Mo Austin, the hugely influential music executive who ran Warner Bros. Records for more than 30 years, has died at the age of 95.
Born Morris Meyer Ostrofsky in 1927, the future music mogul spent his early childhood in New York before moving with his family to Los Angeles in 1941. In 1953, after studying economics at UCLA, he landed a job at Verve Records, where he worked in the finance department. Seven years later, after a failed attempt to buy Verve, legendary singer Frank Sinatra launched his own label, Reprise, and poached Austin to run it. In 1963, Reprise was bought by Warner Bros.
Austin quickly made a name for himself at Warner Bros Kinks in 1964 and Jimi Hendrix Experience in ’67. In 1970, he was promoted to president of Warner-Reprise; two years later, he would be named chairman/CEO—a title he held until his departure from the company in 1994.
Under Austin’s watch, Warner Bros. accumulated a list of clients that included some of music’s biggest acts, including Fleetwood Mac, Van Halenthat WHO, Van Morrisonthat Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Rod Stewart, REM, Steely Dan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakersthat Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day.
Austin gained a reputation for his artist-friendly approach, something he said he gained from working for Sinatra. “He predicted that the driving force of the company would be its artists,” Austin explained in the 2002 book Exploding. “It all seems logical today, but back then it was truly revolutionary.”
Although productive, Austin’s tenure at Warner Bros. was not always easy. The brand went through a particularly tumultuous period in the early 90s following the merger of Warner Communications and Time Inc. It was around this time as well Prince began a well-publicized feud with the label, angry that he had no control over the speed at which they released his material. In the midst of this storm, Austin decided to leave the company he had helped lead for more than three decades.
The famous director left Warner Bros. in 1994 and was snapped up by DreamWorks Records less than a year later. The fledgling label made a name for itself, signing an eclectic lineup of artists including Elliott Smith, Henry Rollins, Eels, Papa Roach, Jimmy Eat World, Rufus Wainwright and Nelly Furtado. Yet by 2003, declining sales and the onset of online music piracy had taken effect, and DreamWorks Records was sold to Universal Music and eventually disbanded.
Austin was admitted to Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 by Neil Young, Paul Simon and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. “Anyone who was at Warner Bros. during the Mo years knew it was an exalted time,” Simon said during the ceremony“with the possible exception of Prince.”
“I love Mo,” Young added. “This man, Mo Austin, was behind the music. He was behind making it happen. He was behind letting it happen, but it was going to happen. And he was behind keeping it happening. And that’s why Reprise and Warner Bros. was the biggest label ever in music, as far as I know.”
When word of Austin’s passing became public, many music industry insiders came out paid their respects. In a joint statement, Warner Records co-chairman/CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck and co-chairman/COO Tom Corson described Austin as “one of the greatest record men of all time, and a leading architect of the modern music industry. For Mo, it was always first and foremost about helping artists realize their vision.” Warner Recorded Music CEO Max Lousada called Austin “a pioneer who wrote the rule book for others to follow,” while Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge noticed that his “nose for talent was playful, but he was also an incredible connector of people; something sorely missed in business – and the world – today.”
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