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Fiddlin’ Around September/October

Fiddlin'AroundThe Hollywood Hoopla and show biz aspects of the American political election process are often embarrassing, and music is almost always part of the staged background. By the time this goes to print there will probably be radical changes in the political landscape, but ‘ya gotta admit it’s certainly been a banner year for comedy writers, impersonators and late night talk shows. I’m going to try to stay away from personal ranting and raving, though anyone who knows me probably knows I’m way out in left field. So let’s talk about how and why songs get used by the guys and gals trying to win our votes. Apparently politicians of all kinds think they are entitled to chop up and claim as their own the songs that musicians and writers have labored over and which often have a completely different intention than how they are used.

First off, it’s hard to imagine that all of the songwriters, the musicians, singers, studio guys, record labels, ASCAP, BMI and copyright lawyers would ever be on the same page about their efforts being used to promote any one candidate. Shoot, most bands can’t even agree on where to eat dinner, let alone agree on who should run the country. The use of our music, whether the politicians want to cop to it or not, implies a sort of endorsement, even if nothing could be farther from the truth. There are examples of this on both sides of the political fence. Many musicians could care less about politics and the circus surrounding the process, and they resent the fruits of their labors being used by anyone—well, at least until they get a check in the mail. So how come politicians are able to get away with this? Well, because it is a complicated global business nowadays with plenty of murky water and sharks swimming around in it.

Stevie Wonder & President ObamaASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), is an organization which represents over 10 million works from over 525,000 songwriters and composers, and by extension, their music publishers. BMI has a somewhat smaller number of accounts. They both sell non-exclusive public performance rights and are responsible for licensing and tracking public performances of the music they ‘own’, whether it is played on the radio, TV, Cable, Satellite, the Internet, mobile devices or at live venues. Then they distribute the appropriate royalties and theoretically protect the rights of their members. No one has to ask for an artists’ permission to play a popular song at a political rally, as long as the venue where it is played has what’s known as a blanket license from ASCAP or its counterpart BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated). Most large venues routinely pay these fees, so basically the artists don’t retain any rights about the usage of their music. Most of the time their accountants are in charge of watching the books, and except for political usage or fundraisers they might not support, the artists probably don’t complain much. These huge organizations are supposedly non-profit, but they are in the business of making money for their members and they know that music can inspire, motivate and energize a political campaign. It all started with George Washington using ‘God Save Great Washington’, a parody of ‘God Save the King’. FDR used ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ and Eisenhower used ASCAP member Irvin Berlin’s song, ‘They Like Ike’. Obama played ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours’ at his rallies, written by another ASCAP artist, Stevie Wonder.

Let’s say you own a radio station or a restaurant and you want to play or broadcast music. Well, you need to procure the public performance rights to do so. If the radio station plays 300 or so songs a day, then clearly you’d go bonkers if you had to contact and get the rights from all the record labels or publishers involved. So to simplify the process, you pay ASCAP or BMI a yearly fee—they each handle a catalog of about 4,000,000 songs. This is one of the reasons why commercial radio stations rarely play unknown artists—they are already paying for the big names and estimating how many times their music is used—no one is really counting or concerned about the smaller guys. These rules apply to the music being played at a skating rink or at a dance club or at a political rally. About the only time you don’t have to pay to use music is when you’re sitting at home listening to the radio. The station has already paid for the music through a blanket license and you pay by having to listen to the commercials. Just about every other possible use of music legally requires the payment of a licensing fee—though there is plenty of room for good old fashioned graft and corruption in this system and in its accounting. When I have played in Europe we had to submit a set list every night to reps from these two agencies so they could presumably collect a fee from the club or venue for their artists whose songs we might be doing. And the Musicians Union will likely get involved in the accounting if they can. There’s a whole mess of loopholes in the system and plenty of lawyers lurking around to find them.

Mick Jagger & Donald TrumpThere probably would be no one complaining about a 6th grade baseball team receiving their trophy to the strains of Queens ‘We are the Champions’, but it’s whole other matter when the GOP National convention blares out ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ by the Rolling Stones as Trump accepts the nomination and the balloons are dropping and the signs are waving and everyone’s patting each other on their backs. It seemed like a really odd choice of music to me—the song starts out very slow with the ethereal high voices of the London Bach Choir singing the chorus that we all know. “You can’t always get what you want—but if you try sometime you find you get what you need….” To me it seems like common sense to play something rousing and optimistic and positive during those heady moments, but apparently no one on Trump’s staff thought of that or bothered to google the lyrics, ‘cause they are anything but uplifting. Here’s what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote, in case you haven’t heard it in a while:

I saw her today at the reception—a glass of wine in her hand. I knew she would meet her connection—at her feet was her footloose man. I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse. Singing ‘we’re gonna vent our frustration—if we don’t we’re gonna blow a 50 amp fuse!’ I went down to the Chelsea drugstore to get your prescription filled. I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy, and man, did he look pretty ill. We decided that we would have a soda—my favorite flavor, cherry red. I sung my song to Mr. Jimmy, yeah, and he said one thing to me, and that was ‘dead’. I saw her today at the reception—in her glass was a bleeding man. She was practiced at the art of deception—well I could tell by her blood stained hands.  

