Now That Taylor Swift Re-Recorded Her Old Music, Could These Other Artists Follow Suit?

After the new version of "Fearless," will we see a slew of musicians re-recording past work?

February 12, 2021 9:19 am
taylor swift, elton john and paul mccartney
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It’s been over a year since music executive Scooter Braun bought the masters to Taylor Swift’s Big Machine catalog — which consists of her first six massively popular albums — out from under her, and we now have the first of her re-recorded versions of her old material aimed at devaluing the originals (which Braun sold to an investment firm, Shamrock Capital, for more than $300 million).

Arriving just in time for Valentine’s Day, Swift’s new version of “Love Story,” now called “Love Story (Taylor’s Version),” is our first taste of her re-recorded album Fearless, which will be out April 9 and feature six previously unreleased songs as well. “This process has been more fulfilling and emotional than I could’ve imagined and has made me ever more determined to re-record all of my music,” she wrote on social media.

Of course, we won’t know until April how many people will be moved to buy the new version of Fearless, but it seems safe to assume Swift stands to make a boatload of cash by re-recording her old music. She’s in a rather unique position because her battle with Braun over the rights to her masters has been very public, and she also happens to possess an insanely large, devoted fanbase who will buy just about anything she puts her name on. Those fans will surely feel as though they have to buy and stream the Swift-sanctioned versions instead of the originals to support her. But Swift is far from the first artist to take issue with not owning her masters; will others follow her lead and re-record their old material?

It’s not so simple. Besides the obvious fact that re-recording old music requires a lot of time and money (especially if you’re planning on meticulously recreating it note for note), there are plenty of legal factors preventing many artists from undertaking such a project. For one, you have to own your own publishing rights (in other words, write your own songs), otherwise you’d need to ask permission from and pay the person who holds those rights in order to use the songs. And of course, nearly every record deal signed these days includes “re-recording restrictions” designed to prevent the artist from recording a competing version of their album after it’s released. Most standard re-recording restrictions prohibit artists from re-recording the music they make for a label for anywhere between three and seven years after its release, though as Vice points out, it’s likely that those restrictions could get stricter — extending to 10, 15, even 20 years after release — in the wake of Swift’s move to prevent other musicians from doing the same.

Even if you’re legally able to re-record your own material, there’s still the question of whether it’s a good idea to do so. Unless there’s a clear incentive for fans to buy the new version, you’re essentially competing against the original. And because that version is the one everyone already knows and loves, it’s often not going to be worth the hassle of re-recording. But sometimes, whether it’s a matter of label drama, lost or destroyed masters or a regrettable lyrics that could use a revision or two, the pros of re-recording outweigh the cons. With that in mind, we take a look at a handful of artists who could benefit from taking a second stab at their earlier material — and some who already have.

Paul McCartney

Why Would He?

McCartney finally got back the publishing rights to some of his Beatles catalog in 2017 after a decades-long battle with Michael Jackson — who famously outbid McCartney and bought his songs out from under him, destroying their friendship —and Sony ATV. The former Beatle utilized the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, which allows songwriters to reclaim copyright from music publishers 35 years after they gave them away, to get the rights to his tunes back, and he and Sony ATV eventually reached a private settlement over the issue.

Should He?

It would certainly be interesting to hear McCartney tackle the early Beatles material at this stage in his life — either as a solo artist or perhaps featuring Ringo Starr on drums — and he obviously has a massive, dedicated fanbase who will buy any Beatles-related item they can get their hands on. But there would, of course, be two irreplaceable members of the group missing, and any version of these songs that lacks John Lennon and George Harrison will likely feel kind of sad and incomplete. Probably best for Macca to keep focusing on new material instead of dwelling in the past.

Elton John

Why Would He?

Elton John was one of many artists whose masters were destroyed in the Universal Studios fire in 2008. (Even 13 years after the fact, Universal has been cagey about exactly which how many masters — and which ones — were lost in the blaze, but John’s are among those confirmed gone in court documents.)

Should He?

