Decades ago, at the start of my 29-year tenure at Warner Bros. Records (when it still had the “Bros” in the name) I thought what would happen if we ever lost Mo Ostin. I admit it was a dark thought, but even then I knew the business was something special in the business as a direct result of Mo’s vision and personality.
There’s a song with the lyrics, “You don’t know what you have until you lose it.” But in Mo Ostin’s case, we knew what we had and were grateful we didn’t lose it. … until now. The consolation here is that we lost him after living a long and successful professional and personal life that had a huge impact on the music industry and those he worked with. Notice that the conjunction here is “with” not “for” because it was like that. He emphasized collaborative work, not the ego-fueling self-glorification that is so common in business (and politics) these days.
I’m kind of glad I had a brief, unsuccessful career at another label a few years after I started at Warner Bros., only to come back and stay for the next quarter century. This experience, on the other hand, showed me how special it was at Warners and I was very grateful to have been brought home after my mishap elsewhere.
The word that comes to mind when considering Mo Ostin is “loyal”. He was loyal to his employees and treated them like family; his concern for our welfare was sincere. If any member of staff had any health issues, Mo and his wife Evelyn, known in the building from “Saint Ev”, would do whatever they could to help, including finding the right doctors, the right treatment, the right hospital. It’s hard to imagine another chairman of the board as focused on humanity as Mo; he just cared about us and we cared about him.
Mo has transcended tectonic events in the business. Starting at Verve and then joining Frank Sinatra at Reprise, he always knew there was something more than expected. Verve was a jazz label but signed Ricky Nelson; it’s an understatement to suggest that Sinatra didn’t like rock and roll but somehow Mo convinced him to sign the Kinks.
He was open-minded and that was one of his great strengths: he went beyond the predictable and took risks with true artistry. He signed the Beach Boys when they were considered outdated; he brought Jimi Hendrix to Burbank from what seemed like outer space and supported artists of questionable commercial potential simply because they were good at what they did. He knew there was expertise outside his field that could be tapped, so he brought in Bearsville, Capricorn, Chrysalis, Island, Curtom, Tommy Boy, Cold Chillin’ and, of course, Sire. He believed in talent, both musical and executive, and that belief usually paid off.
When Fleetwood Mac broke through, when the company had great success with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, when George Harrison came up with the idea for The Traveling Wilburys, he was thrilled not only because the results would be so much better, but because that we had all achieved something. He knew he hadn’t done it alone but, again, we couldn’t have done it without him.
On a personal level, I always felt comfortable interacting with him even though being in the company of such a titan would be logically intimidating. He was a top notch mensch and became a kind of father figure to me after I lost mine. We admired him and aspired to be as calm in his demeanor and as savvy in business as he was.
Russ Thyret, our promo guru, coined a phrase that maybe embarrassed Mo but we really enjoyed saying it, especially when things were going well: “Mo’ hits! Mo Ostin! It’s as close to a cult of personality as he’s ever racked up and because it was said in jest, he may have secretly enjoyed the praise. He really deserved it.
It’s a cliché to say “we’ve lost a giant” when a great person leaves us, but that’s what just happened. What an absolute privilege it has been to be in his orbit for those years. The brilliant artists who recorded for Warner Bros., Reprise and its affiliates gave the company great music. Mo Ostin gave him his soul.
Bob Merlis was senior vice president of global corporate communications when he left Warner Bros. Records in 2001. Prior to that, he held numerous advertising positions with the company which he originally joined in 1973. Merlis recently celebrated his company’s 20th anniversary. MFH (Merlis for rent).
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