Buying a Piece of Bob Marley’s Song Catalog, and His Enduring Legacy

Under the deal, Primary Wave will control 80 percent of Mr. Blackwell’s share of two catalogs: Marley’s songs and Blue Mountain Music, the publisher that Mr. Blackwell set up in 1962, which includes reggae hits by Toots & the Maytals and rock classics by Free (“All Right Now”) and Marianne Faithfull. Blue Mountain also has rights to U2 songs, but those are excluded from the deal, Mr. Blackwell said.

Primary Wave has carved out a lucrative niche in music publishing by focusing on aggressive branding and marketing campaigns for what its founder, Larry Mestel, calls “the icons and legends business.” The company has a relatively small catalog of about 12,000 songs — its roster includes Smokey Robinson, Def Leppard and Steve Cropper, who wrote “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” with Otis Redding — but promotes them heavily through commercial tie-ins, movies and TV shows.

Mr. Mestel, whose first job was working for Mr. Blackwell at Island, declined to offer any specifics about his plans for the Marley songbook. But as examples of his company’s approach he cited two past campaigns. When it managed Kurt Cobain’s catalog, Primary Wave did a deal with Converse to drape sneakers in Nirvana lyrics; for Aerosmith, it helped create a state lottery game, with each scratch-off card revealing words from Aerosmith songs.

For the estate of the pianist Glenn Gould, another client, Primary Wave plans to send a hologram of Gould — who died in 1982 and famously hated playing live — on a concert tour.

“There are a lot of inbound calls that music publishers get, where they hang up the phone and give each other a high-five, saying, ‘We just did a great job in marketing,’” Mr. Mestel said. “That’s not marketing. We’ve got almost 100 people that all they do is marketing, all day long.”


Marley in 1979. His family handles most aspects of his estate, Mr. Blackwell controls the rights to his music publishing…

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