Primary Wave's CEO Explains a New $300 Million BlackRock Partnership, Getting Smokey Robinson a Sneaker Deal

Gus Stewart/Redferns
Smokey Robinson performing in 1975. 

Primary Wave is back in acquisition mode in a BIG way.

You can practically hear Primary Wave founder and CEO Larry Mestel beaming over the phone. Earlier in the day (Sept. 27) his company announced a new partnership with BlackRock Alternative Investors, a division of blue chip financial company BlackRock, Inc.,for what a source says will give the company a $300 million war chest and the acquisition of the rights to the writer's share of Motown legend Smokey Robinson's song catalog as well as the rights for his name and likeness for $22 million.

Sony/ATV still owns the publisher's share of most of Robinson's songs, but the publishing ownership of some early songs have reverted to Robinson and are now completely handled by Primary Wave.

"It's just a typical day for us," Mestel  jokes, "We're very happy today."

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While Mestel won't disclose terms of the deal and what if any equity stake BlackRock may have obtained, when asked if Dylan, the Rolling Stones or Stevie Wonder are next, the CEO only says that, "This is the only the beginning of what we are going to be dong. We have six or seven really significant acquisitions we're negotiating for right now."

It's a road Primary Wave has been down before. In 2013, after acquiring either the publishing or the writer's share, or both, of such songwriters as John Lennon's interest in The Beatles' catalog via Julian Lennon; the late Maurice White's interest in Earth, Wind & Fire's catalog; and the catalogs of Steven Tyler, Kurt Cobain, Bo Diddley, Lamont Dozier and Hall & Oates, the company built up the catalogs' values, rolled them up, and then sold two-thirds of those holdings to BMG for $150 million dollars. As part of the latter deal, Primary Wave still has a joint-venture publishing relationship with BMG and one of their signings, LP, is enjoying success right now.

"Record companies are no longer marketing iconic and legendary music," says Mestel who once worked for the Virgin, Island and Arista labels. "They put them in their special markets division or catalog division where as for their front line new artists they sign, market and promote them and get them on the radio and they get all the attention."

Over its ten year history, Primary Wave has grown to 70 employees and now includes digital strategy, branding, film & tv production and creative advertising divisions. There's also a management wing some of which stems from the company's 2011 merger with the late-Chris LIght's Violator Management and whose client roster includes Cee Lo Green, Melissa Etheridge, The Go-Go’s, Erick Morillo, Fantasia, Cypress Hill and Eric Benet. t Last year the company merged its management division with Intellectual Artists Management which brought them a stable of high profile actors including Gina Rodriguez, Nia Long, Gabrielle Union, Mayim Bialik and Peter Facinelli. All of which can help add value to the company's publishing assets.

Mestel cites a deal Primary Wave brokered with Converse and Kurt Cobain that put Nirvana song lyrics on the sides of sneakers as an example of out-of-the-box brand deals. "That's why iconic artists want to be with us because we come up with crazy ideas nobody else comes up with."

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The CEO also says the timing is right for acquisitions. "The market has settled down a bit and though mechanical income has dramatically dropped streaming is starting to really take hold of the business and with our ability to create synchronization opportunities, we think it's a great time to start building up our business again. We're in this for the next ten years and are going to build up a major independent publishing company."

Earlier this year the company picked up the publishing on legendary Stax Records guitar great Steve Cropper, who co-wrote Knock on Wood" with Eddie Floyd, "In the Midnight Hour" with Wilson Pickett and "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" with Otis Redding.

Primary Wave has been negotiating to acquire Robinson's songwriting share and some publishing interests since April of this year, just as the ownership of some of his pre-1978 compositions reverted back to him. In the U.S., songs-written pre-1978 or eligible for the publishing ownership to revert to songwriters after 56 years have expired, while songs written after 1978 can revert after 35 years of when first published. So the publishing for songs written in 1960 or before by Robinson have reverted to him, while other songs written after 1960 in the Jobete catalog will likely revert on a rolling basis, going forward. That likely means Primary Wave will also handle those songs that are scheduled to revert going forward but only in the U.S., as copyright reversions do not exist in the rest of the world, where Sony/ATV will remain the publisher.

For songs written after 1960, both the writer and publisher share remains a part of the Sony/ATV-owned Jobete catalog. Sony/ATV will continue to serve as administrator for all Robinson songs in that catalog for both the publishing and writer's share in the United States. Sony/ATV will also serve as publisher and administrator for Robinson songs in the Jobete catalog where there is a co-writer, like Berry Gordy

Primary Wave will own the writer's share, have a co-publisher share and administer the Robinson share of songs, whether that be songs where the publisher share reverted in the U.S.; or songs in the Bertam Music catalog, which was established in the 1970's to administer some of Robinson's post-Jobete songs, where Primary Wave will also serve co-publisher. Primary Wave will also serve as administrator on future Robinson-written songs.

"We were approached by a representatives of Smokey Robinson who said, 'Look, we know you guys have a history of buying iconic, incredible music. what do you think of Smokey Robinson?' And I basically said,  'Are you kidding me!?' Smokey's at the top of the list of who we'd love to partner with."

When asked what the Robinson deal, which includes name and likeness rights, might look like, Mestel says nothing is off the table. "It's brands, brands alliances, maybe helping Smokey start a food company or taking Smokey songs and creating a television show—it's all of those things. Maybe it's getting him a sneaker deal....why not!?"