Home Entertainment When Musicians Went on Strike – and Won

When Musicians Went on Strike – and Won

When Musicians Went on Strike – and Won
American Federation of Musicians members on the streets of New York, c. 1947. (William P. Gottlieb / Library of Congress)

They won landmark gains — reminding musicians today that the best way to wrest back money from the streaming companies is to flex collective power.

Joey De La Neve Defrancesco

This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the American Federation of Musicians’ 1942–44 strike against the recording industry. Demanding a bigger cut of the profits created by new recording technologies, the AFM’s roughly 136,000 members refused to produce any recordings for two full years. And they won.

Following the “recording ban,” as the strike is commonly known, the AFM secured contracts with over six hundred record labels that required each company to cough up a royalty fee for every record sold. The royalty fund was then used to pay musicians across the United States and Canada to perform free public concerts. For decades, the union-controlled fund was the largest employer of musicians in the country.

As musicians today contemplate how to demand more money from streaming services that pay just one-third of a cent per stream, the AFM’s successful strike offers key lessons about how to win a better deal for labor. After all, this radical change did not emerge from the actions of a few isolated celebrities, nor a disorganized consumer boycott, nor a tech utopian cure-all, but rather the flexing of strike power by an organized mass of music workers.

The Rise of the Musicians’ Union

The American Federation of Musicians was founded in 1896 by a coalition of local musician unions that split with an earlier, more conservative federation called the National League of Musicians (NLM). In its first decades, the AFM rapidly expanded, coming to dominate the entertainment industries across the United States and Canada. Unlike the NLM, the AFM extended membership to “any musician who receives pay for his musical services” and organized musicians at thousands of small theaters, cabarets, orchestras, and other employers in dozens of cities.

Their efforts were so successful that within two decades, the union ran a “closed shop” in most major cities: if you wanted to perform, you had to be in the union. The result was a gradual but substantial increase in wages for musicians from the AFM’s founding until the Great Depression. AFM membership nearly doubled between 1918 and 1928 to some 150,000 musicians.

While more and more musicians faced unemployment, the broadcast and recording companies were seeing unprecedented profits.

In the late 1920s, however, the combination of new technologies and an increasingly concentrated music industry undercut the AFM’s progress. First came the Vitaphone, an audio system that allowed prerecorded sound to be synced with motion pictures, displacing the tens of thousands of live musicians that had accompanied silent films. Not long after, radio stations began to broadcast recorded music via special records called “transcriptions,” displacing the musicians who played live music on broadcasts. Jukeboxes and the mass production of record players and vinyl records for the consumer market in the 1940s further removed the need for live musicians.

While more and more musicians faced unemployment, the broadcast and recording companies were seeing unprecedented profits by the late 1930s. Three companies — Decca, Columbia, and RCA Victor — dominated the production of records. A few networks — NBC, CBS, and Mutual — controlled most of the airwaves. Monopolistic companies like RCA came to own a network, a host of radio stations, a record label, and a transcription label. The industry set up a trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters, which became the primary adversary of the AFM.

For musicians, it was clear the industry was making boatloads of money with the new technologies. The question was how to wrest back a bigger share of the profits.

From Boycott to Strike

The AFM’s first strategy was a consumer-focused PR campaign. Under the leadership of its president, Joseph Webster, the union launched a national effort to convince consumers that live music was aesthetically and morally superior to recorded music. The union sent mailers, took out ads in newspapers, and held parades and marches to gin up public support for live musicians.

But despite garnering some approval from audiences, the campaign floundered. The AFM severely misjudged music consumers, many of whom regarded the AFM as foolishly anti-technology and anti-progress. And by depending on audiences for leverage, the union failed to build power among its own members. Musician unemployment continued to soar, and the AFM steadily hemorrhaged members and money through the mid-1930s. Calls for more radical, worker-based action grew louder.

The AFM began to answer that call in 1937, when Weber finally jettisoned his accommodationist policies and told radio affiliates that his union would strike if they refused to employ a certain number of live musicians. The militant strategy picked up steam in 1940, when James Petrillo, the leader of Chicago Local 10, took over as AFM president. As the head of Chicago, Petrillo had frequently used strikes to win concessions from the city’s radio stations. Petrillo brought that muscular approach to the national level, and, by 1940, the AFM led a set of brief but victorious walkouts against radio stations that were refusing to maintain staff orchestras.

