The Rolling Stones are clearly not ready to jump on board the Trump Train and are demonstrating their displeasure by publicly complaining about the candidate’s campaign using some of their music at various stops on the trail. After his primary victory on Tuesday, the band’s song Start Me Up was playing when Trump took the stage to give his speech. These stories have grown as common as three chord blues riffs over the last few election cycles and this one might turn out the same as the rest, but then again the aggrieved musicians haven’t run into somebody like Trump before. What if he simply refuses and keeps on using the music? Does the band have a leg to stand on? As the Washington Post reports, that depends on how well Trump’s team did their homework and precisely how the music is used.
Most of the complaints listed above are for politicians using their songs at campaign rallies, which the Associated Press reports is legally okay so long as either the political organization or the venue acquires a “blanket license” for an artist’s entire catalogue from ASCAP and BMI — both of these are non-profit performing rights organizations that license music and distribute royalties. A blanket license is how your favorite restaurant or bar plays its tunes, according to the New York Times.
That said, BMI allows artists to opt songs out of the blanket license, which would disallow such public usage.
Welcome to the business world, kids. You wanted to make money off your songs (as is your right, and best of luck to you) but when you license out the music in blanket form you essentially lose most all control over who plays it. If the campaign paid for the rights and you already pocketed the cash you should probably use some of your profits to buy ear plugs if you don’t like it. And for the record, Trump already responded by saying that they paid the required fee.
The law does get a bit more complicated if the music is used in paid advertising or becomes an integral part of the “image or message” of the campaign, and the courts can take a different stance and find them liable in those cases. But for a quick show opener as the candidate approaches the stage at a rally? That claim seems dubious at best.
In the end this looks like more liberal carping against conservatives in general and Republicans in particular. And it’s essentially always Republicans who the musicians go after because they play to a liberal audience and come from that environment. There have been a grand total of two instances of Democrats receiving such complaints and both were over a lack of royalties being paid.
I’m not sure if there are any winners in a fight like this in any event. The only reason some threatened lawsuits have worked out in the past is because the campaigns settle out of court and/or just stop using the music to avoid an unpleasant PR incident. I suppose that makes the artists feel like they’ve claimed a victory, but it also just drags them further into the swamp of political discord. If your goal is to sell as many CDs as possible do you really want to tick off half of your potential market by poking a finger in their eye? Older, established icons who don’t need to worry about sales as much anymore can get away with it. Bruce Springsteen is probably the best example in that category since he famously tries to forbid any Republican from using his music, but if you’re still trying to make your way in the recording business it’s probably not all that smart.
And do you really want to take on Trump? He’s not exactly known for quietly smiling and acquiescing to such demands. Chances are he’d just tell the booth to play the song louder and then spend the first five minutes of his speech attacking Mick Jagger as a drug addled hippie. The result would then be one more headline for CNN to cover, giving Trump yet another cycle of free advertising on cable news.