As publisher Primary Wave Music observes its 15th year in business, founder/CEO Larry Mestel discusses giving a second life to iconic hits by Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston and Bob Marley.
In March, Primary Wave Music founder/CEO Larry Mestel visited his office at the independent publishing company’s headquarters in New York’s Gramercy Park neighborhood for the first time in nearly a year. The Brooklyn native had been waiting out the pandemic at his vacation home in Vermont, but he had good reason for making the 200-plus-mile trek. Mestel was meeting the manager of an iconic singer-songwriter and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee to discuss a catalog acquisition — one of 33 deals he currently has in motion.
Unlike traditional publishers, Mestel says Primary Wave specializes in using innovative marketing and branding campaigns to revitalize the songs of music icons. That mission began in 2006 when he acquired a 50% interest in Kurt Cobain’s sought-after music publishing catalog from the late artist’s widow, Courtney Love. (Billboard reported the sum to be in excess of $50 million, according to a source close to the deal.) Only later did Mestel discover that Primary Wave was the only publisher to offer Love a marketing plan for the catalog that would eventually include a partnership with Converse to print some of Cobain’s lyrics on special-edition sneakers.
“I don’t understand how you can be in a business and just write checks and not create value, which is why we have 70-plus people focused on generating new ideas for partnerships with these artists,” says Mestel. “Most of our competitors put their songs in a drawer.”
A former executive at Virgin Records, Arista Records and Island Entertainment Group, Mestel says he modeled Primary Wave’s creative drive after Chris Blackwell’s 61-year-old Island Records — which guided the careers of Marley, U2 and Cat Stevens — by leveraging innovative distribution deals, imprints and subsidiaries. “[Blackwell] taught me how to be artistically sensitive and why it’s important to partner with artists,” he says. That relationship led to Primary Wave’s purchase of 80% of Blackwell’s share of Marley’s publishing catalog for $50 million in 2018.
The following year, Primary Wave struck further landmark agreements, such as a partnership with the Whitney Houston estate that gave the publisher a 50% stake in the estate’s assets and is developing a rescheduled hologram tour, as well as multimillion-dollar deals with the rock band Disturbed (which included publishing and master income) and Paul Anka (which spanned publishing, master recordings and his name and likeness). Other recent deals: a decadelong administration and marketing agreement with The Four Seasons’ surviving members, Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio; a majority stake in Fleetwood Mac member Stevie Nicks’ copyrights and publishing; and a 50% stake in KT Tunstall’s publishing and master recording royalties. It has also purchased the iconic Sun Records label including the company’s trademark, as well as recordings by Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis among 6,000 masters, for a reported $30 million.
Backed by institutional investors, the company now has $1.5 billion in cash and assets under management and is preparing for a third fundraising round — the better to capitalize on the current hot market for song catalogs. The company’s marketing and branding plays include a Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which is set for a 2022 release, and a soon-to-be-announced Las Vegas residency based on Marley’s music.
To mark the company’s 15th anniversary, Mestel discussed running Primary Wave like a record label and why he’s not worried about competition from companies like Merck Mercuriadis’ Hipgnosis Songs Fund and Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group.
How is Primary Wave run like a label?
When we started in 2006, I did not want to be a normal publisher, which provided no value. Music publishers put their feet up on their desks, waited for the phone to ring — when they licensed a song because somebody called them — they gave each other high-fives and thought they’d done a great job of marketing. That’s not marketing. Because I came from the record-label side of the business, I understood that to break artists, you have to generate opportunity.
Which of Primary Wave’s branding and marketing deals stand out for you?
One of my all-time favorites was creating a holiday for Smokey Robinson in 2017. The second Sunday in every October is now Smokey Robinson’s Father-Daughter Day. I love it for two reasons. One, my marketing team was able to convince American Greetings to create a holiday. Nobody else has done that. When Smokey goes out to play golf with his buddies on the weekend, he’s the only one of his friends who has a holiday, and he’s so excited. We put lyrics on the side of Kurt Cobain Converse sneakers [in 2008]. I get a kick out of it when I’m on the street and I see somebody wearing those sneakers. It was a fantastic brand opportunity for Kurt [who was known to wear Converse]. It was organic to who he was.
What are the keystones of introducing an icon to a newer generation?
