Musical Chairs Part 2

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In 1941, James Caesar Petrillo, the outspoken president of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), commissioned a study to determine whether the use of recorded music took away jobs from musicians. The survey found that the record companies paid millions of dollars to AFM members and any problems caused by records could not be solved by a musicians strike. Nevertheless, Petrillo wanted to restrict the commercial use of recordings, particularly juke boxes and radio play. He believed juke boxes took away musician’s jobs and record-playing radio stations eliminated the need to hire studio musicians. The AFM’s contract with record companies including the big three — RCA Victor(owned by NBC), Columbia (owned by CBS), and Decca — expired at midnight July 31, 1942. At the AFM convention on June 8, 1942, Petrillo announced that beginning on August 1, no AFM members would record or contract to record any mechanical music.

Given a little less than two months, the big bands and their record companies launched a recording spree. Many of the famous big bands were still recording new tunes on July’s final day. On August 1, 1942, in recording studios across the nation the sound of the big bands ceased. Outside the window of Petrillo’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel suite, youngsters marched with signs reading: “Look at the dough he has and he won’t let us have records.” “All we have is a juke-box and a nickel — and now he won’t let us have that.” But Petrillo stayed true to his word with one exception: Musicians were permitted to record for the government’s Victory Disk Project, recording “V-Disks” for the troops overseas.

The record companies prepared well for the strike. In addition to the numerous records pressed just before the strike, the record companies held many unreleased master records in their vaults. They pressed these tunes and sent them to market along with many re-releases.

One of the retreads, Tommy Dorsey’s “I’ll be Seeing You,” went nowhere during its original release in 1940; re-released in 1943, in the middle of World War II, the song became a big hit. The band singer on that record saw his opportunity in the musicians strike and left Tommy Dorsey’s band at the end of 1942 to sing solo — Frank Sinatra. Not considered musicians by the AFM, singers were free to record, and they did. Backing themselves with small singing groups, Sinatra, Dick Haymes, and other singers happily sang and recorded their hearts out. In the process, they came out from the shadow of the big bands.

In September 1943, after a year of the record war, Decca signed a four year agreement with the AFM accepting a fixed-fee principle. Within a few months the smaller record companies and transcription services accepted the deal: between one-quarter cent and two cents a record payable to an AFM fund set up for musicians. Only the giants, RCA and Columbia, held out. But in the summer of 1944 the War Production Board began lifting wartime restrictions on shellac (necessary for pressing records), Columbia and RCA feared that this would allow Decca to flood the market and capture a large chunk of RCA and Columbia’s market share.

On November 9, 1944, RCA and Columbia called Petrillo and surrendered. They agreed to the same contract signed by Decca the previous year. Petrillo announced the settlement as “the greatest victory for a labor organization in the history of the labor movement.” Petrillo, the musician, may have been tooting his own horn too loudly, but the agreement was a victory for labor. Never before had a union forced employers to contribute to a fund earmarked for providing jobs and income for technologically displaced workers. By signing the agreement, the record companies agreed that technological change had social costs employers must share.

The networks had beaten ASCAP in 1941 (Part I Sept ’04) because of competition from BMI and older uncopyrighted music. But during the musicians’ strike, the AFM had no competition and, therefore, got their way. Musicians stuck together on the strike because only the top musicians made money from records. According to trombonist Bill Hitchcock of Eddy Duchin’s band, “Recording was…only the icing on the cake.” Striking the record companies failed to put their jobs at risk.

For the big bands, on the other hand, the AFM strike provided another crack in their dominance of American popular music. The lack of new big band recordings, their replacement in record stores by the singers, and the cessation of Big Band touring because of gasoline and tire rationing — all these reasons played a part in eroding the big band’s popularity. By 1946 the Big Band Era had ended. The bands still played, but they no longer dominated.