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Fancy for a moment visiting the local music store and finding the shelves nearly bare. Amazon.com? Every search comes up with "not available." iTunes? No downloads available. No more new music available. Period.

One of the Most Peculiar Actions in The History of Organized Labor

A "union strike" typically evokes images of grease and sweat-soaked workers revolting against low wages and long hours, picketing a large manufacturing plant. The reasoning behind the drastic action of a work stoppage can range from the need for a reasonable and just wage, to employee benefits differences.

The strikers in this case weren't filthy coal miners, leather-aproned steel workers, oil-soaked auto workers nor exploited sweatshop laborers. They were musicians; the kind who appear for work night after night dressed in tuxedos and playing in swank night clubs, dance halls, theaters and recording in air-conditioned studios. A minority of them had become extremely rich doing what they were doing, touring and selling records.

This phenomenon began in August of 1942 when the musicians' union effectively ceased the recording of music in the United States. The country was at war and needed the upbeat sounds of the big bands playing hopeful tunes more than ever. The popular music of the day came from the big bands. The small combos we know today were relegated to private performances or low-class musical venues.

The union (The "AF of M") knew that they had the record labels and radio stations between a rock and a hard place. The AF of M vigorously pursued higher royalty payments from the licensing organizations and when the record companies balked, the union President, trumpeter James "Prexy" Petrillo, called a strike, demanding that a portion of per-play royalties be returned not to the musicians nor composers, but to the union for the purposes of compensating out-of-work members, special projects and the like. By way of explanation, even though this action was indeed a union strike, it is referred to in the music business and by devotees of big band and jazz music as "the recording ban."

Now remember that wartime had a deep impact on the music industry in general. Scarcity of shellac made it difficult for the record labels to manufacture the discs themselves. Rubber and gasoline rationing proved a major hindrance to bands' ability to travel. Curfews, black-outs (practice in the event of air-raids) and a 20% live entertainment tax ("Cabaret Tax") had a serious negative impact on the live music scene, closing clubs and dance halls across the country. Records were more important to a music-loving public than ever.

It is very difficult to come up with a contemporary analogy for the impact of the strike on the American public. Imagine New York City in the days after September 11, 2001 without hot dog vendors to provide a quick, cheap treat and a cold soda? Imagine Harrods closing for a few months before Christmas? Imagine suddenly being prevented from posting new writeups to E2. (Heaven forbid!)

The Battle Royal Between the Recording and Broadcast Industry and the Union

The day of the announcement, an enormous crowd of young people (rumored to have been paid and prepared for picketing by record labels) picketed Union President Petrillo's residence at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel wielding professionally-painted placards emblazoned with slogans like "look at all the dough he has and he won't let us have records" and "he can afford to drink and dance here and all we have is a jukebox and a nickel." Petrillo had been quite vocal about his plans for the strike prior to the official announcement in Downbeat magazine on August 1, 1942. Therefore, not only did the record companies have a few weeks to record all the material they possibly could in preparation to release it gradually during the strike, but it gave both the labels and the radio stations time to figure out what their counter strategy would be. This was not so for the union. Petrillo and the AF of M were woefully unprepared to articulate their rationale for why, especially at this particular point in time, they wanted more money (after all, between rationing and other wartime hardships, the populace in general were all giving up a little bit of their quality of life toward the war effort).

The situation was deemed worthy of "thorough investigation" by Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") Chairman James Fly, who determined that 60 per cent of the country's radio stations depended upon recorded music to exist. Without new material, they'd go under.

The union's rationale for requiring payment for every single play of a union-made recording, whether on a jukebox, radio station or in a restaurant, was vague and not well articulated by Petrillo nor any other union official. The union's membership numbered in the hundreds of thousands, although many found work only occasionally. Off-the-cuff statements by union underlings hinted that the unemployed would be recipients of some of the funds. The only absolute statement about where the money was to go was "to the union." Conspicuously absent was a business plan outlining how the newly-fattened coffers of the union would be spent.

Of the "big four" record labels, Capitol and Decca settled with the union by 1943; RCA Victor and Columbia counted on the support of the FCC and perhaps other government bodies, and held out for nearly two years more. Without the cooperation of the radio stations, however, the musicians stayed out of the recording studios for nearly two years.

The action came at the wrong time and without sufficient strategic planning. This led to the perception by many that Petrillo and the union officers were lining their pockets at the expense of the membership. The gravity of the situation is best described by the following abstract of an article about the impact of the musicians' union activities on American popular culture:

In addition to constituting a chapter in the history of industrial relations, the recording ban recently imposed by the American Federation of Musicians has several aspects of interest to students of public opinion. Although the union is struggling with a genuine problem of maintaining employment possibilities, it has been deficient both in undertaking the research which would be necessary to attack the question intelligently, and in informing the public of the reasons for its policies. For the most part, industry and government have also failed to appraise the situation realistically. Since the dispute involves the future of important media of communications as well as a large segment of our cultural life, an agreement in the public interest among labor, industry, and government is essential.

— Arthur Lunde*

The Impact of the Strike on Music

Now, the AF of M only counted instrumentalists among their members. Singers were exempt from union membership. In a futile attempt to bring new product to market, the record companies began recording a cappella singing groups or individuals. This appealed, for a while, to the lonely women whose boyfriends and spouses had gone to war. Even Frank Sinatra sang a couple of tunes without his usual big-band backup. And these records sold, despite not a note coming from anything but a human voice. One label made a spoken-word recording of the entirety of Shakespeare's Othello for lack of musical material.

