Legalese — Rock ‘n’ Roll and Politics

Have you ever thought about what your entrance music would be?  If you could have music playing to announce your entrance into a room like the president has “Hail to the Chief,” what would your entrance music be?

It’s a fun little party conversation game to play.  In real life, however, at award shows and political rallies, it isn’t always fun and games.  A lot of staging goes into these events and the song choices can be very calculated to affect the mood of the room.  Of course, when you are using music, an artist wrote the song and recorded the music, and whenever someone that isn’t you wrote and recorded something, there is the matter of who is getting paid for the use of that artistry, and whether you can use it at all.

In the 2016 elections, at the Republican National Convention, then-candidate Donald Trump introduced his wife Melania to the crowd.  Her entrance music was Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”  Queen, the band, was not a fan of the President’s, and did not want its music associated with him.  They Tweeted that the use was unauthorized and against the wishes of the band.

Sony/ATV Music controls the copyrights to the song.  They also released a statement that they had not been asked if the song could be used, and, in fact, stated that they had previously asked him not to use it.

You would think that if the composer/performer and the controller of the copyright of the music wouldn’t want someone to use the music in a public forum, that would be enough.  But it isn’t.  So long as there was a payment made to the proper performing rights organization (for Queen, it was BMI) they could use it in a live performance.  It’s different if they were making a recording for distribution, but for a live show like the Convention, all they needed to do was pay for the license – they didn’t need to get permission.

Now fast forward to 2020.  We’re now in another election year, and music is being used in politics again.  At President Trump’s Tulsa Rally, he made use of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”  Tom Petty’s family took issue with this and issued a cease and desist letter to him and his campaign.  Tom Petty himself, when he was still alive, took issue with George W. Bush using the same song during his own campaign.  He apparently had no problem with Barack Obama using the song in 2012.

Barack Obama got his own ‘cease and desist’ letters, though.  Sam & Dave asked then-candidate Obama to stop using their song “Hold On I’m Coming” for fear it would look like they had endorsed Obama, which they didn’t want to do.    Both Al Gore and George W. Bush were told by Sting not to use the song “Brand New Day.”

The Rolling Stones are also taking issue with the use of their song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at Trump rallies.  The Rolling Stones legal team is working with BMI, who licenses music, to stop the use of their material and make it a breach of the licensing agreement.

The Rolling Stones are pretty powerful in the music industry, and they may have the clout to change their licensing agreement from something other than standard.  However, under the ‘standard’ licensing agreement, there isn’t a whole lot you can do if a politician you disagree with decides they like your song or the message it conveys and wants to use it at campaign events or rallies so long as they pay the licensing fee to whatever company or agency controls the license.

Surely big-time musicians like Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, and Queen and their lawyers know this.  So why do they bother with cease and desist letters and threats of lawsuits?  My guess is that they don’t get to be big-time musicians without having a sense of marketing.  Cease and desist letters and threats of lawsuits by famous musicians against politicians in the national arena are newsworthy, even if it is never going to get beyond the threat level.  When these stories get picked up by the news and shared by fans, the news gets out that these artists don’t support the politicians that are using their music.  Free publicity for them; negative publicity for the politician they don’t like.

So, whether you like President Trump or don’t, so long as he paid the licensing fee to use Tom Petty’s music, all Tom Petty’s estate can likely do is complain to whoever will listen about its use.  And if we know anything about President Trump, we know he generally “Won’t Back Down.”

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply