Given half a chance most musicians out there in the big, wide musical nebula would give their right arm to have one of their songs serve as a backdrop on a national and international stage. The prospect of having just thirty seconds of a song circling the globe several times over the span of a single day is staggering. And, isn’t airplay what the music business is ultimately all about? The kind of airplay we’re talking about, the kind that can lure thousands of fans, send CD sales through the roof, secure future record deals and turn a moderate hit into a classic, simply can’t be bought. So, why have we seen so many music industry lawyers dashing off cease and desist letters recently?
The answer is simple. The presidential campaigns. Now, before you sigh heavily and skulk off with a pout, let me admit to you right up front that I’m no political pundit. I have no statistics with which to bore you into submission, I’m completely out of demographics and I simply couldn’t speculate on whether you live in a key battleground state or not. And, anyway, would you really listen if I did? While I think that most of our readers have earned a respite from the recent spate of politicking, I help bringing up the topic of co-opting music for political campaigns because it’s essentially about the rules – the rules the rest of us are required to follow.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave and have refused to come out until after the elections like some sort of politics phobic groundhog, the musical hash and rehash to find the right, feel-good song for both political parties has been in high gear. So far, the McCain campaign has received cease and desist letters from Ann and Nancy Wilson from the band Heart over the use of "Barracuda," Jackson Browne for the use of "Running on Empty," John Mellencamp for the use of "Pink Houses" and "Our Country" and from Van Halen for the use of "Right Now."
Before you shriek political bias, let me tell you that as far as I know no letters have been issued to the Obama campaign; although, the use of Brooks and Dunn’s "Only in America" did seem an odd choice for the Democratic convention, especially after a live appearance by Stevie Wonder and the fact that the song had been used as an anthem for President Bush’s inauguration in 2000 and again for the 2004 Republican convention.
Defenders of the practice of using popular music, the variety loaded with plenty of good, old fashioned Americana preferred, that serve as backdrops to our political campaigns are likely to claim free use. But is it? Isn’t it just bare-faced stealing? Let’s put aside the wedding video of the special couple dancing that first dance to "You Light Up My Life" or the tape with the kicky, little tap recital number by your 7 year-old performed last year to "On Broadway," or the secret, special DVD of the raunchy striptease your significant other did for you last Christmas just to check out the resolution of the new video camera. We’re talking about a national campaign in which images and sound will travel all over the world. And when it comes down to it, isn’t a political campaign a sales job? If a politician is using your song to sell his ideas shouldn’t you get a say in the message?
I have no doubt that there are special political strategists charged with the task of finding that one song that will sum up the desired political persona. Hell, it might even be the same folks who ratchet up the music at Ruby Tuesdays to get me to buy another couple of drinks or the same people who carefully select the music for the local Kroger’s because some study has postulated that a certain type of music will subliminally make me cough up an extra thirty bucks in crap I don’t want or need.
The fact remains that the musical choices of political campaigns are engineered, whether it makes any sense to do so or not. For example, Mitt Romney’s people elected to use Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline" during his campaign, even though Neil wrote the song as an ode to Caroline Kennedy. Even if you go to extraordinary lengths to find that one song, it could turn sour. John McCain was using the Chuck Berry tune "Johnny Be Goode," so it must have seemed like a bit of shock when Mr. Berry came out and endorsed Barack Obama.
The ‘fair use’ simply doesn’t wash in political campaigns. The Wilson sisters, Mellencamp and Browne call all afford to say no to the McCain campaign, but that doesn’t mean that the music is free and that’s something every politician should know. If I wanted to use a song to sell anything from cars to snow blowers, I’d have to get permission and lay down some money. That’s the way it works. A critic might suggest that since there’s no money involved then free use of music is justified. No money? Really, really? Imagine any political hack on the scene and tell me that all the banners, balloons and music isn’t all just scene setting for a rousing political pick pocket fest, and that the politician’s not looking out somberly into crowd’s upturned faces and not seeing future campaign contributors.
In a country where the Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner has set the estimated total for the 2008 presidential race at $1 billion (that’s b for billion, my little chickadees), certainly someone can cough up money for music. Of course, it might be nice if the campaigns would replace the music with content of their own; you know, ways in which they plan on dealing with the war, deficit spending, health care, failing schools and the like. I’m no fan of giving blow hard politicians any more air time for sarcastic bon mots, but forcing them to face the public without all the scene setting in the honeyed glow of their own crap, made palatable by the sweat off some musician’s back, might just be change we’ve all been looking for.
I guess the only consolation you’ll get this political season, despite the fact that your candidate doesn’t know the back story to the song or even know its lyrics, that when the music starts to swell you can count on him or her knowing it’s time to dance.