A new spin: will Taylor Swift's move to re-record old albums pay off?

From Frank Sinatra to Kate Bush, pop music has a long history of artists taking another shot in the studio

FILE PHOTO: Taylor Swift performs at the iHeartRadio Wango Tango concert in Carson, California, U.S., June 1, 2019. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo

One word you cannot use to describe Taylor Swift is monotonous.

During her 15-year career as a singer-songwriter, she's dabbled in everything from country music and EDM to pop and even hip-hop.

So what can we make of her new single, a re-recording (dubbed "Taylor's version") of 2010's Love Story?

Minor tweaks aside, like the languid production and Swift's huskier voice (the nasally twang of the original belied her 18 years of age at the time), the song is pretty much a replica of the original.

Then again, that’s the point.

Love Story (Taylor's Version) is the opening shot aimed at former label Big Machine Label Group and music executive Scooter Braun for selling her masters – the official sound recording upon which future editions stem from – to investment fund Shamrock Holdings without offering Swift the option of buying them back.

Now on the war path, Swift pledged to re-record her first six albums, all released under Big Machine Label Group, with the aim of owning the new set of masters.

To sweeten the deal for fans, many of whom are emotionally attached to the original tracks, Swift aims to release the re-recorded albums with extras.

When Fearless (Taylor's Version) arrives on Friday, April 9, it comes as a 26-song package, comprising 13 album tracks and 13 pieces of unreleased material including six new songs.

The end goal, Swift hopes, is that the new versions dominate the original albums in terms of physical sales, streaming numbers and licensing deals, thus diminishing Shamrock Holdings's investment in her work.

While has Swift reignited a much-needed conversation about music ownership, re-recording music is not a novel idea.

Pop music acts have released new takes of old hits as far back as the 1960s for reasons ranging from commercial to creative.

The Everly Brothers and Frank Sinatra doing it their way

US duo The Everly Brothers are regarded as pioneers of pop music re-recordings.

In 1960 and at the peak of their fame, the duo left mid-tier label Cadence Records for giants Warner Bros in an eye-watering $1 million deal.

Not long after, the group released a compilation of re-recorded greatest hits.

As a result, Cadence Records, owners of the original Everly Brothers masters, were denied income from the release. The new compilation was a hit for Warner Bros, lucrative for the group and hastened the financial demise of Cadence Records, which closed down in 1964.

Admiring the move, perhaps, as much for its ruthlessness as financial sense, was Frank Sinatra. That year, Ol' Blue Eyes launched his self-owned label Reprise Records and released re-recorded hits as part of the new arrangement.

However, with the record business maturing, labels increasingly became wise to such shenanigans. From the mid-1960s, recording contracts came with clauses that restrict the period in which an artist can re-record tracks. To this day, this remains the industry standard of up to five years.

Def Leppard’s ‘forgeries’

This was not so much a truce but a pause in hostilities between artists and corporations, as the music industry adjusted to digital streaming.

A group unhappy with how things were playing out was Def Leppard.

At loggerheads with label Universal when it came to digital royalty rates, the British rockers denied the company – as per the terms of their contract – the right to release their catalogue on streaming platforms.

Then, in an brazen act, the group re-recorded almost identical versions of old hits exclusively for digital distribution, thus cutting out the label and guaranteeing Def Leppard up to a reported 70 per cent from all streams.

What gave the move such notoriety was the unabashed glee Def Leppard took in sticking it to Universal – they cheekily dubbed the online versions “forgeries".

Having another go

However, not every new version is fuelled by bitter contract disputes.

For Beach Boy Brian Wilson, it was a case of unfinished business. His 2004 late-career masterpiece Smile was made up of new recordings of songs intended for an abandoned 1967 album.

In 2008, US rock group Journey decided the best way to showcase their new lead singer, Filipino Arnel Pineda, was through releasing the compilation Revelation, a re-recording of 11 hits.

Meanwhile, 2011's Director's Cut found British singer Kate Bush attempting to right sonic wrongs of the past with a collection of modern reworkings of older tracks.

With such a colourful history, it's hard to know if Swift’s gamble to re-record previous albums will pay off. Similar moves by stars prior were done on a smaller scale and with relatively less rancour.

Either way, the flood of material she intends to release will continue the ongoing music debate of whether newer means better.