Otis Redding’s “Respect” was No. 4 on the R&B charts in 1965. He wrote the song. He first performed it.
Two years later, Aretha Franklin made it unforgettable:
So yes, Mr. Redding created “Respect” but Ms. Franklin’s version gave it a new life. Still though, when they play the song, commercial radio stations pay Mr. Redding (and his heirs), not Ms. Franklin. Why? Intellectual property law.
Before we move onward to music and the law, for a tear or two, do look at this magnificent 2016 video from the Kennedy Center. As Ms. Franklin sings, we also see the reaction from Natural Woman co-songwriter Carole King, and Michelle and Barack Obama:
Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942-August 16, 2018) made money from “Respect” through her concerts and record sales. In fact, at her concerts, she insisted on being paid in cash before she sang. According to New Yorker writer David Remnick, she received stacks of hundred-dollar bills. Then her body guards kept an eye on the money during her performance.
By contrast, Ms. Franklin did not receive money from commercial radio for the millions of times it played “Respect” during the past 51 years. The reason? Copyright law says that radio stations should pay the songwriter and the publisher but not the performer.
Now though the House just passed the Music Modernization Act and the Senate is considering it. Simplifying complicated territory, we can just say that the Congress has begun to move music law into the digital age. Listening to the musicians, tech companies, radio broadcasters, song writers, and music publishers, they are clarifying ownership issues. One goal is to increase performers’, songwriters’, and creatives’ royalty payments.
Out Bottom Line: Who Owns the Song?
As economists, our concern is private property. Like a tangible good, the songs we create belong to someone. They are someone’s intellectual property.
Tangible and intangible private property are crucial for a market system. Only through ownership can we create the incentive to invest, innovate, and profit. The music industry has used “Respect” as the primary reason for changing the copyright law that applies to performers.
My sources and more: This NY Times article is a good starting point for understanding why Aretha Franklin earned less from “Respect.” Then, if you want to learn more about music industry copyright law, this NY Times explanation is clear. However, if you would just enjoy a firsthand look at Ms. Franklin, do go to the New Yorker.