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Music: The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Recording Bans of 1942-1944 and 1948

Updated on September 1, 2017

On August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) went on strike against major American record companies; its members refused to record due to a dispute over royalty payments. After October 27, 1942, the recording ban was lifted for V-Discs that were sent overseas for the benefit of U.S. soldiers fighting in World War II. It was more than two years before the strike was fully settled.

The union sought royalties to be paid into a union fund for out-of-work musicians. The strike prohibited union musicians from making records; they were free to perform on live radio broadcasts or in concert. James Petrillo, who was AFM president from 1940 until 1958, had organized a similar strike in 1937 when he headed the Chicago chapter. Petrillo had previously opposed all recording, seeing it as a substitute for live musicians.

Frank Sinatra recorded with vocal groups to circumvent the recording ban.
Frank Sinatra recorded with vocal groups to circumvent the recording ban. | Source

As the date neared, the public thought the strike would be averted; most newspapers opposed it. But by the end of July, people realized that this was not an empty threat. A number of musicians recorded in the first weeks of July, and a frenzy of activity occurred in the last week of the month.

The war years put a stress on everyone, not least musicians. A number of war-related developments helped push the big bands of the day to the sidelines. As noted in the Ken Burns book, Jazz: A History of America's Music, blackouts and curfews made life difficult for clubs and dance halls, and consequently the musicians who played in them. A 20-percent entertainment tax resulted in the closure of many ballrooms. Rubber and gas rationing pushed band buses off the roads and forced many musicians to travel on trains that were crowded with servicemen. A scarcity of shellac curtailed recording, and jukeboxes and musical instruments went out of production for a time. Many musicians were drafted.

Harry James with Frank Sinatra: "All or Nothing at All"

The 1942-1944 Recording Ban

Record companies initially released material recorded before the strike, and dipped into their vaults when this was exhausted. Columbia did particularly well with a reissue of All or Nothing at All. The Harry James Orchestra had recorded the song in August 1939 with a young Frank Sinatra. The singer's name was featured prominently on the reissue, which spent 18 weeks on the charts, reaching number 2 on June 2, 1943.

The recording ban had some unforeseen effects. One result was the acceleration of the trend from swing bands to singers. Historian Peter Soderbergh said, “Until the war most singers were props. After the war they became the stars and the role of the bands was gradually subordinated.”

Vocalists were members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and not the AFM, according to The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History (Aaron Brenner, Benjamin Day and Immanuel Ness, ed.). Hence, record companies were free to record them without instrumental backing. Petrillo demanded that the singers honor the strike, and AFTRA acquiesced, but not before a number of recordings were made of singers such as Perry Como, Bing Crosby and Sinatra, backed by vocal groups.

According to Swing Music Net, the recording of singers resulted in a plethora of mediocre vocal releases. In addition, the release of only vocal recordings was another factor in the decline in popularity of swing bands.

Simultaneous with the recording ban, musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were developing a new style of jazz that came to be called bebop. Their music was unheard by the general public during this time, with a resultant hole in its recorded history at a seminal time in its development.

Dizzy Gillespie, ca. June 1946
Dizzy Gillespie, ca. June 1946 | Source
Charlie Parker, ca. August 1947
Charlie Parker, ca. August 1947 | Source

Settlement of the Recording Ban

The strike stressed the unity of record companies. RCA Victor and Columbia were owned by large media conglomerates that could rely on profits from other divisions. Others, such as Decca, were independent, and thus more vulnerable. Decca settled the strike in 1943, agreeing to pay a fee for recordings made with AFM musicians. About 100 small labels followed suit in early 1944. RCA Victor and Columbia settled in November 1944, as they were under competitive pressure from record companies that had already come to an agreement with the union.

The agreements to end the strike required record companies to pay fees ranging from ¼ cent to five cents for each record costing up to $2.00, and 2.5 percent of the price if more than $2.00. A fee equal to 3 percent of gross revenues was assessed on library transcriptions, but no fee was levied on commercial transcriptions for broadcast.

The 1948 Recording Ban

Under Petrillo's leadership, the AFM took a hard line with broadcasters as well. In 1943 the union forbade its members from teaching at the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Mich., because NBC broadcast an annual student concert. Petrillo saw this as an injustice because the students weren't paid to perform. In 1944 the AFM established a national campaign to force radio stations to employ musicians to flip discs at union scale. These actions angered both the public and a newly elected Republican Congress, which held hearings in 1947, the country's first investigation of a labor union.

The fees collected went to a Recording and Transcription Fund that paid for thousands of free performances for which musicians were paid union scale. Recordings could be played back without the involvement of musicians, and could even take their place. The union saw the Recording and Transcription Fund as at least partial redress for this, according to Tim J. Anderson in Making easy listening: material culture and postwar American recording.

The union claimed that the fund, for which over $4.5 million was raised in three years before it was made illegal by the Taft-Hartley Act, was separate from other union funds and would not be used to pay any part of any officers' salaries. The union stressed that the funds would benefit communities, for which the fund provided 19,000 free concerts.

Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act at about the same time, amending the National Labor Relations Act to prohibit unions from forcing employers to pay for services not performed. This outlawed the AFM's minimum staffing requirements. The Act also made the Recording and Transcription Fund illegal.

A second AFM recording ban went into effect on Jan. 1, 1948, and lasted 11 months. The Taft-Hartley Act had made it illegal to make demands, but it was not illegal to refuse to ever record again. The record companies worked more closely together this time, and they went into the strike with rich backlogs produced before the ban. The second ban ended when the record companies and the AFM agreed to continue their royalty agreement, this time establishing an independent Music Performance Trust Fund to circumvent Taft-Hartley.

Birth of the LP and 45

As the second musicians strike began, Columbia Records prepared a strategy that changed the way music was sold and consumed. As Marc Myers explains in The Wall Street Journal, Columbia's management realized that the issue wasn't records—it was radio.

The union had no issue with record sales that produced a revenue stream. Unlike royalty-free radio play, jukebox plays and consumer purchases put money in musicians' pockets. Realizing this, Columbia developed the long-playing (LP) record. Playing at 33-1/3 rpm, a 12" LP could hold over 22 minutes per side. Columbia introduced the new format, which was to be sold to consumers, in June 1948.

As smaller jazz labels took up the LP, it became critical to avoid sizable royalty payments to publishers of standard songs. Hence, jazz artists were encouraged to write their own material, improvise and stretch out tunes. This meant there were fewer songs on an album, and fewer royalties to pay.

RCA fought back by unveiling its 45-rpm format in 1949. Smaller labels took to the 45-rpm record. As portable phonographs became available, teenagers soon were the largest consumer group to embrace the format, greasing the skids for the rise of rock and roll.

By 1948, the AFM's membership had grown to 231,000 members from 135,000 in 1940. The union demanded minimum numbers of jobs for musicians in broadcasting studios. In response, broadcasters successfully lobbied for passage of the Lea Act in 1948, which outlawed coercion of broadcasters to hire more musicians than they needed, write Alvin L. Goldman and Roberto L. Corrada in Labour Law in the USA. Petrillo challenged the law by demanding that a studio hire the AFM's minimum number of musicians. He was charged with violating the Lea Act, and the law was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court. The Lea Act was repealed in 1980.

The fund still exists, and is now called the Music Performance Fund (MPF), a tax-exempt non-profit organization that presented over 10,000 free performances in the United States and Canada in 2011. A major part of the fund's activities involve young people. The MPF notes that in recent years, 44 percent of its audiences have been age 18 or younger.

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