Peter Ames Carlin

Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros. Records, from Hendrix to Fleetwood Mac to Madonna to Prince

Chances are a significant chunk of your music collection is from artists on the Warner Brothers, Reprise, Atlantic, Elektra, Asylum, and Sire labels. Innovative executives and record producers like Mo Ostin, Joe Smith, and Lenny Waronker were given incredible power and flexibility, with the belief that quality music would sell records.

Movie mogul Jack Warner started his record company in 1958 and bought Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records in ’63. Both men despised rock and roll, and initially forbade signing rock artists. They couldn’t accept the changing culture, but ultimately relented.

Mo Ostin signed the Jimi Hendrix Experience when Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler passed and called Hendrix a “lower-case B.B. King.” Baffled executives heard Are You Experienced? at a budget meeting and hated it. Ostin’s boys loved it and thought their friends would, too. Yet another executive called Ostin to complain about Eric Clapton, saying his advance payments were too big for what his albums had been selling, therefore, they shouldn’t release Unplugged. Ostin triumphed.

Carlin’s book includes statistics and sales figures to illustrate Warner’s gigantic success. He also recounts the gamesmanship and attempted power grabs that a huge corporation weathering the music business’ ups and downs generated. A fascinating look into a bygone era and business model.

This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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