Can Primary Wave Transform Whitney Houston’s Legacy — and Her Estate’s Fortunes?

In the spring of 2019, Pat Houston was in her home office in Georgia, going through an archive of mementos left behind by her sister-in-law, Whitney Houston. There were photos, some 25,000 of them, of moments both personal and professional: family vacations; Whitney in the hospital in 1993, after giving birth to her daughter, Bobbi Kristina; a 1996 performance at the Sultan of Brunei’s daughter’s wedding. There were her countless awards and plaques — Grammys, American Music Awards (AMAs), a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction statue, a framed commemoration of selling 200 million albums globally. And there were smaller, more personal things: a gold-plated Social Security card; a treasured book on Audrey Hepburn (Whitney loved old films); a Bible, a gift from her mother, Cissy, that Pat found on a shelf in her own home.

“You reminisce, and it takes you back, you know what I’m saying? And it’s bittersweet. Happy moments but sad moments at the same time,” Pat says, sitting in that office in late September. “Just to have those things — which wouldn’t really mean much of anything to other people — it means a great deal to me because I know that they were important to her. Going through archives and finding little things like that, it’s reminiscent of what her spirit was like.”

Pat Houston
Pat Houston, Whitney’s sister-in-law and executor of her estate, photographed on September 28, 2022 in Alpharetta, Ga.

Few artists had the immediate, and lasting, impact that Whitney Houston did when she stormed out of the gate with her 1985 self-­titled debut album. With a voice unparalleled in her, or perhaps anyone’s, time, she became the first artist in history to have her first seven singles reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. (She ultimately landed 11 career No. 1s.) As a singer-actress, she garnered six Grammys, two Emmys, four No. 1 albums and 22 AMAs, to name just a handful of her accolades. In 2001, she signed a $100 million deal to stay with longtime label Arista Records — at the time, the biggest record deal ever. Her name is still synonymous with iconic vocal performances — the key change and runs in “I Will Always Love You”; the show-stopping “Star-Spangled Banner” from the 1991 Super Bowl. Her success in multiple mediums became a blueprint for success, period, for the generation of budding stars who came after her, hoping to channel that spirit into superstardom of their own.

But in the years leading up to and following her death in 2012, Whitney’s image lost its luster. A dysfunctional marriage, the weight of continuous drug use, the pressures of fame and the mercilessness of the media wore her down, her public appearances becoming more erratic than elegant. Her death at age 48 — having drowned in a Los Angeles hotel bathtub several hours before the annual pre-Grammy party thrown by her mentor, Clive Davis — tragically ended a life that had reached unimaginable heights and jarring lows, and left a stunning void.

For those who had been in Whitney’s inner circle, the first seven years after her death served as a sort of reflection period. Several wrote books about the Whitney they had known — including Pat; Cissy (twice); longtime confidante Robyn Crawford; Whitney’s ex-husband, Bobby Brown; and Davis — both celebrating her genius and searching for answers as to what went wrong. Multiple documentaries, TV interviews and even a Lifetime series grappled with the same topic. Meanwhile, for the most part, Whitney’s estate and assets languished.


But since that spring of 2019, Pat — who managed Whitney’s career following her father’s 2003 death and is now the executor of her estate — has set in motion a string of events that could recenter the narrative surrounding Whitney’s life and career, putting the focus back on The Voice and leaving the tawdry tabloid drama in the past. That May, Pat and music publisher and marketer Primary Wave announced a partnership giving the company a 50% stake in Whitney’s assets — including her publishing, master recording revenue, name, likeness and brand — in a deal that valued the estate at $14 million. Since then, Primary Wave says it has quadrupled the estate’s fortunes — a figure it hopes will only explode further after a series of projects that will begin rolling out this fall, including a perfume line, a MAC Cosmetics partnership, an archival book and a biopic out Dec. 21: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, written by Bohemian Rhapsody’s Anthony McCarten and starring relative newcomer Naomi Ackie.

