The political season is revving up, so once again there's a lot of talk about a song used without an artist's permission at a political event. A lot of my friends have asked if a songwriter has any chance of retribution when this happens. With regards to a recent public rally, the talk being thrown around is that Survivor or their label should sue the organizers, or has sued (as many fake clickbait news stories are purporting). How can their song be used against their will at a large event in a public setting? And, it's not like it was in a nightclub or coffeehouse that has an ASCAP / BMI / SESAC compulsory license, right?
Sorry to disappoint, but it is possible the use of the music was on the up-and-up. First of all, one can purchase a temporary compulsory license for music played at an outdoor event. It's not difficult to do … I believe it can even be done through the PRO's website. In Survivor's case, this would be ASCAP, and the band would have allowed this by registering their music with the company. Anyway, this is basically a temporary version of the type of license that, say, a nightclub would purchase where the songs played in the establishment wouldn't have to be 'cleared' in advance.
Furthermore, a songwriter cannot bar his or her music from being played at a public event, even if the writer feels the political message being presented is abhorrent. That's the 'compulsory' part of the license. It would be the same if Survivor hated this one coffeehouse that had an ASCAP license and didn't want their music played there … there's nothing they can do as a member of the PRO. The exception is a synchronization license – that is, if the music is synced with video (a live TV broadcast of the public event doesn't count). John McCain got into hot water for using a Foo Fighters song at an event in 2008, but this was due to the fact that he showed a video that had the music as its soundtrack. That's a totally different type of license than the compulsory one that an organizer obtains for music just coming out of speakers, and the songwriters and publishers have a lot more control when the song is embedded with video.
I don't know if the parties in question obtained the necessary license to play the music at the recent event, but I'm feeling they might have. It's not exactly the 'first rodeo' for the politician who was involved. In that case, Survivor can only really do what they've been doing … publicly speaking out against the use of their song and the politics it has been unfortunately attached with.
Update: R.E.M. just got trolled, too.