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…

Re-Mo Ostin

Mo Ostin was a giant amongst giants! When I played Tom Petty’s solo album, Full Moon Fever, to upper management at Tom’s then label MCA they, “didn’t hear a single!” Tom and I were devastated. When Tom’s fellow Travelling Wilbury, George Harrison, played it to Mo Ostin he offered to make a deal there and then for Tom for whenever his deal with MCA was up. Tom wanted to do this even though he had two more albums to deliver under his deal with MCA. Mo said, “I will sign Tom for whenever his deal with MCA is up!” We made a deal, and no one knew anything about it as Tom still had a commitment to MCA. Then the Wilburys and Full Moon Fever albums were released, and both were huge! The deal with Warner Brothers didn’t look so great anymore. I went to see Mo and started to explain my conundrum. He stopped me in mid-speech and said, “Tony, just tell me what you want?” I was taken aback but suggested I go check out what he is worth. I went to several other companies and told them Tom was available and taking offers. I got the offers and Mo matched the highest one. Tom was determined to give Mo a great album and that turned out to be Wildflowers! Everybody won! That was Mo!

Tony Dimitriades

Vinyl-This Week On SiriusXM

Tune in today, August 2nd, to Volume 106, 6 PM East, 3 PM West.

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It is better. But it is subtle. But wasn’t the goal to get closer to the music in the seventies? If you want to get closer to the music you want Qobuz. But you’ve got to have the equipment to reproduce the sound.

Audio split back in the nineties. The main market became all-in-ones, not much better than boom boxes. And there was a small market that went upscale, way upscale. Suddenly a stereo system didn’t cost a few thousand dollars, but tens of thousands of dollars. And if you wanted to replicate the experience of the seventies and you actually found a retailer with equipment in this price range they were reluctant to sell it to you, because most audio had become multi-channel, as in home theatre systems, did you really want stereo?

This is what the salesman asked me when my Sansui burned up and I went to replace it with an NAD. He kept reinforcing that it was only two channel. Which is exactly what I wanted. And it was far from cheap, $795 sans a turntable amp, which was $150, which I ultimately laid down for a week later.

That Sansui, the AU11000, is worth a fortune now. It served me well, now I wonder if I should have tried to fix it. I bought it because of its fat sound smoothing out the bright JBL L100s and it worked quite well. It too was an integrated amplifier, with 110 watts a channel when most people were only buying ten or twenty, maybe thirty, and I never heard distortion, but this NAD had better specs, could play much louder, but today it’s worth a fraction of the Sansui.

Actually, I purchased my stereo in stages. Because I didn’t want to sacrifice. After I heard the JBLs and my friend Tony had gotten a discount they were suddenly in my price range. I got them for $470, when list was $666, at Pacific Stereo, when discounts were near impossible. And I wanted this Sony receiver that had a hundred watts a channel, but I was convinced that it wouldn’t sound good with the JBLs, and everybody tried to sell me Luxman, but to get as much power as I wanted…it was way out of my price range. And I refused to spend less to get a system that sounded clean at low volume but distorted when I cranked it, ergo the Sansui.

And I continued to use my Dual 1218 turntable for about a week before I realized it was substandard and went to buy a Technics SL1300, the top of the direct drive line, it was fully automatic, as in the tonearm would drop and retract itself, whereas the vaunted SL1200 was the same turntable, but fully manual.

As for the cartridge?

This was just when exotic was breaking. But I didn’t have the bucks for a $1000 cartridge. I figured I’d get the top of the line Shure, the V15 Type III I think it was, which you could get for just shy of two hundred bucks, but the same people who told me not to buy the Sony told me the Shure would be too bright, so I bought a Stanton 681EEE. And that system…SOUNDED FANTASTIC! I didn’t know anybody who had one as good. And it was my respite during the inanity, i.e. the boredom and less than Middlebury quality students, of law school. I could hear certain things that made me feel all warm inside, like Mick Fleetwood’s bass drum when “Gold Dust Woman” goes from the vocal section to the instrumental. As for dropping the needle on “Hotel California” and “Hejira”? That was a religious experience.

But that experience died.

After the stereo reduction of the nineties, the cheap systems, came the MP3. Which inherently didn’t sound that good, albeit much better than the naysayers claimed. And portability was key, first with the Rio and then the iPod. Pushing the limits of sound was not a feature, portability was.

And concomitantly the music itself changed. We had the loudness wars, with mastering engineers making the tracks as hot as possible to sound loud on radio and then the overemphasis on bass, ergo the Beats headphones, and we got so far from the garden that no one could see the flowers.

And now we’ve got hi-res audio.


Vinyl is a fetish. You may be following the MoFi story. What everybody believed was an all analog chain turned out to have a digital step. You could only produce so many records via a stamper created from the master tape, and not only was it expensive to go back to the master, the master experienced wear, so…


It got a bad name in the eighties, when labels just put LP EQ’ed music on CDs. It was too bright. Over time more quality was extracted from the system, but the die was cast, perception was digital sucked.

