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Musical Space

Using Songs To Hustle Votes

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6tee-zeven / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
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I can’t imagine two people as different as Neil Young and Donald Trump, so when The Donald recently used Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” as a campaign song, I wasn’t too surprised by Young’s unequivocal negative reaction. R.E.M. also had a tune appropriated by Trump, much to the chagrin of the band. It turns out that presidential campaigns of both parties have been asked by artists to stop using their songs.

So, does a potential POTUS have the right to use someone’s tune to hustle votes? I consulted ASCAP, the American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers. They know what they’re talking about, since their job is to collect royalty payments for songwriters. Anyone using a song for a TV, radio or internet commercial has to get rights from the copyright owner, which most likely means negotiating with and paying money to a record label. A good chunk of the labels’ profits is this kind of licensing. They are going to expect a lot of PAC money to make a deal.

But, what about using a song at a campaign rally? This is a little more complicated. Large venues can legally play licensed music because they pay fees to royalty collection agencies like ASCAP. That agreement, though, doesn’t cover political campaigns, so again, the candidate would have to enter into a deal with the copyright owner. And even if the campaign gets a license to play a song, they could still be sued by the artist, who could claim that associating a song with a political movement could hurt their image, dilute their brand, or is a false endorsement.

So, in the case of Young versus Trump, Young has the upper hand, and if Trump wants to make a deal, Neil Young can name his price.