How Mo Ostin Turned a Faltering Record Label into the Powerhouse of Rock

In the late ’60s, the beloved Warner/Reprise exec signed culture-bending artists from Jimi Hendrix to Fleetwood Mac. His secret? Stop trying to make hit records

Between 1965 and 1970, Los Angeles-born Warner/Reprise Records added no fewer than 90 new acts, including the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, and Gordon Lightfoot, transforming what had been one of the least hip labels in the business into an avatar of cool.

And it wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan. Warner/Reprise would go on to add such stars as Prince, Madonna, U2, and many others. In its heyday, from the ‘60s through the early ‘90s, Warner Bros. Records was simply the most successful record company ever, both creatively and commercially. That success was a far cry from the record division Jack Warner started in 1958 to capture lost soundtrack profits. In 1963, he merged it with Frank Sinatra’s struggling Reprise label as part of a deal to get the singer to make movies for the studio.

rat pack mo ostin
Ostin (center) during his sharkskin-suited days as president of Warner/ Reprise Records in the early ’60s, with Rat Packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra. “I needed a job—I could have been an insurance salesman,” Ostin said later.

Smith Family Collection

Reprise president Mo Ostin had stumbled into the record business after UCLA, when he took a job at the jazz label Verve. He needed to support a wife and baby. (“I was looking for a job. I could have been an insurance agent,” he recalled.) The one thing that both Warner and Reprise shared was a “no rock ’n’ roll” edict. But within a couple of years, Ostin and a team that included executives Joe Smith, Lenny Waronker, and marketing genius Stan Cornyn changed this with spectacular results. Warner/Reprise developed a knack for spotting new talent, an artist-friendly reputation that prioritized music over profits, and a portfolio of eye-catching, break-all-the-rules advertising. As Peter Ames Carlin details in this excerpt from Sonic Boom, his new history of the label, the roots of Warner Bros. Records’s great run can be traced to an afternoon in 1967 when Ostin gave the company’s troops the most unexpected direction ever uttered by a top executive at a corporate record label: “Let’s stop trying to make hit records.”

In 1965, Mo Ostin walked into a Sinatra recording session and handed the grouchiest rock ’n’ roll hater in showbiz the sheet music for the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Once he saw the writers, Sinatra wouldn’t look any further and tossed the pages to the floor. Ostin let it go, but he still knew that the hands of the clock would never spin back to jazzier times, so he worked hard to develop his expertise in the new rock ’n’ roll. He pored over all the music trades and dialed friends around the industry to discuss what he was seeing. Why were the Beatles so popular? How had their success changed the other acts in the Top 40? After a while, Ostin could hear the difference between the same old thing and the new thing that could cut through the noise and maybe even stick around for a while.

At the end of the summer of 1966, Ostin was fixing on an up-and-coming rock trio he had discovered in the British music newspapers. The leader was Jimi Hendrix, a young Black man from America whose Afro erupted from his skull with a force that had electrified the hair of his two fair-skinned bandmates until the three of them resembled dandelions in full puff. He received a copy of Hendrix’s sole release, a cover of the popular modern blues song “Hey Joe,” that only seemed to hint at the psychedelic marvels he’d been reading about. But reports of the Hendrix trio’s concerts, which attracted members of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other top British musicians, were even more enticing: if the most popular musicians in England were that entranced by him, Hendrix had to have something extraordinary going on.

A problem emerged for Ostin, though. Atlantic Records had dibs on the American rights to Polydor releases (Polydor distributed Track Records, Hendrix’s U.K. label), so no deal could be made unless Atlantic passed. Hendrix’s record and a reel of new songs went out to Atlantic’s chief A&R man, Jerry Wexler. “Lowercase B. B. King” was his judgment. Ostin pounced immediately. He offered a $50,000 contract for three albums, a pretty rich deal for an untested artist. Ostin had faith, even when his fellow executives had severe doubts. When Ostin played Hendrix’s first album at a budget meeting, Reprise’s chief financial officer, Murray Gitlin, recalled the general response was something like: “What the hell?”

But when Ostin brought the music home to his boys and the mob of high school friends who passed their afternoons at the Ostin swimming pool in Encino, he called them into the living room and dropped the needle on the Hendrix acetate. Did they like it? Yes! Did they think their friends would like it? Yes! Then a clamor: Can we hear it again?

Among his peers in the record industy in the 1960s, Ostin shrewdly recognized that musicians as diverse as Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix could find huge audiences if given the creative space and financing to develop their music.