For Primary Wave — whose executives often talk about being in the icons and legends business — it’s the company’s biggest project yet, one that should bolster its reputation for returning superstars like Whitney to the forefront of pop culture and turbo-charging revenue along the way. And for her estate, it’s akin to a rebirth for the legacy almost lost along the way.

“With everything that’s going on right now, she’s still touching lives, and that’s what I want to do in a very positive way,” Pat says. “She should be remembered by her music and the work that she’s done in the community, not by her relationships. And the fact that all these things are happening proves that. It’s a clear path without any distractions to make things continue to happen for her legacy.”

Whitney Houston, Naomi Ackie, I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a biopic starring Naomi Ackie.

Larry Mestel was in the hospital awaiting the birth of his son when he got a phone call demanding he return to the office. It was late October 1997, and his boss and close ally at the time, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, had just given an interview to the Los Angeles Times excoriating parent company PolyGram’s CEO Alain Levy — and corporate wasn’t happy.

“I said, ‘My wife’s about to give birth. I’ll be there as soon as I can,’ and [Levy’s assistant] goes, ‘He basically said you’ve got an hour,’ ” Mestel recalls while sitting in his office at Primary Wave in New York, a chalkboard full of new initiatives filling the wall behind him. “So my wife gives birth, I run down the hall to get her a room, I give my wife and new baby a kiss goodbye, I go pick up Chris, and we go to PolyGram’s headquarters at Worldwide Plaza. I think I stayed for like two, three days negotiating our exit from PolyGram.”

As GM of Island, Mestel spent 11 years mentored by one of the industry’s all-time great entrepreneurs before PolyGram ushered them out the door. But after another half decade in the corporate label system, first at Arista — where, 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 ready to strike out on his own.

“When I left Virgin, the business really started to be impacted significantly by file sharing, piracy, people not wanting to pay — the value of music was really being degraded,” says Mestel. “I saw this void in the marketplace where major labels and major music publishers weren’t giving any marketing support to their icons and legends; they were focusing on signing brand-new acts and brand-new writers.” As record labels began to recede, their sales falling off a cliff while they tried to litigate, rather than embrace, the digital revolution, Mestel made the switch to publishing and, in 2006, founded Primary Wave.

From the beginning, “we were like salmon swimming upstream against the current,” he recalls. Mestel rejected the traditional role of publisher as copyright owner, accountant and licenser in favor of a partnership model that emphasized growth through aggressive marketing and branding, looking to actively add value to a catalog rather than passively collect revenue or occasionally lend a song to a commercial or TV show. “From 2006 to 2013, our earnings kept going up every year while most of the industry was going down in terms of year-on-year, apples-to-apples sales, and that’s when we really cut our teeth,” he says. “Whereas most music publishers were focused on signing new artists and letting record companies do the marketing, we kind of turned that on its ear.”

Mestel brought in several executives from his years in the record business to help build the company: Adam Lowenberg, a Virgin and Arista alum who is now head of marketing; Rob Dippold, who spent time at pioneering hip-hop label Ruffhouse and Warner-owned services company WEA, and now heads digital; Justin Shukat, who worked at Epic and Arista before landing as Primary Wave’s president of publishing; and Jeff Straughn, a sports branding expert who launched the strategic marketing department at Island Def Jam and is now Primary Wave’s chief branding officer. (More recently, in 2021, the firm added agency veteran Natalia Nastaskin, previously of UTA, as chief content officer to oversee film, TV and Broadway projects.)

Some of Primary Wave’s earliest wins are now company lore. Mestel’s first deal was with Courtney Love, with whom he partnered on Kurt Cobain’s publishing; they landed a deal putting Cobain’s lyrics on the classic Converse shoes that Cobain always wore. Another early victory came on behalf of Aerosmith: Primary Wave orchestrated a campaign for the Massachusetts Lottery using the Boston band’s “Dream On” in a deal so well-received that it expanded to over a dozen other states.

