Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Ever heard of Mo Ostin? His ignorance was his genius

Mos Ostin was the guy who ran Frank Sinatra's record label Reprise in the early 1960s.

In 1963 Reprise was bought out by a film company that was branching out (again) into the record business: Warner Bros. Ostin thought he'd be a casualty of the merger, but found himself to be an essential part of the Warner/Reprise combo.

Ostin was anything but a rocker. He had built what Jerry Wexler called "possibly the most tasteful and commercial record lable of its day." He also signed up far-out rock acts like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Tiny Tim and The Kinks.

How did old-school Mo have the ear to pick such winners? He didn't. A workmate, Stan Cornyn, described Mo like this:

"He attended few record sessions, and even when he did, never leaned over the engineer's shoulder to suggest a thing. He never partied 'til four. He took no drugs. He didn't dance, couldn't even hop well."

So how did he pick bestsellers who were "on the edge" for their time? He asked people. Stan continues:

"With a growing appetite for individuality, Mo began stunning us with side-of-the-ditchers like the Fugs, Tiny Tim, Zappa, the Kinks, Hendrix, what is this stuff, Mo? ... Mo's signings took on the courage of a believer, often like Galileo in Rome, when no one could understand it. Mo sought the dedicated, non-usual artist. Not only that, he stuck with the ones he signed ... Mo's Warner/Reprise became a Field of Dreams, whose motto read 'If you let them play their music, the people will come...'"

Stan really nails it at the end of this, his programme copy for Mo Ostin's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

"Other record companies didn't catch on. They thought this odd music was noise. Mo knew better. If he could not understand what he heard, he'd listen more, and ask more people."

That's the key. Know what you don't know!

There are plenty more stories like this in Where Have All the Good Times Gone by Louis Barfe, a very entertaining, interesting read if you want to know anything about the music business, business in general, people, history or Thomas Edison. It's a big book, but unlike other big books I've taken on, I actually want to finish it and I won't stop until I have (honest!).


At 1:04 am, Blogger Borscht said...

This certainly reminds me of the case of Celine Dion, and her producing husband -- Rene Angelil. The story goes is that he heard Celine in her rural Quebec home sing when she was 15-16. He thought she had such potential, he begged her mother (matron to about 13 kids, which was normal for Quebecers of the 1960s, a very Catholic place at the time) to allow him to market her away from hymnal music into pop. First French, then branching into English language works. He mortgaged his house on a belief that she could do it -- they fell in love eventually (at the time, he was in his 30s), and the rest, as we know, is TITANIC history.

I love stories like this.


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