As the huge ballrooms, supper clubs and dance halls darkened, tiny nightclubs sprung up, beginning in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The music played there by "scab" musicians was in small combo style; typically piano, bass, drums and perhaps a saxophone. These small combos began experimenting with an all-new form of jazz, one much more avant-garde and improvisational than the big-band style: bebop. Musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker experimented with this new form, hiding their performances from union watchdogs by performing in small, nameless clubs. This was not unlike the clubs of the Prohibition era, when it wasn't the music they were hiding, it was the booze.

When the strike was finally settled, the big band musicians had a surprise coming. The famous "sweet sound" of the World War II-era big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller and the like had competition: the new sound of bebop. The big dance halls that had closed stayed closed, and the death of the big bands had begun. The new nightlife scene happened in smaller clubs offering the newer, more modern combo jazz. And the big record labels were faced with a modicum of competition from the creation of myriad small labels willing to take a risk on the financial viability of the new sound. The young people and the predecessors of the "beat" generation snapped up the new music eagerly. Big bands were wheezing their death rattle. The new popular music came from smaller orchestras and focused on the vocalists; the very vocalists who'd walk up in front of the big bands and sing a few tunes and then sit back down during the instrumentals. Instrumentals started taking on a whole new feel, focusing on a signature sound, or a single instrument in front of an orchestra or combo. The singers started singing more sophisticated material; a lot from the scores of Broadway musicals. And the singers didn't look back at the big bands who deserted them.

One thing that's important to note about recordings is that they're akin to a photograph; a snapshot in time. Of course, sheet music ("scores") take hours and sometimes weeks of work to put together, and then need to be published, and performed. Before and even, to an extent, after the advent of radio, sheet music thrived as a vehicle for distributing new songs. In the early days of radio, households of means still had pianos, and many more played than do today. A recording is, well, a record of the interpretation of the music. One of the earliest examples of the intrinsic value of sound recording occurred in October of 1939 when jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was urged to play the tune "Body and Soul" by a record label executive. Hawkins was quoted in a 1956 interview as saying, "I didn't want to play it at all so I just played it through once and made up the ending when I got to it." This recording, on the Bluebird label, has been re-issued many times and is arguably one of the finest examples of early jazz interpretation in existence on record.

Another net effect of the strike, even long after it ended, was that it actually diluted the power of the AF of M at all but the top levels of performance and recording. Today, there are more and more musicians in every genre, particularly jazz, who perform and record but don't sustain membership in the union, merely because the dues and the percentages will never be returned to them in benefit of any sort.

Mr. Petrillo remained AF of M's President until 1958. Their website is curiously silent as to the entire recording ban, preferring instead to make a brief mention of "strikes against radio broadcasters." It goes on to describe the way Petrillo "struggled to find ways to compensate the thousands of musicians who continued to lose work because of recording."

The "Lea Act" of 1947 further reduced the AF of M's powers regarding its requirements of the broadcast industry. In United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, S.Ct. 1538 (1947), a Federal Court decided that a union can in no way use coercion, threats, etc. to force a radio station to hire more employees (musicians) than needed. In essence, this means that, let's say, a singer, pianist and bass player can't call the union up and say "we need a guitarist, drummer and saxophone or we won't play," resulting in the union sending over three more musicians. The Lea Act (repealed in 1980 because it was replaced by other legislation) basically gave more power to the program directors and radio stations in general with regard to what kind of production they wanted to record or broadcast.

The Union Today

In his rendition of the song "Here's To The Band," (Steve Howe, Artie Schroeck, Alfred Nittoli) Frank Sinatra rhymes "ladies and the gentlemen" with "A 'n F of 'em." The union is still an essential part of the professional performance and recording scene. But small- and medium-sized musical venues are quite free of union influence. One of the most significant efforts the union's made in recent times is prevailing on theatrical venues, particularly the Broadway theater, to use its members, in live performance, instead of recorded music for plays, musical and not.

Not too long ago, the AF of M sent out a letter to all unionized and non-unionized venues, informing the proprietors that 15 per cent of a union musician's compensation was to be given not to the musician, but to the union in the form of a check, accompanied by a one-page form describing the performance and swearing to the compensation. This 15 per cent is intended to pay for a new health benefit plan for union musician members. The plan is, at best, a catastrophic insurance coverage. Most working musicians today either belong to a spouse's corporate plan whether offered outright or on a buy-in basis, or carry individual health insurance. This action on the part of the union had the effect of further discouraging struggling musicians to join its ranks.


  • PBS Website: "Ken Burns Jazz": http://www.pbs.org/jazz/exchange/exchange_recording_ban.htm (Accessed 8/18/07)
  • "All Recording Stops Today" by Mike Levin Downbeat Magazine, August 1, 1942 reprinted at http://www.swingmusic.net/Big_Band_Era_Recording_Ban_Of_1942.html (Accessed 8/18/07)
  • "Cool Jazz and Hard Bop" http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ASI/musi212/margaret/mtech.html (Accessed 8/18/07)
  • The website of the American Federation of Musicians: http://www.afm.org/public/about/index.php, http://www.afm.org/public/about/history.php#1940 (Accessed 8/18/07)
  • "1942-1944 U.S. Musicians' Recording Ban" http://libcom.org/history/1942-1944-musicians-recording-ban (Accessed 8/18/07)
  • "Jazz History in Standard Time" by Chris Tyle, http://www.jazzstandards.com/history/history-4.htm (Accessed 8/18/07)
  • *Further Reading: "The American Federation of Musicians and the Recording Ban" by Arthur Lunde, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1948) Accessible to members of academe via JSTOR (www.jstor.org) (Abstract accessed 8/18/07)
  • Further Reading: "Bebop and the Recording Industry, the 1942 Recording Ban Reconsidered" by Scott DeVeaux, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring, 1988) Accessible to members of academe via JSTOR (see above) (Accessed 8/18/07)
  • The writer's experience in the music industry.

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