“These were typically concepts and ideas that were brought forth either by an artist’s manager or maybe a label, if they were creative enough,” says Lowenberg. For Primary Wave, “taking Steven Tyler’s songs, coming up with the idea, first of all, to create a scratch-off lottery game around ‘Dream On,’ it was this sense of, ‘Holy crap, this can really work.’ That became a multimillion-dollar campaign, the band was thrilled because they got paid, we promoted their new album. It was a great marketing stamp: ‘Primary Wave is here, and we’re here to be reckoned with.’ ”

Steadily — as the music business began to recover from its losses and, in 2016, to grow again — Primary Wave started partnering with more legacy artists and estates, entering varying deals 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. It has created a TikTok account for Paul Anka (“The hippest 80-year-old on TikTok,” Dippold says); a digital Bingo game for Bing Crosby; a Shinola wristwatch line for Smokey Robinson, as well as an official holiday, Father-Daughter Day; a “You Can’t Spell Love Without LV” Valentine’s Day campaign for Luther Vandross; a Crunch Fitness partnership for Olivia Newton-John on the 40th anniversary of her hit “Physical”; a hot sauce for Alice Cooper inspired by his song “Poison”; a beer created with Pennsylvania’s Voodoo Brewery for Styx; a street named for the Gin Blossoms song “Allison Road” in the band’s hometown of Tempe, Ariz.; and a line of diners inspired by the Sun Records catalog, which Primary Wave bought in January 2021 for $30 million.

Not every initiative is a big moneymaker, and some don’t even directly create any revenue at all. But for Primary Wave, each is a steppingstone to the next project, and all drive awareness for the music — which, in a streaming environment where attention is king, boosts revenue, anyway.

Whitney Houston, Funko, Merch
Whitney-branded merchandise in various stores (left) and Funko Pop! dolls.

“As a manager for the last 50 years, when a publisher tells you they’re going to help your career, you sort of put that in a corner and don’t take it too seriously because you basically never hear from them again after the deal is signed,” says music manager Shep Gordon, who has shepherded the careers of iconic acts like Pink Floyd, Blondie, George Clinton and Cooper, the latter of whom partnered with Primary Wave in 2018. “This is the first time I’ve been involved with a publisher that deals holistically with the artist. They made very, very dramatic changes that really increased viewership and brought in deals that weren’t necessarily tied to the copyrights that they were collecting on, but that were enhancing Alice’s career. They’ve overdelivered on what they promised in a climate where I think most managers have learned to not even listen to the promises.”

Primary Wave’s trajectory changed in the mid-2010s. In 2016, BlackRock invested $300 million in the company, a deal that included the formation of an investment fund to acquire new catalogs, the first of which was Robinson’s. (Primary Wave now has three such funds.) In addition to significant investment from Oaktree in 2021 ($375 million) and Brookfield in October (around $2 billion, with Creative Artists Agency as an additional minority shareholder), Primary Wave has some $2.1 billion in combined assets under management across its three funds, sources say, plus a separate permanent capital vehicle with roughly $1.7 billion of financial muscle. Mestel says Primary Wave has $800 million worth of deals in the pipeline for new acquisitions. (He and his management team remain the company’s largest shareholder bloc; he says that over one-third of Primary Wave’s 80 employees own an equity interest.)

Those deals, Straughn says, ultimately morphed the company into “Primary Wave 2.0: a tremendously powerful company, independent still.” At the same time, internal restructuring brought more collaboration across divisions, allowing each department to work in lockstep and setting up a system that Straughn likens to a line of dominoes. “If you look carefully under the hood of each of the individual artists, you’ll see one thing leads to another and leads to another,” he says. “And before we had that change, it would be like a tree falling down in the forest — it may be good for the people in the woods watching that tree fall, but everyone else wouldn’t see or hear it. Now everyone is working together, everyone is seeing it together, and everyone’s able to contribute.”

