How do you manage a reputation, and a back catalogue, in an age when any public figure seems to think that they can take any musician’s songs off the peg for any purpose?
That’s the question currently gnawing away at notoriously political rock band Rage Against The Machine – in the news again this week for their fight to “Take The Power Back” from US talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh. The seriously right-wing shock jock has rankled the equally seriously left-wing band by playing its song “Sleep Now in the Fire” during his on-air tirades, which reached a new low earlier this month when he dubbed a law student a “slut” for speaking out in favour of contraception.
Rage guitarist Tom Morello tweeted: “Hey jackass, stop using our music on your racist, misogynist, right-wing clown show” – and followed both Peter Gabriel and Rush in the small-but-powerful pantheon of artists who have threatened Limbaugh with legal action if he continues to play their songs.
Rage are no strangers to tackling perceived injustices – both in their send up of Wall Street bigwigs in the “Sleep Now In The Fire” video, and less intentionally, when their song “Killing In The Name” became the UK Christmas Number One in 2010 after a successful campaign to keep X Factor Winner Joe McElderry’s song from the festive top spot. But this new intervention marks a growing trend of musicians wishing to manage the use of their songs – particularly by political parties and figures that stand in direct opposition to their beliefs.
It has been argued that the recent flood of complaints stems from the YouTube effect of information spreading so quickly and musicians simply finding out more often – and more speedily – about the use of their music in particular settings.
In the pre-internet age, by the time an artist heard about their song being hijacked, it was too late to do anything about it. And prior to 2008′s action by Jackson Browne against John McCain and the Ohio Republican Party’s use of his track “Running on Empty”, very few musicians had ever actually taken legal action. Browne received a cash settlement and a public apology, thus setting a precedent and forcing more people and organisations to seek permission before use.
The winning horse
Confusingly, though, the debate is a legal grey area. If a party has a blanket licence from a performing-rights society (ASCAP and BMI in the US; PRS in the UK), then they are, in theory, entitled to play whatever music is covered by that licence – and, in practice, that’s pretty much everything. However, in the US at least – where legal action has been far more widespread – a DJ or politician can be sued under the area of false advertising, if the use of the song implies that the artist is endorsing the person using it and their associated views.
It is hugely important for artists to attempt to manage the use of their music, in a business where reputation counts for so much – and, in particular, right-wing politics are so stridently despised. Artists must be keenly aware of any situation that could lead them to be accused of “selling out” (witness the scorn doled out to acts that allow their music to be used for multitudes of adverts) – something that could cost them that all-important cachet of credibility.
Allowing music to be associated with politics is fraught with danger, as the outcome is bound to alienate a significant portion of an act’s potential audience. However, left-leaning causes seem to be a relatively safe option – Fleetwood Mac allowed their song “Don’t Stop” to be used for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and D:Ream famously allowed New Labour to soundtrack their 1997 victory campaign with “Things Can Only Get Better”. Ultimately, both bands escaped the clutches of negativity – mostly as a result of backing the winning horse. D:Ream had long since split up by the time New Labour became unpopular, and Clinton remained in favour throughout much of his presidency. Essentially the byword should always be: approach with caution, protect your brand… but if you insist on crossing that line, at least try and be associated with something that will be popular for as long as you are likely to exist.