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)

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.