You Can't Always Get (the Song) You Want

Any musician or band-mate who has ever played a cover tune in a bar, tavern, or concert hall likely knows that the venue must be licensed by performing rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP or BMI for the right to have such copyrighted materials played in their establishments. The annual licensing fees vary based on different factors, like whether or not the music is live or piped in, and the square footage/capacity of the bar or hall in question.


ASCAP has more than 11.5 million licensed songs, and BMI has some 15 million.

The fees can be reasonable for a hole-in-the-wall bar, and rather expensive for a large bar or restaurant.

Why explore this issue now? Because legendary rockers The Rolling Stones have issued a legal cease and desist order through BMI to the Trump 2020 campaign: Stop playing our songs at your rallies!

What is President Trump to do? Let’s dig deeper.

Under a license issued by a PRO, a bar, restaurant, or any performance venue can play or contract cover artists to play any licensed song, from Beatle masterwork “A Day In The Life” to The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” without fear of repercussion. Similarly, that coin-operated jukebox at the local watering hole means the establishment is probably paid up on its inclusive licensing fee, usually included in the jukebox leasing agreement.

The penalties for playing copyrighted the tunes either electronically or via a live band without holding a license can be severe. This, from an extensive article on the subject from

“U.S. law allows the PRO to sue you for payment at the rate of $750 per song infringed upon plus attorney’s fees and court costs.

A quick search of the internet shows how prevalent these lawsuits are. The PROs hire individuals to spend time in your establishment and document when a particular song they control the rights to is played. If you do not have a license to use this music, you can expect the wheels to begin turning as they attempt to collect.”


Now, after complaining in vain since 2016, the Stones are looking for “satisfaction.” The Tulsa rally two Saturdays ago may be “the last time” Trump walks offstage to the strains of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Interestingly, Trump 2020 does hold a Musical License for Political Entities or Organizations (MLPEO) from both BMI (which holds performance rights to the aforementioned rally-closing song) and ASCAP. This licensing ostensibly allows the campaign to play licensed songs at events.

But here’s the rub: Artists can legally and specifically demand that their songs be excluded from use for political purposes.

This from a good overview at the Deadline website:

“There is a provision, however, that allows BMI to exclude musical works from the license if a songwriter or publisher objects to its use by a campaign. BMI has received such an objection and sent a letter notifying the Trump campaign that the Rolling Stones’ works have been removed from the campaign license, and advising the campaign that any future use of these musical compositions will be in breach of its license agreement with BMI.”

Further complicating the issue, and making likely the probability that Trump will never play “Start Me up” at his rallies again, is a proscription against a campaign claiming that the venue’s broad licensing agreement covers the use of the song.

From Deadline:

“Any performance by licensee of an excluded work or catalog of works at any event or function following receipt of such notice shall be covered by the grant and shall be deemed a material breach of this agreement, even if the venue or establishment at which the event or function takes place is separately licensed to publicly perform the works or catalog of works. Licensee shall not rely on, or use as a defense, any such separate license or claim arising out of any performance of such excluded works.”


Let’s get to the bottom line: If a certain artist requests that their works be removed from the list of licensed songs a campaign has paid to play, there’s not much Mr. Trump, or any other politician, can do about it.

This state of affairs leaves the Trump campaign with three options: Keep playing the proscribed songs and fight the lawsuit; offer the artist an additional sum to restore rights (I don’t see the billionaire Stones organization rethinking this); or look for new songs by artists that aren’t likely to request their works be removed from the MLPEO.

Personally, I suggest that President Trump not keep playing the songs he has been asked not to play. There is big-time crossover between support for Trump and love for the Stones. The same can be said for Tom Petty or Neil Young, two artists that previously objected when the president used their songs.

The last thing Trump needs now is a legal kerfuffle with beloved recording artists.

This is not my first rodeo in terms of Trump campaign songs. Way back in October 2015, only four months after the famous escalator ride and over a year before Trump was elected president, I wrote a PJ Media piece about the campaign song controversy, and made some IMO pretty good suggestions.

Let’s look back at how my suggestions have stood the test of time:

“Dream On” Aerosmith: As I said at the time, great tune, but a mixed message.  The point quickly became moot; Steven Tyler rushed out of the gate in 2015 to put the kibosh on Trump playing the song at his rallies, and did so again in 2018 with “Living On The Edge.”


“Money Talks” AC-DC: Money will have a lot to say in the final months if Trump campaign coffers are any indication. But as I said back then, too on-the-nose, especially with the Supremes ready to rule on Trump’s tax returns.

“Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” Judas Priest:  my personal fave. Heads have rolled since 10/15, including the virtual heads of the entire 2016 Republican field, the head of Hillary Clinton’s political future, and of uncountable legions of globalists separated from achieving their scurrilous designs on American sovereignty. But this tune is too extreme for a campaign hoping to stitch things together.

“Hot Blooded” Foreigner: never used by Trump, and in view of all that has transpired over the years, and given COVID and the civil unrest sweeping the nation, probably not the best message to send right now.

“We’re Not Gonna Take It” Twisted Sister: still a great pick, and Dee Snider did make a storied appearance on Celebrity Apprentice. But the video image of Snider in eighties hair-drag is probably not the kind of optic that bodes well for 2020.

So where do we go from here?

At this juncture, I am personally partial to Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger.” (“Burning Heart” is good too, hello, 76+million page views.) But I’m going to do something I very rarely do in my PJ Media opinion pieces: I’m going to shut the hell up and let folks in the comment section make suggestion for songs Trump should use now that the Stones have threatened to serve him with papers.


Two rules: The suggestions have to connote success for Trump 2020, and they have to be from artists who are not likely to immediately pull the plug.

Let’s rock this thing all the way to Trump’s reelection.

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