The Politics of Creating a 2016 Soundtrack

It’s not easy picking a perfect presidential playlist. And it can take a lot of staffpower.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks during a campaign rally Sept. 9 in Anaheim, California.
Kevork Djansezian AFP/Getty
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Oct. 2, 2015, 5 a.m.

Be­fore Ben Car­son uttered a word at his 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign kick­off, a gos­pel choir belted out the na­tion­al an­them and a rendi­tion of Em­inem’s 2002 hit-single “Lose Your­self.” The De­troit Mu­sic Hall crowd went wild.

It wasn’t a typ­ic­al start to a cam­paign, and that was the point. “We were try­ing to show that we were dif­fer­ent, we were not the es­tab­lish­ment. We wanted people to walk away say­ing ‘Wow, that was so un-Wash­ing­ton’,” Doug Watts, Car­son’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or said, re­call­ing how he, cam­paign man­ager Barry Ben­nett, and cam­paign strategist Ed Brookover spent nearly a full day brain­storm­ing be­fore hit­ting on the idea to ask the De­troit-fam­ous gos­pel choir Se­lec­ted of God to play a star­ring role.

Not every 2016 can­did­ate cre­ated quite that much of a spec­tacle with a cam­paign launch. But as White House con­tenders work to win over the Amer­ic­an pub­lic, they aren’t leav­ing any­thing to chance. That means painstak­ing de­lib­er­a­tion, stress­ing, and strategiz­ing over every last de­tail of a can­did­ate’s im­age—in­clud­ing pick­ing the per­fect soundtrack.

The right song can de­liv­er a mes­sage, leav­ing it stuck on loop in the minds of voters. Mu­sic sets the tone at cam­paign ral­lies and provides a back­drop for videos, tele­vi­sion, and ra­dio ad­vert­ising churned out by the cam­paign. But there are pit­falls too: Fail to check the right boxes, and you could end up with an angry pop-artist pub­licly drag­ging your cam­paign through the so­cial me­dia mud, or threat­en­ing to sue.

There are no hard and fast rules for pick­ing a polit­ic­al an­them. Jon Bon Jovi gave Chris Christie per­mis­sion to use his mu­sic on the cam­paign trail. Bernie Sanders enters and exits massive ral­lies to the tune of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Mar­tin O’Mal­ley some­times plays gui­tar on the trail. (The O’Mal­ley cam­paign has also taken mu­sic­al ad­vice from a Mary­land ra­dio sta­tion DJ.) Rick San­tor­um has an of­fi­cial cam­paign theme song titled “Take Back Amer­ica,” and you’ll of­ten hear “Homegrown” by the Zac Brown Band at Jeb Bush events.

“You have to have a soundtrack. If you don’t have a soundtrack, you don’t have as clear an iden­tity with voters. It’s something to be very de­lib­er­ate about. If you’re not choos­ing wisely, you’re miss­ing an op­por­tun­ity,” said An­drew Bar­low, a speech writ­ing con­sult­ant for Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates, in­clud­ing Ted Cruz, and founder and CEO of me­dia firm Over­flow Com­mu­nic­a­tions.

A lot of thought goes in­to se­lect­ing a song. At a rally, cam­paigns look for mu­sic that can wake up a crowd. For ad­vert­ising and pro­mo­tion­al videos, mu­sic that in­spires or in­stills fear, de­pend­ing on what kind of mes­sage the cam­paign wants to send, may work best. And it’s not just the ven­ue. Geo­graph­ic loc­a­tion mat­ters as well. Pres­id­en­tial con­tenders some­times spot­light loc­al fa­vor­ites as a way of telling the audi­ence: “I’m just like you!”

“These are not de­cisions you ar­rive at lightly. You want something con­sist­ent with your val­ues, you want it to be en­er­get­ic, and some­times there’s a deep­er mean­ing,” said Rick Ab­bruzzese, a former O’Mal­ley aide and con­sult­ant for a pro-O’Mal­ley su­per PAC.

At least one 2016 con­tender is out­sourcing the task. Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign paid $9,000 to en­list the aid of a boutique mu­sic agency based in Port­land, Ore­gon, re­cords from the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion show. Bill­board re­por­ted that the agency “has been tasked with mu­sic su­per­vi­sion and cre­at­ive sup­port” for a series of Clin­ton cam­paign videos, in­clud­ing the video that launched Clin­ton’s 2016 bid. (A spokes­per­son for the mu­sic agency said the firm is “ex­cited about our re­la­tion­ship with the Hil­lary cam­paign” but ad­ded that an in­ter­view would not be pos­sible due to a nondis­clos­ure agree­ment. The Clin­ton cam­paign de­clined to com­ment.)

But pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates don’t al­ways get the mu­sic they want. Car­son’s cam­paign hoped to use the gos­pel rendi­tion of Em­inem’s “Lose Your­self” as a 2016 an­them. But Watts, the cam­paign com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, dis­covered he “could not get through the pub­lish­er without empty­ing our bank ac­count.” So he settled for second-best: The cam­paign got the gos­pel choir to re­cord a song modeled after the ori­gin­al, a mu­sic­al se­lec­tion that the cam­paign has since used in a cam­paign video.

A polit­ic­al clash can also arise, a prob­lem that af­flicts Re­pub­lic­ans far more of­ten than Demo­crats. R.E.M. front­man Mi­chael Stipe lashed out after Trump took the stage at a rally last month in Wash­ing­ton to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. “Do not use our mu­sic or my voice for your mor­on­ic charade of a cam­paign,” Stipe told The Daily Beast shortly after. Neil Young also took is­sue when Trump played “Rockin’ in the Free World” at his pres­id­en­tial kick­off. Des­pite claims from Trump’s team that they had the rights to the mu­sic, a spokes­per­son for the artist said Trump “was not au­thor­ized,” adding: “Neil Young, a Ca­na­dian cit­izen, is a sup­port­er of Bernie Sanders for Pres­id­ent of the United States of Amer­ica.” Not to be out­done, punk band Drop­kick Murphys tweeted at Scott Walk­er: “please stop us­ing our mu­sic in any way … we lit­er­ally hate you!!!”

Cam­paigns wary of clash­ing with a liv­id mu­si­cian have rushed to shore up a de­fense. The most com­mon leg­al safe­guard is for cam­paigns to pay a fee to a per­form­ing rights or­gan­iz­a­tion, a middle-man between any­one who wants to use a song for a com­mer­cial pur­pose or pub­lic event and the song­writer and pub­lish­er. Rand Paul, Bush, Clin­ton, and Trump’s cam­paigns have paid for a sub­scrip­tion to at least one of the ma­jor per­form­ing rights or­gan­iz­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to FEC re­cords.

Of course, mu­si­cians can still an­grily de­nounce a can­did­ate even if the cam­paign has se­cured the rights to play a cer­tain song. Polit­ic­al con­sult­ants are acutely aware of that, and may try to dis­suade a cam­paign from pick­ing a par­tic­u­lar song if they fear it could stir up trouble.

“If I’m rep­res­ent­ing a con­ser­vat­ive cam­paign that wants to play Rage Against the Ma­chine [a fam­ously Left-lean­ing band] I’m go­ing to tell them: You’re likely to get blas­ted by the artist here on so­cial me­dia. That’s less leg­al and just more com­mon sense,” said Chris Gober, a law­yer with the firm Gober Hil­gers who works on copy­right and cam­paign fin­ance is­sues for dozens of na­tion­al cam­paigns, in­clud­ing the Cruz pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

Des­pite pre­cau­tions, dus­tups over song se­lec­tion still hap­pen—and at least in some cases that may be in­ten­tion­al.

“I some­times won­der if cam­paigns think it’s easi­er to ask for for­give­ness than per­mis­sion, or fol­low the old ax­iom of any pub­li­city is good pub­li­city, oth­er­wise I can’t think of why it hap­pens so of­ten,” said Joel Schoen­feld, a part­ner with the law firm Mitchell, Sil­ber­berg, and Knupp who spe­cial­izes in li­cens­ing and di­git­al rights.

Still, it’s not al­ways con­ten­tious. Plenty of artists, pro­fes­sion­al and am­a­teur alike, are happy to have their name linked to a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

Be­fore Car­son took to the De­troit Mu­sic Hall stage to an­nounce his cam­paign, his wife, Candy, walked in­to the green room at the per­form­ing arts ven­ue, held out her hands and led Ver­itas, a con­tem­por­ary Chris­ti­an clas­sic­al vo­cal group, as well as the gos­pel choir, in pray­er.

“I got to stand right be­side Ms. Car­son and hold her hand,” said James Ber­ri­an, a mem­ber of Ver­itas. “She led the pray­er but you know how it is when you get a circle of church folk, we were all say­ing ‘amen’ and ‘yes, Lord,’ that kind of thing. We were all in it to­geth­er.”

Katy Perry has offered to write a theme song for Clin­ton’s cam­paign. Paul’s cam­paign prom­ises that they have had “mul­tiple artists of­fer to per­form and you’ll see some of them on the road as the cam­paign un­folds,” per spokes­man Ser­gio Gor. And in the end, cam­paigns of­ten have more mu­sic than they know what to do with. “You get a lot of free of­fers, a lot of wacky sug­ges­tions,” Watts said.

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