The Growing, Hidden Problem of Re-Recordings

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 10 2013 8:38 AM

Same Old Song? Not Exactly.

Many classic hits are secretly re-recorded. Can this be stopped?

Del Shannon's "Runaway"
Del Shannon's "Runaway"

Courtesy of Mole Hole Records

A little while back, I was compiling a playlist of ’60s hits in Spotify. The song I started with was “This Diamond Ring,” a 1965 single by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. About 20 instances of the song showed up when I searched for it—some of them on Gary Lewis best-of collections, some on compilations like ’60s Jukebox Hits and 60 Hits of the 60s. Clicking on one at random, I soon noticed that something was off. The vocals sounded strange—was that even Gary Lewis singing? And the snare drum was a very upfront, ’80s-style THWACK, a sound created using “gated reverb,” a studio effect that didn’t exist in the ’60s.

No way was this the original recording I knew and loved. I tried a different “This Diamond Ring” and got the same bogus recording. That’s when I noticed the parentheticals next to some, but not all, of the tracks: “(Re-Recorded Version).” Re-recorded? I clicked on a link without that word in the title, but even that one had the same ersatz sound. I eventually found what seemed to be the original version of the record, a needle in a haystack. But what was going on here? Why the re-recordings, and why the sloppy tagging? Some versions not marked as “re-recorded” actually were the re-recorded version of the song, and at least one of the original versions was marked “re-recording” erroneously.

It turns out that many oldies hits have been re-recorded by the original artists in recent years, and in most cases for a simple reason: royalties. As Irwin Chusid, a music historian and producer (who’s also a colleague of mine at WFMU) explained to me, most of these artists were still bound by ancient contracts that they signed when musicians routinely got the short end of the stick—and also, to be fair, when few people imagined the fortunes that would one day be reaped from licensing songs to filmmakers, TV producers, and advertisers. The result was that these contracts provided the artists with “a pittance, if anything,” according to Chusid, for “sync licensing,” the fee paid to a recording’s owner for the use of that recording. (This fee is not to be confused with the songwriting royalties paid to the song’s composer.) Today, film licenses for popular songs are frequently in the five figures, and the licenses for commercials and movie trailers can go even higher. Short of renegotiating an expiring contract, which is rarely an option, Chusid says, “those artists have every incentive to re-record and try to license” the new recording with a fairer royalty arrangement.

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The phenomenon isn’t new. David Ponak, senior director for licensing at Rhino Records, explained to me that one of the earliest artists to re-record his music was Frank Sinatra. When Sinatra left Capitol Records in 1960 to found his own label, Reprise Records—with the explicit goal of giving artists more control over their recordings—he made a series of albums that included re-recorded versions of his Capitol hits. The financial incentive was huge: Sinatra was still riding high, and since he owned Reprise he stood to make far more money from sales of the re-recorded records than the originals. (Even so, he had to sell the company to Warner Bros. a few years later.) Similarly, Ponak pointed out, when Chuck Berry left Chess Records for Mercury, the first thing he did was record a greatest-hits collection, presumably at a much more favorable royalty rate, without making it clear that the hits had been re-recorded.

As those examples suggest, musicians generally don’t call attention to these doublings. One exception: Def Leppard recently re-recorded their back catalog and announced it publicly, explaining that the new versions were “forgeries” intended to cut out their record label from the revenues they generated. They, too, believed they had a grossly unfair royalty arrangement. So while the band’s approach was different, the basic economic motivation was the same.

Today, film and TV licensing are often more lucrative than record sales—especially for oldies groups who haven’t been in the charts for decades but whose recordings are frequently used on soundtracks. Often, independent films can’t afford to license original recordings of hit songs, because record companies ask for prices that could blow their budgets 10 times over. The labels have no particular incentive to slash those prices: Given their size and overhead, it’s not worth their time to license a record for $5,000. But to an artist, $5,000 is real money. So when an artist re-records a hit and keeps the sync licensing fee for himself, it’s a win-win for recording artist and filmmaker. As the musician and producer Dave Amels told me, “This whole sector of the business is ignored by major labels because there’s not enough money out there. An artist can license the [re-recorded] master for less money to the film producer, but get more.”

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