Sometimes musicians don’t always like where their songs get played. Here are 7 cases of controversial song use, starting with our main man Tom Waits…
1. Tom Waits
Waits has always been steadfast in his refusal to allow commercial use of his music. Back in the late 80’s he was part of one of the first “sound-alike” cases when he took chip maker Frito-Lay to court for voice appropriation. When Frito-Lay was unable to secure permission to use the Waits track “Step Right Up” for a commercial, they created a similar tune sung by a performer who imitated Waits’ trademark gravelly voice. Waits argued that the deliberate impersonation constituted false advertising and won the case.
Rapper Eminem starred in a high profile commercial for Chrysler that aired during the 2011 Super Bowl. The ad featured Em driving through his hometown of Detroit in a Chrysler 200, set to the rapper’s hit song “Lose Yourself.” Skip ahead a few months, and Chrysler competitor Audi released a suspiciously similar commercial in Europe for the Audi A6, even using the same Eminem track. The car manufacturer was quickly served with a cease-and-desist by Em’s publishing company, who pointed out that not only had Audi used “Lose Yourself” without permission, the industrial “look” of the commercial was also derivative of the Detroit-filmed Chrysler ad. Mr. Duplicity, indeed. Audi settled with Eminem, admitting its guilt and committing itself to supporting social institutions in Detroit.
3. Neil Young
The list of politicians who have been taken to task by musicians for unauthorized song use is so long that it could be a post unto itself, so we’ll just highlight one of our favorite recent examples (for a full run-down of politician v. musician match-ups, check out Rolling Stone’s list of 34 artists who fought politicians over their music).
Donald Trump used Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” at the official launch of his presidential campaign. Unsurprisingly, the Canadian rocker was not thrilled and issued a statement requesting the The Donald not use his song, adding, for good measure, that he was a Bernie Sanders supporter. In typical Trump fashion, the Donald took to Twitter to blast “hypocrite” Young:
.@Neilyoung A few months ago Neil Young came to my office looking for $$ on an audio deal & called me last week to go to his concert. Wow!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2015
In the meantime, Bernie Sanders has started using “Rockin’ in the Free World” at some of his campaign stops – with Young’s blessing.
4. Beastie Boys
In 2013, Kickstarter-funded toy company GoldieBlox reworked the lyrics of “Girls,” a track off the Beastie Boys’ debut album Licensed to Ill, for a video promoting their line of STEM toys for girls. Reworking the lyrics from a pre-feminist-enlightenment-era Beastie Boys song into a girl power anthem struck a chord and the video went viral, but unfortunately for GoldieBlox the Beastie Boys have a strict policy against licensing their music for commercial use. When Beastie Boy Adam Yauch passed away in 2012, he left a behind a note in his will explicitly banning use of the group’s music in advertisements. GoldieBlox tried to argue fair use, but Mike D and Ad-Rock said “nope.” Eventually the two parties reached an agreement giving the toy maker a backdated license to use the track in exchange for a $1 million donation to a charity that supports STEM education for girls.
5. John Cage
Can you claim a copyright to silence? That’s exactly what avant-garde composer John Cage’s publisher did back in 2002. See, composer Mike Batt and his “crossover-classical” band The Planets included a track called “One Minute Silence (after Cage)” on their album Classical Graffiti. Batt was tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing and credited the piece to Batt/Cage, referencing, of course, Cage’s famous silent composition 4’33”. The good news is that The Planets’ album went to #1 in the UK classical charts. The bad news is that Cage’s publisher, Peters Edition, sued the band for one-quarter of the song’s royalties – get it? One-quarter, for Batt’s one minute of silence that he felt infringed upon Cage’s four minutes of silence. Right…
In the late 90’s, the music industry was buzzing about “sampling,” a practice that had been around forever, but thanks to a newly emerging digital environment had become the new hot topic du jour. Beck was an indie musician from LA who garnered tons of mainstream attention with his 1996 lo-fi masterpiece Odelay, a sample-heavy, genre-hopping sound collage. But although Beck’s music relied heavily on pulling music from other sources, when the group Illegal Art sampled his music without authorization for the 1998 remix album Deconstructing Beck neither the artist nor his record label were amused. Culture critic Steven Shaviro, writing for ArtByte, noted at the time that
“…however cool and hip Beck may be, he is after all still signed to a large record company owned by a multinational conglomerate. That engagement is the condition of his commercial success. It not only gave him the publicity that turned him into a star; it also paid the money for copyright clearances on all his samples…Given all this, Deconstructing Beck asks a simple question: Why should the freedom to create by appropriation, the major form creativity takes today, be denied to those who are unable to pay enormous royalty fees?”
The creators behind Illegal Art were able to keep their identities anonymous, making it impossible to Beck’s record label to take any legal action.
7. The Black Keys
In the 20 or so years since Tom Waits brought one of the first “sound-alike” suits against Frito-Lay, advertisers haven’t been deterred from using music “in the style of” well-known artists to get around paying licensing fees – if anything, it’s become more common and brands have wised-up to the subtle changes that need to be made to avoid lawsuits.
Unlike some of the artists on this list, the Black Keys have stated that they have no problem with their music being used to advertise products – as long as they’re getting paid. So they didn’t take kindly to Pizza Hut copying their hit song “Lonely Boy” to shill deep-dish, and hit the company with a copyright infringement lawsuit in 2012.