If you’re already beginning with a hit, that’s a great place to be.”
That’s the pitch that helped lead producer Popnick and his collaborators to write “Betty (Get Money)” by Yung Gravy, Rickrolling their way to become one of radio’s biggest songs of the year.
Franny Graham, vp of creative at Primary Wave, approached Popnick — whose real name is Nick Seeley — about a year ago, armed with a Spotify playlist of hits from the company’s catalog and a promise to make clearing those songs as easy as possible. Among the tracks Popnick was offered, he says “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley immediately struck him as a good fit for Gravy. The song had already become a meme a few times over the years, including in the early 2010s “Rickroll” internet trolling trend and in an AAA commercial starring Astley, released earlier this year. He admits he did fear it could be difficult to make the song fresh once again, but he believed “Gravy could give it an entirely new life.” He was right. Within 48 hours of hearing the beat Popnick and collaborators Dillon Francis and dwilly put together, he says Gravy had created a polished first draft of “Betty (Get Money).”
Over the last few years, Graham and the Primary Wave team have actively encouraged creatives, like Popnick, to use melodies, lyrics and samples of the company’s catalog as a way to increase the value of Primary Wave’s holdings while easing the tedious licensing process for the music makers at the same time. It’s not the traditional way of doing business, but it’s how the company ensured itself a financial stake in a hot new radio single just by owning producer and writer Pete Waterman’s piece of the 35-year-old Astley tune. Now, that “Betty (Get Money)” has propelled Gravy from comedy rapper to a mainstream artist — currently seated at No. 15 on Billboard’s Pop Airplay chart — there’s proof the strategy has legs.
Graham first met Popnick while working under Mike Caren at publishing company APG, which still reps the producer today. Lauded for his ability to create soundalike recordings, Popnick has helped multiple APG releases cut down the strain and costliness of clearing both the master recording and publishing sides of songs to simply the publishing side by making dupes of Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That (A Mi Me Gusta Asi)” for Cardi B’s “I Like It” and Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” recording for YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s “Dirty Iyanna,” among others. But whereas APG has built a reputation around creating new hits through interpolating past songs, Primary Wave’s strategy focuses on building value for its catalog through encouraging interpolations of past songs in new hits.
Jake Livingston, Primary Wave’s director of A&R, recalls when founding partner and president Justin Shukat first floated this idea to the A&R team about three years ago. “At the time, there was a stigma about covering or interpolating other artists’ work,” he says, so Livingston admits he was dubious about the new strategy. Then, a “perfect storm” of circumstances befell Primary Wave, and the industry at large.
While the catalog market grew red hot during the pandemic, the company’s new signings slowed, and the team focused their energy towards more acquisitions — including James Brown, Def Leppard, America, Chris Isaak, Martina McBride and more. Meanwhile, more interpolated, covered and sampled songs hit the Billboard charts, including No. 3 single “Kiss Me More” by Doja Cat ft. SZA, which borrowed its chorus melody from “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John — a song in which Primary Wave owns a stake by way of purchasing Newton-John’s master and publishing catalog in 2020. It was pure coincidence but only reinforced that Shukat’s idea was worth chasing.
“I think it’s that people are so overwhelmed with new media. Having something with a little bit of familiarity, along with some novelty is perfect for today,” says Graham. Now, about two years into implementing the strategy, the team has encouraged multiple “flips,” as they’re called, including Kygo’s popular EDM remix of “Higher Love” by Whitney Houston, “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Channel Tres (which sampled Teddy Pendergrass’s “The More I Get The More I Want”), “Thought It Was” by Iann Dior and Machine Gun Kelly (which interpolated the melody of Semisonic’s “Closing Time”) and “What a Night” by Flo Rida (which borrowed from Frankie Valli’s “Oh What A Night”).
“We wanted to define ways to make Primary Wave different from other financial institutions and publishers who also acquired catalogs,” says Livingston, and using a team of A&Rs to treat old catalogs as seriously as they would for a frontline songwriter or artist was one of their chosen ways to differentiate.
It was a series of trial and error. Admittedly, some A&R execs, managers and talents they approached thought it was unseemly to use a certain song at the request of a rights holder. Others did not want to start off creating a song that they knew they would eventually have to cede a large portion of its publishing and/or master royalties to a third party, but Primary Wave found an eager market with beat makers who would be interpolating or sampling songs anyway, and wanted to skip the headache of licensing a song after completion.
Those interviewed declined to state what ownership stake Primary Wave took for the Yung Gravy song, but Livingston tells Billboard in the case of any sample or interpolation Primary Wave inspires, the stake the older song receives depends widely from track to track for a variety of factors. Those include if the use is a sample (master and publishing) or interpolation (just publishing); if the use is part of the new song’s main hook; if the new song could stand on its own without the use; and if the older song was already a tried and true hit before its repurposing. “It’s an intuitive conversation,” but the original hit song is typically weighted more heavily than the new one, he says.
As a second phase of development for this concept, Primary Wave is now also hosting “flip camps” to encourage remakes of their catalog. So far, they have put together two such camps, including one with Def Leppard. Phil Collen, the band’s guitarist, came to the studio to greet the 20 invited songwriters and producers and to show them some tips for achieving his trademark guitar tone for legendary songs like “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” “Phil said he would leave after a quick meet and greet but he was there all day long,” says Livingston. “The manager and Phil were thrilled with the camp.”
Now, Primary Wave is pitching the resulting Def Leppard flips, hoping to land a few with major recording artists, and are working towards other camps like this in the future, including one focused on the James Brown catalog – who is already known as perhaps the most prolifically sampled artist in hip-hop history.
Similar strategies are now catching on with other rights holders who own older music copyrights. One of Livingston’s friends at a different publisher even called him recently to ask for advice to try the strategy for their own catalog, says Livingston, but he cautioned them that this process has only worked because Primary Wave’s A&R team was prepared to commit to it for about two years before it saw the fruits of its labor with Yung Gravy’s top 20 pop radio single.
The process to get these flips placed, recorded, cleared and released is still not always a seamless one, he warns. Just because a rights holder owns a majority of the publishing, for example, doesn’t mean they can guarantee the master will be cleared or that other minority-owning parties won’t push back on the usage either. Because of this, the team is clear with whomever they contact about flipping to be aware of which songs are available as interpolations and which are available as samples. To ease the licensing process for the future even further, Primary Wave has been acquiring approval and royalty rights on master’s side wherever possible, though it’s not always available.
The point of it all — or even other efforts like licensing Nirvana lyrics to print on sneakers — is for Primary Wave to stand out among its competitors as the rights holder who “does not acquire IP and put it in a trophy case.” says Graham. “We want to breathe new life to it.”