Why acts like Suzanne Vega, Carly Simon and Squeeze are rerecording their biggest hits

Next week, singer Suzanne Vega releases a collection of some of her most familiar songs, including “Tom’s Diner” and “Luka.” But don’t call it a greatest-hits album. These spare, acoustic recordings are new—and so is Ms. Vega’s business strategy for them. The alternate versions are helping her seize some control of songs she doesn’t actually own, at least in their original form.

Most veteran acts, including Ms. Vega, don’t own the master recordings of their old songs. Those are the property of the record labels that originally released the music. As a result, these acts typically earn a relatively small chunk of the money generated from album sales and any other revenue sources from the songs. Court battles to try to win back these rights are risky and costly.

So a growing number of artists are taking their old, signature material and rerecording it. That way they get full ownership of these second versions and a majority of any future earnings from them. It’s an entrepreneurial gambit that appeals mostly to acts past their peak selling years. One problem: these rerecordings can be a tough sell with fans, who might think the original songs are just fine as is. Among the artists who have gone this route: Carole King, John Prine and the Pointer Sisters.

In the case of the U.K. group Squeeze, whose hits like “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” sum up the ’80s for certain listeners, a beer commercial which earned them little money prompted the band to fight back. Surprised to hear “Tempted” in a Heineken ad, the band decided to record facsimiles of their biggest hits. In August, the band released 12 note-for-note retakes under the winking title “Spot the Difference.”

The album is largely aimed at the “music supervisors” who select songs for commercials, TV shows and movies. If a new version of “Tempted” lands in car ad, for instance, the band would pocket the whole licensing fee, not just the roughly 20% it would normally collect through Universal Music Group, which owns Squeeze’s back catalog. (Such licensing deals, like music sales, involve two separate income streams. This strategy is aimed at only one of them—the fee paid for the recorded music itself—not the publishing-rights fee paid to the songwriter, or whoever controls the composition.)

So far, Squeeze 2.0 hasn’t landed any licensing deals, despite the apparent incentives. “A lot of people really can’t tell the difference [from the originals] and that’s good news,” says guitarist and singer Chris Difford. while all are still young

Some artists push too hard, says Amy Rosen, vice president of music at Grey, the advertising company. “We don’t like being bullied. The tendency, sometimes, is just to move off those songs,” she says.

On the other hand, Grey client 3M has made heavy use of Randy Bachman’s rerecorded version of “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” in commercials for Scotch-Brite sponges and cleaning products. “We liked that using it put more money directly into Randy’s pocket, but more importantly it fit our creative needs,” she says.

Record labels discourage rerecording with contract clauses that prohibit their artists from doing rerecords, typically until five years after the contract expires.

In 2008, Carly Simon was smarting from a fight with a label over an album of new material. “My thrilling comeback was no such thing,” she recalls. In her Martha’s Vineyard home, she made acoustic recordings of “Anticipation” and 11 other chestnuts, finding therapeutic value in the strong stuff from her past. Owning the new versions outright, she says, was a “side benefit.”

The resulting album “Never Been Gone” came out on Iris Records, a label co-owned by Ms. Simon’s son, Ben Taylor. She licensed the songs to Iris temporarily. In addition, she approves any upfront expenses and splits net profits with the label, with the singer taking the majority. Such an arrangement would have been unheard of until relatively recently, let alone when Ms. Simon was in her commercial ’70s prime.

Iris placed the retooled “You’re So Vain” in an ABC spot promoting the network’s fall lineup. But fan response has been disappointing. “Never Been Gone” has sold 20,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, not including direct sales through Ms. Simon’s Web site. “Unfortunately people who see the new record say, ‘I’ve already got that,’ so they don’t necessarily buy it,” says the singer, who says she is now occupied with writing a play.

Ms. Vega’s reprise project will encompass some 60 songs, spread out over four albums divided by themes, including love and family. “Close-Up Vol. 2, People & Places” comes out Tuesday.

The singer-songwriter, known for her vivid New York yarns, found herself at a crossroads in 2008. Recently dropped from a major label, she had $100,000 socked away from touring. Instead of using it to finance an album of new material, she opted for cheaper, stripped-down recordings of her existing material.

With two more “Close Up” releases and a box set to come by 2012, Ms. Vega says the project is already profitable. Unlike the roughly 15% she earns on sales from her back catalog (owned by Universal) the bulk of the “Close-Up” earnings flow back to her. She also makes all the creative calls. “I can remix the songs. I can license them out. I can offer them to the public to be remixed. I have the freedom to go forth and do what I want,” she says.

But most listeners won’t know or care about the ownership issues involved, she says: “Most fans want to know, does it work artistically?”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: