Rihanna joins the likes of Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses in objecting to Trump using her songs. But what recourse do artists have?
Rihanna has joined an illustrious group of pop stars who publicly object to Donald Trump playing their songs at his rallies.
Like many in her cohort, the singer took to social media to voice her opposition. But what other recourse is there?
It turns out that politics, the music industry, and copyright laws are strange bedfellows. If recording artists want Trump to abstain from using one of their tracks, the quagmire of intellectual property law means they essentially have to politicize their brand in order to distance themselves from Trump.
Philip Rucker, the White House bureau chief for The Washington Post, tweeted that Rihanna's 2007 hit "Don't Stop the Music" was "blaring in Chattanooga as aides toss free Trump T-shirts into the crowd...Everyone's loving it." To which Rihanna promptly replied, "Not for much longer" and denigrated the Trump camp for holding one of "those tragic rallies."
Other artists who have openly protested Trump's use of their work include Pharrell Williams, The Rolling Stones, Adele, and Guns N' Roses. Frontman Axl Rose specifically accused Trump of "using loopholes in the various venues' blanket performance licenses which were not intended for such craven political purposes, without the songwriters' consent."
He took to Twitter to reaffirm that the band is opposed to being affiliated with Trump, but added, "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."
The standard practice of politicians using popular music depends on a mix between loose copyright laws and respect for the artist. Music attorney Marc Ostrow notes, "Usually what happens...is that after the artist makes his or her position objecting to the usage, the political figure voluntarily ceases to use the song." Trump has, unsurprisingly, not respected many artists' wishes.
This is owing to the fact that the artist, ultimately, has limited ownership of his/her song. Performing rights organizations (PROs) such as ASCAP or BMI manage licensing and royalties of artists' work, mediating between creators and whoever wants to use their work. Most high-capacity venues like stadiums hold blanket licenses that apply to a large cache of media, but these need to be checked by the organizers of rallies and conventions since such events can be excluded from a venue's license. If a song is covered by a licensing deal, then the song is legally in fair use, regardless of the artist's preferences.
In response, an artist can withdraw their work from a PRO and risk losing all royalties associated with intended radio and commercial replay, or they can follow in the steps of Pharrell and Aerosmith, whose respective lawyers have issued cease and desist letters to the White House claiming violation of trademark rights.
As Mick Jagger lamented after The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" ironically became Trump's de facto campaign song, there's little an artist can do. He's publicly complained, "They can play what they want" under blanket licensing deals.
Ultimately, an artist's best recourse is to publicly denounce political figures who may be using their work to promote themselves. Social media estrangement is a strange substitute for lawful copyright. However, loosely written laws and the absence of honor in the Trump administration only widen the existing nexus of pop culture and politics. On the one hand, recording artists are spotlighting political conversations that are shaping art as much as legislature. On the other hand, it's another instance of politicians and industry giants getting what they want at the expense of everyone else.
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