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Play It Again, Sam

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 11:39 AM

In 1945, Igor Stravinsky became an American citizen.  He then began re-composing some of his earlier works, like The Firebird, for a very peculiar reason: America did not recognize the European copyrights on many of his works.  By recomposing them, he was able to maintain some control over works that were otherwise available in his adopted country without any fees owed to him.

Stravinsky was obviously a pretty savvy guy.  He knew the music end of the music business, but he knew the business end too. 

In 1992, Mike Oldfield, the creator of Tubular Bells, which gained worldwide fame as the theme to the film The Exorcist, came to our studio with a new album, called Tubular Bells 2.  It was essentially the same as the original in form – only some of the notes were changed to make it a different piece.   But these slightly different melodies were anchored by the same rhythms, interacted in the same way, and progressed exactly as the original did.  I asked him why he did it, and he said that he’d grown sick over the years of people “nicking the piece” – essentially copying the sound of Tubular Bells for any number of commercials and soundtracks – and making money from it, so he figured he’d nick the work himself and get some of that licensing money. 

I don’t believe I’ve listened to Tubular Bells 2 since then.  Something about it really bothered me.  Now we see lots of artists re-recording their popular works for the express purpose of gaining copyright control over a song whose rights are actually owned by the record companies.  I’m absolutely sympathetic to musicians who create a successful song and then see most of the profits from that song go to the record company.  Copyright may be a tough knot to unravel, but I can’t help feeling the solution is in there somewhere - in a wholesale restructuring of our copyright laws.  Re-recording songs just to be able to grab your piece of the pie?  That's a little unseemly, maybe even cynical.  Except for Suzanne Vega’s re-recorded versions of her old hits, because they’re completely new versions.  Squeeze, on the other hand, is trying to recreate its hits note for note.  That just doesn’t sound like the answer to me. 

By the way, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca says “play it, Sam.” He never actually says, “play it again, Sam.” 

What do you think about artists re-recording their hits?  Leave a comment. 

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