But the dirty little secret was that tape was disappearing, all albums were cut digitally. And to produce a vinyl album from a digital master… Why? Isn’t the digital original the best source? Of course! But vinyl has been cut from these digitally-recorded albums and kids all over the world are buying them, utterly ridiculous, especially when you consider that vinyl has inherent flaws of distortion. Note, I’m not talking about vinyl cut from analog tapes, vinyl records of the pre-digital era, the sixties and seventies. That’s a different story. But acts haven’t been cutting analog for decades, at least most of them.

Meanwhile, most fans are completely happy with MP3s or their relative equivalents, like AAC. But the musicians kept bitching that the sound wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t what they heard in the studio, but in truth they rarely went to the big studios anymore, it was too expensive, records were cut at home, in the box, and the big budgets disappeared with the advent of Napster and one can argue how good today’s records actually sound. But one thing is for sure, most people listen to them at a lower quality level. Via their computers, their portable devices via earbuds. And even if you have a good pair of cans, most people don’t have the amplifier in the chain to extract quality sound.

And then Apple and Amazon went hi-res. Big news, not much effect. Because most people just don’t care. If they did, they’d already gotten Deezer or the Norwegian WiMP, which eventually became Tidal. Turned out most people just didn’t care about sound quality, still don’t.

And in truth you still need to pay for the ultimate sound, not as much as the tweaks, but you still have to invest, in an era when $100 is too much for computer speakers.

But something was lost in the messaging in the transition to higher resolutions at Apple and Amazon, they were proffering BETTER THAN CD audio. Not on all tracks, but a significant number. So if you were willing to invest, you heard music better than previously available, there was now more headroom, more clarity, but most people don’t even understand this, never mind care.


“Blood on the Tracks” was Dylan’s big comeback.

Actually, it started the year before, with “Planet Waves,” which got huge buzz as a result of the involvement of David Geffen. People bought it on the hype, on the rep, and then it stopped selling completely. And even though in later years “Forever Young” became a classic, helped by Howard Cosell’s quotation of it regarding Muhammad Ali, “Planet Waves” was not an auspicious comeback.

But the 1974 tour with the Band was. Which yielded the double live album “Before the Flood,” which most people probably haven’t listened to in decades, but certainly put the focus back on Bob. Still, no one was expecting “Blood on the Tracks.”

And history would be completely different if Bob didn’t discard the original tapes and recut the LP with his old Minnesota buddies, relative nobodies. It’s about catching lightning in a bottle, and Dylan did. And has never reached this peak since. Then again, Dylan has had multiple peaks.

After “Blood on the Tracks” came “Desire,” which was, desired that is, after the ubiquity of “Blood on the Tracks,” and it was good, but it couldn’t top “Blood on the Tracks,” nothing could.

And then came “Street-Legal,” a disappointment, and Dylan went Christian and released “Slow Train Coming.”

The track everybody heard was “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and it was good, but many were turned off by this religious turn, to their detriment, “Slow Train Coming” is one of the absolute best Bob Dylan albums. It’s very simple, Barry Beckett and Mark Knopfler.

Beckett was one of the Swampers. Insiders knew his genius, most outsiders did not. Becket didn’t overplay, his work was subtle, but so in the pocket, so right, it’s the apotheosis, listening to Beckett play will make you a believer in music, there’s religion in what he extracts from the keys.

As for Knopfler… Dire Straits was big, but this was before 1985’s “Brother in Arms.” Actually, it was before “Making Movies.” This was after the second Dire Straits album, “Communiqué,” which was nowhere near as commercially successful as the debut with “Sultans of Swing,” but the musical community knew. Knopfler was special, something different from the bluesmeisters of the sixties.

Start with “When You Gonna Wake Up” and “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” but play all of “Slow Train Coming,” it’s got a warmth absent from other Dylan albums, but it’s still edgy.

But the follow-up, “Saved,” was barely listenable, and then it’s follow-up, “Shot of Love,” was even worse. How did Dylan lose the formula?

Dylan wanted to get back to where he once belonged, so he recruited Knopfler, absent from “Saved” and “Shot of Love,” and recorded “Infidels,” which not only was a return to form, it even got MTV play. The two tracks that everybody knows are “Jokerman” and “Neighborhood Bully,” but my favorite, the absolute killer, is “I and I.”


“Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed

Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams”

Dylan is not in your face, he’s telling a story. And the story is integral to the track, but what brings it together, what injects magic, is the guitars of Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor. Then again, let’s not forget Sly and Robbie, on drums and bass, adding that island feel, as well as the unheralded Alan Clark on keyboards. “I and I” sounds like a jam in the studio, as in cut for those in attendance, not the audience. It sounds personal. And listening you go on a journey, a trip, to the Middle East, you’re removed from today’s world but ultimately placed right in the center of it.

