When Musicians Went on Strike – and Won

tags: labor history, music industry, Recording Industry, Musicians

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.

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 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.

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.

Read entire article at Jacobin

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