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Beef Of The Week #429: Musicians v Donald Trump (Mid-term special)

By | Published on Friday 9 November 2018

Donald Trump & Neil Young

Say what you like about Donald Trump. Oh wait, that wasn’t supposed to be the end of that sentence. Say what you like about Trump, but when it comes to successes, he’s had plenty. For example, he is definitely the US president that CMU has written the most about in all of its 20 year history. And he’s only two years into his first term.

It’s not just us, the music press as a whole, and the wider entertainment media too, has published endless stories in which he features. In part, I think this is because Trump is so much part of the entertainment industry, rather than the world of politics. But also, his special ability to rub more liberal-minded people up the wrong way means he clashes with the generally more left-leaning people of the music world a lot more often than most.

There’s been a renewed focus in recent weeks thanks to the US mid-term elections. Those were quite something, huh? The Republicans both won and lost, thanks to US politics being almost as confusing as our own in the UK.

Anyway, elections mean rallies, and Trump has been on the campaign trail for the mid-terms since March. Although as election day loomed, those events gained more scrutiny. Not least because he started making some alarming claims. Like that a piece of legislation actually passed by Barack Obama in 2014 was “the greatest idea I think I’ve ever had” and that he is a proud “nationalist”.

That’s not music news though, Andy. Not music news. OK, sorry. I got distracted. But it is the rallies that I brought you all here to talk about today. Because, as with the rallies for his original election campaign, Trump has been playing music at these events. And a lot of the people who made that music have not been too happy about it.

Pharrell Williams got the ball rolling last week when he sent the president a cease-and-desist letter, after Trump used his song ‘Happy’ at a rally in Indiana. Williams was particularly angry that this had happened just hours after the mass shooting at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“On the day of the mass murder of eleven human beings at the hands of a deranged ‘nationalist’, you played his song ‘Happy’ to a crowd at a political event in Indiana”, Williams’ attorney Howard E King wrote in the letter. “There was nothing ‘happy’ about the tragedy inflicted upon our country on Saturday and no permission was granted for your use of this song for this purpose”.

“Pharrell has not, and will not, grant you permission to publicly perform or otherwise broadcast or disseminate any of his music”, he continued. “The use of ‘Happy’ without permission constitutes copyright infringement”.

Next up were Guns N Roses, who objected to their music being used on less specific grounds. Axl Rose tweeted: “Just so ya know, GNR – like a lot of artists opposed to the unauthorised use of their music at political events – has formally requested [our] music not [be] used at Trump rallies or Trump associated events”.

“Personally, I kinda liked the irony of Trump supporters listening to a bunch of anti-Trump music at his rallies, but I don’t imagine a lot of em really get that or care”, he went on. “And when [your] phone’s blowin up cuz peeps [are] seein/hearin ‘Sweet Child’ on the news at a rally, as a band we felt we should clarify [our] position”.

Explaining to fans how the band’s music came to be used, he said: “Unfortunately, the Trump campaign is using loopholes in the various venues’ blanket performance licenses which were not intended for such craven political purposes, without the songwriters’ consent. Can [you] say ‘shitbags’?!”

It is true that – every time we report on things like this (in the UK too, where complaints about tracks being played at political events are also quite common) – we have to note that use of music in this way is usually covered by blanket licences provided by the collective licensing system.

Venues or event organisers get blanket licences from collecting societies – PRS in the UK, ASCAP or BMI in the US – and then any music controlled by those societies is covered for use. Which means that, under copyright law, when an artist gets pissed off that their music is being used for political purposes, it’s not as simple as filing a standard infringment lawsuit against Trump, or whoever.

This is why Neil Young is still complaining about the use by Trump of his song, ‘Rockin In The Free World’, three years after he first did so. “DT does not have my permission to use the song ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ at his appearances”, Young wrote on his website yet again this week.

He then explained: “Legally, he has the right to, however it goes against my wishes … I asked him [in 2015], in a widely shared, public letter to cease and desist. However, he chose not to listen to my request, just as he chooses not to listen to the many American voices who ask him to stop his constant lies, to stop his petty, nasty name calling and bullying, to stop pushing his dangerous, vilifying and hateful rhetoric”.

The question of legality is one raised again and again in this debate. Although filing a straightforward lawsuit for copyright infringement probably isn’t an option, some lawyers reckon there might be another way to force politicians to stop using tracks without an artist’s specific permission.

Also in 2015, working for Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, lawyer Dina LaPolt felt she had come up with grounds to block the use of Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’. Those grounds included false endorsement under the Lanham Act and the infringement of Tyler’s publicity and privacy rights.

Sadly, this was never tested in court, because Trump promptly agreed to drop the song from his rally playlist, saying that he had “a better one to take its place” anyway.

However, it turns out there might be another way. Because there is one more high profile artist to talk about in this latest Trump-esque beef. That being Rihanna.

A latecomer to the party, Rihanna tweeted “Not for much longer” on Sunday, after a journalist alerted her to the fact that her song ‘Don’t Stop The Music’ was being played at Trump rallies.

A cease-and-desist followed the next day, her legal reps writing: “It has come to our attention that President Trump has utilised [Rihanna’s] musical compositions and master recordings, including her hit track ‘Don’t Stop The Music,’ in connection with a number of political events held across the United States. As you are or should be aware, Ms Fenty has not provided her consent to Mr Trump to use her music. Such use is therefore improper”.

So far, so normal. However, what is more interesting is the letter that then followed it. Another cease-and-desist, but this time from collecting society BMI.

In its letter, the rights organisation says that it has received a complaint from Rihanna about the use of her music at Trump political events, and has therefore removed her from the blanket licence it holds directly with the Trump campaign – the ‘Donald J Trump for President, Inc Political Entities License Agreement’.

“BMI has received a communication from Robyn Fenty, professionally known as ‘Rihanna’, objecting to the Trump Campaign’s use of Rihanna’s musical works”, the letter reads, according to Rolling Stone. “As such … this letter serves as notice that Rihanna’s musical works are excluded from [the Trump-specific blanket licence], and any performance of Rihanna’s musical works by the Trump campaign from this date forward is not authorised by BMI”.

So that’s an interesting development. Quite how easy it is for the societies to just take artists out of their blanket licences with specific politicians isn’t clear – we’ve asked both BMI and ASCAP for clarification.

If he felt like it, Trump could read the consent decrees that regulate the two American societies and see whether they limit their options in this domain. But that would be quite a lot of reading to do. And Trump has just sacked his government’s top lawyer.

So maybe this is a solution. Though if it is, we suspect there’ll be lots of artists requesting removal from Trump’s licence in the months ahead.

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