Jim Marshall Photography

Only none of Hendrix’s fan base worked in the pop music industry. When Ostin brought the new album to the Warner/Reprise sales force and they got a load of “Manic Depression” and “Third Stone from the Sun,” their eyes didn’t glaze over so much as turn to granite. Most of the distributors took minimal shipments of the album; one ordered the bare minimum of eight. Then the record store reorders started coming in. As the kids in the Ostins’ living room had promised, Hendrix’s audience was out there. By the end of the year, Are You Experienced was on its way to selling three million copies.

Whatever opposition to the youths’ music that remained in the first half of 1967 had now officially expired. Ostin went to his staff with his new vision. It was the most surprising request they’d ever heard from a top-rank record company executive: stop with the surefire singles and look for the artists who are going to make the best, most distinctive records. “I was into making quality records because if you do something good, good things follow,” Ostin recalls now. “If we made good records by great artists, they didn’t have to be commercial. Something good was always going to happen because you’d just made a great record.”

The more Ostin and the Warner/Reprise staff dove into rock ’n’ roll, the more they shed their unhip reputation as holdovers from the 50s silent generation and embraced the swinging 60s. To push through the glass doors of the Warner building in Burbank during the workday was like strolling into a purposeful commune. Most office doors stood open, a necessity given the building’s indifferent ventilation system, but it also encouraged impromptu visits and hang-out sessions that often turned into serious discussions of record culture and promotional strategy, ideas flowing from every direction.

When Ostin talked about creative freedom, he wasn’t thinking just about the artists. Warner staffers were just as young, hip, and freaky as the musicians the label signed, and its Burbank offices became a clubhouse. 

They knew it was all a business, this making and selling of commercial products, but it felt like so much more than that. By putting out records by the Dead, Hendrix, Zappa and all the other freaky acts, they were at the forefront of the revolution, sending bulletins to young people across the nation. That was the vibe, anyway, and in those days, it was as irresistible as it was intoxicating. Everyone pulled in the same direction, from the mailroom clerks to the artists. So when word came that someone was in a pinch—needing enough hands, say, to get 1,000 mailers into the post by 4 p.m.—you’d find staffers, executives, and even a musician or two rolling up their sleeves and stuffing envelopes. It was a business, a revolution, and also a family.

Even given the traditional corporate structure—presidents and vice presidents managing department heads and lower-level staffers—the atmosphere at 3701 Warner Boulevard felt open and egalitarian. Some staffers, including division chiefs, worked from desks stationed in the hallway. Ostin and Smith’s presidential offices were just a touch larger than the ones occupied by entry-level staffers. You didn’t need an appointment to get the attention of one of the label’s presidents. If that kid from the mailroom felt strongly about an act or a record, the top executives took his feelings seriously, as they knew their company’s core audience had a lot more in common with Warner’s junior staffers than they did with its chief executives.

At home, Ostin was the same warm, if preoccupied, family man he’d always been. The Ostin place was a lot like the other well-to-do tract homes on the upper slopes of Encino: airy and modern, with a swimming pool, a driveway spacious enough for half-court basketball, and windows that looked over a twinkling expanse of the San Fernando Valley. If you were a teenager in Encino during the late 1960s, the Ostin place was where you wanted to be. The three Ostin boys, Randy, Michael, and Kenny, were athletic, charismatic, warm, and generous. Evelyn Ostin welcomed her kids’ friends like family, and when Mr. Ostin got home, things could get really interesting. Mo wasn’t as outgoing as his wife, but everyone knew what he did for a living. He’d often walk in, carting an armload of advance pressings of Warner/Reprise’s albums or even acetate discs from sessions that were still in progress. It’d be Hendrix one day, Arlo Guthrie, the Kinks, Zappa the next.

Ostin led a style revolution as well. The first thing that changed was his sideburns. What had been abrupt culs-de-sac ending at the wings of his eyeglasses, sprouted into chin-length panhandles. The goatee came next. Then the full beard he’d wear for the next 15 years. His look telegraphed the feeling he wanted to permeate the company: relaxed, creative, a place where work and fun went arm in arm. He was particularly intent on the latter. Music was supposed to be fun, he liked to say. If we don’t have fun producing it for people, why would they want to listen to it?

mo ostin
Ostin and Warner Bros. Records exec Smith on the Sunset Strip. The pair, along with A&R chief Waronker and a team of crack in-house producers, set a tone at Warner that emphasized talent over profits.

