If there's such a thing as a prodigal patriarch, Mo Osting, 68, may assume the title: In the wake of the June 21 firing of Warner Music U.S. chairman Doug Morris, high-level Time Warner sources suggest the conglomerate has made a bid to lure the legendary former Warner Records chief back home. And if he doesn't return to the fold, Ostin could well land at Disney or at the new MCA-distributed DreamWorks.
Why is an aging titan so sought after in the youth-driven music business? ''It's simple,'' says Madonna. ''He has a lot of experience, and he's a brilliant man.'' In three decades at the helm, Ostin transformed Warner from a vanity label into the world's largest record company, and his executive hirings commanded heavy respect: Six of his protéga e]s went on to run record labels.
Ostin's homecoming would bring the turmoil at the $4 billion Warner Music Group full circle. His departure last year was sparked by a plan to have him report to then WMG chairman Robert Morgado and sealed by Morgado's promotion of Morris to oversee WMG's domestic labels. The subsequent executive overhaul saw Elektra Records' Robert Krasnow also leave.
But will Mo return? ''If elephants can fly,'' says a skeptical Krasnow, who now runs his own label, ''Mo Ostin will go back.'' Sources close to Morgado's successor, Michael Fuchs, deny Ostin's been offered Morris' job.
Reports earlier this year also indicated that both Disney (whose offer was said to include positions for both Ostin and his son, Michael, currently a Warner exec) and DreamWorks (whose label is being guided by Ostin protégé David Geffen) were bidding for his services.
For its part, WMG faces more pressing problems, including Morris' $50 million breach-of-contract suit. And no one knows how the upheaval will affect WMG's reputation among new and current artists. ''This story really began with Mo leaving,'' notes an exec from Interscope, which is distributed by Warner. ''This is the middle. God knows where it's going to end.''
With additional reporting by Steve Hochman