Ten years after the legend passed away, the marketing and publishing wiz treating catalogues like vibrant, valuable businesses is reviving her reputation and boosting the income of her estate.
Pat Houston was looking through an archive of memorabilia left behind by her sister-in-law, Whitney Houston, in her home office in Georgia in the spring of 2019. There were about 25,000 photographs, documenting both private and professional moments: Family trips, Whitney’s stay in the hospital in 1993 following the birth of her daughter Bobbi Kristina, and a performance in 1996 at the daughter of the Sultan of Brunei’s wedding. She had a plethora of trophies and plaques, including a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction statue, Grammys, American Music Awards (AMAs), and a framed certificate commemorating the sale of 200 million albums worldwide. There were furthermore smaller, more private things: a priceless book on Audrey Hepburn (Whitney adored classic movies); a Bible that her mother, Cissy, gave her; a gold-plated Social Security card;
You remember when you reflect, you get what I mean? It’s also bittersweet. In that office in late September, Pat explains, “There have been happy times and sad moments at the same time. Even just having those items, which to most people wouldn’t mean much, meant a lot to me because I know how significant they were to her. Finding little tidbits like that when searching through archives makes her spirit come to mind.
Few performers made as much of an immediate and long-lasting impression as Whitney Houston did when she debuted with her 1985 self-titled first album. She became the only singer in history to have seven consecutive singles hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to her voice, which was unmatched in her time or probably in anybody else’s. (In the end, she secured 11 career No. 1s.) She received numerous awards as a singer-actress, including six Grammys, two Emmys, four No. 1 albums, and 22 AMAs, to name a few. She agreed to a $100 million contract in 2001, which at the time was the largest record deal ever, to remain with her longtime label Arista Records. The key switch and runs in “I Will Always Love You” and the jaw-dropping “Star-Spangled Banner” from the 1991 Super Bowl are still associated with her name. Her success across a variety of platforms served as a model for success in general for the generation of aspiring celebrities that followed her, wanting to harness that enthusiasm and achieve superstardom on their own.
Whitney’s fame, however, waned in the years prior to and after her death in 2012, as a result. Her public appearances became less graceful and more chaotic as a result of her unhappy marriage, heavy drug use, demands of celebrity, and media’s ruthlessness. Her 48-year-old passing, which occurred a few hours before the yearly pre-Grammy party hosted by her mentor, Clive Davis, and left a magnificent emptiness, unfortunately brought an end to a life that had experienced both incredible highs and crushing lows.
The first seven years following Whitney’s passing acted as a kind of period of reflection for individuals who had been in her close-knit group. Many people, including Pat, Cissy (twice), Robyn Crawford, Bobby Brown, and Davis, penned memoirs about the Whitney they had known, both praising her brilliance and seeking to understand what went wrong. The subject was tackled in a number of documentaries, TV interviews, and even a Lifetime series. In the meantime, Whitney’s estate and possessions largely sat idle.
However, a series of events have been set in motion since that spring of 2019 by Pat, who managed Whitney’s career after her father passed away in 2003 and is now the executor of her estate. These events may recenter the narrative surrounding Whitney’s life and career, putting the emphasis back on The Voice and leaving the tawdry tabloid drama in the past. In a contract valued at $14 million, Pat and music publisher and marketer Primary Wave established a partnership in May of that year, giving the business a 50% ownership in Whitney’s assets, including her publishing, master recording earnings, name, likeness, and brand.
Since then, Primary Wave claims to have quadrupled the estate’s fortunes, a figure it hopes will continue to rise with the release of a number of projects this fall, including a perfume line, a collaboration with MAC Cosmetics, an archive book, and the December 21 release of the biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody, written by Anthony McCarten of Bohemian Rhapsody and starring relative newcomer Naomi Ackie.
It is Primary Wave’s largest project to date and should enhance the company’s reputation for bringing superstars like Whitney back to the forefront of popular culture while also boosting revenue. Primary Wave executives frequently discuss being in the icons and legends business. It’s also similar to a rebirth for her estate, whose legacy was on the verge of being lost.
In spite of everything, Pat claims that “she’s still impacting lives, and that’s what I want to do in a really positive way.” “She should be remembered for her music and the good she did for the community, not for the people she dated. And this is demonstrated by the fact that all of these things are occurring. There are no obstacles in the way, making it easy to continue advancing her legacy.
