As of today, at least nine recording artists have publicly demanded that Donald Trump stop blasting their songs over public address systems during the course of his GOP presidential campaign.
The musicians who tell Trump “Stop using our music!” range from British pop confection Adele to American rock band Aerosmith. You might think that when a musician requests that a politician (or anyone) stop using their music, that would be enough to make them cease and desist. Well, guess what. It’s not.
Whether or not a song can be played to support a campaign depends on more than the artist’s personal preference. The not-for-profit American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, more commonly known as ASCAP, explains that most major venues hold a “blanket license” that allows the non-dramatic public performance of licensed, recorded music.
ASCAP notes that some venues, such as convention centers, hotels, and sports arenas, exclude the use of their license for political campaign purposes. If and when this happens, the ASCAP says it is then up to the campaign to obtain proper performance permission from one or more of the agencies that license music in the United States. Currently, these agencies comprise ASCAP, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). Rolling Stone magazine adds that ASCAP is legally obligated to grant a license to anyone, including politicians, providing they file the requisite paperwork and pay the licensing fees.
So, what happens when a license is in place, but an artist opposes the use of their music?
In addition to copyright, there are other laws that protect songwriters and artists who have qualms about the use of their work, especially if it use would sully their public persona. According to ASCAP, these laws include an artist’s “right of publicity” as well as protection against the appearance of “false endorsement.” If a politico struts onto a campaign stage with a song blaring in such a manner that “dilutes or confuses” the public in regards to the artist’s name, band name, or trademark, something called the Lanham Act may be invoked to force a politician to stop using certain music. Also known as Trademark Act of 1946, the statute was signed into law by President Harry Truman.
“False endorsement” seems to be the beef that many artists have with politicians who use their songs. This was surely the case last September, when R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills tweeted his displeasure regarding political use of the song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Shortly after the song was played at an afternoon rally that featured Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, and Glenn Beck, Mills called Trump “an orange clown” who “will do anything for attention,” adding that hates the idea of giving The Donald any support whatsoever.
R.E.M. lead singer and principal songwriter Michael Stipe went a trifle further.
“Go fu*k yourselves, the lot of you — you sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.”
It is not unheard of for a musician to grant permission to a politician and subsequently revoke it. Such was the situation with Dee Snider of the band Twisted Sister. Snider will tell anyone who listens that he and Donald Trump are “buddies,” so when the politician called and asked if he could use the Twisted Sister tune “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” he agreed without hesitation. That all changed last December, according to the Independent.
“When Donald started running for office, he asked me, he called me. He says, ‘Can I use the song?’ And he’s a buddy. And I said, ‘Yeah. Go ahead.’ But as the months went on, I heard a litany of his beliefs that I’d never discussed with him. I finally called him and I said, ‘Man, you’ve gotta stop using the song. People think I’m endorsing you here. I can’t get behind a lot of what you’re saying.’ And that night. He has not used it since.”
Once in a while, a politician actually apologizes for the unauthorized use of a song. This happened back in 2011, when Charlie Crist issued a public apology to David Byrne for using the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” in his bid for a Senate seat. Crist’s contrition came after Byrne won a lawsuit against him.
Los Angeles entertainment attorney Lawrence Iser told NPR that it’s easier to invoke copyright law when a politician uses a song in a televised or on-air campaign spot.
“Just as if you were making commercials for any product you can think of — if you wanted to put that onto television, you want to put commercials on YouTube, you want to make any kind of audio/video work that contains music — you do need to have licenses, you do need to have permission.”
[Photo by Christian Palma/AP Images]