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The Queen of Soul Shines A Spotlight On The Problem of Pre-72 Royalties

Aretha Franklin, a cultural treasure if there ever was one, released a new album yesterday, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, on which she covers classic songs by classic women. We couldn’t be more grateful to her for giving us the gift of her music for decades and we congratulate her on the new album.

Of course, one of her own legendary tracks, “Respect,” helped name the RESPECT Act introduced earlier this year. The act would close the “loophole” SiriusXM and Pandora use to withhold royalties from artists and rights holders who recorded hits before the arbitrary federal protection cutoff date, February 15, 1972. Project72 is devoted to this cause. In the past few months, state and federal courts have begun rejecting this bizarre and unfair rip off of great musicians.

However, the fight continues and won’t be truly over until all legacy artists are paid for their work when it is aired on SiriusXM and Pandora. Not just fronting vocals and superstars, but backup singers and session musicians as well. Not just the Arethas, but the Matt Guitar Murphys as well.

In addition to the amazing new take on well-known songs, yesterday’s release by Ms. Franklin provides a teachable moment on just how nonsensical and outrageous SiriusXM and Pandora’s view of the world has become: many of the songs on her new album were hits in the 50s and 60s – songs like At Last (Etta James, 1960), People (Barbara Streisand, 1964), Teach Me Tonight (Dinah Washington, 1954), and You Keep Me Hanging On (The Supremes, 1966).

For all these songs, Aretha will now get a royalty when her new version is aired on Pandora and SiriusXM, but the original divas who made them hits to begin with get nothing when their classics are played. It is the same thing for the backup singers and session musicians as well. It’s absurd, and deeply unfair.

To borrow again and just add on to our debt to the Queen of Soul, her classic Think is another pre-72 landmark these companies are happy to play, but for which they refuse to pay.

And she might as well have been singing to SiriusXM and Pandora:

You better think (think)

Think about what you're tryin' to do to me.

SiriusXM and Pandora aren’t the only radio companies who ought to stop and “think” about what they are doing to the artists whose work they use. AM/FM radio continues to pay nothing for ALL of the music it uses. If you need to explain the jaw dropping AM/FM performance right loophole to someone, there’s no better example than her iconic hit RESPECT, where Otis Redding, the songwriter, gets a (well deserved) royalty when the song is aired, but Aretha herself gets nothing for her electric performance. And she’ll get nothing from AM/FM for airplay from her new album either. It doesn’t matter when the song was recorded on terrestrial radio.

In the end, music creators and radio services should work as partners in creating a sustainable music ecosystem that works for radio, music creators, and most importantly listeners and fans. That ecosystem cannot be built on a foundation that includes SiriusXM and Pandora blatantly exploiting pre-72 artists. To quote the Queen of Soul again:

You need me (need me) and I need you (don't you know)

Without each other there ain't nothing we can do.

Whatever “loopholes” they cling to, whether in the courts or in Congress, SiriusXM and Pandora, as well as AM/FM radio, should be able to see by now that music creators are TCB and this issue isn’t going away. Real fairness is coming whether Big Radio likes it or not. Maybe they ought to stop and…