‘No Shelf Life Now’: The Big Business of Interpolating Old Songs for New Hits
Interpolation-loving artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Ava Max, and Doja Cat are leading a radical shift in the way the music industry thinks about catalog usage. How far can the trend go?
It was the middle of June when more than two dozen songwriters, producers, and publishing representatives poured into an expansive, secluded creator’s “compound” just outside of Los Angeles’ wealthy Brentwood neighborhood. For three days, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., they wrote songs — in between catered meals and fierce games of corn hole in the estate’s backyard — to shop around to A-listers like Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, and Cardi B, who could turn the tunes into lucrative anthems. It was, essentially, a summer camp for hitmaking. There was just one twist: The writers were specifically encouraged to lift music from old hit songs.
“We wanted everyone to have fun, be as creative as you want, make whatever you’d like, but use our catalog as a starting point,” says Franny Graham, one of the camp’s organizers and the vice president of creative at indie publisher Primary Wave.
Songwriting camps aren’t uncommon, but this was Graham’s first time setting up a camp directly asking for songs to be written with interpolations. Leading up to the camp, Primary Wave, which has been on a buying spree collecting publishing rights from the likes of Stevie Nicks and Bob Marley, sent all the songwriters a playlist of a few dozen old hits they owned a stake in — offering these easily clearable copyrights as a way to kickstart the writing process. Publishers have a vested interest in getting tracks interpolated: They get revenue on the new songs if their signed songwriters have credits on the tracks, and interpolations and samples often drive streams to the original material to boot. Primary Wave hosts writers across several genres, including its own in-house talent alongside songwriters from Electric Feel, which, along with running a label and publishing division, manages artists including Post Malone, Iann Dior, and 24kGoldn.
The June camp yielded several potential hits, many of which are inching toward production now. Notable results of the camp include an interpolation of Boston’s classic “More Than a Feeling,” in which songwriters Dante Jones, Solly, and Nasri, the lead singer of Canadian fusion band Magic!, rewrote the iconic chorus into an emo “I’m all out of feelings” verse, and an episode in which Jeff Peters, A1 LaFlare, and Anthony “Tone” Jones morphed country classic “Life Is a Highway” into an R&B song. Primary Wave is also shopping around a flip of Bob Marley’s hit “Stir It Up.”
“Closing Time,” the ‘90s hit written by Dan Wilson — whose catalog Primary Wave bought earlier in 2021 — was the camp’s most-flipped song. At one point during the sessions, three different writers’ rooms were simultaneously making their own versions of the track. The guitar riff and hooky verses, Graham says, work well with the guitar-driven hip-hop beats artists like Post Malone have popularized in recent years. One of the “Closing Time” interpolations has already made it to a major artist, though Graham declines to disclose who will perform it.
“At some point when one of these new tracks comes out, ‘Closing Time’ is going to be a massive hit again,” Graham says, jovially.
Interpolations have run rampant in the strange year of 2021. Just ask Olivia Rodrigo, Ava Max, Lorde, and Doja Cat, who’ve all made charting or platinum records in the past year borrowing beats and melodies from older hits. As a musical concept, interpolations are a cousin to sampling, the art of sticking sound snippets of older songs into new projects that has defined so much of hip-hop. Rather than lifting or modifying a recorded track, though, an interpolation cribs only from a song’s written composition — whether that’s lyrics, a melody, a riff, or a beat.
It’s difficult to quantify how often interpolations are happening now, because there’s no comprehensive database for the practice. But just a cursory glance at the pop charts of recent years — which fold together data from radio play, retail sales, and streaming — tells an obvious story. In 2020, Ava Max gave Desmond Child a songwriter’s credit on her hit single “Kings and Queens,” which interpolated Child’s famous chorus melody featured on Eighties hits “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi and “If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man)” by Bonnie Tyler. Ava Max’s song also got Child’s iconic melody its first platinum single certification, 35 years after its first use. Then there’s Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More,” which blew up on TikTok and bowed in at Number Two on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Songs chart, in part by interpolating Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.”
Rodrigo, in particular, is the queen of the growing trend, running multiple interpolations on her 2021 debut album, Sour. She interpolated the Taylor Swift track “Cruel Summer” for her single “Deja Vu,” giving Swift, Jack Antonoff, and St. Vincent writing credits on the song after it came out. Later, she also gave Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Josh Farro publishing rights on “Good 4 U,” after many fans pointed out large similarities between Rodrigo’s tune and the group’s pop-punk classic “Misery Business.”
For the interpolated artists, these new tracks have certainly been a financial boon. A Billboard report estimates Williams and Farro will have earned as much as $1.2 million from their newly minted publishing royalties on “Good 4 U,” while Swift took at least $325,000 from “Deja Vu.” While the artists doing the interpolating have to give out a heftier cut of the profits on the song, it’s a calculated decision: Using the DNA of already proven hits helps a new track’s chances of blowing up.
This recycling-friendly sentiment in today’s hitmaking landscape is perhaps best encapsulated in an online exchange Elvis Costello had with a fan in June, upon the revelation that “Brutal,” the opening track from Rodrigo’s Sour, uses a riff that sounds very similar to the one on Costello’s 1978 track “Pump It Up.”
“Brutal” did not give Costello a songwriting credit, but he doesn’t mind: “It’s how rock and roll works,” he told the fan. “You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did.”
Costello isn’t the first legacy artist to support a young pop singer for putting out a song that sounds like his. He wasn’t even the first to do it that month: Weeks earlier, both rock group Primal Scream and the estate to George Michael publicly lauded Lorde’s single “Solar Power,” which had drawn similarities to their respective songs “Loaded” and “Freedom 90!” And while “Solar Power” doesn’t officially interpolate either track (neither Michael nor Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie are listed as co-writers on the song), Lorde herself acknowledged the Primal Scream inspiration, telling Apple Music’s Zane Lowe in June that she wrote the track initially not realizing the similarities. She reached to Gillespie before releasing “Solar Power,” and he gave Lorde his approval.
“He was so lovely about it. He was like, ‘these things happen, you caught a vibe that we caught years ago,’” Lorde said. “And he gave us his blessing. So let the record state ‘Loaded’ is 100 percent the original blueprint for this, but we arrived at it organically, and I’m glad we did.”
“When we pitch to other creatives, it’s almost like we’re feeding them, trying to lead them to water”
Don’t expect interpolations to slow down anytime soon — rather, the total opposite is likely. Publishing companies are sitting on mountains of instantly recognizable songs whose heyday reflected an album-centric industry. Now that the business is focused around streaming singles, they have a chance to juice them once again. It’s the very reason companies like Primary Wave and Hipgnosis Songs Fund have gone on massive spending sprees in the past two years collecting publishing rights on legacy hits from songwriters.
Between a softer legal landscape, a higher demand for catchy music to place in swaths of content, and a hot song acquisition marketplace, publishers are seeing stronger tailwinds to get their old hits recycled. Several publishers who spoke with Rolling Stone say they’re becoming increasingly aggressive in pitching their catalogs and seeing more requests from creators to use their music for new songs.
Justin Shukat, Primary Wave’s president, says he pushed Doja Cat’s team to officially release fan favorite and viral TikTok sound “Freak,” which heavily samples and interpolates Primary Wave talent Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” Primary Wave took a stake in Anka’s catalog in 2019. Doja Cat, he says, didn’t have plans to release the song, even as it went viral last year, but Shukat persuaded her team otherwise. The popularity of “Freak” on TikTok led to “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” also getting placed in Doja Cat’s “Streets” after TikTokers mashed the two tracks together in a popular silhouette video challenge earlier this year.
And hits beget more hits. Primary Wave holds a state in Newton-John’s “Physical,” and after the success of Doja Cat and SZA’s interpolation of the song on “Kiss Me More,” Shukat says he wants Doja Cat or another marquee artist to perform a full cover of the original song too — and he’s received several different versions of the track from producers as Primary Wave looks for an artist for the track.
Primary Wave now trawls through its catalog pointedly looking for old songs it can reignite in the TikTok era with a fresh coat of paint, encouraged by significant success from the Doja Cat tracks along with other songs like Surf Mesa’s 2020 hit “ily (I Love You Baby),” which itself is a relaxed electronic pop rendition of the Frankie Valli song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” which Primary Wave has a stake in.
“If someone wants to cut a record these days, I’m a big believer in it. When we pitch to other creatives, it’s almost like we’re feeding them, trying to lead them to water,” Shukat says of his company’s strategy. “What can they add to the process? Then it becomes a larger collaborative process still baked in the original sample or interpolation of what we control. From a creative perspective, you can wait on the perfect match, and it might never materialize.”
Its latest attempt is upcoming pop singer Shoffy’s “I’ll Be Home Soon,” which prominently samples Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window.” A Primary Wave in-house producer made the track and Shoffy recorded it, and Etheridge promoted it on her social media. Released in March, “I’ll Be Home Soon” has yet to break, having only garnered a few hundred thousand streams and playlist spots. While Shukat says the record “isn’t where we want it to be” yet, given how randomly he’s seen any old hit ignite, he doesn’t worry about timelines.
“The wonderful thing about where we are is that you make a record, there’s no shelf life now,” he says. “If you make a great quality record, it might not ignite that fire immediately, but I believe that if the hit’s there, it will find its audience at some point.”
Active catalog shopping is changing how the majors do business, too. Sony Music Publishing, the world’s largest music publisher, has received twice as many requests for samples and interpolations from its catalog two years in a row, vice president of business and legal affairs Dag Sandsmark says, and the company’s hiring more A&R representatives in part to push potential tracks to writers and producers. Sony is used to letting requests come to them, but given the amount of content available and the frequency of songwriters selling to smaller publishers hoping for more focus on their works, the publisher has to make a change.
“It’s new for us because we’re quite large and get a lot of requests already, but we’ve got a team that’s starting to pursue it more,” Sandsmark says. “We’re looking at catalogs that aren’t seeing the same level of action as the most sought-after songs. We’re trying to steer writers toward works we know are sort of friendly catalogs ready to use.”
Warner Chappell, whose catalog includes hits written by Quincy Jones, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars, also acknowledges a push to be more active with its music. Toward the beginning of the pandemic last year, Warner Chappell launched Beat Broker, a “help yourself” set of artist playlists with tracks Warner Chappell guarantees will be granted licenses, a first for the big-three publisher. Right now, there are about 400 tracks in the program, and it’s open by invitation, but the publisher plans on expanding the service with more songs and resources on a rolling basis.
“I was getting more requests from creators asking me for songs that are easily cleared, and we realized that instead of just offering the same 50 songs to people, we can direct them to this organic, dusty record store website offering access to whatever they want,” Dave Georgeff, Warner Chappell’s director of sampling and creative services says.
The service has already seen some early successes, with Drake and Logic releasing songs “Deep Pockets” and “Dark Place” after using Beat Broker to get samples. Georgeff says he wants to add a playlist around James Brown’s music soon.
To Ashley Winton, Warner Chappell’s senior vice president of Creative Services, a platform like Beat Broker reflects a hungry, fast-paced demand for repurposing older songs.
“I think what we continue to see at a growing pace is that a song can be reintroduced to audiences all the time, and we’ve got 100 years worth of music we get to play with in different ways,” she says. “If a song was a hit, we can bring it back to the public. For deeper cuts, it’s another chance to take great music for listeners to love. What we’re trying to do is add value in non-traditional ways. The question when we see so much content now is figuring out how to add value for more copyrights around the world.”
The boom in pushing old tracks comes as the industry finally begins to shake off its financial PTSD from Marvin Gaye’s estate’s lawsuit over Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ “Blurred Lines.” For a while, that landmark suit caused a cascade of copycat cases and a general fear among songwriters.
Copyright attorney Peter Anderson successfully defended Led Zeppelin in its infamous “Stairway to Heaven” copyright lawsuit. That case, he believes, helped spur a pendulum shift from the more combative few years the music business faced after the Gaye estate won millions for copyright infringement over minute similarities between the 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” and Gaye’s 1977 single “Got to Give It Up (Pt. 1).”
Music has finally moved on, Anderson says, pointing to artists publicly supporting one another over a track’s similarities as a marker of how the industry has dialed back from the litigious past and acknowledged that originality and influence don’t always have to clash.
“When you see Elvis Costello come out in defense of an artist, to me it’s a reaffirmation of criticism we’ve seen from the artists [over the Robin Thicke ruling],” he says. “The ‘Blurred Lines’ case showed that if the Gaye family can successfully sue over a song where the notes aren’t the same, you could get sued on anything. But if ‘Blurred Lines’ opened Pandora’s box, I think ‘Stairway to Heaven’ closed it back. People are still filing lawsuits, but I’ve seen more success in talking them down from it by showing this isn’t ‘Blurred Lines’ anymore. Getting an expert just to say that two songs both have a fade ending, there’s two of the same notes in a sequence, and they’re both sung by a male isn’t enough.”
A lesser likelihood of winning, of course, won’t completely discourage lawsuits. And other writers more easily getting writers credits on tracks can lead to unfair splits — a point that songwriter collectives like The Pact have made, in publicly revealing how some big artists demand songwriting credit for songs they didn’t write.
There’s also the question of whether the precedent that acts like Rodrigo are setting, by freely giving out publishing credits, is any better than the cautious sentiment of the “Blurred Lines” era.
Ana Ribeiro, a songwriter and intellectual property attorney in Brazil, worries that more acts looking to avoid a lawsuit from larger, more-resourced acts will more often give up songwriter credits even if they aren’t needed.
“The creative process isn’t always a conscious process. When you have an idea, it’s hard to tell if something’s totally original, and it can be hard to tell if any such originality exists,” Ribeiro says. “The more we widen the idea of what an author or co-author is, the more we risk making a never ending chain of who warrants a credit.”
Music copyright law remains imperfect, and more interpolations will invariably lead to complications on how to properly cite music-makers, as creators are forced to consider where influence starts and originality ends. But artists are less loath to discuss the topic now, and the cat’s out of the bag: In the near future, more artists will likely be willing to repurpose their music as they hand over copyrights to companies, and as music continues to evolve as it so quickly has in the digital era.
It’s served Anka well. “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” has suddenly been reshaped into more music — and more money — 63 years after Anka recorded it.
“I was there when pop was in its infancy. The craft of songwriting was a whole different story back then; that doesn’t exist today,” he says. “Seventy years of pop making, things change. We’re in the tech world. It’s a whole new ballgame. Shakespeare’s been done every which way. If you want to use ‘Puppy Love,’ I’m all for it. Just tell me. I’ve been doing this for over 60 years; I’ve made so much money on these songs. Now there’s a young girl, talented, beautiful, knows her shit, on the brink of a major career, I’m not going to fight over three percent. Take it.”
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