Discover more from This Week in The 90s
'What Is Love' makes the shareholders happy [June 13, 1993]
Plus: UB40, Green Jelly, Manics, and Slowdive
Hop in the time machine and let’s travel back to… June 13, 1993
📰 The first train goes through the Channel Tunnel, ushering in a new age of UK-European integration 📽️ Cinemagoers get to see Bruce Campbell face the undead again in Army Of Darkness. 📺 Roy Hattersley MP is replace by a tub of lard on Have I Got News For You.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You’ by UB40, but let’s talk about this week’s Number 3…
Haddaway, ’What Is Love’
If you’ve listened to the radio recently, you might have noticed that a lot of contemporary songs borrow heavily from the 90s.
Some are pretty enjoyable. Beyonce’s recent take on ‘Show Me Love’ was great, while rapper Latto shot to international stardom with her reimagining of Mariah Carey’s ‘Fantasy’ (itself based on a sample of Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius Of Love’.)
But most of these 90s-inspired tracks are… less good.
For example, French DJ David Guetta is currently in the charts with ‘Baby Don’t Hurt Me’, a hacky reworking of Haddaway’s 1993 club anthem ‘What Is Love’:
Needless to say, ‘Baby Don’t Hurt Me’ is as tediously bland as most David Guetta songs. The only vaguely interesting thing about the whole project is this:
Twelve people are credited as co-writers here. Twelve. On a song that was mostly written 30 years ago. And one of them is Ed Sheeran, a man who just won a bitter court battle against Marvin Gaye’s estate because he doesn’t like sharing credits.
Folks, I’m not going to pretend I understand what’s happening here. But I’m willing to bet that it’s much more complicated than it seems.
Because something strange is happening in the world of music publishing these days. And everyone is in on it, including David Guetta and Ed Sheeran.
What is right and what is wrong?
Last month, Pitchfork magazine wrote about another recent song based on a vintage hit.
The song in question is Yung Gravy’s ‘Betty (Get Money)’, which samples the unofficial national anthem of the internet, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’:
At first glance, all of this makes sense. Yung Gravy is a semi-ironic TikTok guy; his whole creative strategy is “try to go viral”; ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ is the most viral song ever. The only mystery is why someone didn’t think of it before.
But there’s more to this story. According to Pitchfork:
There is a person who’s arguably most responsible for the existence of ‘Betty (Get Money).’ It’s not Yung Gravy or his producers or anyone at his label. Not Astley or even ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ songwriter Pete Waterman. It’s Justin Shukat, the president of the music publishing company Primary Wave.
Calling Primary Wave a “music publishing company” is a bit misleading, as they don’t publish music in the traditional sense. Instead, they buy the rights to existing catalogues and then try to generate revenue by licensing songs to advertisers, media companies, and streaming platforms.
Primary Wave also get paid if an artist samples one of their songs, which means it’s in their interest to encourage people to use more samples.
And they’re actively doing this.
The Pitchfork article continues:
After clocking the 1987 smash’s internet infamy, Primary Wave acquired a percentage of the rights to [‘Never Gonna Give You Up’] from [Pete] Waterman and then pitched the idea of an interpolation to Yung Gravy’s manager. At the same time, a member of Shukat’s team reached out to a producer who worked with Gravy. “Within a day, we literally had a track to listen to, and Gravy rapped over it two days later, which was fucking dope,” Shukat says.
To be clear, Shukat is not a musician or a producer. He’s an ex-marketing executive who worked for big labels in the early 2000s, right around the time that piracy destabilised the industry. Shukat and his colleagues saw that music sales were in dire trouble but that there could be a very solid market in music licensing.
For example, consider the band Katrina & The Waves. They haven’t sold many records since the 80s, yet they remained one of the most profitable bands of their generation. How? Because ‘Walking On Sunshine’ gets played everywhere.
Katrina’s ‘Walking On Sunshine’ is a staple of movie trailers, TV montages, and sporting events. It gets played on commercial radio every time there’s good weather. It’s a must-have on every Super Hits Of The 80s bargain bin CD. And every time it’s used commercially, Katrina gets paid.
‘Walking On Sunshine’ earns $1 million in revenue per year. Every year.