The AFM started to expand again, with membership mushrooming from 105,000 to 136,000 between 1936 and 1942. But forcing radio to retain live musicians could only slow the march of technological displacement for so long. Soon the AFM decided to take on the root problem: corporate control over the creation and broadcast of recorded music.

The Recording Strike

In June 1942, the union announced that its tens of thousands of members would refuse to produce any new recordings in the United States or Canada. Initially, the union did not present a clear demand to the music industry; instead, the AFM simply declared that music workers were striking because they deserved greater compensation from an industry that was raking in massive profits from their work.

The strike infuriated both recording companies and broadcasters, who launched an aggressive PR campaign against Petrillo and the AFM, branding them as unpatriotic Luddites. It was an unfair charge: the union sought not to destroy recording technology but rather to gain a bigger piece of the surplus created by the new technologies. But the strike proved contentious, especially because it erupted during World War II, when the AFL and CIO had both signed no-strike pledges with the US government. (The union did carve out an exception for “V-Discs,” records destined for soldiers or to promote the war effort.)

Despite the headwinds, AFM members showed remarkable solidarity and discipline. Stars like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman stood on strike alongside tens of thousands of nameless working musicians. Compliance was so strict that scabs like Frank Sinatra had to hire a capella group to sing backup on his 1943 releases (AFM instrumentalists had all refused), and musicologists still bemoan the lack of any recorded evidence of the initial development of bebop in the early 1940s. Musician unions in several South American and European countries also pledged support by refusing to export records to the United States and Canada.

While the strike began with no clear demand, the AFM quickly coalesced around the idea that record companies should pay a fixed royalty into a union fund for every record produced. This pot of money would be used to hire musicians to give free public performances, thus employing displaced musicians and bringing free music to audiences. The union had failed in earlier efforts to force broadcasters and labels to pay royalties on recorded music. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers had successfully used copyright law to win royalties for songwriters and publishers, but the AFM repeatedly lost similar legal battles on royalties for musicians. The AFM’s new demand for a recording fund was a brilliant workaround, creating a royalty for musicians without relitigating copyright law.

Unable to break AFM solidarity, the recording and broadcast companies turned to the state. The companies mounted an antitrust case against the union, appealed to the War Labor Board and the Economic Stabilization Board, and requested that Petrillo be called to testify before Congress. President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally wired Petrillo to ask him to end the strike. But the companies lost their lawsuits, and when the boards and the president urged the AFM to end the strike, the union simply ignored their requests.

Black locals made the best of a bad situation, successfully organizing, setting wage scales, and improving conditions for their members.

Before long, some labels broke rank and agreed to negotiate with the union. Decca Records was the first to crack, inking a contract in September 1943 that required them to pay into the union’s fund. Nearly a hundred small labels followed Decca’s lead and also signed contracts, but the two largest labels — RCA Victor and Columbia — refused to come to the table. After another year of strong AFM solidarity, and seeing that Decca was gaining market share through their renewed production, RCA Victor and Columbia also capitulated November 11, 1944. The remaining smaller labels then fell in line too, and when the dust settled the AFM had won agreements with some six hundred labels.

The contracts mandated that companies contribute to the newly created Record and Transcription Fund (RTF) at a rate of a quarter cent to 5 cents for records sold at up to $2, and at 2.5 percent of the sale price for records above $2. Transcription companies ponied up 3 percent of the gross revenues from leasing their works. Beginning in 1947, AFM members received union-scale pay for performing at schools, parks, nursing homes, and other public venues; over the three-year contract, the fund collected roughly $4.5 million, which footed the bill for nearly nineteen thousand performances and forty-five thousand individual paychecks.

Petrillo hailed the Record and Transcription Fund as the “greatest victory . . . in the history of the labor movement” — undoubtedly an exaggeration, but not entirely off base. For the first time in US history, a union had forced an industry to provide income for technologically displaced workers.

The Anti-Labor Assault

After World War II, a more conservative federal government responded to growing labor militancy and employer outrage by passing a raft of anti-union laws. Under intense pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters, Congress approved the 1946 Lea Act, perhaps the first federal law targeting the actions of a specific union. Nicknamed the Anti-Petrillo Law, the act barred workers from pressuring broadcasters to hire more employees or to pay for work that was not performed — thus prohibiting much of the union’s approach to radio. A year later, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which severely restrained US unions, including the AFM. One section in Taft-Hartley designed to stop supposed “featherbedding” made the Recording and Transcription Fund illegal.

Click here to read full article


Joey La Neve DeFrancesco is a Rhode Island–based musician, organizer, and public historian. He is a cofounder of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers.