While it may be a win-win for the musician and filmmaker, where the listener comes out in the bargain is another matter. When Sinatra and Berry were re-recording their songs, they drew on excellent musicians who used similar equipment. And at the time, you could only purchase physical copies of the songs, so distinguishing one recording from another was generally as simple as looking at the label. It’s not so simple anymore. Consider my experience on Spotify. Of the handful of ’60s and early-’70s hits that I investigated, all had re-recorded versions—sometimes marked as such, sometimes not. Sometimes only the re-recorded version was available, a sad state of affairs. It was the same in Apple’s iTunes Store, where the implications are even worse for listeners because there’s actual money involved. I wouldn’t be thrilled to pay for a collection of ’60s hits only to find that half of them were not the actual hits advertised. And the quality and faithfulness of the re-recordings I found varied widely. Some contained only subtle differences that a casual listener might not even catch, while others had obvious disparities. In most cases the parties involved were clearly trying to make as accurate a reproduction of the original as possible, hoping the re-recording would not be detected as anything other than the hit listeners grew up on. But there’s literally no way to make an absolutely precise duplication of a record played by humans. And what are the chances that the 17-year-old singer on a 1962 record will sound the same at, say, age 60? Not good.
To take one example, the re-recording of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is so impressively close that I wasn’t certain it was a re-recording until about 30 seconds in. My conclusion was confirmed when the clavioline break, surely one of the greatest solos in rock ’n’ roll history, started—and was noticeably different from the more staccato original. Sacrilege!
There are also artists who go back and tinker with earlier recordings for aesthetic reasons, of course. (And sometimes with disastrous results: Most ZZ Top fans will tell you that the’80s-style drums they added to their earlier songs in order make them sound more like their newer, more popular records pretty much ruined those older classics.) But one reissue producer told me that an aesthetic preference can also serve as a cover for financial motivation: A musician popular in the ’60s asked him to re-record one of his hits because he didn’t “like the way the original sounds.” The producer suspected that, like many other recording artists, the musician was after the higher royalties. I was also told about a ’70s stadium-rock group who re-recorded their hits and then reportedly refused, as the composers, to give movie producers the rights to their songs unless the filmmakers used the group-controlled re-recordings.
It would be hard to find a fan who prefers a re-recording of their favorite group’s music to the original version—especially when, as sometimes happens, the re-recording is done quickly and on the cheap. But in many cases, re-recorded records are already crowding out the originals in the wild. Some devoted preservationists have created rogue YouTube pages with recordings made from vintage vinyl that say things like, “This is NOT a re-recording! This is the ORIGINAL version,” a bit of iTunes-era samizdat.
Is there anything that can be done so artists are fairly compensated while the original, un-tinkered-with recordings are kept easily available for listeners? The most obvious solution would be for record labels to become more flexible about renegotiating blatantly unfair contracts, something they’ll currently do “only if they really need something from you,” according to one producer I spoke with. A less happy solution involves “re-record restrictions,” which forbid a band from making re-recordings after leaving a label. But these obviously favor the labels and punish the musicians. (Fortunately for the artists, they’re generally in force for only a few years.) One reasonable compromise, highlighted for me by box-set producer Andy Zax, has been used by, among others, Robert Fripp of the prog-rock band King Crimson: He includes re-recordings and other reworkings of songs, such as remixes, alongside originals in reissue packages—sometimes as bonus tracks, and always clearly labeled. This gives the artist a chance to fiddle with the original as much as he or she wants to, and makes the new version available for listeners to play or not, but keeps the recording that fans know and love in circulation.
But the main pressure to change the economics of the situation will probably have to come from consumers. Some listeners won’t need much prodding to speak up if they learn that the classic records they’re buying are replicas and that the originals are being shoved down the memory hole. A possible first step is to force the companies that distribute music to properly label the recordings they sell. Once we know what we’re actually buying, maybe we can figure out how to pay the people who most deserve it—and then we won’t get any unpleasant surprises when listening to our newly purchased copies of ’60s Jukebox Hits.