Music to the ears

>> Thursday, March 08, 2012

Bob Cesca was pleased with himself the other day, which I totally understand. Cesca contacted the pop-prog band Rush to find out how they felt about another Rush (Limbaugh) using their music in his show after he acted like a total shit on the air (not for the first time). A representative for Canada's biggest Ayn Rand fanboys got back in touch with Cesca to say they didn't like it and had sent a cease-and-desist to Limbaugh.

Peter Gabriel's people have done the same after learning that Limbaugh was playing "Sledgehammer" while he was ranting about a private citizen's sex life.

Believe it or not, I find the gestures a little underwhelming.

It isn't that I don't believe that Limbaugh ought to be kicked while he's down. Quite the contrary: the man is a creep, has long been a creep. He's dishonest, he degrades the national discourse, he's a professional shit-flinger. He's happy to be treated like a king by the American right until something goes wrong, whereupon he hides behind claims that he's merely a court jester and nobody should have taken him seriously at all. He's a bully and a whiner. If he believes even a quarter of what comes out of his mouth, he's a fool, and if he doesn't believe half, he's a cynic. (N.b. that these ratios allow ample room for him to be both.) As much as one hesitates to wish ill on any other human being, the fairest thing in the world might be for Mr. Limbaugh to be caught smuggling opiates into (or out of) some place like Turkey; a not-implausible scenario considering Limbaugh's prior run-in with customs over drug smuggling and past problems with painkillers (either of these situations--Limbaugh's difficulty in maintaining erections or his addiction to controlled substances--might elicit sympathy if the man weren't such a douche, particularly in his sustained verbal assault on a young woman who simply wanted to testify to Congress about her friend who needed birth control pills to treat her ovarian cysts, not to prevent pregnancy).

No, Limbaugh absolutely deserves to be kicked while he's down. Or while he's up. Or whenever. The only reason I wouldn't cross the street to piss on Rush Limbaugh (to steal a line from someone--I don't know who), would be if he actually was on fire at the time.

It's also not about the fact I detest Rush (the band). Sure, Rush sucks, and I know there are lots of regular readers (and one ScatterKat) who consider "Rush sucks" to be fighting words. And no, I don't mean in terms of technique or proficiency: obviously Neil Peart is a helluva drummer and Geddy Lee is a damn good bassist, and Alex Lifeson is also in the band; I just mean that Rush sucks, much as a Shark Navigator Lift-Away Professional Vacuum - Model NV356 may be a very finely-engineered, well-constructed piece of machinery that gets top marks from 97 of the 133 people who have reviewed it on Amazon and yet it still sucks (or electrocutes the daughter of the one reviewer who thought the NV356... sucked). Anyway, I certainly love Peter Gabriel, and he's in the exact same boat as The Great White North's most-self-individualized and least-parasitic-on-the-labor-of-others rhythm section (and that guy they play with).

I digress. Something got me started.

No, what underwhelms me about this is that there's something kind of theatrical and grandstanding about it, considering that musical recordings are licensed for use. I don't want to totally suck the air out of Rush and Gabriel taking principled stands that I even happen to approve of; to be clear, Rush Limbaugh is a douche and I think it's completely fair--no, I think it's morally right for Rush and Peter Gabriel to distance themselves from Limbaugh's douchiness and to disavow it. But this isn't like all those idiot political campaigns stupidly using songs by artists who are at the complete opposite end of the political spectrum from their candidates; what was typically happening there was that campaign officials and event planners who had all sorts of other, "more important" things on their minds figured that there wasn't any difference between blasting out Heart's "Barracuda" over a PA system to twenty thousand people in a civic arena during a campaign stop and blasting it over your hi-fi to twenty thousand guests in your living room at a barbecue. Unfortunately for them, that assessment of the relevant legalities was more-or-less completely wrong. Then, when they started getting busted by artists (who were certainly motivated by the politics and not the money), a few of these campaign and event guys tried to make do getting the wrong public performance licenses or not checking to see if there were any other legal problems, e.g. local state laws to protect artists' endorsement, reputation and/or association rights.

And then there were the idiots like whoever it was told Charlie Crist he could just go and use a Talking Heads song in a campaign ad when ninety seconds with Google would have informed him (1) that David Byrne is really left-wing and (2) has hardly ever licensed any of his work since the mid-1980s and (3) is quietly litigious, by which I mean he isn't as ostentatious about it as Harlan Ellison (who is?), but the man will file a lawsuit and doesn't care who you are to him. I don't know what that guy was thinking, but he seems to think that just because Byrne has never gotten around to suing all those semi-anonymous fans with YouTube accounts and empty pockets, they could probably pull a fast one; which, in case we're not clear, was a really stupid idea.

Before we get back to Limbaugh, I feel like pointing out that one of the things that may have baffled those poor Republican bastards when they started getting all those cease-and-desists is that it's one thing to waive your rights and another not to have them. Which seems obvious, yeah. So maybe the Bill Clinton campaign didn't ask Fleetwood Mac if they could use "Don't Stop" at events (though, for all I know, Clinton's people in fact got the right clearances), but it probably shouldn't be surprising if a band made up of English blues hippies and a couple of SoCal hippies winks and nods instead of filing a bunch of injunctions. Maybe it doesn't seem fair, somehow, but then I have no idea why John McCain's people would think that Jackson Browne, who organizes concerts for the environment and writes bleeding-heart songs about crooked capitalists and right-wing war criminals, would feel honored to hear "Running On Empty" in a GOP ad. I suspect if they'd stolen a Ted Nugent song, instead, The Nuge would have been okay with that in much the same way he'd throw a tie rod of Nancy Pelosi started using a Damn Yankees song for some stupid reason. That's just life.

But okay, Limbaugh and the music: so, while it's completely negligent of some harried campaign coordinator to not find out what he needs to do to play "American Girl" at a Michele Bachmann shindig, it's not entirely incomprehensible. I mean, it is if you have any idea at all that there's such a thing as music licensing, but since most people don't... well, I hope you see what I'm getting at. But Limbaugh is a veteran radio performer with decades in the business and he has (I assume) an experienced production team, and I think it would be a really safe bet that Limbaugh's folks did the paperwork and mailed the checks for the Per Program License or whatever blanket license the Limbaugh show needs so they aren't stuck with nothing but public domain recordings of yodeling hillbillies or something. (For the record: this is a joke insofar as I'm the kind of music nerd who adores public domain recordings of yodeling hillbillies; I just think there's something inherently funny about the phrase "yodeling hillbillies", plus it's kind of funny to imagine what Limbaugh's show would sound like if that were the only background music they could get for it.)

The whole point of a blanket license is that Rush and Peter Gabriel don't have to ferret out exactly who is using their music for what at any particular point in time; their publishers or whatever licensing association they're affiliated with (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) keep track of all the paperwork and Rush and PG just see the licensing money go in their account every-so-often, however that works. I'm absolutely not suggesting that these guys are like the advertisers and radio stations who have been pulling out as if they had no idea they were associating themselves with a loudmouthed cretin when they all were perfectly willing to lie in bed with Limbaugh so long as "controversial" meant "big audience" (as opposed to "boycott"). It's possible someone might have said something to one of the musicians involved, "Hey, didja hear Rush Limbaugh was playing you on his show, blahblahblah?", but, again, the point of letting other people be responsible for the pain-in-the-ass that is broadcast licensing is so you don't have to pay attention to all those annoying details, there's someone else whose job is to do that.

At the same time, though, one imagines Rush and Gabriel probably couldn't have cared less prior to this week for exactly the same reason. I mean, Limbaugh's people almost certainly paid to use those songs and the artists almost certainly cashed those checks (all of which may be metaphor in this age of electronic money transfers, but you get the picture). I can understand it's a bit embarrassing to suddenly have attention called to it, especially if you were just happy to be bobbing along wherever you are in your career, having someone periodically eyeball the accounts just to make sure they look right and you're not getting screwed on your fees, y'know? But I'm not exactly sure that Rush and Gabriel have much to stand on, unless there's some kind of endorsement rights issue, and I have to wonder, is there's any way for Limbaugh to get reimbursed if the license he bought can be partially revoked somehow?

I think that on general principles, it's swell for Rush to tell Limbaugh to cut it out, I just think Limbaugh might be within his rights to tell the band to stuff it, and if they have a problem figuring out where to stuff it, they can take that matter up with SESAC.

To bring it back around: don't get me wrong, I'm copasetic with people taking the piss out of that fat, smug, self-righteous asshole. I'm just not sure this particular dog hunts, if you know what I mean.


Mama Karen Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 10:10:00 AM EST  

I'm such a nerd that I actually found the (sort of) tutorial on music licensing procedure interesting. But then if there were a law school within 100 miles of here (closest is about 130), I'd probably be enrolled. Thanks for the lesson and here here! on the Rush bashing! (The "douchebag" not the band.)

Nick from the O.C.,  Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 7:08:00 PM EST  

I wonder if you are familiar with the film, "SLC Punk"?

It had a nice, subtle, jab at Rush which wasn't evident until about 99% of the way through the movie.

One of my favorite films, BTW.

Eric Friday, March 9, 2012 at 9:28:00 AM EST  

I'm afraid I haven't seen it, Nick, though a friend posted a scene from it to my Facebook wall after this post.

I'll keep it in mind--thanks for the recommendation.

Leanright,  Saturday, March 10, 2012 at 10:05:00 PM EST  

Sorry, Rush is by far, one of the best band to EVER. I've seen them about 14 times in concert and Permanent Waves will be playing at my funeral.

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