Ostin is said to have died peacefully in his sleep on 31 July. In a joint statement, Warner Records’ Tom Corson, co-chairman and COO, and Aaron Bay-Schuck, co-chairman and CEO, described Ostin as “one of the greatest record men of all time.”
“He remained a tireless champion of creative freedom, both for the talent he nurtured and the people who worked for him,” the added. “Mo lived an extraordinary life doing what he loved, and he will be deeply missed throughout the industry he helped create, and by the countless artists and colleagues whom he inspired to be their best selves.”
Ostin, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, was born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he studied at UCLA. After his first job at Clef Records, which later changed its name to Verve Records, Ostin was headhunted by none other than Frank Sinatra to run his Reprise Records in 1960.
Three years later, Warner Bros bought out Verve and paved the way for Ostin to have an almighty career in the industry, founded on the principle of allowing artists to flourish on their own terms and develop their own sense of artistic integrity. Having started his tenure at Warner in 1963, he would become the company’s president in 1970.
Ostin also had an unteachable knack for finding talent. The first act he signed to Reprise Records was The Kinks, before going on to sign a little-known guitarist called Jimi Hendrix to Warner.
Fleetwood Mac, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Nirvana, Madonna, Neil Young, Guns N’ Roses, Prince, Green Day. The catalogue of people signed to Warner under his leadership reads like a who’s who of musical heritage. It’s also what helped Warner rise the ranks to become the sprawling, multi-billion-dollar company it is today, as one of the ‘Big Three’ labels alongside Sony BMG and Universal Music Group.
Ostin was also credited with giving artists such as Van Morrison and Paul Simon enough time to develop, even when their albums weren’t initially commercially successful. There are some wonderful tales, too, of how Ostin’s mild-mannered demeanour and cordial approach served him well in the industry.
In 1990, Warner were outbid by Sony/Epic for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, after the band’s deal with EMI had come to an end. After Ostin phoned frontman Anthony Kiedis to personally congratulate him on the band’s new deal – a move that Kiedis was so touched by that Red Hot Chilli Peppers signed to Warner instead.
Speaking of the incident, Kiedis said: “The coolest, most real person we had met during all these negotiations had just personally called to encourage me to make a great record for a rival company. That was the kind of guy I’d want to be working for.”
No doubt many such similar stories will be told over the coming days, as people mourn the loss of a true industry great; one who stuck resolutely to his own values and knew you never had to shout to achieve success.
Stars who crossed paths with him have been paying homage today. Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank Sinatra who had first recognised the skill in Ostin, tweeted: “The Sinatra family has lost yet another dear friend, a true force in the music industry and a real sweetheart.”
Q-Tip, meanwhile, added: “RIP to Mo Ostin what amazing times we had thank you for all the knowledge you passed on and the contributions from jimi hendrix to prince.. neva Be another [sic].”