Political Campaigns and Artists: Get Permission or Face the Music

[by FMC Communications Intern Olivia Brown]

With two weeks left until the upcoming presidential election, we’re in the midst of “that time of year again.” No, we’re not talking about the relentless attack ads, the political posturing, the frenzied fact checking or prattling punditry from talking heads and armchair quarterbacks alike. We’re talking about campaign playlists…particularly, instances in which artists disapprove of their songs being used in particular political contexts.

It happens almost every election cycle: a politician selects a song to play on the campaign trail. They’re oblivious for a while, thinking that paying licensing fees will suffice. Then…a cease and desist order, or an awkwardly public counter-message from the artist. 

Whether or not a politician is legally permitted to use a song on the campaign trail is dependent on several factors. The location matters — if a political event is staged in a venue that pays for blanket licenses from performance rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, then campaigns have a stronger legal argument for using songs even if the artists themselves do not approve. However, cases get less clear cut when political campaigns use songs in a context that could be interpreted as an endorsement of particular ideas or candidates on the part of the artist. ASCAP offers this guide for music use by political campaigns, which outlines the process of clearing a song, and also explains how licensing a song may not protect a campaign from being sued by an artist who does not want them to use their music.

There have been a slew of musical missteps during the current election cycle alone. This summer, Silversun Pickups reprimanded Mitt Romney for using their song, “Panic Switch,” at campaign events. The campaign claimed that they only played the song while setting up for a rally and that it was covered under a blanket license, but ceased playing the song anyway. Rapper K’naan objected to Romney’s use of “Wavin’ Flag,” and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snyder publicly denounced Paul Ryan’s use of his band’s song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” stating, “There is almost nothing on which I agree with Paul Ryan, except perhaps the use of the P90X.” Earlier in the cycle, Survivor sued Newt Gingrich for using “Eye of the Tiger,” (among the locations where Gingrich played the song was a campaign event at a Moose Lodge where no blanket license existed) and Tom Petty issued a cease and desist letter to Michele Bachmann’s campaign after she used “American Girl” at a rally. 

Contemporary cases are in plentiful historic company. Perhaps one of the first well-publicized incidents of an artist criticizing the use of their music by a political campaign was Bruce Springsteen questioning Ronald Reagan’s ironic use of “Born in the U.S.A.” during his 1984 reelection bid. The McCain-Palin campaign was slapped with objections from Heart, Foo Fighters, Jackson Browne, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, and several others during the last election cycle. David Byrne of Talking Heads sued former Florida governor Charlie Crist for using “Road to Nowhere” in an online ad (Crist settled the lawsuit and apologized publicly.) 

For whatever reason, the vast majority of cease and desist requests and objections are issued against Republican candidates. One of the only modern, publicized instances of an artist asking a Democratic campaign to stop using a song was during the 2008 cycle, when Samuel David Moore of the R&B group Sam & Dave objected to the Obama campaign’s use of “Hold On! I’m Coming,” on the grounds that he should be able to choose which candidate he wanted to endorse, and keep that choice “between [himself] and the ballot box.” However, in January 2009, Moore joined Sting and Elvis Costello at the Creative Coalition’s Inaugural Ball for Obama — apparently, his initial objection was more a matter of principle as opposed to politics.

Politicians rarely choose to fight when musicians complain of unauthorized use of music in their campaigns, even if, in some cases, they might have the law on their side. Perhaps they don’t want the negative media attention from a musician’s fans, or don’t want to spend time fighting issues of copyright and misrepresentation when they’d rather be focused on their campaign. 

The constant controversy over music use in political campaigns seems to serve as a testament to just how powerful the right combination of an anthem and an ideology can be, when done properly. Perhaps it would be best for politicians to stick to those artists who are openly in their camps. There is no shortage of politically active artists — just ask Bruce Springsteen or Kid Rock, who have lent their music and support to the Obama and Romney campaigns, respectively, this election season. The power of music is worth harnessing, if you make sure you’re not propping yourself up with musicians that will openly oppose you.

For more on how musicians are getting involved with electoral politics, we invite you to attend the Future of Music Summit 2012 on November 13 in Washington, DC, one week after the election.  Registration is open now!

Submitted by kevin on October 23, 2012 - 3:24pm

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