Donald Trump's spectacular, weird, spectacularly weird entrance onto the Republican stage Monday night is already legendary. Trump's silhouette walking onto a blue-white screen, hair-shelf giving him away immediately. And the soundtrack: Queen's "We Are the Champions."
Queen was not happy about this.
An unauthorised use at the Republican Convention against our wishes - Queen
— Queen (@QueenWillRock) July 19, 2016
(Two important asides: @QueenWillRock is a bad Twitter handle, but @Queen is owned by Kim Jackson, who somehow only joined Twitter in 2012. Anyway, memo to @QueenWillRock: We get it; you're Queen. No need to sign your tweets.)
It was not the first time Queen complained about the man who would be president. In June, the band's Brian May blogged about his annoyance over a previous usage of the song by Trump, saying that he was "taking advice on what steps we can take to ensure this use does not continue" because "it has always been against our policy to allow Queen music to be used as a political campaigning tool."
Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican party, offered a response to the tweet.
— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) July 19, 2016
And here, Spicer is correct.
In May, I spoke with Will Ritter, who was director of advance for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and now works for Poolhouse, an ad agency he co-founded. Ritter and I were talking after another, similar issue arose with a song by the Rolling Stones.
Ritter explained the Romney campaign's process for using a song in an email:
- Acquire the two big blanket licenses for events of different crowd sizes. They aren’t cheap. These licenses cover most popular music played to a crowd.
- Pick a popular, upbeat song with a good message.
- Check and see if the song was on the covered list.
- Read through the lyrics.
- Google the band and see if they are outspoken against your candidate or their positions, or were particularly litigious.
- Put it on the approved playlist.
- Audio tech gets a USB drive with just the approved songs.
Let's break these down a bit further.
If you go to the website for BMI, the company walks you through the cost and process for obtaining a license to use music from its library. Say you're hosting an event for charity and you want to license "We Are the Champions" (which is in its catalog). Here's the fee schedule, according to its licensing agreement.
And here's what you get.
Queen doesn't play any part in that process. Ritter notes that "artists retain certain rights to the work outside of the blanket license," resulting in some cases where an artist can block the use of a song in certain circumstances, like in an ad. If the campaign had played a song to which it didn't have a license at an event — if the audio technician strayed from that USB drive — the band could object and sue. With a license, though, the artist doesn't have many options. ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, has a guide for campaigns which notes that other legal constraints may apply, such as the precept of "false endorsement" -- implying that the artist supports the person's candidacy. To avoid this, they wisely recommend contacting the artist.
Which jumps us ahead to No. 5 on the list. Spicer and the RNC got a good hint in June that Queen wasn't thrilled about their use of the song, though it didn't deter them. The question then becomes one of politics. Ritter told me that the Romney campaign got cease-and-desist requests from artists whose songs they used about "once a week," and that they would usually just pull the song from the rotation. That was "less out of fear of lawsuits, more because it’d be a distraction to the campaign message, which is supposed to be about big things, not sparring publicly with pop acts," he said. "A silly feud would easily eat up a whole day’s news."
The use of Queen at the convention is one thing. Music at a campaign rally is another. "An important thing to keep in mind is we’re talking about hours of music," Ritter said. "Especially after [Secret Service] protection is implemented at events, you could be asking a voter to stand somewhere for three hours before you speak, so you need 50-plus songs that are going to keep their energy up." That's a lot of songs, a lot of licensing and a lot of screening. (When I noted that most campaign songs sucked, Ritter suggested that "maybe [I'm] a snob.")
Inadvertently, we've stumbled on another way that this is not just another election. Romney's team in 2012 would have sighed and taken Queen out of the rotation. Trump's team — or at least the Republican party that's running his convention — is willing to bear the heat.
Being in the clear legally is an emboldening thing.
This article was updated with the ASCAP guide, pointed out by a person on Twitter.