Def Leppard's Digital Revenge

Illustration: Kyle Hilton

Like Squeeze and ELO's Jeff Lynne, the '80s mega band is rerecording its hits to sell online -- infuriating its label in the process.

Five wide-eyed lads from England form a band in the image of their heroes Led Zeppelin, Queen and AC/DC, go on to sell 100 million albums, tour the world on the back of a dozen hit singles and end up feeling screwed by their record company out of royalties.

It's a familiar tune, but '80s rock act Def Leppard is taking an aggressive tack in a fight with its longtime label. The band is refusing to allow Universal Music use of its original recordings for anything other than physical product, meaning you won't find the 1987 version of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" on iTunes or in movies like Rock of Ages. At the same time, the band is selling rerecorded replicas.

Why? The members of Def Leppard say they're being shortchanged on the digital value of their hits, which they maintain should be the same as a cut off a physical CD. After all, the band not only long ago reimbursed the money "loaned" by then label Polygram, which signed them in 1979, but addendums to their contract over the years afforded the group unusually favorable terms, including approval of how its music is used and sold. "They didn't give us the money to make these records, they took it off future sales," says singer Joe Elliott. "It was a gamble on their part and ours, and it worked out great for both of us."

Until the digital era kicked in, that is. With the current per-download split averaging 63 cents for the label, 9 cents for the artist and the rest to the vendor (a major-label insider says a top-tier legacy act like Def Leppard would get closer to 30 cents), artists like Rob Zombie and Peter Frampton are suing for a more even metric -- 50/50, ideally. But Def Leppard is going one step further: vetoing Universal's requests to use masters while creating sound-alike "forgeries" that allow them to keep more than 70 percent of the revenue and give the middle finger to UMG.

Elliott says he's happy to take advantage of the label, claiming his band, along with Bon Jovi, built today's Universal. "We bought that building in the '80s, and they treat us like shit," he says. "We've become irrelevant to the label, so we're putting on the battle armor."

The move comes as the band is experiencing a resurgence thanks to nostalgia radio and the Rock of Ages play and film -- the latest career boost despite the death of one founding member (guitarist Steve Clark of an overdose in 1991) and a full-limb amputation of another (drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a 1984 car accident). And there's the publicity from their battle with the big, bad corporation, which has garnered the band attention in unlikely outlets like NPR and sparked debate among insiders. "Artists owning their own art, how ridiculous is that?" says veteran producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, The Killers) mockingly. "Good on Def Leppard for doing this."

With the two released rerecorded songs, "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and "Rock of Ages," both meticulously studied for every tone and nuance, then laboriously re-created at home studios, most would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Lillywhite couldn't -- "It sounded very, very good," he says, "identical to my ears" -- and even original producer Mutt Lange, whose involvement was not solicited because, says Elliott, "he would have run screaming," was impressed. "Mutt doesn't begrudge. He said to [guitarist] Phil Collen, 'Tell the guys they've done a brilliant job.' "

So far, the songs, priced at $1.29 each, have sold 46,000 tracks since June 5, according to Nielsen SoundScan, earning the band north of $40,000, but they have the potential to make even more in film and TV placements (the band along with Lange also pocket half the publishing as songwriters). Says Larry Mestel, president of Primary Wave, which handles the band's catalog: "A Def Leppard song can get anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 in a movie. For use in an ad, it can go even higher."

They're not alone. In 2010, Squeeze released Spot the Difference, an album of re-created tunes that includes "Black Coffee in Bed" and "Tempted." And a source says Jeff Lynne is now rerecording ELO's hits; playing everything himself, it's taken him five years to stitch together 12 songs.

Rerecordings have had a long history as a mark of an artist's freedom, all the way back to Chuck Berry remaking his hits in the late 1960s. Most contracts won't allow rerecordings until about two years after the original is released by a label, but once that occurs, artists such as Tracy Chapman and Kenny Loggins have taken advantage of newfound rights. Still, it's not always successful. A few years ago, the new Journey rerecorded hits such as "Don't Stop Believin' " with an eye at licensing cheaper versions for TV and movies. That would mean they'd earn a much higher royalty share; unfortunately, everyone wanted the originals.

Lee Phillips, an attorney who represents legacy artists like The Eagles and Brian Wilson, says many clients have done rerecordings after escaping contractual restrictions. "The label gets pissed off," he says, adding that the digital business is getting tricky with potentially two studio singles from the same group for sale on iTunes. "I'm not sure how you differentiate between them," he says.

Universal would not comment, but a source close to the situation contends the label "has been actively engaged with the band over the last several months hoping to reach an agreement" and that Def Leppard was offered "a highly competitive deal on par with what global superstar artists already receive."

Soon, labels might challenge artists in court, arguing rerecordings represent unfair competition. "While it's their business, it's our art," Elliott says, "and we're more protective of the art than we are the business."