Mo Ostin, RIP

I’ve been wanting to say a few words on the passing this week of the greatest record executive I ever met, the legendary Mo Ostin. He was already a legend and had been for decades when I met him. He was the chairman of Warner Bros Records and at the time I had a small indie label in San Francisco, 415 Records. I wasn’t interested in corporate rock or corporate labels or, for that matter, in Los Angeles. I had heard of him, probably from Seymour Stein, who was a friend of mine and whose major indie label, Sire, Mo had bought for Warners.

In the late ’70s, Mo’s son, Michael, liked one of 415's most commercial successful bands, Pearl Harbor & the Explosions and we were thrilled at the idea of the band getting signed to Warner Bros and having a chance to reach a potential that they could never reach with 415. So my partners Chris and Queenie and I did all we could to help get them signed to Warners. After they did get signed, I got a curt note from Warner's business affairs department demanding we immediately cease selling all of the 415 singles that we had in stock. That would have bankrupted a small outfit like ours. It was the beginning of a long relationship of me ignoring the Warner Bros business affairs department— but it did piss me off.

Some months later, I was watching TV at home and the phone rang. The phone was way on the other side of the house and I was angry I had to get up and go answer it. But I did. It was a secretary calling on behalf of Mo to discuss Romeo Void, the other 415 band that all the majors were interested in. After the Pearl Harbor experience we started signing contracts with our bands. I told Mo or his secretary— I can’t remember— that I was busy and that we were open to a label deal but not in selling Romeo Void’s contract. And I ran back to my TV on the other end of the house. When I finally met Mo, I never did know if he remembered that incident. I always hoped not.

It was years later and we had sold ourselves to CBS Records (now SONY), the most corporate and inhuman of all the record companies. I figured if I was going to get in bed with the devil, it might as well as the worst of the devils. And it was. By the time I couldn’t bear another moment of CBS putting my bands through the grinder, and was ready to drive a VW down to the tip of South America, Seymour Stein offered me a job working as the general manager of Sire. Eventually I took the job and moved to L.A. and went to work at Warner Bros. That’s how I got to know Mo. He was my boss— or my boss’ boss.

Lenny Waronker, Mo Ostin, Michael Ostin

I had never worked for a living wage before. And all of a sudden I was “rich,” or at least making a lot more money than my father had ever made or that I ever imagined I would make. I didn’t pal around with Mo or hang out with him after work. I thought of him as more of a teacher— as in a role model— than as a pal.

This week Bob Lefsetz wrote up his own memories of Mo, in which he noted that in the late ‘60s “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!” I imagine that’s hard for someone who didn’t live through that today, to understand what he’s even talking about. “This,” he wrote, “was the revolution.” Or so we all thought. “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.”

Lefsetz noted, accurately, that “back when execs used to switch labels faster than today’s sports stars… if you were good and lucky you ended up at Warner Brothers, and never left.” That wasn’t true of any other record label. Just Warner Bros. By the time I went to work there, it was no longer the Mo and Joe show. It was the Mo and Lenny show. Lenny Waronker. Lenny was easier to get to know. I would make an appointment to see Mo; I would just go see Lenny whenever. I haven’t seen Mo in at least a decade. I had dinner with Lenny a couple of months ago. When I worked at Warners, Lenny always wanted to talk music. Mo talked about everything under the sun, albeit in a very focussed and deliberate way. It’s why I assigned him guru status and why I cherished every single minute I ever spent with him.

I recall my first 6-figure bonus check. I never thought of something like that as part of the real world. That's was more than what my family paid for a house on Long Island. Mo, who had been a socialist as a young man, gave it to me... still a socialist? Or do you lose the right to call yourself as socialist when you cash your first 6-figure bonus check? I never asked Mo that.

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.
…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.
…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…

Mo’s and Lenny’s spacious offices were adjoining with a bathroom in between. One day I was sitting with Lenny talking about one of the baby bands we were always praying would break through. I think it was Morrissey’s third solo record since leaving The Smiths, Your Arsenal, that we were talking about. I was all worked up over I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday. I was hoping Lenny would be as enthusiastic about it as I was. But… saved by the bell. Just as we were going to listen, Mo popped his head in the doorway and motioned us to come into his office. It wasn’t because he had breaking a new band on his mind. He wanted to show us something— a here’s how it’s done moment.

He was on a speaker phone and signaled us to not make any noise. He was on with “New York"— which means a corporate beancounter. Mo was always respectful of other people but I know how contemptuous he was of the corporate beancounters. And this particular one was in full swing thinking he was going to “force” Mo to drop-- wait for it-- Eric Clapton, one of our signature artists. True Eric had just had a couple of commercially unsuccessful albums; that happens. The beancounter was very demeaning towards Clapton, which I could see was making it hard for Mo to control himself. But he let the guy go on and on about old, over the hill artists and how we’d had a good run with Clapton but that it was time to cut our losses and move on in a different direction. Lenny knew what was coming and seemed to be trying to stifle a laugh. When the guy was done, Mo didn’t talk much about Clapton. Instead he talked about the ground rules of what this guy was allowed to talk with him about— and not talk with him about. He never raised his voice or used an inherently unkind word. When he was done, there was no doubt in my mind that this guy would never try anything like it again.

Mo had the most profound respect for our artists. I had never seen anything remotely like that at CBS, where the top executives were contemptuous of the artists. Mo made it clear to me over the years that the reason I was getting those bonus checks was so that I would be part of the team running the company for the artists-- Frank Sinatra's founding principle-- and for the employees and for the customers and for society. And for the company stockholders as well. But I never heard him mention them first.

Clapton’s next album, for those keeping score, was Unplugged, bits and pieces of which we had already heard. Once it was released, it won 6 Grammy awards (Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance- Male, Best Rock Vocal Performance- Male, and Best Rock Song). It also became Clapton’s best-selling album of all time, one of the first albums to go diamond (10 million sales). I don’t know how many it sold in the end but the last time I looked it was over 26 million. It was also the best-selling live album of all time… by anyone. It was also a smash multi-platinum record for all of our international affiliates— millions and millions of records sold. Unplugged kept the doors open— all by itself— for Warner Bros Records and all of our affiliated labels around the world. Very few records can do that.

Years later the beancounters demanded, over time, that I drop Ice-T, Joni Mitchell, Wilco and other artists who weren’t performing commercially. I used what I learned from Mo that day, and suggested the way they could do that would be to fire me. In the case of Ice-T I think they intended to do just that, but Ice decided he didn’t want to be on Warners any longer, a catastrophe and a calamity for the company that they’re still paying dearly for, at least in terms of reputation.