The funds also presaged the rush on catalogs that took over the music publishing business beginning in 2018, when a combination of low interest rates, low capital gains tax and the increasingly reliable returns from streaming suddenly turned music assets into a hot commodity. Names like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the David Bowie estate sold their catalogs for huge numbers, new companies like Merck Mercuriadis’ Hipgnosis poured billions into catalog acquisitions, and investment firms took a new — and financially significant — interest in the stability that music was beginning to return. During that time, Primary Wave purchased its interest in Whitney’s estate, as well as interests in the estates of Vandross, Bob Marley and Prince, while acquiring the entirety of the James Brown estate for $90 million last December. In just the past two years, it has done publishing deals with Joey Ramone, Stevie Nicks and The Four Seasons, to name just a few.

For years, Primary Wave was the rare company building on these catalogs and brands rather than seeing them as passive income. That helped it create a reputation for bringing added value — not just for artists, estates and managers, but for the record companies that often own an artist’s masters or future remixes or works, or the publishers, including the majors, that administer some of those catalogs, sources say. “Most of our competitors are headed up by former bankers or lawyers or A&R people, and I’m not saying their models are bad, just that our model is different,” says Mestel. “I don’t believe buying and holding, like some of our competitors do, is appropriate. It’s not a great strategy for increasing value or delivering returns for your investors or making your artists happy.”

“Most people that have come into the space in the last two years have been people who have been looking at it as an asset class, first and foremost, and are trying to collect rights — they’re collectors, hoarders,” says Evan Bogart, founder of Seeker Music, a publishing and catalog acquisition company founded in 2020 to both sign new writers and buy catalogs (Christopher Cross, Run the Jewels) with the intention of treating them as front-line projects in a similar manner to Primary Wave.

But Bogart and Primary Wave are no longer alone in viewing catalogs in that way, and other companies — most notably Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group, which struck deals with The Beach Boys, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and the Nat “King” Cole estate in the past two years — have started employing a similar model.

“There are plenty of people with a lot of money,” says one executive whose company represents clients across the music business, including several who work with Primary Wave. “There are tremendous music companies who own different versions of these same kinds of rights, and they also have a lot on their plate because they’re in the day-to-day of the music business. [Larry is] focused on a specific sliver of the music business, with the rights he’s invested in and has an interest in making bigger. I don’t know of anyone who’s doing this in the same way at the same scale.”

But as catalog listening increases and the market for investment in that asset keeps evolving, Primary Wave’s model is beginning to look more enticing to other companies entering the space. “Not only do I see this as where the industry is going, I think the industry is there,” Bogart continues. “Labels are spending a lot more time focusing on their catalog, [digital service providers] have catalog departments now, people are really honoring the fact that music is so accessible, and people are discovering music from before at rates larger than they were before. There’s a lot you can do if you’re creatively staffed and you’re creatively minded, and your finger is on the pulse of where the music industry is going. If you’re in the acquisition space but your entire team is made up of analysts, financial experts, royalty accountants and a controller, there’s probably not much you can do creatively.”

Off a nondescript road in a nondescript town in nondescript suburban New Jersey lies a low-slung brick building so nondescript it seems almost invisible. But inside — past a multilevel security system with individual locks on each door, which only security personnel can open — in what amounts to a large storage closet, is an outpost of Iron Mountain, the grandiose-sounding data and records management company that houses a veritable treasure trove of memorabilia from the archives of some of Primary Wave’s most celebrated artists.

There’s a clothing rack stuffed with James Brown’s suits wrapped in plastic and boxes from his home (which Primary Wave now owns, having bought his entire estate as is) containing his purple bathroom towels, his sunglasses and hair curlers, handwritten letters and sheet music, and an album of one of his daughters’ baby photos. Glenn Gould’s chair — the one from his apartment where he sat down to compose — sits between shelves of Sun Records master tapes, including boxes of Johnny Cash outtakes. A separate, smaller room has two racks of Vandross’ stage ensembles, drumsticks, personal CD and vinyl collections, and a letter Aretha Franklin wrote him. And there are digital audio tapes, film reels and thousands of photographs of Whitney Houston, all waiting to be cataloged.