When Larry Mestel received the call requesting his return to the workplace, he was in the hospital expecting the arrival of his son. It was late October 1997, and Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records and a close ally at the time, had recently given an interview to the Los Angeles Times in which he criticised CEO Alain Levy of parent firm PolyGram. Corporate wasn’t happy.
My wife is about to give birth, I added. When Levy’s assistant says, “He basically said you’ve got an hour,” Levy responds, “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Mestel remembers being seated in his office at Primary Wave in New York City, with a chalkboard covering the wall behind him and listing numerous new initiatives. “My wife finally gives birth, I dash down the corridor to get her a room, I bid my wife and the newborn adieu, I go pick up Chris, and we head to PolyGram’s offices at Worldwide Plaza. I believe I stayed to negotiate our departure from PolyGram for about two to three days.
Before PolyGram forced them out of their position as GM of Island, Mestel spent 11 years being mentored by one of the greatest businessmen in the industry. However, after spending an additional five and a half years working for corporate labels, first at Arista (where, in his capacity as executive vp/GM, he helped broker that $100 million deal that kept Whitney at the only label she had ever known), and then at Virgin Records, he was prepared to go it alone.
“When I left Virgin, file sharing, piracy, and people not wanting to pay really started to have a huge influence on the business – the value of music was truly being destroyed,” says Mestel. I observed a gap in the industry where major labels and major music publishers were focusing on signing new bands and new writers rather than providing any marketing help to their icons and legends. Mestel switched to publishing in 2006 and created Primary Wave as record labels started to disappear, their sales plummeting as they sought to fight the digital revolution rather than welcome it.
He recalls that from the start, “we were like salmon swimming upstream against the current.” In favour of a partnership model that prioritised growth through aggressive marketing and branding, Mestel rejected the traditional role of publisher as copyright owner, accountant, and licenser. Mestel sought to actively add value to a catalogue rather than passively collect money or occasionally lend a song to a commercial or TV show. “We truly cut our teeth from 2006 to 2013,” he claims, “when the majority of the business was declining in terms of year-over-year, apples-to-apples sales. Our profitability maintained going up every year throughout that time.” “We kind of turned that on its head, where most music publishers were focused on signing new talents and letting record corporations manage the marketing.”
Mestel hired a number of professionals with experience in the record industry to help the business grow, including: Adam Lowenberg, a former employee of Virgin and Arista who is now in charge of marketing; Rob Dippold, a former employee of pioneering hip-hop label Ruffhouse and Warner-owned services company WEA who is now in charge of digital; Justin Shukat, a former employee of Epic and Arista who is now in charge of publishing at Primary Wave; and Jeff Straughn, a sports branding specialist who founded the strategic marketing division at Island Def Jam and is currently the company’s chief branding (More recently, in 2021, the company hired Natalia Nastaskin, a seasoned agency employee who was formerly with UTA, as Chief Content Officer to manage film, television, and Broadway projects.) Early victories for Primary Wave are now part of the history of the company. Kurt Cobain’s publishing partner Courtney Love was Mestel’s first client, and together they struck a deal to have Cobain’s lyrics printed on the iconic Converse sneakers that Cobain wore constantly. Another early triumph went in Aerosmith’s favour when Primary Wave organised a campaign for the Massachusetts Lottery utilising the Boston band’s song “Dream On” in a deal that was so well-liked that it spread to more than a dozen other states.
According to Lowenberg, these thoughts and ideas were often presented by an artist’s manager or, if a label was sufficiently inventive, by the label itself. For Primary Wave, “it was this sensation of, ‘Holy crap, this can really work,’ taking Steven Tyler’s songs and coming up with the idea, first of all, to construct a scratch-off lottery game around ‘Dream On. We marketed the band’s new CD, and it turned into a multimillion dollar campaign. The band was happy since they received payment. “Primary Wave is here, and we’re here to be reckoned with,” was a fantastic marketing slogan.
Primary Wave gradually began working with more legacy artists and estates, entering various agreements that included publishing rights, recorded-music revenue streams, image rights, or some combination of the aforementioned, and bringing in marketing and branding ideas to help keep those artists in the pop culture conversation. This happened as the music industry gradually recovered from its losses and began to grow again in 2016. It established a TikTok account for Paul Anka (“The hippest 80-year-old on TikTok,” claims Dippold); a digital bingo game for Bing Crosby; a Shinola watch line for Smokey Robinson; a “You Can’t Spell Love Without LV” campaign; and an official holiday, Father-Daughter Day.