So, if you’re in the music business, you could scout around in search of the next ‘Walking On Sunshine’. Alternatively, you could just buy Katrina out and get that $1 million per year for yourself.
(This actually happened—BMG publishing bought the rights to Katrina’s catalogue in 2015 for £10 million.)
Shukat and his partners founded Primary Wave in 2006 with this strategy in mind, and soon made their first big purchase: 50% of Kurt Cobain’s song collection for $50 million.
Which means that when someone buys a vinyl reissue of Nevermind, Permanent Wave gets a share of the profits. When a song like ‘Something In The Way’ appears in The Batman, they get half of the licensing fee. If they could convince David Guetta to remix ‘About A Girl’, that’s more money for their investors.
We're one, just me and you
Primary Wave now owns (or part-owns) the back catalogues of John Lennon, Smokey Robinson, and Prince. They also bought Sun Studios catalogue, which gives them ownership of original master recordings from Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
But Primary Wave are not unique. In fact, they’re now overshadowed by a noisy upstart rival called Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which was founded in 2018 by Chic’s Nile Rogers and super-manager Merck Mercuriadis. Hipgnosis follow the same basic playbook as Primary Wave: buy up old hits, then find new ways to squeeze money from them.
The difference is Hipgnosis’s sheer scale and aggressive determination to expand its catalogue. In their first year, Hipgnosis spent over £1 billion on catalogue acquisition, ending up with a songbook of over 2,000 Number Ones. Some of their headline-grabbing deals included:
Neil Young (acquired for $150 million)
Justin Bieber ($200 million)
Red Hot Chili Peppers ($140 million)
The-Dream (legendary songwriter of hits like ‘Umbrella’ and ‘Single Ladies’)
Lindsay Buckingham (Stevie Nicks sold her publishing rights to Primary Wave, which is actually quite funny)
Barry Manilow (which means that Hipgnosis now get royalties from Take That and Party)
Their current portfolio stands at around 13,000 songs, which includes most of David Guetta’s catalogue (Hipgnosis bought out his main collaborator, Giorgio Tuinfort) and Ed Sheeran (they also acquired songs from Benny Blanco, co-author of songs like ‘Shape Of You’).
I told you Sheeran and Guetta were involved in this.
This is our life, our time
Anyway, back to our featured song. Is ‘What Is Love’ involved in one of these deals, and does that explain the terrible David Guetta version?
It’s actually hard to say. Determining ownership of any song these days is tricky simply because there’s no registry of these buy-out deals.
After a little sleuthing, I found that ‘What Is Love’ is still owned by Coconut Music, the indie label founded by the song’s original authors. However, Coconut Music itself was “sold to a group of international investors in 2007”. I don’t know who these investors are, but further probing suggests that they investors might possibly be some kind of investment fund.
Hipgnosis and Primary Wave are definitely investment funds. Hipgnosis describe themselves as “a UK investment company offering investors a pure-play exposure to Songs and associated musical intellectual property rights.” Which is to say, they exist for the benefit of investors, not music-makers. They are helping to turn classic hits into an asset class along the lines of commercial property or wheat futures.
So, I don’t know for sure if David Guetta’s ‘Baby Don’t Hurt Me’ is the result of the same process that created Yung Gravy’s ‘Betty (Got Money)’. Maybe it’s not.
But what I do know is that there are a suspicious number of recent songs with a ‘Betty (Got Money)’ vibe, in the sense that they make you think, “why are you featuring this one sample so prominently?”
For example, Rita Ora has just released her dull new single ‘Praising You’, which is built on Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’…
…while Drake bombed badly last year with his dismal ‘Way 2 Sexy’, which interpolates Right Said Fred…
…and Kim Petras (with help from Nicki Minaj) turned Alice Deejay’s 1999 hit ‘Better Off Alone’ into something a bit mushy and pointless…
…although all of those are miles ahead of the worst, most dogshit-awful example of the genre, which comes from David bloody Guetta again.
Last year, Guetta scored a massive Number One hit with an abysmal reworking of Eiffel 65’s ‘Blue (Da Ba Bee)’:
Now, again, I don’t know how any of these songs came about. They could all be written organically. Maybe David Guetta was driven by a deep, spiritual passion to turn ‘Blue (Da Ba Dee)’ into the dullest song ever recorded.
