Musical Chairs Part 1

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Something was missing from the radio air waves on January 1, 1941 — the music of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins and hundreds of other American composers of all kinds of music from opera to pop. The Radio war had begun. Because of contract differences between The American Society of Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), all the nation’s radio stations with affiliations to the major networks (NBC, CBS, and Mutual) stopped playing music composed and written by ASCAP members — virtually all of the American music written in first half of the twentieth century!

Most of Billboard’s top 40 songs vanished from network stations; all the big band’s well-known theme songs, with one exception, were replaced whenever the bands played on network radio; most radio show theme songs including Bob Hope’s “Thanks for the Memories” and Bing Crosby’s “Where the Blue of the Night” were banished.

Victor Herbert and his fellow composers and writers formed ASCAP in 1914 to ensure that they received compensation from the performance of their music. A 1915 United States Supreme Court decision in ASCAP’s favor allowed them to charge a licensing fee to record companies, vaudeville houses, and any business playing music for profit.

By 1932, the Great Depression was killing record sales and vaudeville was dying. Radio, on the other hand, was emerging as America’s mass entertainment medium. ASCAP demanded licensing fees from the fledgling industry. After NAB tried and failed to persuade Congress to amend the copyright laws to remove license fees, they came to an agreement with ASCAP for 3 percent of advertising income, rising in 1935 to 5 percent. Five years later, with the Big Band Era in full swing and ASCAP looking to raise the fee, broadcasters decided to start their own licensing agency: Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). The new agency began business on April 1, 1940. Later in the year after the broadcasters refused to agree to ASCAP’s new demand of 7.5 percent, ASCAP refused them the right to play ASCAP music.

On the first day of 1941, all recordings of ASCAP tunes were banned from network radio stations. Of course, musicians and singers could perform any ASCAP tune at a live performance, unless the performance was broadcast on a network. At the same time, any uncopyrighted musical composition, such as Auld Lang Syne (Guy Lombardo’s theme song) or one with an expired copyright could be played on the air. The ban led to swing arrangements of everything from the “The Anvil Chorus” to the “Song of the Volga Boatman.” Freddy Martin’s band scored a huge number one hit with “Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B Flat.” Nineteenth Century tunesmith Stephen Foster shot back into national prominence thanks to his music “being in the public domain” — copyright expired. With the updating of old music and BMI licensing new music everyday, ASCAP’s unplayed tunes failed to hurt the networks. Instead, the ban stopped the flow of income to ASCAP members.

By July 1941, the music war had taken its toll; ASCAP lowered their demands to 2.75 per cent, much less than the 5 percent pre-strike fee. Mutual Network accepted the offer and began playing ASCAP songs again. NBC and CBS continued the war until October when they both settled on the ASCAP offer of 2.75 per cent. The radio war ended. ASCAP had gambled and lost. The next war game of musical chairs ended with the Big Bands lacking a chair.