Photo by Ginny Winn/Michael Ochs Archives/GETTY IMAGES

And when Ostin talked about creative freedom, he wasn’t thinking just about the artists. The spirit of unbridled creativity, along with the new gang of staffers who were just as young, hip, and freaky as the artists, transformed the company offices into a clubhouse for Warner/Reprise musicians and employees alike. The new vibe was contagious. A staff photo taken in 1969 shows that of the 19 men pictured (only two employees were women), nine were fully bearded, two others had bushy mustaches, and all save one sported hair that either touched their shoulders or was piled high atop their heads. Love beads, rope bracelets, and ankhs tangled and jangled; incense thickened the air in offices and conference rooms; while the parking lot collected at least as many smoked-down joints as it did Marlboro and Pall Mall butts. Cornyn, the label’s marketing director, was always eager to check the groovier stops on the hippie underground. So he’d tag along with the younger staffers on their lunchtime trips to Headquarters, a head shop near the UCLA campus in Westwood. Cornyn made a habit of buying the underground newspapers and magazines to sink as deeply into the vibe of the moment as he could from the safety of his Burbank office.

Meetings with artists played out like lightly purposeful hang-out sessions. A smattering of budgets, release schedules, tour dates—and then on to what really mattered: the latest records, the new issue of Rolling Stone, Eastern philosophy, what Copernicus learned about the universe by watching the vibration of zither strings. When Neil Young dropped by, he’d hole up in an office with whomever was around, smoke a joint or two, blast records, check out demos, and shoot the shit. Eventually, they’d get to the crucial stuff: Are you headed to the Troubadour tonight? Want to go together? When they all came rolling out into the evening, it was hard to tell the musicians from the staffers. They were all young, clad in the same rainbow clothes, headed to the same parties, enjoying the same drugs.

As envisioned by Ostin, the company worked more like a for-profit arts collective than a traditional commercial enterprise. Selling vast quantities of vinyl and reaping the windfall they created might have been its prime directive, but it wasn’t the only thing the company felt obligated to do. Sometimes the bottom line for signing an act came down to how unique the artists were—or as Lenny Waronker, the label’s A&R chief, would say when he wanted to sign a profoundly uncommercial artist whose work was too good to pass by: “They deserve to have a record contract.” And it really did work like that. When new A&R man Russ Titelman brought Little Feat’s Lowell George and Bill Payne in to play two or three of their eccentric blues-art rock songs, Waronker was so impressed by what he heard that he signed them on the spot. “That’s great! Go upstairs [to Ostin’s office] and make a deal.” No audition necessary.

For all his calm and understanding, the way he moved without troubling the water, Ostin was also a notoriously dogged negotiator. When it came to contracts—with artists, with vendors, with anyone trying to extract money from his company—he would take a position and stick to it. If you squeezed a little more out of him, it was probably because he had already decided to give it to you but wanted you to have to earn it, then go away feeling like you’d beaten him. David Geffen, renowned for his own killer instinct at the bargaining table, did everything he could to avoid sitting across from Ostin. Randy Newman still shudders when he recalls his attempts to get a better deal out of him. “It was like dealing with mortgage bankers,” he told the musician and historian Warren Zanes. Ted Templeman, the successful producer and A&R man, had his own contracts with Ostin, and he saw artists he wanted to bring into the company take their beatings, too. “I think he’d make his mind up on a certain number and wouldn’t budge.” Still, as tough as he could be, Ostin always told the truth. He didn’t come up with elaborate stories to justify his position; he didn’t pull bait and switches. But as Templeman told me, “When he dug in, that was it, the bottom line. No bullshitting.”

For all his calm and understanding, Ostin was also a notoriously dogged negotiator.

Once the contracts were signed, Ostin reverted to Medici mode, and the artists ascended to their customary place in the Warner firmament. When Newman wanted a full 40-piece orchestra for a recording session, he would get it, no questions asked, and with no muttering about how much his last record did or didn’t sell. When Van Dyke Parks fell hard for steel drum music in 1970, he summoned the entire Esso Trinidad Steel Band, nearly 30 members, from their Caribbean home to record with him in Los Angeles, then convinced Ostin to sign them as artists in their own right. The prospects of steel band music breaking through to the mainstream were slim at best, but Ostin liked the music and believed in Parks too much to doubt his taste.

One of the most powerful tools in the Warner/Reprise strategy was simple patience. Liberated from the hamster wheel of living from one hit single to the next, it could give its artists time to hone their craft while also building their audience. The perpetually troubled British blues outfit Fleetwood Mac made for a particularly challenging case. The group’s second album sold fewer copies than their American debut, and though their third album did a bit better, the group’s lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Peter Green, quit the band, and his successor, Jeremy Spencer, did the same not long after, leaving drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie, and their remaining bandmates scrambling. At that point, any other label worth its profit-and-loss statement would have sent the luckless band packing. But no matter who was fronting them, Fleetwood Mac’s records always came out sounding cool. They also didn’t lose too much of the company’s money, and as long as there were enough other acts raking in the dough, that was enough to guarantee Fleetwood Mac a home on the label.

