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Donald Trump uses Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to close re-election speech. Twice.

By | Published on Friday 28 August 2020

Donald Trump

Leonard Cohen fans have reacted angrily after Donald Trump used the musician’s song ‘Hallelujah’ at the conclusion of his Republican National Convention speech last night. Twice.

In a musical finale to the event, Tori Kelly’s cover of ‘Hallelujah’ was played, along with the more obvious RNC soundtrack choices of George M Cohan’s ‘She’s A Grand Old Flag’ and Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless The USA’. That was followed by an operatic version of Cohen’s song by Christopher Macchio.

After many asked Kelly to explain herself over her cover being played at Trump’s big bash, she responded in a since deleted tweet: “Seeing messages about my version of ‘Hallelujah’. All I know is neither myself nor my team received a request”.

And therein lies the perennial issue. Trump and his team generally rely on blanket licences when using music at events, rather than asking for specific permission directly from a performer and/or songwriter. The same is true, of course, for many if not most politicians, and in most cases that is perfectly legal because of the way music is licensed for public events.

However, more recently some artists have said they’ve found a way to block Trump from using their music. Political campaigns in the US often have their own licences from song right collecting societies BMI and ASCAP, because they sometimes stage events in places not covered by a venue licence. Songwriters are able to withdraw their catalogues from specific political campaign licences, and licensees are barred from instead relying on a venue’s blanket licence when that has happened.

Earlier this year, The Rolling Stones threatened legal action if Trump continued to use their music at rallies, on the basis that they had withdrawn their songs from BMI’s political events licence.

It was reported last week that Trump had indeed stopped using the band’s song ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ to close his rallies – instead opting for ‘YMCA’, another song he’s been asked not to use, albeit in a less official way.

Earlier this month, Neil Young actually sued Trump over the President’s use of a number of his songs. However, Young did not go into any copyright law specifics in his lawsuit, simply claiming that Trump had used his music without licence, possibly on the same basis as The Stones.

Political events are not the only situations where Trump has used music without specific permission though. Uncleared tracks have also appeared in online videos, which are not covered by any blanket licences. That has resulted in some videos being taken down on copyright grounds.

Just last week, a video posted by the President’s team on TikTok rival Triller was removed after an objection by Queen, due to the use of their song ‘We Will Rock You’. A spokesperson for the band told BBC News that it was an “uphill battle” fighting Trump’s use of their music.

Cohen, of course, can’t personally complain about Trump’s use of his famous song, having died in 2016, the day before Trump was elected. Although if he were alive, he might point out that – although there are many ways to interpret the lyrics of ‘Hallelujah’ – the song was never meant to be seen as triumphant. It remains to be seen what action his estate takes, if any.