Dozens of musicians have signed a letter calling for politicians to get approval before using their songs for campaign events. The list of artists includes some of the top names in music, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steven Tyler, Sia, R.E.M., Lorde, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Lionel Richie, Pearl Jam, and Green Day. Should these artists get their way, campaigns would have to secure "clear consent" from copyright owners for using their songs. This would constitute a significant change from the longtime industry norm in venue music licenses.
And it could reverberate far beyond politics, possibly changing people's broad ability to play recorded music in public.
This latest effort by musicians to limit politician access to their songs is a new front in an old war. In the Nixon administration, Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick recalled trying to slip into a Finch College reunion at the Nixon White House using her original name of Grace Wing. Slick/Wing was a Finch College alum, as was first daughter Patricia Nixon. Slick's purpose in attending? She, along with her date, Abbie Hoffman, hoped to lace Richard Nixon's tea with acid. Fortunately, the Secret Service stepped in and prevented the odd pair from joining the event.
Nixon knew that he was not popular with artists, and especially musicians. But when Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee," an anti-hippy, pro-Vietnam War song, came along, Nixon's team thought it would be a good idea to have Haggard at the White House to perform it. Nixon had previously asked Johnny Cash to perform the song at the White House, but Cash had refused. He disagreed with the sentiments expressed in the song, but at least he was too polite to say so. Cash begged off by telling Nixon that he did not know the song. Interestingly, Cash's daughter Rosanne is a signer of the 2020 musicians' letter.
Starting in the 1980s, musicians have regularly denounced Republicans for using their music: Bruce Springsteen did not like Ronald Reagan using "Born in the USA" for his 1984 campaign, Bobby McFerrin objected to George H.W. Bush using "Don't Worry, Be Happy," and Tom Petty asked George W. Bush not to use "Don't Back Down." As president, Bush had other problems with musicians as well, including the Dixie Chicks's (now simply, the Chicks) loud critique of the Iraq War, and Kanye West's post-Katrina accusation that Bush "doesn't care about black people." Bush was so offended by Kanye's comment that he called the moment the low point of his presidency. In 2008, both presidential candidate John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin encountered musicians' objections. McCain ran afoul of several, including John Mellencamp, Van Halen, Dave Grohl, and Jackson Browne, while Heart objected to Palin using their song "Barracuda" (Palin's high school basketball nickname).
Democrats have not had the same problem, which is why the artistic-rights change musicians are demanding may simply look like an ideological food fight. Fleetwood Mac loved having their song "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)" adopted as the unofficial anthem of Bill Clinton's campaign so much that they even got back together to perform the song at Clinton's inauguration. Barack Obama had a host of musicians in his camp, including Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Madonna, and Springsteen; Lin-Manuel Miranda even performed an early iteration of "Hamilton" at the White House in front of Obama.
Given this history, it's pretty clear that the 2020 letter is directed at Republicans in general, and Donald Trump in particular. Trump often makes music a centerpiece of his campaign rallies, something that tends to irk the artists whose songs he uses. While the prevailing view of Trump in the music world is negative, Trump has had some positive interactions with musicians. Dee Snider of Twisted Sister allowed Trump to use "We're Not Gonna Take It" during the 2016 presidential campaign, and Trump also had Kid Rock, the Doobie Brothers's Skunk Baxter, and the Beach Boys's Mike Love at the White House for the signing of the Music Modernization Act, which updated the rules governing the use of music by streaming services.
Kanye West also came to the White House that same day. In what Jonathan Karl called "a most unusual pool spray," West sat in the Oval Office in a red MAGA hat and held court with pro-Trump comments for 10 minutes. He subsequently backed away from his support for Trump, but the interactions were a far cry from West's harsh repudiation of Bush.
While the campaign rallies have been largely sidelined because of the virus, the artists' letter, coming out a few weeks before the party conventions this month, seems intended to change the current practice of how politicians use songs before the campaign season hits full gear.
The letter itself has no legal impact. Campaigns, like everyone else, can pretty much do what they want in terms of using music at events through a "blanket license." (Ads are different; campaigns do have to get permission there.) The problem for politicians with musician objections is not legal; it is really about the potential embarrassment coming from artists denouncing candidates for using their songs. As long as politicians are willing to face the potential criticisms, the "blanket license" usually protects them from legal liability.
But it wouldn't save them from the kind of pressure this is intended to foment. Plainly, the artists signing the letter are trying to change the current arrangement. If they succeed, musicians would have veto power on whether politicians could use their songs at events, which could mean the vast catalog of popular songs would be available to Democratic politicians but not to Republican ones. This creates new problems and could potentially upend the existing deal under which songs are played at open events.
Once artists have this authority, why stop with politicians? Might not certain artists want to say, No playing my music at your temple? Or mosque? Or Planned Parenthood office? Or on Fox? Or low-rent club or venue? Or country club?
On the other side of the question, artists get 95 years of copyright protection in exchange for allowing their music to be used in certain ways. Would Congress require that artists give up some of their copyright monopoly in exchange for more control over who gets to play or even hear their music?
The great thing about music is that everyone can enjoy it. It does not matter if you are rich or poor, white or black, male or female, highly or poorly educated, or even Democrat or Republican. And, of course, it would behoove artists to remember that people of all political beliefs buy their music. Furthermore, it is often these very same artists who make the case that music is a unifier and a universal language. Politics can never be separated from music, but it shouldn't decide who gets to enjoy that music.