Jake Linford & Aaron Perzanowski

Volume 75, Issue 2, 293-372

When Donald Trump descended the escalator of Trump Tower to announce his

2016 presidential bid, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” blared from the

loudspeakers. Almost immediately, Young’s management made clear that the

campaign’s use of the song was unauthorized. Neil Young was not alone. Trump

drew similar objections from dozens of artists during his first two presidential bids.

But as a matter of copyright law, it is unclear whether artists can prevent their

songs from being played at campaign rallies.

Putting the intricacies of copyright licensing aside, what motivates artists to object

to the use of their songs by political campaigns? This Article identifies and

measures three types of harm artists may reasonably fear. First, an artist may

worry that campaign use of their song will harm its market value and popularity.

To test that theory, we examine a novel set of industry streaming data to identify

any meaningful shifts in streaming consumption after well-publicized campaign

uses. Second, campaign use may falsely lead the public to believe that an artist

supports or endorses a candidate. And third, an artist may fear a tarnishment effect.

That is, consumers may negatively associate the artist or their music with an

unpopular candidate even in the absence of any perceived endorsement. We test

the endorsement and tarnishment theories through an experimental design that

measures consumer reactions to a set of hypothetical campaign uses.

Our data paint a complicated picture. We find some evidence that songs used by

the Trump campaign suffered a drop in streaming consumption, but we cannot

conclude that campaign use drove that reduced popularity. We also find strong

evidence that an artist’s perceived support or endorsement of a candidate is

material to consumers. But consumers do not appear to infer that an artist endorses

a candidate when their campaign uses that artist’s song. Finally, we found that less

well-established artists are most likely to suffer from tarnishing associations when

their songs are used by divisive politicians. Our results do not fully resolve the

thorny doctrinal and normative questions at the heart of these controversies, but

they do offer a crucial empirical grounding for a recurring policy debate.