If you’ve listened to music over the past 35-plus years, you’ve probably noticed that some of the songs you’re streaming from your smartphone sound a lot like the songs that roared out of previous generations’ record players and car radios.
For Gen X (and some older millennials), this sort of thing has happened before. An obvious example is “Mo Money Mo Problems” by The Notorious B.I.G. featuring Mase and Puff Daddy. The 1997 hit contains a sample and an interpolation of Diana Ross’s 1980 Billboard hit “I’m Coming Out.”
Around the same time, Puffy (as he was known then) also sampled The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” for “I’ll Be Missing You.” And Will Smith dropped “Men in Black,” which basically lifted all of Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots.”
But nearly 25 years later, Pitchfork’s contributing writer and editor Jayson Greene says what’s old has become new all over again. “Some very business-savvy people have spotted that the value of well-known intellectual property in pop music has been skyrocketing,” he says. “And they have bought up with their significant holdings and power a huge portion of most of what American listeners consider to be the most beloved pop music and pop songs of the past 50 to 100 years.”
Greene points to recent examples like the rapper Yung Gravy, who recently scored a breakout hit with the song “Betty (Get Money)” by repurposing the chorus of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” as well as pop stars Britney Spears and Dua Lipa, who each recycled portions of Elton John’s music for their own singles.
For some greater understanding of this trend, Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram spoke to Greene on Vox’s daily news explainer podcast. Read on for a partial transcript of the conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity, and listen to the full conversation wherever you find podcasts.
Jayson, how is what’s happening now with artists like Yung Gravy different from what Puffy or Will Smith were doing in the ’90s?
What’s different — and this is a crucial, not an academic difference at all — is who is the person behind the music.
Puff Daddy was doing that work. Yes, he was sort of looking at his pop music factory as a hit factory, you know, like many super producer entrepreneurs of yore. But he was ultimately still a producer. While he blurred the line between being a CEO and a creative — he was on stage, he was a performer, he was in the music videos — it was his creative decision to take these beloved songs and remake them.
Sure. But he was still borrowing and trading on well-known songs, right?
Yes. But again, it was his decision. So for a thought experiment, imagine that it actually went that some other guy that no one in the world who listens to music has ever heard of because he’s vice president of whatever at some record company pulls Puff Daddy aside and says, “Hey, listen, we need you to sample ‘I’m Coming Out’ because our company just acquired this and we need you to take this and use it. But don’t mess with it too much because if you do, we won’t get as big of a payout.”
So this is a very intentional business strategy seeping into the creative process.
One of these music publishing companies that has sort of been at the forefront of this extremely aggressive and very novel and new technique of guarding over your corporate property, your intellectual property, is a company called Primary Wave.
Now, Primary Wave — and this is crucial to this story — they are not people who came from music publishing. Music publishing has historically been an extremely dry and sleepy area of the music business. No one was looking to shake it up. You were just there to sign a piece of paper. But these people at Primary Wave came from the late ’90s world of major label CD market boom. They are ex music managers.
Larry Mestel, the CEO and founder, Justin Shukat, the president, and later on, a guy named Adam Lowenberg who worked with Avril Lavigne and helped break her in — these three guys left Arista Records in the late ‘90s, roughly when Carlos Santana’s Supernatural sold 10 million records, right?
This is still a time when major labels were just printing money and recording their highest ever grosses, and these people were behind the helm. But these people, as they saw the music industry was cratering around them, at least as they had known and built it. And then Napster hits. It was the first shock wave. It was roughly around this time that Mestel, Shukat, and Lowenberg gathered together and formed a music publishing company called Primary Wave. They ended up at the forefront of a lot of what has now become super commonplace, and that is they’ve acquired the rights to massive artist’s catalogs that they then own either a piece of or 100 percent of, depending.
Many of them are catalogs by artists who are deceased. In some ways they have a more efficient way of maneuvering because there is no living artist in the room with them to talk to them about what they think they should be doing with their catalog. To that end, their first big purchase that they made headlines with was the catalog of Kurt Cobain.
But what do they do with it? Because I haven’t heard, like, a Kurt Cobain hook in a Dua Lipa song yet.
This is where this new mentality that the Primary Wave guys are bringing into the industry comes into play. They say, “No. We’re gonna monetize this. We’re gonna work this catalog,” as if they were artist development A&Rs.
