HITS Daily Double
"What you find in the record business is there is more and more a trend toward corporate control, corporate values, and here you’re dealing with a creatively oriented operation."
——Mo Ostin, 1995


Six Years On, Ostin-Led Creative Sanctum
Hits Its Stride
By Jon O’Hara

There’s an odd synchronicity going on with the advent of Tom Whalley’s Warner Bros. Records. While Whalley, Jeff Ayeroff and Phil Quartararo are gearing up for what many are hailing as the Bunny’s best chance yet to recover from years of decline, across town in Beverly Hills, the legendary executives whose unceremonious mid-’90s ouster sent the once-dominant Warner Bros. spiraling are now kicking some serious butt themselves. Indeed, after an event that still ranks as one of the more bizarre acts of corporate self-sabotage on record, former Warner Bros. chief Mo Ostin, longtime associate Lenny Waronker, son Michael Ostin and a staff of industry vets are making DreamWorks Records click.

Almost six years after the deposed WB trio decided to join Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen (founders of the DreamWorks SKG studio) and put together the DreamWorks Records division with Geffen, the label is on a Platinum tear that only seems to be gaining momentum: Powerman 5000’s "Tonight the Stars Revolt," released on July 20, 1999, has sold 1.25 million to date; Papa Roach’s "Infest," released April 25, 2000, has sold more than 3 million; Nelly Furtado’s "Whoa, Nelly," released Oct. 24, 2000, has sold 1 million-plus; and Lifehouse’s "No Name Face," released Oct. 31, 2000, has sold over 1.8 million.

And now, with two albums charting in the Top 10—Alien Ant Farm’s exploding "Anthology" and the Isley Brothers’ "Eternal"—as well as PoMo darlings Jimmy Eat World charting and new albums coming from Powerman 5000 (delayed while the band adds new material) and Long Beach Dub Allstars, DWR is really beginning to shine—a fact which must please DreamWorks SKG’s unusually patient investors (which include Paul Allen, IBM, Microsoft and Chase Securities) quite a bit.

Other new projects on the way include coed rock outfit Halfcocked (Sept. 11), a full-metal soundtrack to MTV/WWF series "Tough Enough" (Sept. 18), melodic nu-metalurgists Pressure 4-5 (Oct. 2), a compilation project from producer/Ruff Ryders homie Swizz Beatz (Nov. 13) and bilingual girl-band Soluna (Jan. 15).

"What you find in the record business is there is more and more a trend toward corporate control, corporate values, and here you’re dealing with a creatively oriented operation," said the elder Ostin in October 1995 by way of explaining the decision to go with DreamWorks (and perhaps predicting the future better than anyone could have guessed in a pre-VU, pre-AOLTW world). Accordingly, the new DWR didn’t hurry to push out product, and its initial roster took on a decidedly singer-songwriterly lean, with early signings including such critical successes as the Eels and Rufus Wainwright.

DWR’s first release, however, was a high-profile gambit in the form of George Michael’s "Older," which the label released in May 1996 after buying out the crooner’s contract from Sony. While the album did well internationally, going to #1 in several countries, it failed to make much of a splash Stateside. Later that year, however, the label bounced back with the original cast recording of "Rent," which sold extremely well at just under a million copies.

A Nashville operation, meanwhile, formed in June 1997 and led by James Stroud, has had success with the likes of new-traditionalist Toby Keith, whose "How Do You Like Me Now?" has sold 1.2 million since its November 1999 release. A new Keith collection, "Pull My Chain," is due Aug. 28.

On the executive side, a major early coup was luring Epic rock A&R wiz Michael Goldstone (of Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine fame) to join the team in January 1997. Though Goldstone was billed at the time as the "final member" of the DWR senior management team, the ensuing years have seen an unprecedented influx of seasoned executive talent: Jheryl Busby as head of Urban (since resigned), April 1998; Joyce Castagnola as head of sales, September 1998; Mel Posner as head of international, March 199l; Steven Baker to shore up marketing/creative services, March 1999; Bryn Bridenthal to establish and lead an in-house publicity department, April 1999; and John Barbis, promotion guru, August 2000.

Regarding DWR’s current heat, senior executive Michael Ostin says, "We’ve just been really fortunate; we’ve been able to attract some really strong talent, and we also have terrific A&R people in Ron Handler, John McClain, Luke Wood, Beth Halper—they’ve obviously been very much involved in developing talent over the last few years for us, and now it’s paying off. And on the promotion side, Johnny Barbis and his team have done a great job in terms of being able to maximize the potential from these records."

And as DreamWorks continues to release records and develop new artists (the label has some 14 releases, including its Nashville unit, slated for the fourth quarter), the main objective, according to Ostin, is to keep up the momentum: "Right now we’re focused on maintaining the projects that we have out and getting the most out of them, because we feel that these are records that have real depth," he says. "We’ve just now scratched the surface."