It was Aretha Franklin’s first No. 1 hit, the cry of empowerment that has defined her for generations: “Respect.”
But for the roughly 7 million times the song has been played on American radio stations, she was paid nothing.
When Franklin died Thursday at age 76, fans celebrated the song all over again as a theme for the women’s rights movement. But in the music industry, “Respect” has also played a symbolic role in a long fight over copyright issues that, advocates say, have deprived artists like Franklin of fair royalty payments.
Under an aspect of copyright law that has long irked the record business, American radio stations pay only the writers and publishers of a song, not the artists who perform them. “Respect” was written by Otis Redding, who sang it as a man’s demand for recognition from his wife. Franklin turned the song upside down — or right-side up — and took it to heights Redding never dreamed of.
But every time the song is played on the radio, Redding’s estate — he died in a 1967 plane crash — has been paid. Franklin never was.
Efforts to change the law go back decades, with “Respect” often held up by the music industry as Exhibit A for why it was unfair. But broadcasters, a powerful lobbying group, have successfully argued that performers already benefit from the promotion they receive from radio play.
“Some recordings more clearly highlight the inequity of the laws, and ‘Respect’ is one of the best examples,” said Mitch Glazier, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group representing the major labels.
In recent years, “Respect” has also become a battle song in a fight over digital rights. Laws passed in the 1990s let performing artists collect royalties from internet and satellite radio, but songs were exempt if they were recorded before a change in federal copyright law took effect in 1972.
A 2014 bill to change that was named the Respect Act in honor of the song, which Franklin recorded in 1967. A lobbying campaign was titled “It’s a Matter of R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” with Franklin’s approval. And a current bill in Congress, the Music Modernization Act, would force digital radio services to pay royalties for songs recorded before 1972.
But as the bill has encountered opposition in the Senate, Franklin has again become a face for musicians’ anger.
After Sirius XM announced a tribute to Franklin on Thursday, David Lowery of the band Cracker, an outspoken artists’ rights advocate, protested on Twitter.
“Best way to pay RESPECT?” he wrote. “Pay her!”
The satellite service Sirius XM agreed in a settlement three years ago to pay record labels more than $200 million for its use of songs created before 1972, and to enter into new licensing deals, which would benefit performers like Franklin. But it has opposed the bill because it exempts terrestrial radio from the payments.
“Respect” entered Franklin’s repertoire at a pivotal moment in her career, as she was leaving Columbia Records for Atlantic, where she became a national star. Redding’s “Respect” had reached No. 4 on the R&B chart in late 1965.
“I liked his version,” Franklin told The Washington Post in 1987. “Of course, I felt I could bring something new to it.”
According to David Ritz’s biography “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,” the song was already part of her live show by 1966. In the book, producer Jerry Wexler recounts a conversation with Ted White, Franklin’s husband and manager at the time. Wexler was looking for songs for Franklin, and was fine with “Respect” as long as she “changes it up from the original.”
“You don’t gotta worry about that, Wex,” White replied, according to the book. “She changes it up all right.”
Franklin made small but crucial adjustments to the lyrics. Where Redding sang, “Do me wrong, honey, if you wanna / You can do me wrong, honey, while I’m gone,” for example, Franklin sang: “I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone / Ain’t gonna do you wrong ‘cause I don’t wanna.”
She also added what became the song’s signature line: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me.”
Franklin’s reinvention of Redding’s song has continued to fascinate critics. Peter Guralnick, author of books like “Sweet Soul Music Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom,” noted that she transformed the original meaning “not so much by changing the lyrics, as by the feeling that she imparted on the song — so that ‘Respect’ became a proclamation of freedom, a proclamation of feminism, a proclamation of an independent spirit.”
While the song has been used as a PR weapon in the industry’s policy wars, Franklin usually remained uninvolved. The song was lucrative for her in other ways, including record sales and concerts. In an interview today, Ritz said he was not aware of any opinion that she had about royalties for “Respect” but said “she felt exploited” by the industry in general.
The Universal Music Publishing Group, which controls Redding’s songwriting copyright, declined to say how much the song has earned. But licensing agency BMI said “Respect” had been played 7.4 million times on commercial radio stations in the United States since it was released.
Barry Massarsky, an economist who specializes in valuing music catalogs, estimated that over the past five years alone, “Respect” has earned about $500,000, about 40 percent of that from commercial radio and the rest from television and streaming services.
For streaming services like Spotify, their use of songs, old or new, is covered by licensing deals that do generally benefit performers like Franklin. Those services have seen a surge in interest in her music since her death: “Respect” was streamed on Apple Music more than half a million times worldwide on Thursday, the service said.
A spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents radio stations, declined to comment. But the organization has long opposed proposals to create a royalty for performing artists. A document on the organization’s website says that such new royalties “could reduce the variety of music radio stations play, and all but eliminate the possibility of new artists breaking onto the scene.”
Redding’s heirs may profit from the song, but his estate — including his daughter, Karla Redding-Andrews — has supported changing the law covering pre-1972 songs.
Jeff Jampol, who manages the estate, said that for artists like Franklin and Redding, unfair financial treatment was built into the fabric of their early careers, and the music industry has not fully made amends.
“The record business has a long history of treating artists like chattel slavery,” Jampol said. “We’ve grown out of those dark ages a bit, but when it comes to actually paying them fairly, that is the last needle to move.”