True Colors: Politician’s Use of Music Without Consent
Photo: Terry Richardson
Right now, our country ahead of pretty much every country in the world, is in a race to devalue art and artists. Think about it, not only can you listen to thousands of songs for a nominal monthly fee, but you can do so in the vein that those who created the art get almost nothing for it. Now, this isn’t a new concept, as artists, especially in the music industry, have been getting fractions of a cent for decades now. But, there’s a group out there who devalues art and artists more than giant record labels, more than the unions who represent them, and more than the consumers we have all become—politicians. Earlier this week, Neil Young very publicly lashed out at Donald Trump for his use of Young’s song, “Rockin’ In The Free World,” without Young’s permission. Through very little digging, FPH learned that this wasn’t the first time, the second time, or even the tenth time that this has happened. And it more than likely won’t be the last time either.
To clarify the law as it is currently being used here, the three largest music unions BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC all have what are called blanket licenses. The licenses are set up for all different types of venues, amusement parks, and even radio stations. The blanket license allows those who purchase the license “unlimited access to the collective’s licensed repertory, for a contractual period of time, in exchange for a profit participation in the music user’s economic growth.” In normal terms that means that you pay a predetermined percentage to use all the music you want, and that percentage is based off of your profits, and the end result is a paid out amount. This will get trickled down to eventually get into the artist’s hands. To be fair, radio stations only pay 2.5% to these unions, so unless these venues are raking in billions of dollars per month, most artists aren’t making “lots of money” from these agreements. So, when you use an artist’s song at your political rally at, let’s say Toyota Center, you and your campaign are legally covered under the letter of the law if that venue has a blanket license agreement in place.
However, if you want to use a song for commercial purposes, you usually not only have to get the commercial rights to use the track, but you also have to get the artist’s permission to use the song. There are royalties and agreements for use that fall under a whole set of other agreements as well in these cases. But, that one point, the artist’s permission is very important. If you wanted to use the Police song, “Every Breath You Take,” for a cigarette ad, you’d have to obtain Sting’s blessing to do so, before paying any types of monies to actually place the track in the advert. That permission is at the base of what Trump did with Young’s song, it was used without the consent of the artist. No matter what side of the aisle politicians are on, this use without consent has caused plenty of problems, and sometimes lawsuits. Below are all of the ones we could find over the past thirty years.
The most common reason for an artist to get upset is due to either misrepresentation or misinformation about the track’s meaning. The most famous of cases was in 1984 when Ronald Reagan wanted to use Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” for their campaign. Springsteen would go on to show disgust in the campaign and the candidate for their misinterpretation of the song’s meaning. Where the campaign thought that the song was about patriotism, Springsteen would clue them in on the fact that the song was actually about a Vietnam veteran who felt lost when he returned home.
Tom Morello Photo: Sean Ricigliano
This was also the case when Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello penned an op-ed in Rolling Stone blasting VP hopeful Paul Ryan for his “love” of the band. Morello didn’t pull any punches in stating, “he is the embodiment of the machine our music has been raging against for two decades. Ryan claims that he likes Rage’s sound but not the lyrics. Well, I don’t care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics.” Ryan was also blasted by Twisted Sister front man Dee Snyder for his use of the band’s song, “We’re Not Gonna’ Take It,” without asking for permission.
Many times, it’s the message that the candidate possesses through voting records and general attitude that leads to such disagreements. This has most certainly been the case several times over. Tom Petty has had a history with several Republicans over the use of his music for political purposes. Though he allowed Hillary Clinton to use his song, “American Girl,” he got his lawyers involved to block Michele Bachmann’s use of it. Petty also sent a cease-and-desist order to George W. Bush for his use of Petty’s song, “I Won’t Back Down.” Bachman was also chastised by Katrina & the Waves’ Katrina Leskanich for the candidate’s use of her song, “Walking On Sunshine.”
Sometimes it all comes down to who the candidate is. In the case of Sarah Palin using the Heart song, “Barracuda,” the sisters Nancy and Ann Wilson strongly protested the candidate’s use of their song. As per a statement released by the sisters themselves, “Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song “Barracuda” no longer be used to promote her image.”
This was also the issue that Dropkick Murphys used when they lashed out at Governor Scott Walker’s use of their song with lyrics by Woody Guthrie, “I’m Shipping Up To Boston.” The band was quoted as saying, “please stop using our music in any way…we literally hate you!!! Love, Dropkick Murphys.” Again the song was used in 2023 by Wisconsin State Rep and Speaker of the State Assembly Jeff Walker, to which the band had this to say, “the stupidity and irony of this is laughable. A Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate candidate-and crony of anti-Union Governor Scott Walker - using a Dropkick Murphys song as an intro is like a white supremacist coming out to gangsta rap!”
David Byrne Photo: Catalina Kulczamarin
In recent years, candidates have also been sued by artists such as when David Byrne sued Charlie Crist for his use of the Talking Heads song, “Road To Nowhere” in attack ads against Marco Rubio for one million dollars in 2023. This resulted in an undisclosed amount to be paid as well as an apology on Youtube by Crist himself for using the song without permission. Mitt Romney was threatened with legal action by rapper K’Naan for Romney’s use of the song, “Wavin’ Flag.” In 2023, Newt Gingrich was sued by one of the writers of the Survivor song, “Eye of The Tiger,” for using the track without permission at political rallies. Though the Foo Fighters and John Mellencamp had both objected to John McCain’s use of their music, it was Jackson Browne who successfully sued the politician and the RNC for his use of the song, “Running On Empty.” Browne, who cited a lifelong body of work for the Democratic party, was later issued an undisclosed amount as well as an apology.
In all fairness, it’s not just Republicans who have used tracks without the artist’s permission, as even our president Barack Obama is guilty of this. Both Cyndi Lauper as well as Sam Moore of Sam & Dave asked that Obama not use their songs. In 2023, Lauper was more upset that she wasn’t asked for her permission on the song, “True Colors.” Whereas Moore’s plea in 2023 for the Sam & Dave classic “Hold On! I’m Coming,” went as follows. “Having been hit with rocks and water hoses in the streets, in the day with Dr. King as part of his artist appearance and fundraising team, it is thrilling, in my lifetime, to see that our country has matured to the place where it is no longer an impossibility for a man of color to be really considered as a legitimate candidate for the highest office in the land. But please, stop using my song. I have not agreed to endorse you for the highest office in the land…..My vote is a very private matter between myself and the ballot box.”
No matter what the reason, nor the explanation of why you want to be consulted prior, these are all examples of someone taking liberties with something without actually consulting those who made the art. No matter who wants to use a song, the consent of the artist as well as the song’s meaning are just as important as the compensation for the use of it. Using an artist’s song without their consent for your political agenda, is like the Church of Satan using an Amy Grant song for public ritual Satanic Mass. Which, under those blanket license agreements, is perfectly legal. But if a candidate is so clueless as to use a song by an artist like Young who has never publicly done anything politically to the right side of the aisle, especially for a political hopeful like Trump; then maybe that candidate is also too clueless to run this country. And if they devalue the art anyone makes enough to not get the blessing of those who created it, then how will they see that your rights are also accounted for if they are actually elected?