Valentine’s Day advertising for Luther Vandross; a Crunch Fitness partnership on the 40th anniversary of Olivia Newton-hit John’s single “Physical”; a hot sauce for Alice Cooper inspired by his song “Poison”; a beer made with Pennsylvania’s Voodoo Brewery for Styx; a street named for the Gin Blossoms song “Allison Road” in the band’s hometown of Tempe, Arizona; and a series of diners Not every effort generates a lot of money, and some even generate no revenue at all. But for Primary Wave, each is a stepping stone to the following initiative, and they all increase music awareness, which enhances revenue in a streaming market where attention is king.
Music manager Shep Gordon, who has steered the careers of legendary acts like Pink Floyd, Blondie, George Clinton, and Cooper, the latter of whom partnered with Primary Wave in 2018, says that when a publisher promises to help your career, you sort of put that in a corner and don’t take it too seriously. “This is the first time I have worked with a publisher that approaches the artist holistically. They made really drastic adjustments that significantly improved viewing and brought in transactions that weren’t directly connected to the copyrights they were attempting to collect on, but that were increasing Alice’s career. In an environment where I believe most managers have learnt to not even pay attention to the promises, they have exceeded their commitments.
In the middle of the 2010s, Primary Wave’s trajectory changed. BlackRock made a $300 million investment in the business in 2016, which includes creating an investment fund to buy new catalogues, the first of which was Robinson’s. Currently, Primary Wave has three such funds. Along with large investments from Brookfield ($2 billion) and Oaktree ($375 million) in 2021, with Creative Artists Agency serving as an additional minority shareholder, According to insiders, Primary Wave manages assets worth around $2.1 billion across its three funds and a separate permanent capital vehicle with roughly $1.7 billion in funding capacity. Mestel claims that Primary Wave has transactions worth $800 million in the works for further acquisitions. (He claims that more than one-third of Primary Wave’s 80 workers have stock interests; he and his management team continue to be the company’s largest shareholder group.) According to Straughn, those transactions ultimately transformed the business into “Primary Wave 2.0: a phenomenally powerful corporation, still independent.” Internal restructuring increased cross-divisional cooperation at the same time by enabling departments to operate simultaneously and creating a structure that Straughn compares to a line of dominoes. One thing leads to another and then to another, he claims, if you closely examine each of the individual artists. And prior to that shift, it would have been similar to a tree falling in a forest: only the individuals in the woods would be able to see or hear the tree fall, but no one else would. Now that everyone is cooperating and perceiving things together, and everyone’s able to contribute.”
The funds also anticipated the rush on libraries that began to dominate the music publishing industry in 2018, when a confluence of low interest rates, low capital gains tax, and the steadily increasing revenues from streaming suddenly turned music assets into a hot commodity. Names like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and the estate of David Bowie sold their catalogues for astronomical sums; new businesses like Merck Mercuriadis’ Hipgnosis invested billions in catalogue purchases; and investment firms developed a fresh, financially significant interest in the stability that music was beginning to regain.
During that period, Primary Wave acquired its stake in Whitney’s estate as well as stakes in the estates of Vandross, Bob Marley, and Prince. Last December, it also paid $90 million for the entire James Brown estate. Joey Ramone, Stevie Nicks, and The Four Seasons are just a handful of the artists with whom it has signed publishing agreements in the past two years alone.
For many years, Primary Wave was the lone company capitalising on these brands and catalogues instead of viewing them as a source of passive income. This contributed to its development of a reputation for adding value, not just for artists, estates, and managers but also for record labels that frequently control an artist’s masters or potential remixes or works, or for publishers, including the majors, that handle publishing rights. The majority of our rivals are led by former bankers, attorneys, or A&R personnel; I’m not saying their business models are flawed; simply that ours is different, says Mestel. “Unlike some of our rivals, I don’t think buying and holding is appropriate. It’s not a terrific method for boosting value, giving investors a return, or satisfying your artists. The work of Primary Wave is well under way even before the company secures a cooperation agreement. To start, Dippold’s team conducts a digital audit to evaluate the artist’s internet presence, social media presence, Spotify and YouTube accounts, and general sentiment, among many other factors. Dippold asserts that if you aren’t relevant on social media, you aren’t really significant in today’s world, noting that Whitney didn’t have a profile on many of them and that her official Twitter account only included “extremely stale and dull” “This Day in Whitney History” tweets. “So we conduct an analysis to determine the gaps, what topics are being discussed online, and to look at the streaming data, before bringing that information to our marketing, brand, and creative teams.” User-generated content, such as posted movies with recordings in the background or bootleg performance footage, isn’t being monetized at all for many artists, according to Dippold, much less integrated into the artist’s wider brand, as was the case for Whitney. The largest international streaming service, he claims, allows for the sale of items, the sale of tickets, and the interaction with fans. Nobody is utilising it as a social media platform. They only need to upload the video to be finished. Nobody is hologram tour dates in the descriptions of videos or optimising videos. Nobody is utilising new platforms like TikTok, Songkick, Bandsintown, YouTube, Google SEO, or Wikipedia, or thinking creatively. And we tidy it up, constructing one massive following instead of it all just being disconnected.”
While that process is taking place, Lowenberg’s marketing team and Straughn’s branding team are hard at work, coming up with ideas and evaluating opportunities that may align with an artist’s interests, play off a song title, or fit within his or her aesthetic, and ultimately producing a three- to five-year plan for increasing that artist’s brand and revenue, complete with benchmarks and revenue goals for each. The end product is an 85-page book of concepts that was put together by all three teams and sent to an estate or artist to assist them close a purchase. For Primary Wave to approach an artist like Whitney, whose personal narrative by the end of her life was not simple, setting up those dominoes to fall in place was especially crucial. Truth be told, there were many obstacles to overcome when we first entered the Whitney business, according to Straughn. It’s an incredible talent, so you can’t afford to mess up and you don’t want to. However, because of life and the way things go, brands and businesses didn’t want to be associated with its unpleasant aspects. She has a voice that people have forgotten was the first thing we considered when we took on the Whitney estate. It’s imperative that we revive that voice.
Therefore, it only seems sense that the Whitney estate’s archive effort began with the music. Pat visited Primary Wave’s Manhattan office soon after the agreement was completed to play a number of unheard and rare demos, including a 1990 take of Whitney singing Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” Kygo remade the song in a single day after everyone agreed that it felt amazing but required some updating. The song spent nine weeks on the Hot 100 chart after being published by RCA on June 28, 2019, marking Whitney’s first Hot 100 debut in ten years. It spent 86 weeks on the Dance/Electronic Streaming Songs chart, peaking at No. 1 on Dance Club Songs and No. 2 on Hot Dance/Electronic Songs. In all, 343 million streams were generated throughout this time. It turned out that “Higher Love” was the first piece to fall, changing the debate on Whitney from some of the negative aspects to the positive aspects of music and to the positive aspects of “Wow, Whitney’s back,” according to Mestel. “All these years after she went away, she still holds the top spot in eight different countries.”
Additionally, it gave the Primary Wave crew the precise narrative they required to start working. “For us, it was always about the voice, especially in that first year or so,” says Lowenberg. “All of our marketing, especially in that first year or so, was around reminding people of the voice.” “The discovery of her recording of ‘Higher Love,’ and the delivery of it to Kygo, was what ignited this entire revival. It significantly sped up all of our plans. According to data from Chartmetric, Whitney’s following on Spotify has doubled since June 2019, and her monthly listeners have increased from 12 million to 20 million. Her following on YouTube has increased by 88%, and channel views have increased from 9 million to 5.29 billion. Her Instagram following has tripled, and a recently launched TikTok account has 337,000 followers and 4 million likes. Additionally, Primary Wave boosted Whitney’s merchandising by launching a global retail programme with 50 licences worldwide and placing Whitney merchandise in retailers like Walmart, Target, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s. According to Mestel, merch sales are currently at about $400,000 per quarter and rising, an increase of nearly 3,000% from before Primary Wave partnered with the estate, according to Dippold.
The business also assisted with the BASE Hologram tour that had predated its relationship, beginning with a few concerts in Europe, at Pat’s request. (It has been on break since the pandemic.) And in December of last year, a non-fungible token with a song by Whitney Houston on it sold for $1.1 million, considerably above expectations, and another one is already being planned. Overall, Primary Wave claims that its numerous initiatives have doubled the estate’s earnings since the transaction was finalised. But the largest Primary Wave-driven projects are only now starting to release, with I Wanna Dance With Somebody being the first. The film is being produced by Pat, Davis, McCarten, Primary Wave, Sony Tristar, and Compelling Pictures. It is centred on Whitney’s relationship with Davis (played by Stanley Tucci), and it was written by McCarten, whose previous blockbuster biopics (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and Bohemian Rhapsody) all won Academy Awards.
