Former Warner Bros. CEO Mo Ostin Recalls His Long Relationship With Prince: 'He Was a Fearless Artist'

Prince and Mo Ostin
Courtesy of Warner Bros Records Archive 

Prince and Mo Ostin

The great irony of Prince infamous battles with Warner Bros. Records over the ownership of his music is the fact that the company -- to which he was signed for the first 19 years of his career -- was one of the most artist-friendly major labels in history. From the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, the Burbank, California-based label fostered the careers of Jimi HendrixJoni MitchellNeil YoungVan MorrisonFleetwood MacVan HalenRandy Newman, the Grateful DeadR.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, of course, Prince in a free-wheeling and innovative but fiscally responsible culture that was as financially successful as it was "hip."  

At the helm of that ship was Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Mo Ostin. Hired away from Verve Records in 1960 by Frank Sinatra to run his new Reprise label, Ostin convinced his boss to let him sign rock acts -- and the first one he signed was the Kinks. Reprise was purchased by Warner in 1963, and the combined company soon became the house that Mo built -- one that he presided over, as president, then chairman/CEO, until 1994.

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The Ostin era at Warner spans most of Prince’s creative peak, from his signing in 1977 to his multiplatinum Purple Rain era to his widely publicized battles with the label. Prince’s accusations against the label perplexed many artists and executives who knew Ostin’s gentlemanly nature and artist-friendly culture, and the artist’s relations with the label only grew more contentious under the subsequent Warner management, until he finally fulfilled his contract and left the label in 1996 -- only to return in 2014, when Warner was under new ownership and management. 

In this rare interview, Ostin, now 89 and retired but busy as a consultant and board member of the music schools at UCLA and USC, spoke with Billboard about his long relationship with this “fearless, unbelievably talented” artist.

First of all, I’m sorry for all of us but especially for those of you who worked with him and knew him for so long. 
It's a really tragic situation, and it's still unclear exactly what happened. He seemed to be in incredible physical shape in all the years that I was associated with him. He was just amazing. The range of his talent was beyond belief. 

Was there anyone you worked with who you'd compare with him? 
Well, Sinatra, in a different way, was incredibly prolific, and certainly his performances were exciting -- he was electric onstage. But Prince was something unique and unto himself. He was a one-of-a-kind artist. 

Do you remember how you first heard about him? 
Our head of promotion [at the time], Russ Thyret, got a demo from our promotion guy in Minnesota, Owen Husney -- he later became Prince's manager. We were absolutely blown away and wanted to sign him immediately. There was a lot of competition because other people knew about him -- A&M and Columbia were trying to sign him, and it became very competitive. But A&M wanted his publishing and he wouldn't give it up, so he passed on them. Columbia would only give him a two-LP deal, so we decided that we would give him a three-LP deal because we believe in him so strongly. And also, because we valued artists, he signed with us. 

Prince wanted to produce [his debut] album himself -- he was enormously confident, even at 19 years old. [Earth, Wind & Fire founder] Maurice White was interested in producing him, and of course we wanted him to be in the studio with somebody who had experience and a track record. So we leaned toward Maurice White, but [Prince] was very, very persistent -- he was a guy who wanted control, that was very important to him. So we sent him in the studio to assess whether he was capable of producing his own stuff, and we immediately felt he was capable. 

On Prince's first album, engineer Tommy Vicari is credited as executive producer. 
I'm sure [Prince] had engineering help and maybe other A&R help, but he was pretty much the sole producer. 

Do you remember when you first met him and what your impression was? 
Yeah, I do. After we signed him we had a lunch for him, and we found that he was incredibly shy, very taciturn -- I mean, he hardly spoke, and it was difficult for him to come out and relate, so I'm sure he was very uncomfortable meeting all these record executives. He was very, very shy and did not talk a lot; at that first meeting we were really taken aback by how little he said. But when you got to his music, that's when he could really shine. 

Was he like that one-on-one as well? 
One-on-one he was a lot more comfortable. He was really an incredibly good guy to converse with. He was laden with ideas, he had a terrific sense of humor, he was always fascinating, he was a lot of fun to be with. He would come in and visit with me whenever he was in L.A. 

When he finished a record he would bring it into the office and he would take Lenny [longtime Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker] and me through the album as he was playing it to us -- he would make comments and sing the lyrics he thought we couldn't hear clearly. It was a really fun experience to have him in the room playing the record for us and going through a sort of running commentary. 

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I'm envisioning him explaining the lyrics to songs like “Head” …
He would come right up and sing into your ear! Then later we would go to Paisley Park to listen to new product. He was always coming up with incredible ideas, he was incredibly smart. He had ideas about marketing, videos, other artists. He’d take us to the studio, we would go up to his apartment where we would usually have lunch, and he would talk almost in a stream of consciousness. Those were really fun meetings.

Was he as in control of his business early on as he became later? 
I think early on he wasn't quite as sophisticated, but he was very well represented. He left Owen Husney and appointed Bob Cavallo, Steve Fargnoli and Joe Ruffalo, and they were very strong management people. We had dealings with Rob over the years because we’d signed [‘60s act] the Lovin’ Spoonful with John Sebastian after they left MGM, and all kinds of other acts he represented. And so [Prince] was in great hands in terms of his management, and they had one of the best lawyers in town [Lee Phillips]. Although he himself didn't know a lot about business, he had good instincts. 