When you look at an artist who may not be on the mind of a 16-year-old or an 18-year-old, you’ve got to go where they are. For Whitney Houston, we went into the vault the day after we bought into the partnership and found this [cover of Steve Winwood’s] “Higher Love” that she had recorded in 1990. It sounded like a hit song, just dated. So our team got Kygo on board to remix the record, RCA did a great job of putting it on the radio, and it was a major hit around the world. Kids who were big Kygo fans got a chance to experience Whitney and stream her other music. Stevie Nicks and the Ocean Spray TikTok — what better way for teens and young kids to find Stevie’s music? Look at Surf Mesa with “ily (i love you baby)” [which uses a sample of Valli’s 1967 song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”]. That brings them into the new youth culture. That’s how you do it. Films, too, are huge.
What are Primary Wave’s film plans? Could a Nicks biopic be in the future?
Stevie has so much going on right now. It’s something that I’m sure will be part of her future, but it may not be part of her near future. We’re developing and producing a biographical film on Glenn Gould, who is one of the greatest classical pianists of all time, but not many people in America have heard of him. We want to reintroduce him. We’re producing a Whitney Houston biographical film with [screenwriter] Anthony McCarten. I’m so excited about how we’ve raised the bar on Whitney’s brand. We’ve got a Burt Bacharach project — it’s not a biopic, but it uses all of his music.
Why did Primary Wave’s business thrive during the pandemic?
The music we’ve bought tends to be comfort music, and people tend to want comfort music in hard times. From a streaming perspective, we’ve seen the earnings of these legends go up, and from a synchronization perspective, we had a great year with Bob Marley and Burt Bacharach. We made “What the World Needs Now Is Love” [a Bacharach co-write] almost the theme song to uplift people during the pandemic, with the Red Cross and all these advertising campaigns. It has also been very good for us from an acquisition perspective, because artists can’t make money on the road. We’ve been able to provide capital to artists. Melissa Etheridge is a great example of how our team got very creative in helping our artists make money in a tough time via her subscription livestream series, Etheridge TV. Livestreaming is certainly one thing, [and] brand alliances are another opportunity. We created a major brand tie-in with Alice Cooper and Cooper tires. That’s an obvious thing, but if you don’t pick up the phone and call ...
The pandemic forced you to cancel the Houston hologram tour. What’s next there?
We started in Europe, got five or six shows in, and it was really building nicely. It’s a shame we had to cancel, but it has been rebooked. We’re going to try to go back in early spring of next year. But I also think we’re going to have a Vegas hologram show in a residency setting by the end of this year.
Will the boom in song-catalog sales last?
I would say we’re only at the beginning, for a number of reasons. One, interest rates are still historically very low, so these assets are very good investments. And artists are not getting younger. Back in 2006, I was trying to convince artists who were 60 and 70 years old to sell us a partnership interest in their works. Those artists are now in their mid-70s to mid-80s, and they want to set up an estate plan for their families. Until interest rates shoot up dramatically or somebody finds a cure for the Fountain of Youth, and while tax rates are still relatively low on capital gains, the boom is going to continue.
Over the past year, younger artists like OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and Calvin Harris have sold portions of their catalogs. Does it ever make sense for you to acquire a newer artist’s work?
Those are the ones we typically stay away from. Everybody seems like they want to sell right now. You’ve got to be careful what you buy because you don’t want to buy a declining asset, and new artists are not as predictable. When their songs come off the radio and they stream less, they earn less. I enjoy seeing my competitors buying newer music. I root for them to be successful, but I also like that they’re spending money where I don’t want to spend money.
What about newer songwriters?
Between 5% to 10% of our business is new and developing songwriters and producers. We’ve had a lot of success over the years with bands like Blue October, Airborne Toxic Event and Anberlin. LP is signed to us for publishing; [so is] Kiiara, who is on Atlantic Records; Foy Vance, who wrote a lot of Ed Sheeran songs; and recently, The Interrupters. So we do sign a fair share of new and developing artists, but we don’t buy new artists’ catalogs.
What factors do you weigh when you consider obtaining rights to the work of more contemporary acts such as Disturbed and KT Tunstall?
It has to be iconic or legendary. Disturbed may be one of the biggest hard-rock bands in the world, and I view them as very iconic in their genre. KT Tunstall is a spectacular artist. When I was running Virgin Records, she was signed at Virgin in the U.K., and we had the chance to work with her in America. I thought she was the next Melissa Etheridge. She’ll have a resurgence. She’s a great songwriter, storyteller and person.
Do you sign and represent songwriters to administration deals, even if the company doesn’t have a stake in the songwriter’s publishing?
