One of the hallmarks of modern-day political campaigns is music playing behind the candidate or at events. The campaign managers, marketers and publicists often work hard to find a song that is appropriate – it has to fit the candidate, the campaign message and appeal to the base voters. This can be difficult. It does happen with nearly every campaign especially at the state and national levels. Playing music as a candidate enters or leaves the stage has resulted in a number of iconic moments caught on film. There appears to be no end in sight to this practice.
Problems start to occur when political campaigns decide to use popular music created by artists that are unrelated to the candidate. The reason the campaigns choose popular music instead of custom-made songs is that it helps to connect to voters. Playing the right song can actually endear a candidate to voters in subtle ways. It can help to reinforce an image or a message. It can even potentially become the emblem of the entire campaign if the lyrics describe the message in meaningful terms. The problem is that not all musicians like the idea of politicians using their music for months or years during a campaign.
The most recent example of this has to do with the singer Adele. She has become very popular and has managed to create a string of memorable hits. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump decided that a few of her songs would fit the theme of his campaign well. He chose to play “Rolling in the Deep” as he walked out on stage after receiving an endorsement from former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Trump also had Adele’s song “Skyfall” blasting through speakers when holding a rally in Ohio. Adele took issue with these actions.
Adele released a statement through her official spokesperson. “Adele has not given permission for her music to be used for any political campaigning,” the statement read in part. The sad fact is that this is not the first time Trump has decided to use music during his campaign without consulting the owners or artists. He was firmly rebuked by Michael Stipe of the band R.E.M. for the same reason. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith and Neil Young both blasted Trump for using their music without permission as well. This is not something unique to Trump although he does seem to be the boldest and most unapologetic offender.
There are valid legal, copyright and intellectual property concerns behind playing music at a political campaign that the candidate has not received permission to use. The problem is that things are a little murky at best. The most technical reading of the law basically says that candidates can play the music at a rally as long as the venue has a license from the correct songwriters’ association for public performances. This idea was successfully challenged in Florida, however, when former Talking Heads front man David Byrne won a suit against then-Republican Charlie Christ for using music without his authorization.
The current thinking by many is that artists have a right to request music not be played at political events because they have a right of publicity. This means the artist can restrict where the music in played in order to preserve the public image already established. Musicians are right to be angry when their music is used to validate political messages they might not agree with. There is the added danger that average people will think the musician endorses the candidate or the campaign message. Donald Trump has not given a response yet and it remains to be seen if he will actually stop using Adele’s music at his rallies.