Creators often object to the use of their songs at campaign events. But songwriters' disdain for Trump — and the online nature of this campaign — could lead to a new level of legal wrangling.
It's as much a part of presidential campaigns as reporters interviewing voters in swing-state diners: Candidate, usually Republican, plays song at rally; creator objects; creator's lawyer sends cease-and-desist letter. Traditionally, that's where the issue ends. Most candidates are reluctant to alienate songwriters, even though the public performance licenses they have — from ASCAP or BMI, for example — usually allow them to play their compositions.
Nothing about this presidential campaign is normal, though. The disdain of many creators for President Donald Trump, combined with the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is pushing most political events online, could lead to an amount and intensity of legal wrangling over music never before seen in a U.S. election. Already, in addition to the usual letters, The Rolling Stones in late June credibly threatened Trump's campaign with a lawsuit for playing "You Can't Always Get What You Want" at rallies, while on Aug. 4, Neil Young sued the campaign for playing "Devil's Sidewalk" and "Rockin' in the Free World" at events.
The Stones and Young are taking advantage of the campaign licenses now used by ASCAP and BMI that allow songwriters to remove public performance rights for political campaigns. (No separate license is required to play a recording at a public event unless it's transmitted online.) And the issue will almost certainly intensify as campaigns head online, where using songs and recordings with video can require an array of licenses — and creators will have more options to stop them.