Bobby McFerrin and George W. BushNow I’m not just picking on Trump—I’d be here all day! But what a weird usage of a song that is basically dealing with the difference between desire and need, and which is pretty damn dark. I mean, c’mon, it was written by unrepentant, English bad boys—about the only things they have in common with most of the folks at the GOP show is that they are rich white men. Why didn’t he pick a Prince song? Prince actively sought Republican outlets for his music! Many artists are currently suing politicians or are denouncing any alliance or support for them, and about the only choice legally for the songwriters is to prove that someone’s usage of their music will harm their future income—when their fans turn on them! One rapper used that argument and won. Another really odd but kind of funny choice was the playing of the Strangeloves song ‘I Want Candy’, as Chris Christie was walking out to deliver the GOP keynote address. Like he needs more Snickers bars. Apparently Paul Ryan likes the band Rage Against the Machine, and wanted to use one of their songs. They found it amusing, and said “He’s the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades!” They declined to spend time and money in litigation, knowing that the whole circus will leave town in a couple of months anyway. Bobby McFerrin sued George W. Bush over his use of the song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, and when he complained Bush invited him to dinner. After dinner he still said no to them, and they replaced the song with Woody Guthrie’s anthem ‘This Land is Your Land’—he wasn’t around to complain I guess. Sam Moore, famous for the 1967 Sam and Dave classic song ‘I’m a Soul Man’, reworked the song to say ‘I’m a Dole Man’, and the Dole supporters loved it and used it regularly. Trouble is, Sam Moore didn’t have the rights to the song—they are owned by author Isaac Hayes, a black soul singer, and a liberal record label. Sam Moore later asked Obama to quit playing the song ‘Hold On I’m Coming’, saying he had not agreed to endorse Obama and that his vote was a private matter. Sting sued George W. Bush over using his song ‘Brand New Day’ and merely said he didn’t want to take sides in American politics.

All the negative publicity and controversy that is the result of artists speaking up against a particular politician can’t possibly be worth it. There is power in music, and whether right or wrong, we look to our musicians for guidance and hope. I mean, Springsteen could probably get his kid elected governor of New Jersey if he was so inclined and told his many fans to vote for him. Political hopefuls and their advisors should learn their lesson and do their homework and pick songs by like-minded artists and politely ask for their permission. At the very least they should look at the lyrics. And we, the public, should be aware of the musical manipulation these guys are trying to get over on us with. After all, they only get the microphone handed to them once in a while—we have them in front of us all the time.

Sarah PalinOk—I can’t help it—just one more political/music anecdote. Gretchen Peters wrote a song called ‘Independence Day’, which was the CMA Song of the Year in 1993, recorded and released by country music star Martina McBride. Peters lashed out, saying the fact that Sarah Palin was using a song about an abused woman as a rallying cry for her political ambitions—a woman who would ban abortions even in cases of rape and incest—was beyond irony. Instead of suing the campaign to make them stop playing her song, Peters donated all of the election season royalties to Planned Parenthood and encouraged others to do the same. Ooops, that kinda’ backfired…

If all this lame political stuff is making you nuts—avoid the TV and get out and listen to live local music! Down south here in Dominical there are several venues that are persisting in having live music, even in the rainy season! A beautiful and yummy new place to go is called Por Que No, and they have music on most Thursdays at sunset. The Rum Bar often has rowdy reggae or whatever—and the fabulous Ben Jammin’ and the Howlers play every Friday night (7:30 start) at the spacious Roca Verde Bar/Restaurant and Hotel, just south of town. C’mon out and have some fun with us!

I do not trust politicians…I trust people, so I make my music for people, not for candidates. Neil Young

Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff. Frank Zappa

Suppose you were a member of congress. And suppose you were an idiot. But I repeat myself. Mark Twain

If you’re going to kick authority in the teeth, you might as well use two feet. Keith Richards

In politics, stupidity is not a handicap. Napoleon Bonaparte


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