When Primary Wave partners with an artist’s estate, the most important first step is archival — finding what’s there, what has never before been seen, what could spark an idea or lead to a merchandise deal or a branding opportunity or a photo book or a compilation of unreleased material. Estates come in all states of organization: Bing Crosby’s, for instance, was relatively well-cataloged; portions of Whitney’s were in standard storage facilities around New Jersey; while Brown’s Georgia mansion was largely untouched, the cabinets still filled with the food that was there when he died on Christmas Day 2006 and 15 cars sitting in its driveway. Living artists’ catalogs can be unorganized, too: With archival releases in mind, Primary Wave is currently digitizing a series of Air Supply concerts that lived on tapes sitting around the band’s management’s office.

It can be exhaustive and exhausting, but it’s an essential part of the process. “It’s someone’s life, it’s how people live,” says Primary Wave asset manager Donna Grecco, who runs point on the company’s archival efforts. “It could be a drawer stuffed with magazines and a piece of hotel stationary with the beginnings of a song written on it. It makes you really fall in love with the artist — the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston in 1992, photographed for The Bodyguard.

Even before Primary Wave lands a partnership deal, the company’s work is well underway. That begins with a digital audit, undertaken by Dippold’s team, to assess the artist’s online presence, social media, Spotify and YouTube pages, and overall sentiment, among dozens of other things. “If you’re not relevant on social media, you’re not really relevant in the world today,” Dippold says, noting that Whitney didn’t have an account on several platforms and that her official Twitter account consisted of “very stale and boring” “This Day in Whitney History” posts. “So we do an analysis and see where the holes are, what the conversations online are about, looking at the streaming data and then bringing that into our marketing, brand and creative teams.”

For many artists, says Dippold, the record labels are monetizing official videos on YouTube, but user-generated content — uploaded videos with recordings in the background or bootleg performance videos — aren’t being monetized at all, much less incorporated into the artist’s larger brand, which was the case for Whitney. “YouTube is the biggest global streaming service, and through it, you can sell merchandise, you can sell tickets, you can communicate with the fans,” he says. “No one’s using it as a social media channel. They just upload the video, and they’re done. No one’s optimizing videos, putting hologram tour dates in the descriptions. No one is thinking outside the box, leveraging new outlets — TikTok, Songkick, Bandsintown, YouTube, Google SEO, Wikipedia. And we clean it up, building one massive following instead of it all just being disconnected.”

While that process is underway, Lowenberg’s marketing team and Straughn’s branding team are getting to work, generating ideas and assessing opportunities that might fit with an artist’s interests, or play off a song title, or fit within his or her aesthetic, and ultimately producing a three- to five-year plan for growing that artist’s brand and revenue, complete with benchmarks and revenue goals for each. The result is a book of ideas, compiled by all three teams and as long as 85 pages, which is presented to an artist or estate to help land a deal.

Setting up those dominoes to fall in line was particularly essential for Primary Wave’s approach to an artist like Whitney, whose personal narrative, by the end of her life, was not a straightforward one. “Truth be told, there were a lot of hurdles when we first got involved in the Whitney business,” Straughn says. “It’s an unbelievable talent that you do not want to mess up and you can’t afford to mess up. At the same time, because of life and how things pass, brands and companies didn’t want the association of the negative side. When we took on the Whitney estate, the first thing we looked at was, ‘She has a voice that people have forgotten. We’ve got to bring that voice back.’ ”

