The Curious Case of Covers and Remakes

When one talks of cover versions or remakes, the reference is normally to Hindi film songs. Most such instances make the headlines too. For instance, six months ago, music director Tanishk Bagchi came in for flak from maestro A.R. Rahman, who was unhappy with the shoddy remake of his Delhi-6 hit Masakali.

Bagchi has been dubbed the Remake Raja, recreating 61 songs in 44 Hindi films, besides four non-film numbers since 2017. And while he is far ahead in the remake race, he’s not the only one. Vishal-Shekhar have remade old hits like R.D. Burman’s Bachna Ae Haseeno and Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani, Nazia and Zoheb Hassan’s Disco Deewane, and the kalaam Ghungroo Toot Gaye, popularised by Pankaj Udhas and sung by others. Ram Sampath has done his own take on the Qurbani song Laila O Laila, and DJ Sheizwood has taken old Hindi film songs like Parde Mein Rehne Do and Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar.

The trend of cover versions and remakes is not restricted to Hindi film music. Besides being associated with popular acts, the West has seen numerous examples where lesser-known artistes have gained fame by adapting classics. A case in point is the band Disturbed, whose 2015 version of the Simon & Garfunkel hit ‘The Sounds Of Silence’ went viral. In 1996, alternative rock band Cake reached out to a newer audience with its adaptation of Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit I Will Survive.

There’s also the case of American duo Pomplamoose, which specialises in wonderful cover versions. Their repertoire includes The Logical Song by Supertramp, Something by The Beatles, Another One Bites The Dust by Queen, and Everybody Wants to Rule The World by Tears For Fears, besides many mash-ups.

The Trend of Cover Versions in India

The trend of cover versions isn’t new in India, and in the 1980s, singers like Anuradha Paudwal did numerous such songs. When the Indipop wave was in full swing in the mid-1990s, musicians again took old songs and gave them a twist by adding certain musical interludes and rap portions. These were actually adaptations but were often known as remixes – a term which actually refers to the song where a sound recording is mixed and some elements are re-recorded in a different way.

Today, a lot of Hindi film songs are adaptations. Typical examples would be Vishal-Shekhar’s The Jawani Song from Student Of The Year 2, which used a lot of fresh elements but retained the original hook line of R.D. Burman’s 1970s hit Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani. Similarly, their popular number Ghungroo from the film War is an adaptation in that it uses a line popularised by Pankaj Udhas.

While adaptations are being churned out by Bagchi and Vishal-Shekhar, many cover versions are being recorded by upcoming singers on YouTube or played at online gigs from home.

Who decides on a remake? Rakesh Nigam, Chief Executive Officer of the Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS), says the decision is taken entirely in consensus between the song’s creator and those who own the original sound recording. He says that in a majority of cases, the remakes were conceived by T-Series, which had the rights of the original.

If the original recording is owned by another label, their permission would have to be taken and the necessary formalities are done. This is especially true in the case of old songs where the rights are owned by Saregama India or Universal Music.

Remakes and Covers- The Legal Angle

Both cover versions and remixes come under the 2012 amendment to the Copyright Act, which brought about a number of changes in respect of rights of music directors, lyricists, and performers. Section 31C deals with statutory licenses that may be obtained for making cover versions of a sound recording in respect of a literary, dramatic, or musical work.

Some of the conditions mentioned in Section 31C are that a cover version cannot be made until the expiry of five years from the end of that calendar year when the original sound recording was made and that prior consent of the owner of the original sound recording has to be obtained. It should explicitly be mentioned that it is a cover version of the original sound recording. As such, if such cover versions are made without the consent of the owner of the original work, it most certainly will amount to copyright infringement.

According to Nigam, the rules for remixes are different, and they do not fall under Section 31C. Industry observers point out that when a sound recording is mixed and some or more elements are re-recorded in a different way it becomes a remix of the original sound recording. Even though the new sound recording is substantially different from the original work, it will still amount to the adaptation of the original work.

How healthy Are Remakes?

The observers say that with the rampant increase in the number of remakes, artists of the original works have become more and more aware of their rights and are going out of the way to enforce them. Most of the music composers, lyricists, and singers are members of copyright societies and it is not difficult to obtain licenses from these societies.

While all these are legal issues, the broad question being asked is whether remakes are healthy for the creative growth of film music. T. Murlidharan, a connoisseur of old film songs, says composers like Bagchi and Vishal-Shekhar are playing safe by choosing only songs that were already successful. He elaborates,

“People are already aware of the tunes of O Saki Saki and Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani. They won’t bother about the new beats added but will sing the tune because they hummed it years ago. What’s great in just rehashing old tunes?”

However, singer Tulsi Kumar, who sang remakes viz., Akhiyon Se Goli MaareO Saki SakiShaher Ki Ladki and Masakali 2.0, justifies the trend. She says they are popular among younger audiences who haven’t heard the original tunes.

“Moreover, composers think my voice suits these songs, and they have gone on to do well too,” adds Tulsi.

If remakes have slowed down over the past few months, it’s only because the number of new film music releases has come down following the lockdown. However, many young singers have been doing cover versions, performing online from their homes, and splashing them over social media. In July, the IPRS had announced rates for streaming online performances but withdrew its notification following an uproar.

One advantage of good cover versions is that they can help spot fresh talent. Sadly over the past few years, some good singers have stuck to this format, without singing much original material. Maybe there isn’t enough new fare to go ga-ga about.

Text by Narendra Kusnur

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