When Pop Music Meets Politics...

Written by Jay Jay French

..things may not go as planned.

The recent presidential elections highlighted the use of pop music by candidates, and the controversy that the use of the music caused. This article will help to explain this use and answer the questions I get asked the most in this regard.

The reason why I am especially qualified to discuss this is that Donald Trump used one of our most famous songs, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and that caused much controversy, both for and against.

First, some basic information regarding the use of music in public spaces:

When you walk into a bar, gym or sports arena for example, you hear music. Usually sports teams in particular find the 10 songs that work the best, and play them over and over. Twisted Sister is one of the fortunate artists who have not one but two songs on most sports teams ‘must play’ list: “We’re Not Gonna Take It” & “I Wanna Rock”.

The organizations that license these venues to allow the use of the music and keeps records of the amount of play are ASCAP, BMI & SESAC. These are performance rights societies. All songwriters are signed to one of them in the US.

The venues pay a yearly license fee (how much depends on the size of the venue) and then the venue can play any of the songs that are licensed to the provider.

Between the three organizations they cover 99% of all music you know. Once you have that yearly license you don’t have to ask for permission, you just use the song, whenever and however you want. The venue then accounts to the performing rights organization, who in turn pays the writer/publisher for the use of the song(s).

When friends of mine go to any sporting event and hear my song, they text me and say “Hey man, just heard your song at the Mets game…Ka-Ching…”


Here is the deal.

The artist who performs that song (including the singer(s). And musicians, get paid….”0”  That’s correct….nothing, nada.

The songwriter (or music publisher who owns the song rights), however does get paid….about 2 cents per play.  You are reading that right…about 2 cents.

Now… you may wonder then, how and why. Well, as was explained to me years ago: “That’s the way the system operates”.

If you have a very popular song and you multiply that play times all the stadiums, bars, gyms etc then the pennies do add up— but only for the songwriter.

Now let’s deal with politics.

When a candidate, or really anyone or any organization, who rents out or uses a venue like an arena, auditorium or stadium for a rally, and that venue pays performance licensing fees, then the user can play whatever song is controlled by these organizations (about 30 million!) they want without asking any additional permission.

The difference between using a song at a sports event or a political rally is simple. When they hear a song at a sports event, no one automatically assumes that the artist who is performing that song is somehow favoring that team. People know that the use is generic.

But…when a politician uses a song, there is an assumption of support.

This all began in 1960 with The Rat Pack recording and performing the song “High Hopes” just for JFK. Jimmy Carter had the Allman Bros. play at his inauguration ball, Clinton used Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow” and also had them perform. John McCain used Chuck Berry’s song “Johnny B. Goode” as his theme song.

With that as background, Donald Trump started using famous rock songs as intro music when he walked on stage. He used songs by the Rolling Stones, Adele, Queen, Springsteen, and Twisted Sister at his rallies.

Because of the controversy Trump created by his inflammatory rhetoric, all these artists asked their publishers to have their songs taken off Trumps playlist (remember, he had the right to use the songs without having to gain permission.

Trump ignored the requests.

The only way left, if the politician (in this case, Trump) does not want to stop using the song is for the artist to publicly shame the user. This always works. That is what The Stones, Queen, Adele & Springsteen did. Politicians, in these cases, don’t want the protracted negative publicity and stop using the songs immediately.

In our case, my singer, Dee Snider, was a contestant of Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice and Trump helped Dee raise money for his selected charity. The use of our song, therefore, put us in a sensitive situation.

We were getting hammered by our fans about Trump's use of our song in public, at rallies. We were accused of either supporting Trump, or of selling out for a ton of Trump’s money!

Dee decided, and I fully supported this, to not publicly shame Trump but to go behind the scenes and explain to Trump that the band has historically stayed away from group endorsements of politicians and that this was creating a problem for us with our fans. That we didn’t want to publicly shame Trump either.

Trump stopped using our song immediately.

Case Closed.

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