So the archival effort for Whitney’s estate started, naturally, with the music. Shortly after the deal was done, Pat came to Primary Wave’s Manhattan office to play several unreleased and rare demos, including a 1990 recording of Whitney singing Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” Everyone agreed the song felt great but needed some updating, so Primary Wave sent it to Kygo, who remixed it in one day. When RCA released the track on June 28, 2019, it became Whitney’s first Hot 100 debut in 10 years, spending nine weeks on the chart. It also reached No. 1 on Dance Club Songs and No. 2 on Hot Dance/Electronic Songs, and ultimately spent 86 weeks on the Dance/Electronic Streaming Songs chart, racking up 343 million streams in the three-plus years since its release, according to Luminate — more than enduring hits like “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love of All.”

“Higher Love” was, it turned out, the first domino that needed to fall, one that “changed the conversation on Whitney from some of the things that weren’t good, to music, to, ‘Wow, Whitney’s back,’ ” says Mestel. “All these years after she passed, she’s got a No. 1 record in eight countries.”

It also offered the Primary Wave team the clear narrative it needed to get to work. “For us, from day one, it was always about the voice, and all of our marketing, especially in that first year or so, was around reminding people of the voice,” Lowenberg says. “Finding her recording of ‘Higher Love,’ getting it to Kygo — that jump-started this whole resurgence. It helped accelerate all of our plans tenfold.”

Since June 2019, Whitney’s Spotify followers have doubled while her monthly listeners have jumped from 12 million to 20 million; her YouTube subscribers have grown 88%, with channel views exploding from 9 million to 5.29 billion; and her Instagram followers have tripled, while a newly launched TikTok account has 337,000 followers and 4 million likes, according to data from Chartmetric.

Primary Wave also supercharged her merchandising, entering a global retail program with 50 licenses around the world and putting Whitney merch in stores like Walmart, Target, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s; Mestel says merch sales are now at around $400,000 per quarter and rising, a nearly 3,000% increase, according to Dippold, from before Primary Wave partnered with the estate. At Pat’s request, the company also helped facilitate the BASE Hologram tour that had preceded its partnership, starting with a handful of dates in Europe. (Since the pandemic, it has been on hiatus.) And last December, a non-fungible token featuring an unreleased Whitney song sold for $1.1 million, far outstripping expectations, with another planned. Overall, since closing the deal, Primary Wave says it has quadrupled the estate’s revenue through its various initiatives.

But the biggest Primary Wave-driven projects are just beginning to roll out now, starting with I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Centered on Whitney’s relationship with Davis (portrayed by Stanley Tucci) and written by McCarten — whose previous blockbuster biopics (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody) have all yielded Academy Award wins — the film is being produced by Pat, Davis, McCarten, Primary Wave, Sony Tristar and Compelling Pictures.

Whitney Houston, Clive Davis
Whitney Houston and Clive Davis circa 1989.

“My interest with the biopic has everything to do with Clive Davis,” says Pat, noting the film will also contain a previously unreleased song. “When she was here, he was always a fighter and always leading her career, and musically, he has that same vibe. You can’t mention Whitney Houston without mentioning Clive Davis, and I wanted it to be about the music and that relationship and how she got there.”

“The TV production of the Whitney story, the documentary of Whitney, both were weak and did not stand for her life, the full picture of who she was, so it was time that a full-fledged theatrical biopic be done,” says Davis, who worked with McCarten to develop the script and consulted on the historical aspects of the film. “We wanted to tell the truth that not only was honest about the battles and struggles that Whitney was dealing with, but also the truth about her musical achievement, her one-of-a-kind triumph and successes.”

The biopic is the crown jewel of Primary Wave’s Whitney rollout, but it’s just one of many gems that Primary Wave is hoping will dazzle new fans. Those include two photo books; Funko Pop! dolls that are already in Target; Whitney-themed Peloton classes; a perfume line based on the scent Whitney herself wore, which will appear in 2,500 Walmarts; and even a rest stop named for her on her native New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway (one of several recently renamed for members of the state’s Hall of Fame) due to open in the spring. A partnership with MAC Cosmetics will launch ahead of the film’s release, featuring an array of makeup based on what Whitney herself wore, complete with a gold carrying case and an extensive tie-in with the film, whose characters will be wearing it.

