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.

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.”

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.