Ostin had first heard about Fleetwood Mac in 1968, when they were a five-man blues outfit recording for the independent Blue Horizon label in England. Not many American music fans had heard of them at the time, but the ones who had were fervent enough to push the imported U.K. release of Fleetwood Mac to No. 198 on the Billboard album chart. So when the group’s first single, “Man of the World,” was released by Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate Records and jumped to the U.K. charts’ No. 2 slot in 1969, Ostin looked into buying the entire label from Oldham, a deal that would have netted not just Fleetwood Mac but also the promising young guitarist Peter Frampton. When it turned out that the group’s deal with Immediate Records was solely for that one single, Ostin went straight to Fleetwood Mac’s manager and made a deal. The group’s first Reprise album, Then Play On, came out in September 1969. It made for a slow start in the United States, peaking at No. 109 on the Billboard charts. After a flurry of personnel changes, including the addition of Christine Perfect (later McVie, after she married the group’s bassist) and American guitarist Bob Welch, the band recorded 1971’s Future Games, introducing a more laid-back rock sound that resonated with Americans, who bought enough copies to earn the group its first gold album.

By the time Welch left the band in 1974, Fleetwood Mac’s album sales were sputtering. Setting out for a new lead guitarist, Mick Fleetwood happened upon a pair of young Californians who had just made their first album as a duo. Impressed by the male half ’s guitar playing, the drummer invited him to join his band. The guitarist agreed, but only if his singer-songwriter girlfriend got to join, too. With the addition of Lindsey Buckingham, the guitarist, and Stevie Nicks, his partner in music and romance, Fleetwood Mac was back at it. After a few months of rehearsing, then playing a series of shows where the new lineup drew so badly that Fleetwood gave the promoters some of their money back, the rejiggered group got to work on an album with a power and clarity none of its earlier efforts had approached. Much of the credit went to the newcomers. Buckingham’s California rock sound and Nicks’s spectral folk-rock songs, built on Fleetwood and McVie’s rhythmic foundation, made them into a band that could range from the straight-ahead rock of Buckingham’s “Monday Morning” to the pop balladry of McVie’s “Over My Head” and the fretful shawl rock of Nicks’s “Rhiannon.”

Knowing that his group’s new album marked a significant departure from its previous work and convinced that it had hit potential, Fleetwood went to Ostin to implore him to put the company’s full muscle behind the record. At first, Ostin was skeptical. Fleetwood wanted him to treat Fleetwood Mac like a brand-new band, sinking tens of thousands of dollars into tour support, ads, the works. But they weren’t a new band, no matter how many new members they had. Worse, when the label sent a few tracks out for market research, the ensuing report was far from promising. Older teens had next to no interest in Buckingham’s “Monday Morning,” and Nicks’s “Rhiannon” did even worse. No matter. Ostin deferred to Fleetwood and agreed to give the record an extra push. “Artists are usually incredibly smart about themselves,” he reflects now. “They know more than we do.”

Released in July 1975, Fleetwood Mac started creeping onto the lower rungs of the charts. McVie’s bubbling “Over My Head” hit radio stations in September, peaking at No. 20, followed by Nicks’s witchy “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me.” On September 4, more than a year after its release, Fleetwood Mac hit No. 1. In February 1976, the ascendant musicians sequestered themselves in the Record Plant, outside San Francisco, to record the follow-up. The previous year of nonstop touring had transformed their careers and taken a bite out of all their lives. John and Christine McVie broke up in the middle of the tour, just as Buckingham and Nicks’s relationship began falling apart. Fleetwood, meanwhile, came home to the news that his wife was leaving him for one of his closest friends.

Fueled by their mutual miseries, the songwriting members of the group produced a catalog of powerful new tunes. Given the puckish title Rumours and released just six months after Fleetwood Mac topped the charts, the new album became an immediate sensation. With advance orders of nearly a million copies, the largest prerelease order in Warner Bros. Records history, Rumours took slightly more than a month to become the top-selling album in the nation, then spent nearly seven months at No. 1 and sold more than ten million copies in its first year. It was an enormous triumph for Fleetwood Mac, a band that had been struggling for nearly a decade to break through in America and that just three years earlier had been on the verge of nonexistence. Any other major-label chief would have cut the band loose when the sales slipped so drastically prior to Fleetwood Mac. But the group’s core fans stuck with them, and so did their fans in Burbank, where Fleetwood Mac’s latest records were always a popular choice for Warner’s in-house sound system. The band worked hard and usually came close to breaking even, so keeping them on the roster was, according to Ostin’s measures, a no-brainer. He liked to reward people for doing good work, and by 1977 his faith in Fleetwood Mac had been amply rewarded.

Excerpted from Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros. Records, from Hendrix to Fleetwood Mac to Madonna to Prince by Peter Ames Carlin. Published by Henry Holt and Company, January 19, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Peter Ames Carlin. All rights reserved.

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