The practice of artists releasing “re-recorded” versions of their songs has received increased attention in the last few years. This increase is partially due to Taylor Swift’s high-profile attempt to circumvent her lack of control over her masters by re-recording her catalog. The newfound attention on this practice raises the question: does artist re-recording pose a broader threat to record companies or the booming recording-rights investment industry?

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What is re-recording? 

A re-recording is a recording produced following a new performance of an existing work of music. Unlike reissues, where an artist merely re-releases existing recordings, re-recording involves the process of actually performing and recording the music itself again. The importance and viability of using re-recordings to circumvent label or investor controls over songs is due to the way that music rights are broken down.

Master Rights vs. Publishing Rights 

There are two types of copyrights when a piece of music is created: the master rights and the publishing rights. The “master” recording is the original sound recording of a piece of music. All other copies of the song are derived from this master track. The publishing rights deal with the rights over the underlying musical elements that make the song (e.g. the lyrics and composition). In essence, owning the masters means owning the copyright to the original studio recording of a piece of music, while publishing rights relate to the actual composition of the work itself. Many traditional label deals will ask an artist to sign away their master rights to the record label for a set period of time or the length of the copyright, while allowing artists to retain control of the publishing rights to their music.

Control over the masters of songs is critical, because it allows the controller to dictate how and to whom songs are licensed. For artists, signing away the rights to these tracks means losing the authority to say how their recordings are used. The importance of this concept has been highlighted in high profile disputes between artists like Prince, Taylor Swift, Kanye, and the owners of their masters. This brings us to “re-recording.” The distinction between these two types of copyrights suggests that if an artist or band does not own their recording rights, they could simply hit the studio and produce new versions of their songs, which they could then use to compete with the existing copies being licensed out by labels and music investment entities. Thus, re-recording could provide a loophole for artists over these control issues related to master tracks by allowing them to exercise their publishing rights to create new master recordings. 

So, can re-recording help empower artists in taking back control of their music? Could it throw the burgeoning music rights industry into disarray? 

…Probably not. Unfortunately for most artists, the reality is that record labels and music-rights investors are savvy to the risks of re-recording, and they employ techniques to protect their assets from threats. This should come as no surprise given the importance of masters and publishing rights to these businesses. Most record contracts have re-recording restrictions in place as a form of insurance to protect against examples like what happened with Taylor Swift. Artists may not even know that such restrictions are buried within the language of their contracts. The most common method of protection lies within the structure of record deals themselves. Labels will offer artists advance royalties and promotional support in exchange for copyrights for all music made under the contract and re-recording restrictions that prevent artists from creating a new version of any sound recording for a defined period (often the greater of five years from the delivery or 3 years from the end of the contract’s term). Similarly, many sales of artist catalogs in music rights deals are contingent upon having both the masters and publishing rights of songs. 

With that said, artists are typically free to re-record their compositions once these restrictions in their contracts have lapsed. This means that if they can wait out their restriction periods (or are lucky enough to have a contract that overlooked re-recording restrictions), artists can re-record new masters of their songs and use them at their will. One interesting effect to this is that artists could then use these new recordings as leverage against their labels to deliver more favorable terms on their original songs. One such example was provided by the band Def Leppard, who told their label to withdraw their existing catalog from all digital services and, in turn, put on their own re-recorded versions until their label agreed to renegotiate their payments from the original catalog. However, such examples of success are rare. 

Even where re-recordings are possible, they are very hard to pull-off. For one, re-recordings are not exact replicas, and even the most dedicated fans of artists may find themselves preferring the aesthetic qualities of the original versions of songs. Additionally, there remains the issue of money. For most artists, the time and money necessary to re-record songs poses a high hurdle. Thus, re-recording is costly and comes with the risk of having to persuade audiences and potential licensors to choose these new versions over the originals. 

Ultimately, it seems likely that successful attempts at re-recording music are reserved to the rare few high-profile artists who have re-recording rights, dedicated fan bases willing to forego listing the existing popular versions of their songs in favor of the new ones, and the time and money to pull it all off.