Ten years ago today, the world lost Whitney Houston. She was 48 years old and on the precipice of a long-awaited comeback that was tragically cut short the night before the 2012 Grammy Awards. But she’s far from forgotten, thanks to the work of Houston’s estate and its partners at Primary Wave Music, who continue to unspool plans that will keep the superstar’s legacy top of mind for years to come.
A renewed focus on Houston’s music began as soon as Primary Wave partnered with the estate in 2019, taking a 50% stake in the singer’s music assets.
“It was time to rebuild Whitney’s business and Primary Wave, with its arsenal of industry professionals, were the right fit, a team packaged to elevate Whitney’s legacy to the next level,” says Pat Houston, the late artist’s sister-in-law and former manager, who serves as an executor of her estate.
“We have massively, over the course of our three-year partnership, improved the earnings of the estate,” adds Primary Wave founder and CEO Larry Mestel. “We’ve basically quadrupled the earnings stream of the estate through a lot of low-hanging fruit: renegotiation of partnerships, focusing on merchandise, digital strategy and social media enhancement — upping the game in general.”
The first salvo in the company’s stewardship was a Kygo remix of Houston covering Steve Winwood hit “Higher Love.” The 2019 version reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Play chart and No. 7 on Adult Contemporary radio, not only sparking streaming gains for her body of work, but spurring a series of branding and merchandise opportunities.
Mestel sees even greater growth on the horizon, starting with the Dec. 23 premiere of the Kasi Lemmons-directed biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
Naomi Ackie portrays Houston in a cast that also features Stanley Tucci and Tamara Tunie. The Sony Pictures film was co-produced by Primary Wave with Arista founder and Houston mentor Clive Davis, along with Anthony McCarten, who wrote the screenplay for the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
On the heels of “I Wanna Dance” and its soundtrack, two new Houston albums will arrive in 2023, during a campaign honoring what would be the artist’s 60th birthday, with a Broadway adaptation of the biopic and a Las Vegas tribute show in the works for subsequent years.
“Clive will indeed be involved with the soundtrack,” says Mestel. “He is not currently involved with Broadway show or Vegas concept, but he is always welcome to participate in anything we do involving Whitney and her music. He has been a critical partner in the movie project.”
Mestel and Primary Wave chief marketing officer Adam Lowenberg both cite the Kygo version of “Higher Love” as the catalyst for the robust array of opportunities that have flowered since.
Originally produced by Narada Michael Walden in 1991, Houston’s take had previously only been available as a bonus track in Japan.
“From the first day that we partnered with the estate, we set out to have all of the focus be on Whitney Houston’s voice, one of the most incredible assets you could have,” says Lowenberg. “When we first set out and heard all the music in the vault with (sisters in law) Pat and Donna Houston, we came across ‘Higher Love,’ and immediately we knew, “Okay, this is going to be our first foray into making sure everyone focuses on the voice.”
“That was Primary Wave going out and our team getting Kygo to remix the record,” adds Mestel. “RCA loved it and went after it at radio; it became a hit record for almost a year, both internationally and domestic. That kind of launched everything we’re doing with Whitney.”
“Higher Love” did its job, as the track’s popularity elevated plays for songs across Houston’s catalog. In the first six months after its release, her catalog tunes garnered 1.4 billion streams on major service providers, up 47% over what those same songs tracked in the half year before Kygo’s “Higher Love” arrived in June 2019. That surge didn’t slow, as her catalog tracked 3 billion plays in the 12 months following “Love’s” release.
“The rest is history, obviously, with Kygo and everything that happened,” adds Lowenberg. “Building off all of the excitement around ‘Higher Love’ has allowed us really to have a very strategic three- to five-year plan that picks up off of that momentum.”
Houston’s Winwood cover was prominently featured in a Ford commercial, which led to additional synchs, including its placement in the Universal Pictures movie “Sing 2.”
“Further to that, we put out a remix of ‘How Will I Know’ with Clean Bandit, so that was a continuation of reminding people about her and introducing her to new fans,” says Lowenberg. “We are working on a number of activations in the second half of 2022 that, again, focus on her voice and the history of Whitney.”