Even with everything being digital these days, it’s a good idea to have an analog copy for both posterity and security reasons. John could use this as an excuse to revisit some of his earlier material, and he’s got plenty of time to tackle the project now that he has retired from touring, so why not? (Of course, he’d need his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, who shares the publishing rights with him, to go along with the idea.)

Michelle Branch

Why Would She?

After her platinum-selling 2003 album Hotel Paper, Branch got trapped in record-label limbo at Warner Brothers for over a decade, with the label shelving various albums of hers but refusing to drop her, leading to a 14-year gap between Hotel Paper and its follow-up, Hopeless Romantic, which she released in 2017 after signing to Verve. Now that so much time has passed since Hotel Paper and any re-recording clauses attached to it have surely expired, what better way to get a little revenge on Warner Brothers for stringing her along for so many years than to release a competing version of her biggest hit?

Should She?

That depends on a lot of things. At this point in her career, Branch is likely eager to just move forward. She’s finally in a place where she can release new material, so it seems unlikely that she’d want to spend her time and money re-recording a nearly-20-year-old album just for spite instead of focusing on writing and recording something new.


Why Would They?

Hayley Williams and company have distanced themselves from their 2007 hit “Misery Business” in recent years due to the slut-shaming in some of its lyrics. (“Once a whore you’re nothing more, I’m sorry, that’ll never change,” Williams sings on the track.) In 2018, Williams told a crowd she was playing the song for “the last time for a really long time” because she felt she needed to “move away from it for a little while.” It’s admirable that she and the band want to do the right thing and stop performing a song that doesn’t send the right message. But they wouldn’t have to retire the track if they just re-recorded a new version that omits the objectionable parts.

Should They?

It doesn’t seem like a bad idea if they’re looking for a way to keep the song — which remains one of their biggest hits — in their live setlist. And re-writing the lyrics would also differentiate the song from the original enough that it might entice more fans to stream or buy the new version than if it were simply a carbon copy.

Foo Fighters

Why Would They?

Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album is famously a Dave Grohl solo affair; he wrote and recorded the entire album himself, playing all the instruments on it save for a guest guitar spot by Greg Dulli. It wasn’t until 1997’s The Colour and the Shape that the band we know and love today came together on an LP. It might be fun to have the rest of the group try their hands at recording Foo Fighters as an experiment of sorts and polish the raw recording up a bit.

Should They?

A full-band version of the record would obviously spark interest among diehard fans willing to shell out some cash for the novelty of it. It seems unlikely that it’d be a high priority, however, as the group is currently promoting a new album and celebrating their recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination.


Why They Did: Lost masters

Last year, Wheatus released a note-for-note re-recording of their self-titled album (which contains their hit “Teenage Dirtbag”) to celebrate its 20th anniversary. As Rolling Stone noted, “The album was recorded on a long-defunct transitional format called ADAT. Years ago, [singer Brendan] Brown gave his last personal copy of the masters to his former label, Sony, and he’s never seen them since. For a musician whose lifelong income is very much dependent on a single song, this is a problem.”


Why She Did: Label disputes

JoJo spent much of her career mired in record label drama, and eventually in 2013 she sued her former labels Blackground Records and Da Family for “irreparable damages to her professional career.” Eventually, she was let out of her contract and in 2014 she signed with Atlantic, but her first two albums — which contained her biggest hits — remained unavailable on streaming services or digital retailers. In 2018, she rectified that by releasing re-recorded versions of them.

Def Leppard

Why They Did: Label disputes

Back in 2012, Def Leppard recorded what they referred to as “forgeries” of their biggest hits and released them to streaming services and digital retailers as a way to spite their label, Universal Music Group, after butting heads with the company over their compensation. “Our contract is such that they can’t do anything with our music without our permission, not a thing,” frontman Joe Elliott said at the time. “So we just sent them a letter saying, ‘No matter what you want, you are going to get “no” as an answer, so don’t ask.’ That’s the way we’ve left it. We’ll just replace our back catalog with brand new, exact same versions of what we did.”

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