Over the course of the next decade, what they did manage to do was sort of plant the seeds for and help stoke the fires of and arrange the meetings around the documentary Montage of Heck, which was this very impressionistic piece of sort of biographical docudrama that was largely based on the fact that there was this treasure trove of home recordings. They’re trying to basically invent a biopic as the rights holders to their publishing. No one’s even dared to think this audaciously.
Are there other examples of how they’re repurposing these catalogs?
While Montage of Heck is being developed, they test out some other pretty big moves. The one that Adam Lowenberg was most proud to tell me about was this campaign they devised in 2009 around Aerosmith’s “Dream On” which is, you know, the proto power ballad. It’s the first lighter-waver song arguably in rock history, up there with “Stairway to Heaven.” Iconic. Everyone knows it. Everyone knows it within 10 seconds. They surmised in their sort of pitch meeting that there’s something dreamy about thinking you win the lottery, and they want to stoke that. So they approach lottery vendors.
I can’t imagine in the history of music publishing that any pop music catalog owner had ever approached the lottery vendor before for a meeting ever. But they basically approach a lottery vendor and say, “Hey, we have this idea for Massachusetts, which is Aerosmith’s home state, we want to run an Aerosmith-themed lottery campaign. And so what we’re going to do is we’re going to brand it with our logo. And when you scratch off, the lyrics to this song that we own is going to be on the card.” And then when you promote this campaign on radio stations to get people to buy tickets, guess what? You can play “Dream On” on it.
This was a genius move from a marketing standpoint because it meant they collected revenue streams on the two different ways that you can own rights to a song. The minute those words appear on the lottery ticket, a check — ka-ching — goes to Primary Wave and then they get paid again when the song appears in the campaign. It’s a massive success and it ends up spreading to 10 different states. This is when I think the big money green light bulb went on over all of their heads.
Is this sort of thing that music publishing companies are doing good or bad for music?
On its face, there is nothing inherently evil with a company trying to make money for the intellectual property that they hold, right? I think that there’s something suffocating in the current way that this is happening because I think that when the proverbial suits look after everything but the creative side are in the creative process, I think it’s rare that that’s good for the music or the art. I think that there’s always this complicated symbiosis between people like Justin Shukat and, you know, someone like Otis Redding.
But I think broadly speaking, it’s just not great for creativity as a sort of pursuit, as a muse, when the stuff that people use in pop music, which is the catalog, right — they reference the catalog either directly or indirectly, whether through sampling or inspiration — when you have people who are so closely guarding those songs as if they were a big pile of jewels.
Let me play devil’s advocate for a second here. I do wonder if ultimately it’s good to be reminded how great of a song “Never Gonna Give You Up” was even if it comes at the cost of hearing it in some, you know, cheesed-up, mass-produced single.
I mean, I would argue that that song is very well loved. That’s the reason it was pointed to. It was chosen because they knew it was a song everyone already knew to the point of being sick of it. It would defeat their purpose in many ways if they were farming out more obscure stuff.
Cultural attention is not an endlessly renewable resource. There’s a finite amount of cultural attention, right? We only give our bandwidth to so many songs by so many artists. And it’s a very recursive place right now. It’s very empty. It’s very full of recycled air. So I can’t imagine that it’s a good thing, right? If anything, it makes people tired.
One final devil’s advocate-y thought: The Beatles were, in a way, repurposing Little Richard. The Rolling Stones were, in a way, repurposing all the blues that they had ever heard, right?
Beyoncé wrote one of the most critically acclaimed albums of our young decade, and it’s a lot of samples. And my favorite Billie Eilish song sounds just like a Weezer track from the ‘90s, you know what I mean?
Is music always sort of throwing back? And is music always referencing and always acknowledging nostalgia?
Yes, of course. But what’s different now is that you have effectively patent trolls who are blocking access and hoarding resources. That’s not good. To me, this was a story about end-stage capitalism. Because these are also people who decided to stop working with living artists and mostly manage the affairs of dead ones.
They’re like, it’s too hard to make money off of living artists. So let’s transition and let’s work with the catalogs of ones that everyone already knows.
When you already own the catalog to the most beloved music of the past 50 years, your job is really easy. I don’t have to walk into a room and convince everyone that this new artist is great. Everyone already knows this stuff is great, and that’s why they’re there.
I think it can’t be good for new art. I don’t.