Studio recordings are just snapshots in time and space; they can evolve too

One of my favourite bands to watch live is Counting Crows because, almost without fail, they’ll play different versions of each song on each new tour.

Which means, not only is it fresh and new-yet-familiar for the audience to hear, it is also interesting and fun for the band to play; old songs don’t get stale, they evolve.

As their singer states on their first live album, when introducing a by-far-improved version of an earlier studio-recorded song called Anna Begins:

“These songs have changed so much over the years…I think we really know how to play them now”

But, there is still a tendency to consider a studio recording of a song as the de-facto, set-in-stone version; that live versions are merely variations of the original.

Yet, in the 1940’s and 1950’s it was not uncommon for a major recording artist to record multiple studio versions of the same song, on many different studio releases, each version improving over the last as it evolved.

As we progressed into the 1960’s and onwards the practice became a lot less common, as major record labels came to dominate the recording industry.

When songs cost a lot to record, and were being funded and marketed by businesses (i.e. record labels) who have a stake in the copyright and are looking to maximise profit, this made total sense; they wanted to control, protect and exploit the original recording asset for as long as possible.

But, in our current climate, it’s a distorted, and potentially limiting viewpoint.

Studio recorded songs are just snapshots of where that song was, at that particular time and place (the sames as live versions), not necessarily where that song will end up when it realises it’s full potential and is, potentially, recorded again

We live in an age where recording costs have come down so far that it’s possible to make a passable project-studio-recorded song independently, for very little money, and then distribute it globally and in infinite quantity for next to nothing.

The ramifications are two-fold:

  1. If you have significantly improved a previously recorded and released song (e.g. evolving it through live performance into something much stronger) then there’s nothing to stop you releasing a new, better studio version of it – your fans will be happy to have an “upgraded” version!
  2. If you can record an acceptable version of a song, that still conveys the essence of the song though perhaps is limited in scope (e.g. you don’t have the skills/budget to put all the extra instruments on you’d like to), it is worth recording and releasing it, safe in the knowledge that you can do an upgraded version at a later point

Some of the benefits of this approach are:

  1. You don’t hit a bottleneck in output because you can’t realise a “full version” of a particular song; more quantity of output will likely lead to more quantity of quality songs too
  2. You can quickly get real market feedback on a song, without investing too much resource of time or money into it – the response to which will indicate whether it’s then worth spending more on a new, upgraded version
  3. You have more assets that you can leverage in building your fan and customer bases (e.g. songs in exchange for email list sign up, or for a member’s club, etc)

In most other industries it is common, even expected, that they release products as new versions, continually developing, improving and upgrading the original.

But in the music industry, it is not.

How much of this mindset is based on practical reasons, and how much is just a cultural hangover from an out-dated version of the music industry?

Is this approach still valid in today’s market, or is it limiting you from evolving?