All of which is meant to support the core pillars of how Pat and Primary Wave want to position Whitney’s legacy: as top-class singer and generous philanthropist. Next year, which would have been Whitney’s 60th birthday, the estate is planning a live album, a gospel album and the beginning of work on a Broadway musical, set to be based on the film with its book also by McCarten — all part of Primary Wave’s plans for a year’s worth of events dedicated to the milestone, similar to what it planned in 2020 for what would have been Marley’s 75th birthday. (Due to the pandemic, some of those projects were put on hold.) On top of all that, the estate just relaunched Whitney’s charity, the Whitney E. Houston Legacy Foundation, with a fundraiser in August focused on youth initiatives. It is an effort to balance both the brand’s earning potential and the integrity of who Whitney Houston was and what her legacy will continue to be.

Whitney Houston
An event announcing the relaunch of the Whitney E. Houston Legacy Foundation.

“For 30 years of Whitney’s career, it was all about music — that was all she ever wanted to do, and it was only for a couple years prior to her passing that we started thinking about her brand beyond music,” Pat says, noting that Whitney only did one brand deal during her lifetime (for a line of Marion P. candles in 2010), but had begun discussions to do more. “The types of brands that we go for are the types of brands that Whitney would have gone through if she were here.”

There is often a wistfulness in Pat Houston’s voice, a rueful twinge, when she speaks about her sister-in-law. “Regardless of everything that was going on around her, she still tried to stay true to her course,” she says of Whitney’s charitable work. “And I always would say, ‘What would have happened if no one else ever came, and it was just her and her music?’ I mean, she’s in a different stratosphere as it is, but just think about if she were still here. The kind of work she would be doing, it would be really powerful.”

Pat Houston
Pat Houston, Whitney’s sister-in-law and executor of her estate, photographed on September 28, 2022 in Alpharetta, Ga.

Tending to the brands of late legends like Whitney — “reintroducing” them, as Dippold puts it — can’t fill the void left by their deaths. But in a business in which all music is available at all times and catalog listening continues to increase, the repromotion and reinvigoration of an artist’s legacy can keep his or her voice alive long after CDs or vinyl have gone out of print or have faded to the back bins of record stores.

Whitney is hardly the only once-in-a-generation artist on Primary Wave’s roster. It has yet to really dig into James Brown’s estate (though an A&E docuseries is in the pipeline), and its share of the Prince estate has just exited administration (following a protracted legal dispute with Prince’s heirs). But the Whitney plans are the biggest the company has implemented to date, and if they’re received well, could cement the company’s growing reputation as one of the few treating catalogs as living, breathing and evolving cultural touchstones. And despite a changing market, with an uncertain economy and rising tax rates slowing the catalog boom, Primary Wave isn’t looking to slow down.

“We have an insatiable appetite for the right deals, and that’s what we’re going to continue doing. And we’re going to continue to create film and TV and Broadway opportunities and marketing opportunities around those acquisitions,” Mestel said in September; a month later, Primary Wave announced its $2 billion Brookfield investment, with an eye toward bankrolling those very types of deals. His phone buzzed: It was Davis’ office, calling to check on the latest cut of the biopic. “Primary Wave is now kind of synonymous with icons and legends,” he continued. “I love getting up in the morning because we’ve really created something special and a family of artists that like being here.”

“One loyal friend is better than 10,000 relatives,” Pat says. “I feel that way about Clive Davis, and I feel that way about Larry Mestel. They have a pure heart when it comes to Whitney Houston. And I can feel that.”

Whitney Houston, Billboard, Cover

This story will appear in the Nov. 5, 2022, issue of Billboard.

Josh Glicksman