Music News: Why can't musicians get politicians to stop playing their songs?

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The Current Music News for Oct. 1, 2020 (MPR Video)

You've probably seen the recent headlines: "Neil Young sues Donald Trump for copyright infringement." "The Rolling Stones tell Trump campaign to stop using their songs at rallies." "Leonard Cohen's estate 'exploring our legal options' after Trump plays 'Hallelujah' at RNC." "R.E.M. still trying to stop 'fraud and con man' Trump from using band's music at rallies." This has been an especially intense election cycle, but it's far from the first time musicians have clashed with candidates who use their music even though they don't have the artists' political support.

Soul legend Sam Moore asked Barack Obama to stop playing Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" in 2008. The late John McCain loved ABBA, but they didn't love him using their music at campaign rallies: they sent him a cease and desist letter. All the way back in the '80s, when George H.W. Bush adopted "Don't Worry, Be Happy" as his campaign theme, Bobby McFerrin asked the vice president to cut it out, and even turned down a dinner invitation when Bush tried to change his mind.

So why is this still a thing? Why can't musicians get political candidates to stop using their music at campaign events? Well, it's complicated, but essentially, the reality is that in almost all cases, artists actually don't have the legal right to tell a campaign to stop playing their songs at events. The reason for that is that most major artists sign licensing deals with performance rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI.

Any public event, if they want to play music, needs to pay for a license, but once organizers have paid for that license, they can pretty much play any songs they want. If that kind of agreement weren't in place, Neil Young and ABBA would have to strike a deal with every restaurant, bowling alley, and wedding event that wants to use their music. Obviously that's way too complicated, so that's why artists sign rights agreements that cover a wide range of venues and events — including rallies, whether we're talking politicians or monster trucks.

So just telling a candidate to cut it out basically isn't good enough. The next thing some artists have tried is revising their licensing agreements to make certain songs unavailable specifically for political events. That's what Neil Young has done with his song "Rockin' in the Free World," which has been a favorite of the President's. But there's some legal ambiguity there, too, because music rights licensing is regulated under federal law due to antitrust concerns, so even if Neil Young wants to make exemptions to his license, it may not really be up to him.

That's exactly what Neil Young's current lawsuit is about. He says that his license allows him to exclude political events, and his team is arguing that kind of distinction is allowed under the agreements that rights organizations have, ultimately on behalf of artists, with the U.S. government. The rights organizations are backing the artists up, saying that musicians should have a right to choose not to have their music associated with political events.

If the lawsuit moves forward and Neil Young wins, that will establish a precedent for artists to pull their songs from political rallies — but that's certainly not going to be resolved before November 3. Until then, basically all an artist can do if they don't want their songs played by a political candidate is to ask that candidate, as publicly and loudly as possible, to stop. Sometimes that works: it did for Sam Moore, and it did for Bobby McFerrin. As the Rolling Stones have learned, though...you can't always get what you want.

Whatever your Election Day soundtrack is going to be, we encourage you to do your civic duty and cast a ballot. You can find voter registration information at thecurrent.org.


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