When Musicians Went on Strike — and Won

Eighty years ago, thousands of musicians in the US launched a two-year strike against the recording industry. They won landmark gains — reminding musicians today that the best way to wrest back money from the streaming companies is to flex collective power.

American Federation of Musicians members on the streets of New York, c. 1947. (William P. Gottlieb / Library of Congress)

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 Rise of the Musicians’ Union

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.

From Boycott to Strike

The AFM’s first strategy was a consumer-focused PR campaign. Under the leadership of its president, Joseph Webster, the union launched a national effort to convince consumers that live music was aesthetically and morally superior to recorded music. The union sent mailers, took out ads in newspapers, and held parades and marches to gin up public support for live musicians.

But despite garnering some approval from audiences, the campaign floundered. The AFM severely misjudged music consumers, many of whom regarded the AFM as foolishly anti-technology and anti-progress. And by depending on audiences for leverage, the union failed to build power among its own members. Musician unemployment continued to soar, and the AFM steadily hemorrhaged members and money through the mid-1930s. Calls for more radical, worker-based action grew louder.

The AFM began to answer that call in 1937, when Weber finally jettisoned his accommodationist policies and told radio affiliates that his union would strike if they refused to employ a certain number of live musicians. The militant strategy picked up steam in 1940, when James Petrillo, the leader of Chicago Local 10, took over as AFM president. As the head of Chicago, Petrillo had frequently used strikes to win concessions from the city’s radio stations. Petrillo brought that muscular approach to the national level, and, by 1940, the AFM led a set of brief but victorious walkouts against radio stations that were refusing to maintain staff orchestras.

The AFM started to expand again, with membership mushrooming from 105,000 to 136,000 between 1936 and 1942. But forcing radio to retain live musicians could only slow the march of technological displacement for so long. Soon the AFM decided to take on the root problem: corporate control over the creation and broadcast of recorded music.

The Recording Strike

In June 1942, the union announced that its tens of thousands of members would refuse to produce any new recordings in the United States or Canada. Initially, the union did not present a clear demand to the music industry; instead, the AFM simply declared that music workers were striking because they deserved greater compensation from an industry that was raking in massive profits from their work.

The strike infuriated both recording companies and broadcasters, who launched an aggressive PR campaign against Petrillo and the AFM, branding them as unpatriotic Luddites. It was an unfair charge: the union sought not to destroy recording technology but rather to gain a bigger piece of the surplus created by the new technologies. But the strike proved contentious, especially because it erupted during World War II, when the AFL and CIO had both signed no-strike pledges with the US government. (The union did carve out an exception for “V-Discs,” records destined for soldiers or to promote the war effort.)

Despite the headwinds, AFM members showed remarkable solidarity and discipline. Stars like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman stood on strike alongside tens of thousands of nameless working musicians. Compliance was so strict that scabs like Frank Sinatra had to hire an a capella group to sing backup on his 1943 releases (AFM instrumentalists had all refused), and musicologists still bemoan the lack of any recorded evidence of the initial development of bebop in the early 1940s. Musician unions in several South American and European countries also pledged support by refusing to export records to the United States and Canada.

While the strike began with no clear demand, the AFM quickly coalesced around the idea that record companies should pay a fixed royalty into a union fund for every record produced. This pot of money would be used to hire musicians to give free public performances, thus employing displaced musicians and bringing free music to audiences. The union had failed in earlier efforts to force broadcasters and labels to pay royalties on recorded music. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers had successfully used copyright law to win royalties for songwriters and publishers, but the AFM repeatedly lost similar legal battles on royalties for musicians. The AFM’s new demand for a recording fund was a brilliant workaround, creating a royalty for musicians without relitigating copyright law.

Unable to break AFM solidarity, the recording and broadcast companies turned to the state. The companies mounted an antitrust case against the union, appealed to the War Labor Board and the Economic Stabilization Board, and requested that Petrillo be called to testify before Congress. President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally wired Petrillo to ask him to end the strike. But the companies lost their lawsuits, and when the boards and the president urged the AFM to end the strike, the union simply ignored their requests.

