Of the endless number of anti-Donald Trump ads swamping the internet this fall, only one is allowed to use Billy Joel’s “Honesty” — the piano chords to Joel’s 1979 rock classic are the soundtrack to the president’s words about the COVID-19 crisis as a death-count ticker swells in the foreground.
“I called Billy Joel’s folks, and, in like 10 minutes, they gave me the rights,” says Fred Goldring, an entrepreneur and former entertainment attorney who has worked with artists to support several Democratic presidential campaigns, acting as executive producer with will.i.am on the “Yes We Can” song for Barack Obama in 2008. “The chorus just resonated for what’s going on right now.”
Goldring’s self-funded group, the Coda Campaign, is a sort of Lincoln Project with better tunes. Its six-person team has released three ads over the past five days: “Women Pioneers,” which sets Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s running mate, alongside Black female pioneers such as Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, runs to a new Dawes cover of Harry Belafonte’s “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”; “The Most Fabulous Whiner,” shows Trump complaining about the media as Linda Ronstadt’s version of Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” plays. All the spots end with the word “VOTE” and the sound of a record scratching, accompanied by an LP image designed by art director Jeff Myers.
Unlike the Lincoln Project, or even the Biden presidential campaign, Goldring has the music-business connections and knowledge to be able to clear master recordings and publishing quickly for the spots. In each case, he went directly to the artists, including Ronstadt herself and the Zevon estate, all of whom contributed the rights royalty-free. (Goldring failed to clear the late Robert Palmer’s 1976 version of “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” because, he says, “the estate didn’t want to have anything to do with it” — thus the Dawes cover version.) So far, Coda doesn’t have quite the Lincoln Project’s social-media reach, although former White House spokesperson Anthony Scaramucci retweeted “Honesty” and praised Joel for “seeing the truth.”
Although Obama’s two campaigns racked up dozens of A-list performers, and Beyonce, Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen headlined last-minute swing-state rallies for Hillary Clinton in 2016, music stars haven’t been able to campaign alongside candidates this year due to COVID-19 event restrictions.
Still, they have found ways to advocate for candidates: Springsteen gave his song “Streets of Philadelphia” to director Don Winslow for use in a campaign ad for Democratic candidate Joe Biden and allowed the Democratic National Convention to air “The Rising” over the summer; Pearl Jam participated in a get-out-the-vote event with Dr. Jill Biden a few weeks ago; “Team Joe Sings” livestreams have starred Kesha, Chloe + Halle and others; and stars such as Taylor Swift, Cardi B, Madonna, Maren Morris and Billy Porter have spoken out for Biden in various ways.
“Anytime you can get one more person to vote that wouldn’t, it’s effective. I just think that the way artists are used could be much more effective than it is — it’s a scattershot thing,” says Goldring, who plans to release up to five more spots before Election Day. “If nothing else, it’s been fantastic for our team to channel our nervous energy.”