We have in the past. We do it in special circumstances with incredible artists who don’t want to sell a piece of their music to us, but do want our marketing and our partnership. So we’ll do an admin deal. We have maybe 10 to 12 admin deals that we work, including Kenny Loggins and Alice Cooper.
Do you have a network of subpublishers to administer globally?
When we bought Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, we gave it to Universal worldwide. Smokey Robinson is at Sony. Different catalogs that we buy are at different places. Stevie Nicks is at Kobalt; Bob Marley, we moved over to Universal. We use different administrators, depending on what’s in place when we buy and who we think will do the best job with a particular catalog. And we’re agnostic — we have nonexclusive deals with everybody. But Universal is the best worldwide administrator in the business, so we give a lot of our business to them.
Unlike your competitors, you prefer not to buy 100% of an artist’s catalog. Why?
We have acquired about 80 catalogs in the last three years, and I would venture to say 80% of those were partnerships with the artists or the estates. We tell an artist in advance: “We don’t want to buy 100%. We want to buy 50% or 60% or 70%. We want to leave you with a significant piece,” so that they can participate in the earnings and help us market their work when they are part of the marketing plan. It’s more organic, and frankly, it always turns out better. So we want to partner. Every once in a while, an artist will say, “I’m selling 100%, and if you don’t buy it, I’ll sell it to somebody else.” Then we’ll buy 100%, but we don’t like to do that.
What’s your take on Hipgnosis, which has spent almost $2 billion to date on catalogs?
They have a model for themselves, and it’s not our vision. I’m not saying their vision isn’t as good as ours. It’s just different. Hipgnosis came in late, they started throwing around a lot of money, and it has benefited me dramatically that they started stirring up the pot. Artists who may not have thought about [selling their catalogs] are now thinking about it. That’s a positive thing, but time will tell whether their strategy is successful.
What about Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group, which also focuses on reintroducing legends?
Irving is a formidable competitor, but we’ve gotten a very big head start. People have a long way to go to catch us, and more importantly, when you’re able to talk about partnering with artists and delivering on reserves, it helps. There are a lot of formidable competitors out there, but there always have been. We’ve been up against the majors in the past, and the majors went away, and then the majors came back. We’ve been up against other competitors who have sold, and new ones pop up all the time.
More and more, you’re also buying master recording rights along with publishing. Why?
I like to buy masters when it’s associated with publishing so that you have both sides. We did that with the War catalog; we’ve done that on the Gaither Music side. When we bought Sun Records, we bought some publishing, mostly masters. There’s a lot of upside in masters if you buy the right type. It really needs to be very iconic. Sun Records is an example. Sun is a bonanza. It’s not just the masters: It’s the name. It’s the logo. It’s the diner. We’re going to hopefully put a diner in every music city in America. And we’re not doing that just because we want to franchise the diners, but because we want to reinvigorate the Sun name and the masters and the earnings. So if you go with your kids to the Sun diner because you’re a Sun music fan, your kids are going to experience the music. They’ll buy the merch. It’s a way to market the music.
What catalogs are you dying to get your hands on?
AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses. First, I love the music, and in this business, it’s important to work the music you love. I would love that opportunity. More practically speaking, there’s enormous opportunity with those bands. Even though they’re iconic and enormous, they’re still underserved in terms of what our team does well, which is take these incredible artists and help their brands grow.
Meet the Team
A closer look at the leaders who built Primary Wave into a powerhouse and are steering its future.
Ramon Villa Partner, COO
When Primary Wave partnered with the Bob Marley estate in 2018, it wasn’t just a full-circle moment for Mestel. It was also one for Villa, who worked with Blackwell and Mestel in the ‘90s, joined Primary Wave shortly after the company’s founding and was instrumental in the Marley negotiations as Primary Wave’s then-CFO and COO. "Every day we’re coming up with big ideas for the catalog," he says, from a slate of 75th birthday celebrations over 2020, including a Grammys Week event and live-streamed tribute concert, to the upcoming Vegas show.
Villa hired Jane Reisman as CFO in April 2019, retaining the COO role, but he’s still involved in nearly all facets of the business — even helping design the New York headquarters as the company’s unofficial "chief aesthetic officer." "It’s raising money one day, helping to build a liquor brand for an artist the next day, to designing the office," Villa says. "I like being in an entrepreneurial company, where you can wear many hats."
