I’ve long been a fan of cover tunes, where a different artist records a song and you hear the different styles and interpretations. But now we have the phenomenon of musicians becoming their own cover band, and for very good reasons.
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.