“Think I’ll go out and go for a walk

Not much happenin’ here, nothin’ ever does

Besides, if she wakes up now, she’ll just want me to talk

I got nothin’ to say, ‘specially about whatever was”

He doesn’t want to talk! Dylan never does, even though he’s got so much to say, i.e. the Musicares speech of a few years back. Bob’s observing, and he’s letting us into his vision.

And the wisdom of Dylan’s sixties words is still extant:

“Took an untrodden path once, where the swift don’t win the race

It goes to the worthy, who can divide the word of truth.

So what we’ve got with “I and I” is a minor masterpiece, one in which the music and the song, the melody and the lyrics, all fuse together to create a feeling you cannot get anywhere else but music. “I and I” penetrates you, you may be cooking dinner, you may be driving, but it’s not background music, you’re nodding your head involuntarily, the groove is just that precious.


Now the great thing about Qobuz is the app tells you exactly what resolution you’re hearing the audio in, something which Apple and Amazon do not.

And in truth, not every cut is hi-res, a good bunch are CD quality. And I’m surfing through the tracks, comparing quality, and then my brain says…”I and I.” It’s one of my test tracks.

Like Supertramp’s “Bloody Well Right,” from “Crime of the Century.” If only today’s kids listened to “Crime of the Century” instead of trying to build apps or trading crypto our culture would be much improved. “Crime of the Century” is about alienation, the negatives of school and society, back when artists were the other, and that was enough before money became paramount. And even though “Breakfast in America” with its slew of radio hits is the most famous Supertramp album, “Crime of the Century” is the best, by far.

And the reason I mention it is because “Bloody Well Right” is the cut I used to demo audio equipment. I’d bought an FM tuner a year after my other stereo components. A top of the line Yamaha. What is that worth in today’s digital age? Well, it’s got a nice wooden cabinet. And in 1979, I wanted to buy a tape deck. Everybody said cassettes made on Nakamichis sounded great on Nakamichis, but not so good on other tape decks. This ultimately turned out to be true. It was between a thousand dollar Aiwa or the top of the line Nakamichi, the 582, at $795. I wanted to buy the Aiwa, but when we made tapes of “Bloody Well Right” on both devices at Federated, it was clear, the Nakamichi was superior, it rendered the sound just a bit cleaner, anybody could hear it.

Like with “I and I” on Qobuz as opposed to Apple and Amazon.

Really, I was starting to wonder if there was a difference, and if said difference was really a matter of volume, which will play tricks with your ears. I had no intention of writing, but then…

I pulled up “I and I” on Qobuz.

And that initial Mark Knopfler guitar, it was richer, it was warmer, it was a listening experience I knew but had been long gone.

And Qobuz says “I and I” is playing in “Hi-Res 24-Bit 96kHz.” And for the uninformed, CD quality is 16 bit 44.1 kHz.

Are you getting this, I’m listening to “I and I” in better audio quality than ever previously available. Better than all the CDs ever produced, never mind MP3s.

But was this sound really better than what was available on Amazon and Apple.

I went to Amazon. Where the track was listed as being in Ultra HD.

And to be honest, it sounded damn good, close, but…

I kept going back and forth, it was clear, on Qobuz I was just a little closer to the music, I couldn’t only hear the sounds, I could see the players.

And it wasn’t only Knopfler.

I kept comparing his guitar intro on the three platforms.

But then I let the track play on Qobuz. WHEW! Dylan was no longer a sound, he was a person, you could hear the air around him, he was positively human, listening to him on Qobuz was more insightful than reading a slew of reviews. Because Bob Dylan is an actual person, a human being, flesh and blood, just like you and me, and if the audio quality is good enough, you can hear this, he’s not above us, but amongst us.

That’s the power of music. That’s the power of high quality audio. It’s the same as it ever was, as you get closer the rewards increase. But we’ve been moving away for decades! Hell, people don’t even make records the same way anymore. They’re not full spectrum, they’re made for impact, and that doesn’t always square with quality listening.

Now let’s be clear, to hear this quality you need an external DAC. Otherwise it’s literally impossible, the platforms can tell, call it the magic of computers. But you can get a reasonable external DAC for a hundred bucks.

And, once again, I’m listening via the Dragonfly Cobalt, which is a much bigger difference than any streaming platform, the Dragonfly turbocharges the sound, cleans and broadens it, it’s a revelation.

Assuming you have the system that allows you to hear it.

That could be great headphones via your smartphone, but in truth most people don’t have headphones of this quality, then again, even hundred dollar headphones can oftentimes illustrate the difference, show you the potential.

Or a great system at home. Whether it be a big rig stereo, which few still possess, if they ever did, or expensive computer speakers, which almost no one has.

But it’s not out of reach. Sure, Qobuz is a few dollars more than Apple and Amazon, but not by much. And you’re in a walled garden away from your friends, but…

In truth listening is not a social experience, but a personal one. You may be able to share a meal, but you can’t share your ears.

“Took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice’s beautiful face”

This stranger is telling you I can hear Dylan reach, I can hear his guttural vocalizations, I am closer to the music than ever before.

And that’s exactly where I want to be.