11 World War II and the ASCAP and Musicians Strikes

By 1941, the year the U.S. entered World War II, the record industry had largely recovered from the Great Depression, with sales of 127 million records. And, rather than depressing record sales, World War II actually proved to be a boon to record sales as the war pumped up the economy and generated enthusiasm for American popular culture. The demand for recorded music even managed to overcome two potential drags on the industry in the early war years — first, a boycott in 1941 by NBC and CBS radio networks against the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP); and, second, a general strike in 1942 against record companies by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).

We will learn more about ASCAP in a later chapter, so for this discussion let’s just say that it is a “performing rights organization” that collects and distributes song copyright licensing fees (royalties) to songwriters for public performances of those songs (such as plays on the radio). The ASCAP radio boycott was precipitated by radio stations pushing back against ASCAP’s attempt to drastically increasing licensing fees charged to broadcast the many songs ASCAP represented. By 1940, ASCAP represented nearly all songwriters and publishers, with over 1.25 million compositions on its roster. ASCAP had set the licensing fee to broadcast its songs at 5% of a radio station’s advertising revenue in 1932. However, in 1940 ASCAP announced that it was going to demand triple that fee (15%). 

The radio industry decided to flex its muscle and show ASCAP the importance of radio to the record industry by refusing to broadcast any recordings of songs represented by ASCAP beginning January 1, 1941. To even further its leverage against ASCAP, the National Association of Radio Broadcasters set up a competing organization, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) to give ASCAP competition and hopefully alleviate the pressure for increased licensing fees. BMI successfully challenged ASCAP’s monopoly by focusing on newer genres such as blues, country, rhythm and blues, and gospel, leaving ASCAP with more traditional genres such as Tin Pan Alley pop and classical. During the boycott, radio stations avoided ASCAP fees by playing older music in the public domain (that is, no longer under copyright), as well as newer genres represented by BMI. This partly explains the sudden success of rhythm and blues and country music in the early 1940s. 

The radio boycott ended in October of 1941 when ASCAP agreed to accept less in licensing fees (2.75%) than they had received when the boycott began — a huge success for the radio boycott and BMI. The radio industry had won, but to this day a sense of antagonism persists between the radio industry and performing rights organizations regarding the amount of royalties radio pays to songwriters and their publishers. Today, ASCAP and BMI are still the two largest performing rights organizations (PROs), though their distinctive parsing of musical genres between has largely been eroded, with both organizations representing just about every genre of music.

The ASCAP/BMI/radio skirmish of the early 1940s also inspired Congress to take a closer look at potentially anti-competitive behavior of these organizations. The result was a consent decree entered into between the U.S. government and ASCAP that controlled the amount and types of licensing fees ASCAP was able to collect. That consent decree still controls ASCAP’s behavior today.

Just after the settlement of the radio ASCAP boycott, another legal battle erupted: In August, 1942, the union representing studio musicians (American Federation of Musicians, or AFM) began a strike against record companies, demanding that they agree to pay royalties into a trust fund for out-of-work studio musicians. The strike meant that musicians were not allowed to participate in recording sessions, though they could still play live (including on the radio).

Record companies had several weeks advance notice of the strike, so they quickly had their most popular artists make a stockpile of new recordings that could be released during the strike. Record companies also re-released recordings made before the strike, some of which (including Frank Sinatra’s first big hit, “All or Nothing at All”) became more popular upon re-release than they had been on their initial release. Another strategy the record companies employed during the strike was to record all-vocal groups (known as a cappella) with vocalized imitations of instrumental parts. The immense popularity of vocal quartets in the “doo wop” era of the 1950s resulted in part from this all-vocal strike-breaking practice.

Newer record companies that did not have backlogs of songs they could re-release (such as Capitol records, formed in 1942) were forced to settle with the union before the established majors. It was not until the fall of 1944 that Columbia, Victor, and RCA finally settled with the union by signing a contract that provided for the payment of royalties into a trust fund for studio musicians. The musicians’ union had won, and the musicians trust fund continues to operate to this day.

The musicians strike contributed to several trends already in the works. The most noticeable was the decline of the big bands that had reigned supreme in the 1930s. Other factors contributed to this, particularly the war, but the recording strike certainly accelerated this trend away from big band music. Another related trend was the rise of the vocalist as the primary focus of fan interest, rather than the bandleader and instrumentalists. In the 1930s, the big bands employed vocalists that would occasionally be featured on particular songs, but the real stars were the bandleaders (such as Benny Goodman or Count Basie) and other star instrumentalists (such as Goodman band drummer Gene Krupa). During the 1940s, and partially due to the musicians strike, the vocalists became the stars. Singers such as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Perry Como, and others, emerged as celebrities and the instrumentalists and bandleaders were now cast in a supporting role. The collapse of the big band era also saw the rise of “be bop” jazz. The smaller ensembles and more challenging music of be bop were linked to the collapse of the big bands. Be bop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were able to record during the early 1940s with new independent record labels by using non-union musicians or union musicians who were willing to record under assumed names despite the strike. These out-of-work jazz musicians had little to lose by circumventing the union.

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