UK: Why Politicians Don't Get Music

Last Updated: 12 February 2013
Article by Stuart Thomson

It is rare that politicians ever understand when and where to use music. They are forever using it when they don't have permission or talking about it to show that they have a 'real life' outside of politics, that they are just like us really.

What they never seem to understand is that such use of music does more harm than good. Instead of giving them a 'halo effect', helping them to gain credibility and hopefully votes, the potential backlash can be extremely embarrassing especially if it keeps happening. In the worst case scenario it can also land them with a hefty legal bill as well.

What usually happens is that they use music without the artist's permission. However, the legal situation is very complex.

In the US there have been several high profile cases of the artists taking legal actions against the politician concerned. David Byrne, formerly of Talking Heads, sued Charlie Crist, a former Florida Governor, for using one of his songs. The details of the fine settlement were not made public but Crist did have to make an apology on YouTube. This was arguably more damaging than any hoped for financial penalty.

Here, reference to the law is much less frequent. The Manic Street Preachers did take action against the BNP for using one of their songs but other examples are thinner on the ground. However, the threat by Thom Yorke, out of Radiohead, to 'sue the living s**t' out of David Cameron if he used one of his songs marked a shift. It showed that full force of the law would be used and it was also an example of getting retaliation in early.

Instead, artists normally rely on the power of PR, making statements knocking the credibility of the politician or party concerned making it clear that that they have not endorsed the politician, the party or any of their policies.

It could be a simple calculation - the artists will never say 'yes' if we, the politicians, ask them so let's use the music and hope they do not make a fuss. It's a potentially high profile risk.

Cameron, chief amongst his contemporaries, seems to want to use music as a way of being seen to be connected to real lives. However, by citing the Smiths and the Jam, he invoked the wrath of the musicians involved and also seems to have never listened to the lyrics of, for instance, Eton Rifles. He also picked two musicians, Morrissey and Paul Weller, that you would not want to get on the wrong side of. You can now also guarantee that in any interview Weller gives he is asked about Cameron's like for Eton Rifles giving Weller another chance to make his views known.

Endorsements by musicians can work. They can provide a boost but this is often stronger in the US than it is here. A Democratic candidate wanting to show that he has the concerns of blue collar American workers at heart now needs the support of Bruce Springsteen. Hollywood A-listers need to be involved in campaigns because they help to secure donations, host fund-raisers and will speak at conventions are other big gatherings. George Clooney manages to fit in some fundraising dinners for the Democrats although it is unclear if they serve Nespresso coffee.

In the UK, celebrities do not get involved very often. Here there is a large dose of scepticism towards endorsements but the parties would still rather have them than not. The slightly unseemly rush to get Daniel Radcliffe's support showed the parties still want the celebrities.

Our parties used to drag out celebrities at party conferences but the sight of rather less than A-list celebrities didn't always seem to put their favoured party in the best light. The Labour Party has never really got over the Red Wedge tour during which a range of musicians, and later comedians, played concerts in support of the party. The recriminations still play out and Paul Weller, again, seems to have a large dose of his mistrust of politicians from being involved in the efforts. Red Wedge appears to sum up all that can go wrong with the link - politicians trying to get leverage whilst the artists complain about being used.

If there is a genuine love of the music and authenticity then the link can work. My favourite has to be Stella Creasy MP writing the liner notes for a re-issue of the Wedding Present's 'Seamonster's album. Her love of their music is clear and that has nothing to do with politics.

Although it is doubtful that David Cameron would ever want to the use 'Paranoid Android' or 'Creep' in a Conservative Party Election Broadcast at least he is clear in what the consequences would be.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Stuart Thomson
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