Was there a concerted effort to bring him to a white audience with 1999 and Purple Rain
No, never consciously on our part. I mean, I think he might have thought about that. Certainly, when he came up with the idea of doing the film he recognized what the potential might be if it was successful.

He came to us early, through his management, to say he wanted to make a film. We believed in him very strongly by that time, but it was hard sell -- he didn’t have any experience in that area and still wasn't a huge artist. But I met with the head of production at Warner [Pictures] at that time, Mark Canton, and convinced him that he should take a flyer on making a picture with him. The top executive in the company had some misgivings about it, and in order to get them to commit, the management, and probably Prince himself, agreed to put in some money to front the film. And we told the film company that we -- the record company -- would guarantee everything that went over budget. So that really sealed the business part of the deal. And of course Purple Rain was enormous. I think [the album] was number one for 24 weeks, and it had two great No. 1 [singles], “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and then “Purple Rain,” which was a No.2 record. 

Was there any hesitation about making “When Doves Cry” the first single from such a big project? It’s one of the most unusual No. 1 singles of all time. 
It is. I'm not sure that we would have picked it as the first single, but we got great feedback on it from radio. When there was that kind of response to it, we went ahead. 

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What was your reaction when he came with Around the World in a Day, which is a much less commercial album, as the follow-up record? Purple Rain was still going strong. 
We were very, very positive about all of his records -- he was so versatile that nothing that came from him would surprise us. We were strongly artist-supportive -- we pretty much went along with his wishes on all of his releases. 

You said he used to come in play his albums when they were done. Sign O’ the Times had many different iterations, including a three-album version. Was he coming in and playing you each one? 
He didn't play all of it -- he left it with us. It came in as a three-album set, and then after living with it we decided that if he eliminated some things we didn't think were as strong, we would have a much better album. Actually Lenny had a conversation with him, and he went along with it. 

Things didn’t go quite as smoothly with [1987's] The Black Album, which Prince abruptly recalled just days before it was released. 
What happened was, we had a marketing campaign in connection with the Sign O’ the Times record release, and then there would be a whole new marketing campaign connected with the [release of the Sign O’ the Times concert film, later in 1987]. But while we were [promoting] the record, he went to a bunch of discos -- he would always do that -- and he wouldn’t hear his records being played, and he was very upset. So he decided he wanted to make a record that was [more dancefloor-friendly], and he made The Black Album. He insisted that we release it at the same time we were working Sign O’ the Times, and it would have disrupted our entire marketing plan. We tried to talk him out of it: “You can't put a record out to interfere with the existing record.” But he insisted, and we again went along with him.

But then, he had a change of heart. After we had manufactured records all over the world for the release, he called us and said he wanted to hold off and wait until we completed our campaign. We told him we had spent a lot of money getting this thing ready for market, and he said “Look, I want you to take all those albums and destroy them and I'll pay for whatever cost you guys incurred in manufacturing.” And he actually paid us out of his royalties. 

You’d been down that road before with Neil Young -- didn’t he scrap hundreds of thousands of copies of 1978’s Comes a Time because he decided he didn’t like the mix? 
Yeah, we'd been down that road with several artists. I don’t know if you know Frank Sinatra cut a recitation of Gunga Din, the Rudyard Kipling poem, after [Sinatra's 1966 Grammy-winning No. 1 album] Strangers in the Night! [laughter]. And he wanted it released!

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Yes! I held it up, and then he and I had a… [chuckles] … a pretty hot discussion about it because I had interfered with his wishes. He really got angry, he told me he wanted the album out immediately. So we prepared it for release, we sent it to radio, and we got such negative feedback. The record still was at the distribution centers, it had not yet gone to retail, so I called him and said "Frank, we’re getting a terrible, terrible response to the Gunga Din record," and he said “Mo, if that’s the case, see if you can kill it and pull it back.” So we’d been through that before.

Prince said that Warner Bros. limited his creativity by not allowing him to release music quickly enough, and one of his former managers told us that his contract called for just one album a year, presumably to ensure that he didn’t under-deliver. But would it have been a contractual violation for him to over-deliver? 
I don't remember restricting him to one album a year. I know that we had a conversation about that, but I don't recall it was in the contract. When he wanted something out, there was no stopping him. He released almost 40 albums -- and during my time, probably half of that. So it was always a battle, there was always some problem about releases. But in most cases he prevailed. 

He did say, as the relationship got into the ‘90s, Warner was preventing him from releasing as much music he wanted to release. Was he referring to those conversations? 
I'm not sure what he was exactly referring to. His biggest concern always was an ownership interest in the record that he created, which is understandable. We had both his records and publishing, although I said to you earlier one of the reasons he didn't sign with A&M was because they insisted that publishing be part of the deal and we didn't. We later made a deal with him to acquire his publishing. His anger at us actually came out of his obsession with ownership of his own work. 