It keeps him busy. Primary Wave closed seven acquisitions between Christmas and New Year’s, including the Nicks partnership, and Villa says his team is now in "fund three mode." (His dream catalog acquisitions? Madonna, Janet Jackson and Björk.) He is also spearheading the development process of the Glenn Gould biopic. "When companies grow, we’re used to seeing the personal touch start to wane away," he says. "But because of the way we’ve kept to the mantra of building the staff mostly on the creative end, the marketing initiatives have become bigger and more creative and more interesting."
Natalia Nastaskin Partner/Chief Content Officer
As a former lawyer who rose to become GM of the global music group at UTA, Nastaskin never planned to make the jump to publishing. But when Larry Mestel was looking for a chief content officer last year — and secretly hoping she would be interested in the role — Nastaskin saw an opportunity to leverage her network and further tap into her creative skills. “It really enables me to ideate, create and execute deals around legendary [intellectual property], but with contemporary players,” says Nastaskin, who took on the newly created position in February.
In her role, she will create content around Primary Wave’s catalog in areas such as TV, film and podcasts. “There’s nothing we’re not looking at right now,” she says, including non-fungible tokens and international markets. “With my Russian background, Russia is the first one that we’re analyzing very deeply,” she says, “and we have a couple of proposals out to collaborators in that market.” She’s also tasked with overseeing and expanding Primary Wave’s management roster, which she hopes to invigorate with additional genres and contemporary players.
As the highest-ranking female executive on the creative team, Nastaskin sits on the executive committee of She Is the Music, a nonprofit focused on equality, inclusivity and opportunity for women in the music industry, and she helped launch UTA’s all-female networking series La Femme Majeure.
Justin Shukat Founding Partner/President, Primary Wave Music Publishing
Anyone who knows Shukat knows that he loves to talk. Thankfully, it’s a skill crucial to his work at Primary Wave, where he is responsible for new writer signings, content acquisitions and facilitating recordings. “It all comes down to communication,” says Shukat, a former marketing executive at Arista Records and Epic Records. “It’s not sending an email or a text. It’s getting on the phone and having conversations. Every Monday morning, we go through our roster [and ask], ‘Who needs to be communicated to?’”
Among the first songwriters Shukat signed was LP, who penned Rihanna’s Billboard Hot 100 top 10 “Cheers (I’ll Drink to That)” in 2011. The roster is now home to hit writers Jeremih, Anthony “Tone” Jones, Teddy Sinclair, PVRIS and Kiiara. Recent Hot 100 entries include Justin Bieber’s “Holy” (featuring Chance the Rapper) and Ariana Grande and Social House’s “boyfriend,” both co-written by Jones; Ritt Momney’s cover of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On” (Primary Wave owns the publishing rights); and Surf Mesa’s “ily (i love you baby)” (featuring Emilee), which samples Franki Valli, who has a marketing/administration deal with Primary Wave. Meanwhile Doja Cat’s “Freak,” which samples Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” reached No. 6 on Hot R&B Songs.
And after he challenged his team to comb through writers’ catalogs for untapped gems during the pandemic, a song by Primary Wave signee Livvi Franc attracted interest from Selena Gomez’s team. “I don’t know if it’s going to make the album or turn into a hit, but that song was sitting in my catalog and now it’s in the mix with Selena,” says Shukat. “We’re not going to wait for the phone to ring. You’ve got to present ideas.”
Adam Lowenberg Partner/Chief Marketing Officer
A former marketing executive at Island Def Jam, Virgin Records and Arista Records, Lowenberg joined Primary Wave in 2008 and steers innovative marketing campaigns. He says he’s guided by one mantra: “We always want to be the first to do something.”
That stretches back to 2009, when Lowenberg brainstormed the first-ever artist-branded scratch-off lottery tickets for Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, which were promoted with a national commercial using the band’s hit “Dream On.” Fans could win prizes like free concert tickets, backstage passes and even a private performance by the group. “The [Kurt Cobain] Converse deal that Justin Shukat did and this Aerosmith deal enabled us to have two major proofs of concept,” says Lowenberg.
When the first four weeks of the pandemic fueled a 23% rise in global streams of Bob Marley’s soulful, comforting catalog, according to MRC Data, it gave Lowenberg the ammunition to strike a deal with SiriusXM for Tuff Gong Radio — an exclusive, year-round channel dedicated to the Marley legacy that launched in December. He also recently worked with the mayor of Akron, Ohio, to declare April 1 DEVO Day in a bid to push for the Akron-based band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame later this year. “A publisher doesn’t do that,” says Lowenberg. “But we don’t think of ourselves as a publisher.”