This isn’t the first dance with Houston’s music for Mestel or Lowenberg. The two of them and Primary Wave president Justin Shukat worked together at Arista, the singer’s original label, when Mestel was EXP and GM from 2000-2004.
The soundtrack from the upcoming biopic will arrive on RCA about a month before the film hits theaters. Then in 2023, the estate’s vaults will yield two posthumous releases: Houston’s first gospel collection and a live album.
Says Lowenberg of the upcoming live collection, “When Pat and Donna played us a couple of live performances, it was literally goosebump moments. Whether it’s a cover song that she would do or one of her hits, you never heard anything in concert the same way twice with Whitney. We really want to make sure the fan base hears it and hears it properly.”
The subsequent gospel collection will mix previously unreleased tracks, some live, along with songs recorded for “Preacher’s Wife,” the 1996 film in which she starred with Denzel Washington. The original soundtrack from the movie reached No. 3 in the U.S. and was certified three-times-platinum.
“We want to stay as organic and true as to who Whitney was at all times; that’s very important to us and the estate,” says Lowenberg. “Living and loving Gospel music is a very big part of who she was; it’s going to be quite the package.”
The revenue gains Mestel cites don’t even include the December 2021 launch of a Houston NFT of an early, unreleased demo, which sold for $1.1 million. The deal that enabled the Houston hologram shows in Vegas and on tour, which began in 2020, was struck before Primary Wave’s involvement, but those events still benefit the partnership. Likewise, the eye-catching Amazon Music spots that used Houston’s vocal track from “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” were synched before Primary Wave entered the picture.
Not tallied into the estate’s rosier revenue picture are advances paid for this year’s biopic or other upcoming ventures.
“We don’t count advances as revenue,” Mestel explains. “We’ve completely redone her merch. We’ve created a lot of brand opportunities that haven’t been announced yet. It’s been kind of general nuts and bolts, organizing the estate and creating these opportunities that are music related, merch related, marketing related. [Gains from] the biographical film or any of these other big things — that’s all hitting down the road.”
The NFT went up for sale Dec. 15, featuring a previously unreleased track that Houston recorded when she was 17. It was just one of Primary Wave’s initiatives on behalf of the estate. “We’ve created a lot of brand opportunities that haven’t been announced yet,” says Mestel.
Broadway and Vegas mark bigger destinations on the map. Mestel says Primary Wave has already started developing the Broadway adaptation of the Houston film with Sonia Friedman, associated with such Tony-winning productions as “The Inheritance,” “Book of Mormon,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and revivals of “Death of a Salesman” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“We’re in talks right now in Las Vegas to create a Whitney Houston Cirque-like destination show,” says Mestel. “There are some very big things that we’re working on, including a cosmetic line, which is launching around the same time the film releases.”
The latest activation hit Target stores this week: a Whitney Funko Pop Icon. Although exclusive to the department store chain, the Funko dolls have already popped up on eBay. “That’s what makes us tick as a company,” says Lowenberg of the various Houston branding initiatives. “Making sure that whether it’s our partners or great classic names from the past, that they get the recognition they deserve.”
“Our team has a lot of brand deals that we’ll be announcing soon,” adds Mestel. “Whitney is a spectacular brand that we’re nurturing; we’re going to do incredibly creative things and increase the value of her estate for her heirs. We pride ourselves on being creatively sensitive to the artists and their estates and we’re very attentive partners.”
In Primary Wave’s thinking, the various music, merchandise and branding opportunities, along with the film, Broadway production and Vegas show aren’t separate events, but related platforms that set the stage for each subsequent initiative, with the whole campaign paying homage to the once-in-a-generation talent whose life ended too soon.
“We are more than pleased to have reunited with Larry and the team,” says Pat Houston. “Since the genesis of the partnership we’ve managed to increase Whitney’s brand beyond her music, and it has been an exciting ride. The arrangement has more than exceeded our expectations.
“Whitney would certainly be proud of the direction and momentum we have established for her brand,” she continues, “re-introducing her legacy to a new generation capitalizing on the opportunities that continuously represent her gift in the best light.”
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