Portrait of AFM president James Petrillo in his office in New York, c. 1947. (William P. Gottlieb / Library of Congress)

Before long, some labels broke rank and agreed to negotiate with the union. Decca Records was the first to crack, inking a contract in September 1943 that required them to pay into the union’s fund. Nearly a hundred small labels followed Decca’s lead and also signed contracts, but the two largest labels — RCA Victor and Columbia — refused to come to the table. After another year of strong AFM solidarity, and seeing that Decca was gaining market share through their renewed production, RCA Victor and Columbia also capitulated November 11, 1944. The remaining smaller labels then fell in line too, and when the dust settled the AFM had won agreements with some six hundred labels.

The contracts mandated that companies contribute to the newly created Record and Transcription Fund (RTF) at a rate of a quarter cent to 5 cents for records sold at up to $2, and at 2.5 percent of the sale price for records above $2. Transcription companies ponied up 3 percent of the gross revenues from leasing their works. Beginning in 1947, AFM members received union-scale pay for performing at schools, parks, nursing homes, and other public venues; over the three-year contract, the fund collected roughly $4.5 million, which footed the bill for nearly nineteen thousand performances and forty-five thousand individual paychecks.

Petrillo hailed the Record and Transcription Fund as the “greatest victory . . . in the history of the labor movement” — undoubtedly an exaggeration, but not entirely off base. For the first time in US history, a union had forced an industry to provide income for technologically displaced workers.

The Anti-Labor Assault

After World War II, a more conservative federal government responded to growing labor militancy and employer outrage by passing a raft of anti-union laws. Under intense pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters, Congress approved the 1946 Lea Act, perhaps the first federal law targeting the actions of a specific union. Nicknamed the Anti-Petrillo Law, the act barred workers from pressuring broadcasters to hire more employees or to pay for work that was not performed — thus prohibiting much of the union’s approach to radio. A year later, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which severely restrained US unions, including the AFM. One section in Taft-Hartley designed to stop supposed “featherbedding” made the Recording and Transcription Fund illegal.

With Taft-Hartley rendering the 1944 contracts null, the AFM called another recording strike that began on January 1, 1948. The goal was to force the labels to the negotiating table to find a way to preserve the RTF despite the new anti-labor laws. After a roughly nine-month strike, talks began with an AFM plan to create the Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF), an almost identical fund to the RTF but collected and administered by an independent organization rather than the union itself.

Having suffered through the 1942 AFM strike, the labels quickly agreed to the MPTF plan and signed new contracts in December 1948. By 1952, the union had also secured deals with motion picture producers, television producers, and advertisers to pay into the MPTF. The fund quickly became the largest purchaser of music in the word — and remained so for decades — and, in 1954, put on roughly seventeen thousand public performances that employed some 190,000 musicians. By the 1950s, the AFM’s membership had soared past 250,000 musicians.

Divisions and Decline

Unfortunately, all musicians did not benefit equally from the RTF and MPTF. From its inception, the AFM pursued many of the racist and xenophobic policies promoted by much of the early twentieth-century AFL. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the AFM aggressively lobbied for anti-immigration policies in a bid to limit the number of musicians in the country, and it effectively blocked foreign musicians from touring the United States. While the AFM allowed black members, it maintained racially segregated locals, some of which lasted until the late 1960s and early 1970s, though some locals were integrated before WWII.

Black locals made the best of a bad situation, successfully organizing, setting wage scales, and improving conditions for their members. In addition to working through the AFM, black musicians also created their own independent organizations to promote musician welfare, such as the National Association of Negro Musicians, founded in Chicago in 1919. In some cities, the black and white locals coordinated their wage scales, but in much of the country black AFM musicians received lower pay than white AFM musicians, and the union was complicit in (and sometimes encouraged) that disparity. Some historians see Petrillo as steering the AFM toward integration, while others argue he condoned and often promoted segregation as both the head of Chicago Local 10 and the national president.

