The Legal Beat: Warner Records Exec Mo Ostin, Remembered

The music industry has lost a legend. On August 1, 2022, Mo Ostin passed away. He was best known as the artist-friendly president of Warner Brother Records.  He was appreciated for giving artists the freedom to be creative. Under his tutelage. Ostin transformed Warner into one of the most respected record labels. 

Mo was born in Brooklyn, after his parents had immigrated from Russia. Ostin was 13 years old when his family moved to Los Angeles. He attended UCLA and got an economics degree. He started at UCLA law school but dropped out to support his family.  Thereafter, he pursued his lengthy, legendary music career.

In the 1950’s, he worked with artists such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Sammy Davis, Jr. In the 1960’s-70’s, he helped develop artists such as Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead and Fleetwood Mac.  In the 90’s it was Green Day, R.E.M. and Madonna (in the 80’s and 90’s).

Unlike other music industry powerhouse executives, Ostin did not seek a lot of attention for himself. He stated “The artist is the person who should be in the foreground.”

In the late 70’s, Ostin was able to lure Paul Simon away from CBS Records. It turned out to be a great move for Ostin and Warner as Simon recorded the “Graceland” album which became a huge hit. It brought recognition to World music as Graceland had elements of South African music. 

According to Simon:

“There was no indication whatsoever when we started that the album had any chance of a commercial payoff” he mentioned to the L.A. Times. “ But Mo loved the idea and encouraged me to take the risk.”

Another album during this period was Fleetwood Mac’s monster hit  Rumours. In 1978, Ostin was able to persuade Prince to sign with Warner. There was heavy competition among the major labels to sign Prince. But Ostin made him an offer he could not refuse: Giving him a guaranteed three-record deal as well as creative control.

Other important or very successful acts that were mentored by Ostin were Dire Straits, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Van Halen, Black Sabbath and many others. Ostin said he thought that Neil Young and Prince were the most significant artists he signed because it led to signing other artists.

Ostin was also known for guiding artists’ careers and working with the innovative artists of the time. In 1994, the L.A. Times did a profile of him, where he stated:

“One of the great things about Warner, I always felt, was our emphasis and priority was always about the music.”

After he left Warner in 1995, he helped to create DreamWorks Records, which was the music division of DreamWorks, created by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. 

In 2003, Ostin was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2004, Universal Music Group   purchased DreamWorks Records and Ostin retired from the music biz. However, he continued to be a consultant for Warner.