Pat states, “My interest in the biopic has everything to do with Clive Davis,” adding that the movie will also feature an unheard song. “He was always a warrior and always in charge of her career when she was here, and musically, he has that same attitude. Clive Davis is always brought up when talking about Whitney Houston, so I wanted this to be on the music, that connection, and how she got there. It was time for a full-fledged theatrical biopic to be made, according to Davis, who collaborated with McCarten to develop the script and provided advice on the historical aspects of the movie. “The TV production of the Whitney story and the documentary of Whitney, both were weak and did not stand for her life, the full picture of who she was,” Davis says. “We wanted to tell the truth that was honest about the trials and challenges that Whitney was going through, as well as the truth about her musical accomplishment, her one-of-a-kind triumph and accomplishments,” the author said. The Whitney rollout’s centrepiece, the biopic, is just one of many treasures that Primary Wave hopes will enchant new admirers. These include two photo books, Funko Pop! dolls that are already available at Target, Whitney-themed Peloton classes, a perfume line based on the scent Whitney herself wore that will appear in 2,500 Walmarts, and even a rest stop named for her on the Garden State Parkway in her native New Jersey that will open in the spring. This is one of several rest stops that have recently been renamed for members of the state’s Hall of Fame. Before the movie’s release, a collaboration with MAC Cosmetics will debut, offering a variety of makeup inspired by what Whitney herself wore, complete with a gold carrying box and an assortment of lipsticks.
All of this is intended to reinforce the fundamental ideas that Pat and Primary Wave wish to use to position Whitney’s legacy: as a world-class singer and a kindhearted philanthropist. The estate is preparing a live album, a gospel album, and the start of work on a Broadway musical that will be based on the movie and have a book by McCarten. These projects are all a part of Primary Wave’s plans for a year’s worth of events dedicated to the milestone, similar to what it prepared for Bob Marley’s 75th birthday in 2020. (Some of those initiatives had to be delayed because of the pandemic.) In addition, the Whitney E. Houston Legacy Foundation was recently revived by the estate with a fundraiser in August that emphasised youth programmes. It aims to strike a balance between the brand’s financial potential and the authenticity of Whitney Houston’s persona and lasting impact.
“For 30 years of Whitney’s career, it was all about music — that was all she ever wanted to do, and it wasn’t until a few years before her passing that we started thinking about her brand beyond music,” Pat says, noting that Whitney only signed one brand deal during her lifetime (for a line of Marion P. candles in 2010), but had started talking about signing more. The brands that we favour are the same ones that Whitney would have chosen if she had been present. When Pat Houston talks about her sister-in-law, her voice frequently carries a sense of regret and wistfulness. She says of Whitney’s philanthropic activities, “Despite everything that was going on around her, she still attempted to stay true to her course. And I used to think, “What if nobody else had ever shown up, and it was just her and her music? Just imagine if she were still here, even though she is already in an other realm. She would be doing incredibly tremendous work, I can tell you that.
The hole left by the passing of late luminaries like Whitney cannot be filled by preserving their brands or, as Dippold puts it, “reintroducing” them. However, in a world where all music is always accessible and catalogue listening is on the rise, an artist’s legacy can be revived and remarketed to keep their voice alive long after their CDs or vinyl have faded to the back of record shops or gone out of print. On the roster of Primary Wave, Whitney is hardly the lone once-in-a-generation artist. Although an A&E docuseries is in the works, it hasn’t actually dug into James Brown’s estate yet, and its portion of the Prince estate recently came out of administration (after a protracted court battle with the singer’s heirs). The Whitney initiatives, however, are the most significant that the business has adopted to far, and if they are well accepted, they may further the business’s position as one of the few that treats catalogues as living, breathing, and changing cultural touchstones. The catalogue boom has been slowed down by a shifting market, an unsteady economy, and rising tax rates, but Primary Wave has no plans to slow down. “We have an insatiable taste for the right deals, and we’ll keep looking for them. And we’re going to keep developing chances for Broadway, film, television, and marketing around those acquisitions,” Mestel said in September. A month later, Primary Wave revealed its $2 billion Brookfield investment, with an eye toward funding precisely those kinds of deals. When Davis’ office called to inquire about the biopic’s most recent edit, his phone rang. The phrase “Primary Wave” has come to be associated with icons and legends, he continued. “We’ve truly developed something wonderful and a family of artists that adore being here,” says the one who loves getting up in the morning.
As Pat puts it, “One faithful buddy is better than 10,000 family.” “I have the same feelings about Larry Mestel and Clive Davis. When it comes to Whitney Houston, they are sincere. I can sense that.