Born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky (surname later changed to Ostin), March 27, 1927, in New York, NY; son of produce merchants; married to wife Evelyn, c. 1940; children: Michael. Education: Graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles with a degree in economics, c. early 1950s, dropped out of UCLA Law School, 1954. Addresses: Office--DreamWorks SKG Records, c/o Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Mo Ostin is perhaps the most powerful record executive the industry has ever seen. The man who signed the likes of Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, the Sex Pistols, and Red Hot Chili Peppers was at Warner Bros. Records for 31 years, 25 of them as chief executive officer. Ostin made big news during late 1994 with the shakeup at Time Warner, his eventual departure from there, and more news when he signed on to head the music arm of the entertainment conglomerate DreamWorks SKG. Ostin has been known from the beginning of his career as an artist's friend, one who put more credence into risk-taking, and trusted in developing and encouraging creativity in an artist than perhaps any other record company executive around.
Morris Meyer Ostrofsky was born in 1927 in New York City to immigrants who fled their native Russia during that country's 1917 Communist revolution. At 13 he relocated with his family to Los Angeles, where they opened a small produce market. His next-door neighbor in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles was the brother of jazz entrepreneur Norman Granz, owner of Clef Records and a leading jazz concert promoter in the 1940s and 50s.
While majoring in economics at UCLA, Ostin--who changed his name upon entering the music business because it was easier to remember--traveled with Granz on tour, selling 25-cent concert programs throughout the West. Ostin graduated from college with honors, but later dropped out of UCLA Law School in 1954 to support his wife and son. He took a job as controller at Clef, who had an artists' lineup that included jazz greats Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Although he was excited to be working with such great artists, Ostin still didn't have any real goals; he wasn't dying to be in the record industry, he just wanted to support his family.
In the late 1950s Ostin's musical hero Frank Sinatra tried to buy Clef--by then called Verve Records. Verve was eventually sold to MGM Records, but Sinatra was still so impressed by the company's list of artists and management style that when he decided to form his own company in 1960, he signed Ostin on to head it. It was his tenure with Sinatra's Reprise Records that developed Ostin's artist-oriented philosophy. In his first formal interview during his 31 years at Warner Bros., Ostin told the Los Angeles Times Calendar, "Frank's whole idea was to create an environment which both artistically and economically would be more attractive for the artist than anybody else had to offer. That wasn't how it was anywhere else. You had financial guys, lawyers, marketing guys. Their priorities may not have been the music. One of the great things about Warners, I always felt, was our emphasis and priority was always about the music."
Reprise faltered despite good work, mostly due to Sinatra's edict that the label sign no rock and roll acts. When the company was sold to Warner Bros. in 1963, Ostin was allowed free reign where rock was concerned. With the rise of the huge British rock group the Beatles, Ostin knew he had to jump on the pop revolution. He personally signed the Kinks, some of the cream of the crop of new British rockers. The group promptly had six top 40 U.S. singles by the end of 1965. That gave Ostin the confidence in rock. He learned to trust his instincts, which came in handy signing artists like rock great Jimi Hendrix.
After seven years heading Warner's Reprise division, Ostin was named president of the combined Warner Bros./Reprise operation. Two years later he was raised to chairman/CEO, a position he held until December 31, 1994. Through the late 1960s and 70s as Warner acquired new labels, Ostin focused on surpassing the industry leader Columbia--CBS records, now Sony. By the late 1970s it was done. Among the ways this was accomplished was by launching their own WEA distribution system, international operations, and a pressing plant. The label kept up with music, moving over the years from pop and rock, to country, dance, punk, and heavy metal. In Ostin's time acts like Miles Davis, Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, Emmylou Harris, Madonna, Prince, Talking Heads, and James Taylor were signed.
In September of 1993, after years of continuing success, Mo Ostin sat down to renegotiate his contract. Here began the end of the Ostin era at Warner Bros. Briefly, a long power struggle with Warner Music Group chairman Robert Morgado led to a realignment plan that would require Ostin to report to Morgado instead of to the top man at the company, as Ostin had for years. Ostin resigned, fearing a loss of autonomy and worried that he might be forced to implement Morgado's usual slash-and-burn policy in order to streamline the label's staff and artist roster. He was not willing to do what he considered bad music business in order to bring the recently less-than-tops company back up to competitive speed. The cataclysmic domino effect this had on the record industry was immense, plunging Warner Bros. into a morass of resignations and realignment schemes. The world's largest record company was nearly paralyzed. Artists and execs who were at Warner's simply because of Mo Ostin planned hasty departures as soon as contracts allowed.
One of Ostin's main reasons for consenting to be interviewed in the Times Calendar after two years of their asking was to set the record straight. As he told them, "This business is about freedom and creative control. An executive has to be able to make risky decisions with minimal corporate interference. But Warner is a different company now than the company I was brought up in. And in the end, I found it impossible to operate in that kind of environment."
Ostin supporters were climbing over each other to sing his praises. From rock greats Paul Simon and R.E.M. to record execs Joe Smith and Clive Davis, the accolades were warm, heartfelt, and unanimous. As Chuck Philips wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Ostin is highly regarded not only for bringing a philosophy to [Warner] that the artist is king, but also for instituting a competitive management system that remains a model for the industry." Although Ostin officially left Warner Bros. when his contract was up on December 31, 1994, he stayed on as a senior consultant to Time Warner's chairman through August 3, 1995.
On October 5, 1995, after press rumors and speculation, Mo Ostin, along with former president of Warner Bros. Records Lenny Waronker, and former senior vice president of Artists and Repertoire at Warner--and Ostin's son--Michael Ostin, signed on as the new management team for DreamWorks SKG Records, the recording arm of the newly established entertainment conglomerate started by record mogul David Geffen, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and former Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg. This action teamed up perhaps the most powerful people in the entertainment industry, and Mo Ostin was thrilled. Although to avoid ego friction, titles would not exist at DreamWorks, Ostin would fill the capacity of CEO. With this alignment of same-thinking executives, Ostin would be able to continue in his path of developing artists who are given the room to create.
by Joanna Rubiner
Mo Ostin's Career
Controller at Clef Records, 1954-60; head of Reprise Records, 1960-67; president of Warner Bros./Reprise Records, 1967-69; chairman/CEO for Warner Bros. Reprise Records, 1969-94; senior consultant to Time Warner chairman, 1995; head of DreamWorks SKG Records, 1995--.
- Billboard, October 14, 1995, p. 1.
- Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1993, p. D4; December 24, 1993, p.
- D4; February 1, 1994, p. D4; August 2, 1994, p. D4; August 15, 1994, p. D1; August 16, 1994, p. D1; October 21, 1994, p. D4; October 25, 1994, p. D4; October 31, 1994, p. D3; November 2, 1994, p. D2; December 30, 1994, p. D4; July 4, 1995, pp. D1.
- Los Angeles Times Calendar, December 11, 1994, p. 8.
- New York Times, August 16, 1994, p. C3; October 25, 1994, p. C18; October 29, 1994, p. 17; January 29, 1995, p. H23; October 6, 1995, p. D1.
- Wall Street Journal, August 16, 1994, p. B7; November 2, 1994, p.
- B10; November 4, 1994, p. B1; October 6, 1995.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by DreamWorks SKG publicity materials, 1995.