradigm had shifted. You couldn’t invest tons of money in relatively niche acts and expect them to sustain and earn back. But even worse, DreamWorks had no catalog, which sustains the major labels to this day.

So it was over. Not only for Mo, but for the entire business.

Twenty years ago, people used to talk about artist development, my inbox is no longer inundated with that term. Today, artist development is considered taking an act from zero to one hundred, from nowhere to arenas, on one album. Whereas you got five LPs to make it on Warner/Reprise, and some still did not connect.

One of my favorite acts ever, Wendy Waldman, did five albums on Reprise.

Bonnie Raitt was ultimately dropped after more than a decade of investment, with little in return. But when Joe Smith moved over to Capitol he struck gold.

As for Ry Cooder and Randy Newman… If they’d been on other labels…they never would have been signed to begin with! Cooder’s “Into the Purple Valley” is one of my favorite albums, who else would allow an act to cut decades-old Dust Bowl songs that sounded nothing like the music of today?

I could go through the catalog, cite chapter and verse, but ultimately, I don’t have to, because all of those acts survive in the public consciousness, that’s how great their work was.

And Mo Ostin’s spearheading, championing of that work, meant everything, without it the landscape would look completely different, a great number of these bedrock acts would be unknown.

But it’s a different business today. No one leaves any money on the table. Selling out is a feature. Credibility is not even considered. The execs are unknown, and nobody other than insiders care who they are, after all what are they doing? Putting out records. Whereas Mo was impacting and changing the culture!

Music was the Silicon Valley of its day.

But unlike Elon Musk, Mo Ostin was not a buffoon.

But you’ve got to be over fifty to even know any of this. Sure, there have been some good albums released in the past three decades, but music no longer attracts the best and the brightest, it no longer has the same cultural impact, it’s no longer as innovative, it’s akin to what it was before the Beatles broke.

That’s right, we’ve come full circle.

If you’re a baby boomer, you lived through the Renaissance. The original one, back in Italy centuries ago…they’ve painted and sculpted since, but visual art doesn’t dominate the way it did back then. Same thing with music. And Mo may not have been Raphael or Michelangelo, but he was Neil Young and the rest of Warner/Reprise’s Medici. He controlled the purse strings. And sure, he wanted to make money, but that was not the sole concern. He wanted to facilitate the artists, he didn’t want to meddle with their work. He wanted to make their lives easier so they could create.

He was not a prince. After all, he was a businessman.

But in a street business, where a college degree arguably was a detriment, Mo was honest and forthright, a mensch, when they were hard to come by. And this amalgam of traits and behaviors, the warmth, the trust, the investment, the family atmosphere, sustained the greatest label operation in the history of recorded music.

And that’s why we’re talking about Mo now.

And he would have liked this.

But even more he liked his recorded legacy, the work of the Warner/Reprise artists.

And hanging with his grandkids. During that break between Warner/Reprise and DreamWorks he got to spend more time with them. He told me how rewarding it was.

But either you already know all of the above or you don’t.

History may forget Mo Ostin, but we never will.

He was our North Star, our guiding light. As long as Mo was in charge things were going to be all right. You could go to sleep knowing things were handled.

Those days are through.

If only we had more Mo Ostins…

Comments are closed