It’s hard to fathom today, but in the 1960s and '70s, many record companies weren’t run by corporate boards, faceless businessmen, and bean counters. There were charismatic leaders installed in positions of power, real “music men” who could catch a new band or one of their established acts at a club or concert hall, party with them until the wee hours, then show up at the office the next morning for a finance meeting — and do it all again.
Larger-than-life execs with names known only to music heads and liner note readers included Ahmet Ertegun, Walter Yetnikoff, Jerry Wexler, Al Bell, Seymour Stein, David Geffen, Clive Davis, Jac Holzman, Joe Smith and Mo Ostin.
Those last two ran Warner Bros. Records which — despite its background with the famous movie studio and Frank Sinatra’s vanity label Reprise—was one of the scrappiest labels.
The WB roster would eventually include Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Van Halen, James Taylor, America, Alice Cooper, the Doobie Brothers, and distribution deals for many more via agreements with smaller labels. Their wild and storied story is told in the new book Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros. Records by Peter Ames Carlin (288 pp., $29.99, Henry Holt & Co.).
“There was a whole idealism behind the Warner Bros. way of doing business that I just found so appealing. There [wasn’t] this mercenary capitalism to them,” Carlin—who has written previous bios of Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and the Beach Boys—says.
“At Warners, it was the triumph of art first, then business. If you invest in an artist and have patience with them, eventually, you end up making way more money and being way more successful.”
Mo Ostin came to Warner Bros. via their partnership with Sinatra’s Reprise. The Chairman of the Board trusted Mo inherently, often refusing to deal with any other executive. When Warner Bros. absorbed Reprise and Ostin moved over, he found a label who seemed to be recording anything but the type of music that was actually making money.
When he pushed the company toward rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead were two highly successful early signings. And even when albums he believed in tanked commercially but garnered critical acclaim (Van Dyke Parks’ ambitious Song Cycle), the label’s offbeat, hip, sardonic and influential PR man, Stan Cornyn, took out trade ads talking about how much money the label lost on it ($35,509.90 supposedly – or about $267K today). There was also an offer if you sent Warner Bros. your old copy and a penny, they’d send you two new copies.
A similar campaign for Randy Newman included such stellar praise as “Once you get used to it…his voice is really something.” New signee Jethro Tull was mocked as being big in England, but could they cut it in the U.S.? By their own distributing label!
“Mo Ostin ran the company as a sort of for-profit art commune. They would take money made by the big pop acts and subsidize artists like Van Dyke Parks and Captain Beefheart who made records that barely anybody bought,” Carlin says. “But he knew those acts would eventually pay off somehow and innovate the musical field.”
It certainly caught the attention of a young guitarist named Peter Buck. And it was a big reason that years later, his band R.E.M. only wanted to be at Warner Bros., where the band was guaranteed complete creative freedom, even if the money was less.
Warner Bros. hand wasn’t always hot, though. The label passed on signing the Doors, Jackson Browne, and John Denver. And acts like Nikita K, the Friends of Ed Labunski, and Luke Warm are barely known even to the biggest music nerds.
Still, Ostin found like-minded souls in the Warner Bros. board room and studios with Joe Smith and Lenny Waronker, with the three forming a tight team. Their mantras include phrases like “Let’s try it!” and “Just do it!”
A patience that’s impossible to imagine today was another virtue of Ostin and Warner Bros. Fleetwood Mac was a British blues band who had lost its founder guiding light (Peter Green) and had a carousel of member changes and sound shifts. It wasn't until their eighth record for Warner/Reprise, 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, that they had any success, and it was massive (their next effort, Rumours went even higher and further).
Carlin also writes how Ostin had an ear for a hit. When Debby Boone’s 1977 saccharine and platitude-filled “You Light Up My Life” was played for a roomful of execs, it was excoriated and booed by all—except Ostin, who immediately saw its commercial potential and insisted upon its release. It went on to hold the No. 1 spot on Billboard for a then-record ten weeks.
“That song is horrible! But Mo knew it would be a hit. He never considered himself a music guy, but he had that antennae and knew when something had that certain ‘X Factor,’” Carlin says.
“He could just look at pictures of Jimi Hendrix and know something. And then when he read that Clapton, the Beatles, and the Stones were all [enthralled] by Hendrix, he signed him. When they first played the record, all the other execs could hear was this guitar screaming. But nine months later, they realized it was the best business decision they’d ever made!”
Sonic Boom includes plenty of anecdotes about Warner Bros. acts, but also about label employees and their unique corporate culture (three words: chimps on tricycles). Then there was the wild event booked at a posh hotel. A debutante debut ball held for a young “lady” named…Alice Cooper.
But by the early ‘90s, those halcyon days of big record sales and bigger expense accounts were coming to a close. Ostin and Smith were pushed out in 1994 at a time when labels were being bought and merged. And more corporate suits and non-music heads begin to infiltrate business leadership positions, wanting even bigger profits than Warner Bros. was already delivering.
Carlin quotes WEA Chief Executive Robert Morgado as saying “We’re coming for all the cowboys”—targeting Ostin and his ilk. A housecleaning happened, but to fairly quick shock and surprise, the label began tanking, and the new game was the blame game.
Ostin and others were hastily lured back, but the glory days were over. In 2003, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Ahmet Ertegun Award, and three years later received the Recording Academy President's Merit Award at the 2006 Grammy Salute to Industry Icons.
In addition to deep archival research, Carlin conducted scores of original interviews, including remembrances with Smith, Waronker, employees, musicians, and writers. And in 2019, he sat for long sessions with then 92-year-old Ostin, who is still alive today.
“Mo was phenomenal. He could not only remembered specific clauses of artist contracts he had written, but how those clauses evolved through renegotiations!” Carlin laughs. “Meanwhile, I couldn’t remember what I had for lunch the previous day!”
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.