Black AFM members widely participated in the 1942–44 strike alongside white musicians, but many did not reap an equal share of the benefits. In the first years of the MPTF, black musicians almost certainly received less funding in cities with segregated locals — the payment of funds was pegged to union scales, so where black locals had lower wage scales, black musicians likely received smaller paychecks from fund performances. Further, entertainment venues remained segregated in many cities by law until the 1960s, and de facto after that, meaning that black AFM members were likely barred from performing at fund concerts in white neighborhoods.

These racist policies primarily harmed African American musicians, but they also weakened the AFM as a whole. When white and black locals both competed for jobs, wage scales for both locals plateaued or declined. Racial discrimination also fed AFM policies that contributed to the union’s membership decline over the subsequent decades. When rock ‘n’ roll gained popularity in the mid-1950s, the AFM refused to organize the new musicians. The music initially came out of working-class black communities, and the new AFM leadership under President Herman Kenin argued that the newcomers were not true musicians. Reflecting the racism and elitism of much of its leadership, the union tightened its membership requirements, restricted its organizing focus, and retreated to its 1930s strategy of telling consumers to choose “real” music instead of the new popular culture.

Simultaneously, by the late 1950s, the AFM began to surrender the MPTF. Betraying the solidarity seen in the 1940s strikes, a breakaway group of studio musicians formed a new organization called the Musicians Guild of America that pushed the AFM to abandon its more visionary principles and prioritize a smaller core of recording artists. This splinter saw the beginning of contracts that traded away the MPTF in exchange for raising wages and benefits for a smaller percentage of more elite AFM members. The trend continued for decades, with the recording companies forcing particularly significant cuts in the MPTF in the 1980s. The union suffered perhaps its biggest blow in the 1970s, as a set of employer lawsuits effectively reclassified club musicians as independent contractors, substantially reducing the AFM’s ability to organize music venues. This reclassification, combined with other anti-labor legislation, ever-increasing business consolidation in the music industry, and the union’s failure to organize musicians in pop genres, resulted in a significant drop in AFM membership in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, the AFM did win important victories, including the creation of the US National Endowment for the Arts in 1966 and continuously higher wage scales for recording musicians. And although MPTF operated at a tragically smaller scale than that envisioned in the 1940s, the fund continued to dole out money to musicians, putting on thousands of free concerts per year in the United States and Canada.

The Streaming Age

Today the AFM remains an essential organization that protects the wages and benefits of some seventy thousand members performing in orchestras, movie studios, recording studios, and elsewhere. The union’s current legislative focus is the American Music Fairness Act, which — in the spirit of the MPTF — would benefit all musicians by finally requiring that performers be compensated for music played on terrestrial radio.

But the majority of musicians — particularly freelance musicians with many separate employers — remain unorganized, and a full-on confrontation with new music technologies has yet to happen. Streaming, for instance, now accounts for 83 percent of music industry revenues. Like the new recording technology of the 1930s, streaming creates a massive windfall for the major labels, plus a few tech giants like Spotify and YouTube, while working musicians see their wages and opportunities shrink every year.

The AFM did negotiate a contribution to the MPTF from the major labels’ streaming profits, and the American Music Fairness Act is a necessary step to raise the bar on all royalty payments. But streaming payouts remain miniscule for almost all artists. New organizations such as the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) have formed in recent years to join the fight and organize the vast numbers of unorganized musicians into the struggle for a fairer music industry. UMAW’s Justice at Spotify campaign has over thirty thousand music workers backing its demands and has held pickets in cities around the world, making it the largest-ever collective effort against a streaming service. UMAW joins various international efforts to redistribute streaming revenue back to musicians themselves, such as the #BrokenRecord campaign in the UK.

The AFM’s victorious strikes in the 1940s demonstrate that musicians can organize tens of thousands of musicians across hundreds of employers to win major victories for all music workers. Rather than retreating into an anti-technology stance, submitting to the logic that technology would inevitably destroy jobs, leaning on consumer activism, or demanding that record profits go solely to the small number of recording musicians, the AFM used the strike weapon to widely redistribute the surplus created by recording technology across its entire membership.

We must do the same today. A more just music industry will not be built by an unorganized shuffling between powerful tech platforms, the press releases of a few isolated millionaires, or a retreat into narrow guild unionism. Instead, music workers must again organize on a mass scale to demand more.