Do you feel that his anger was directed at the concept of the music business rather than Warner Bros. in particular? 
Probably. But because he was a Warner artist and we owned the masters, a lot of it was directed at us, and that's why he changed his name and became a symbol and became "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" and had that “slave” thing on his face. I’m not sure whether there was any racist aspect to it. But he really had given us a bad time over it -- he constantly badgered us to give him ownership of the records. As you know, one of the most important assets of any record company is their library, so it was very, very important to a record company to take ownership. 

And he came at you like, “Give me back my catalog -- that's the way it should be, despite the contracts”? 
Yep. He was very, very persistent and never let up. And as you know, he never went back to the name Prince until after he left Warner Bros.

Did your relationship with him become contentious? Did you feel betrayed by the way he acted? 
No. It bugged me, but I understood where he was coming from. I remember that when Reprise was sold to Warner Bros., there was a difference in price that Warner wanted to pay us. And in order to compromise to a lesser price, one of the things we got Warner to agree to was to allow Frank [Sinatra] to own his masters. Dean [Martin] owned his masters, too. Reprise, because it was a company that was by an artist, we always wanted the environment to be [one] where the artist was favored. 

But the "slave" stuff only bugged you? It was just business? 
Well, it was annoying, because he was pretty persistent, and the idea that we had enslaved him and treated him unfairly and were taking advantage of him was bothersome, because it certainly wasn't the case in our eyes. But we never had any really bad, serious, angry arguments about it. We took a position with him, we told him we would not give him back his masters and although he always insisted in pushing for it, we held our ground. Even many years later, when Edgar Bronfman became chairman of the company and the ownership changed, Prince pushed him to get his masters back. 

When you were in contact with him much after you weren't working with him? 
No, I wasn't. 

Do you remember the last time you saw him or spoke with him? 
I don't. 

What are you doing these days? 
I'm retired -- I'm 89 years old. But I'm still consulting with Warner Bros. about business affairs, A&R, any issues that they think would be appropriate for me. And I'm on the board of the USC School of Music and also the UCLA School of Music. So I'm involved, but obviously I'm more limited in my activity. I haven't been since 2002-2003. 

Is there any specific Prince memory or moment that stands out among the others? 
Well, there are so many. He was incredibly competitive with Michael Jackson -- when you think about the ‘80s, those were really the two geniuses of that decade, and the contrast was like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Michael admired him enormously, and when Michael was making the album Bad, he wanted Prince to perform on it. I got a call from Quincy [Jones], who was producing the album, and he asked me if I could arrange for a conference call with Prince and Michael. So I did, and Michael and Quincy asked Prince if he would perform on the song “Bad” -- they wanted to do a duet. I don't think Prince ever had any intention of performing with Michael, but he was very, very polite and said “Look, Michael, you're a great artist. You make great records. You don't need me.” And he declined to do the project. 

Any others?
Well, there was a situation with The Black Album. Time Inc. and Warner had merged, and we were at a sort of [corporate] bonding conference with Time magazine in Jamaica, I think it was. And there were lots of people there and Lenny was in a conversation with a guy who was a very important writer and editor for Time magazine called Dick Stolley -- he was the guy who actually [acquired and released] the tapes of the Kennedy assassination; I think he also came up with the idea of People magazine. Somehow The Black Album came up -- and Stolley of course became very interested and asked if we would send him a copy. Well, Prince had asked us to destroy them so we said no. But he said "Please send me the album, I’ll keep it under wraps," all kinds of things. Finally, I said, "Well, we can trust Stolley, he's a guy who has an incredible reputation and a lot of integrity. Let's let him have it." 

We still had some records in our warehouses -- we had destroyed most of them but we kept some, just to have them, and we agreed to send Stolley a copy. Not long after that, Prince showed up at our office with Kim Basinger. He had just finished [the] Batman [soundtrack] and had made a disco recording with her that ran about 20 minutes [“The Scandalous Sex Suite”] and he wanted to play it for us. We were in Lenny's office and as he was playing the record, Prince got up from where he was sitting, went up to Lenny's desk -- and there on his desk was the copy of The Black Album that we were going to send to Stolley. He looked at it, picked it up, put it back on the desk and made no comment. I came up with whatever excuse I could make, I told him that this was somebody we could trust and might be valuable in getting exposure for Prince, maybe a cover of Time magazine, who knows? It turned out to be less of an issue than we thought it might, but our hearts dropped when we saw him pick up that album. 

Do you have any idea how many original copies you held back? 
No I don't. It might have been a hundred, I have no idea. It was the guy in the manufacturing [plant] who actually did that.

Is there anything else you want to say about Prince? 
Well, you can't say enough about how multitalented he was. He was a fabulous composer, a superb guitarist -- he was up there with Hendrix -- he was a fabulous singer and producer, he could dance phenomenally, he had film ideas, he made great videos. The guy was so unbelievably talented it was overwhelming. And his songs were recorded by so many others like Sinead O’Connor, Tom Jones, Chaka Khan, the Bangles. Do you know that group he produced, The Time

Of course. Prince said they were the only band that scared him. 
I don't think he had any fear. That was a fearless artist, let me tell you. He knew how good he was.