Legacy acts reboot classics to regain royalties

Music for Screens: Fall 2012

With the record industry continuing its gradual decline, and digital downloads and commercial licensing proving ever more crucial, a number of legacy acts are heading back into the studio. But cutting a new album may be the furthest thing from their minds.

While most legacy acts control their own publishing rights as songwriters, rights to the master recordings of their biggest hits are often controlled by the record labels, which limits a band’s ability to freely license out its music, and forces them to split the proceeds with a label to which they may no longer even been signed. Yet there’s usually nothing to stop them from simply recording their songs again, note-for-note, and exploiting those recordings to the fullest extent they desire.

Appropriately, a number of marquee artists have taken the initiative by painstakingly re-recording their biggest hits, and in some cases, complete platinum albums, in an effort to control 100% of the revenue made from digital downloads and licensing from advertising, TV and film placement. Performers include Def Leppard, Foreigner, Styx, Squeeze, Cheap Trick, Electric Light Orchestra, Tori Amos, Randy Newman and Twisted Sister, and the list continues to grow each year.

“It has to do with the inherent corporate structure of the music business,” says Jay Jay French, founding member, guitarist and now, manager of Twisted Sister. “It’s the only business where you create, you pay back, and you still don’t own. This is why most musicians, by the way, will not cry over the destruction of the record industry.”

Twisted Sister not only re-recorded their iconic 1980s rock anthems (“We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “We Wanna Rock”), they completely re-created their platinum album, “Stay Hungry,” releasing it recently with additional material as “Still Hungry.” Originally attached to Warner Music’s Atlantic Records, the band recently signed deals with smaller labels Razor & Tie and Eagle Rock, both of which worked out a partnership that French says “respected the heritage of the band, and gave us the flexibility to record those songs and maintain control for the licenses of them.”

Twisted Sister directly licensed its music for “The Betty White Show,” the Broadway play and film version of “Rock of Ages” and in ad promos for Amigo Tequila and Extended Stay Hotels. By offering the re-record licensing rights for less than Warner Music would charge for the 1980s originals, French says they are able to lock up 90% of the deals.

How lucrative can these deals be? Licensing fees for advertising alone can range from $100,000 per song to several million dollars, which Led Zeppelin received from Cadillac in 2003 for the use of “Rock n Roll” in a TV ad campaign.

It’s no longer considered to be a sell-out for bands to place pop classics in advertising, films and TV — not with half of the licensing revenue ending up in artists’ pockets. Now the creators are looking to get more of a return.

“From a licensing standpoint, we have seen the greatest exploitation of our music this year,” says French. “Every year I keep thinking it can’t get any bigger and it does. Why not make 100% of the money?”

Although classic rock still holds the crown, alternative and indie music placements are growing rapidly.

Re-recordings of hit songs are nothing new. Little Richard, the Everly Brothers and several other rock pioneers often re-cut their greatest hits in the early 1960s when they signed with new record companies; and TV marketer K TEL Presents made millions releasing compilations filled with re-recorded hits. The practice caused labels to incorporate a re-record restriction for five years in record contracts.

Def Leppard re-cut some its classic songs for a different reason: they were unhappy with the split Universal offered them to license their recordings to iTunes and other digital download platforms.

“We’re master forgers now,” singer Joe Elliott told The Virginia Pilot in August. “We’re not trying to be greedy. We just want a fair cut of what we think is right.”

Electric Light Orchestra founder and leader Jeff Lynne recently re-recorded “Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra,” releasing it through Frontiers Records for an entirely different reason: he never liked the way the original versions sounded.

“Some of them just weren’t recorded too well back then, and my production wasn’t as good as I thought it was,” says Lynne, who owns the name of the band and all the rights to both the old and new versions. “I was totally faithful to the old songs. I didn’t change the songs or the arrangements. I did them exactly the same because what was wrong was the way I had produced them back then.”

Since Lynne controls the usage of all ELO songs, it is likely he will only want his newly solo-recorded versions available for license. “Sony Music has the older version of the ELO hits out and they can pick those ones as much as they can pick mine.”

Tom Rowland, senior VP film & television music for Universal Music Enterprises, assures the trend to re-record has not been an issue for giants like Universal, Sony or Warners.

“It’s not a big problem,” he says. “It has gotten more press than it deserves. First of all, guitarist X is dead and the drummer is dead and they are not really the tracks. If I am going to land a Cream song or a Traffic song in a film set in the ’70s, they are not going to use a recording of that song done in 2012 or 2013, because it is not authentic.”

He adds, “Music supervisors want authenticity. They want the real thing. Unless it is a different spin on the track, like a new remix or a completely different version, why mess with perfection?”

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