But if song fund managers weren’t responsible for these tracks, then they were definitely thrilled by their success. They’re probably on the phone right now with Guetta and Sheeran and Drake and everyone else, offering them great deals on samples from their catalogues (“Hey David, if you sample ‘Imagine’, I’ll throw in ‘Under The Bridge’ half-price!”)
Welcome to life in the IP era. Like Disney trying to squeeze the last drops of cash from Marvel and Star Wars, companies like Primary Wave and Hipgnosis will keep looking for ways to make a few quid from beloved old songs.
Grim times. I say we bring back music piracy.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number One] UB40, ‘(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You’
After Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone made another erotic thriller called Sliver, co-starring with one of the lesser Baldwins in a story about CCTV and serial killers. It’s dreadful. Rotten Tomatoes rates it at 15%, which is probably a bit generous.
The soundtrack was a roaring success though, giving us two UK Number Ones: this one and Shaggy’s ‘Oh Carolina’. I guess this means that Sharon Stone is responsible for much of 1993’s reggae renaissance?
[Number 9 ↓] Green Jelly, ‘Three Little Pigs’
Fun fact: the three pigs are voiced by Les Claypool of Primus, Maynard James Keenan of Tool, and Pauly Shore of straight-to-video stoner comedies.
[Number 27 ↑] Niamh Kavanagh, ‘In Your Eyes’
Released as a single by Simon Cowell, who met Niamh while he was at Eurovision with Sonia. What a traitor! You deserved better, Sonia!
[Number 25 ↑] Manic Street Preachers, ‘From Despair To Where’
The Manics swore they’d break up after their first album, and here they are with their lead single from the second album.
We’ll talk more about Gold Against The Soul soon, but basically I think the album is a misunderstood classic and ‘Despair’ is one of their best singles.
[Number 36 New] Björk, ‘Human Behaviour’
She’s back! Over a year since she cracked the Top 10 with The Sugarcubes, Bjork makes her solo debut. ‘Human Behaviour’ only barely scrapes into the Top 40 despite having a great video.
Album of the Week
Look, I admit that I ignored Slowdive all through the 90s simply because Richey Edwards said, “we hate Slowdive more than Hitler” and his word is good enough for me.
And everyone else seemed to agree with Richey. Slowdive’s second album, Souvlaki, appeared a year after shoegaze had peaked with Ride and Lush. Melody Maker’s reviewer said he’d “rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to [Soulvaki] again." Alan McGee at Creation Records threatened to drop them if the next record wasn’t a pop album (it wasn’t, and he did). Souvlaki entered the charts at Number 54 and vanished the following week.
But then something weird happened.
In the 2010s, Millennials discovered Souvlaki and went absolutely crackers for it. You can see this in the streaming figures—Soulvaki’s tracks have 10-60 million streams each, which means it’s actually now one of the most popular British albums of the 90s.
If Slowdive’s renaissance seems baffling, one listen to Souvlaki will solve the mystery. Here is exactly the kind of spacey, electronic, post-rock noise that’s become immensely popular in recent years, especially among the kind of people who read Pitchfork.
(Pitchfork voted this the second-best shoegaze LP of all time, btw, just behind My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless.)
Most of the tracks on Souvlaki use effects pedals to create this huge, grandiose sound structures in which the vocals drift around like ghosts. In the dreamy album opener ‘Alison’, Neil Halsetad sings, “Cause I'm just floating/Your cigarette still burns/Your messed-up world will thrill me” which feels like a manifesto for the record. It’s more like Spiritualized than Lush.
While Souvlaki undoubtedly influenced a lot of recent music (Tame Impala is a big fan), it’s also an album that reaches back to the past. Slowdive’s goal here was to draw on some of the abstract electronica created by David Bowie and Brian Eno on Low and Heroes. In fact, Eno was at one stage lined up to produce Souvlaki.
He didn’t, but he does appear as a guest artist on some of the tracks, including ‘Here She Comes’ and the gorgeous ‘Sing’.
It pains me to say that Melody Maker and Richey Edwards were wrong, and it pains me even more to say that the Millennials are right, but here we are. Souvlaki is a great album. Slowdive are, all things considered, not as bad as Hitler.
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