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The 1942 Recording Ban and Today

My jazz-DJ colleague Joe Bourne noted yesterday that it was the 65th anniversary of the American Federation of Musicians recording ban, which began on Aug. 1, 1942 and didn't completely end until major labels Columbia and Victor came to terms with the union in late 1944. (Decca, the other of the "Big Three" during the war years, settled in late 1943.)

It's a seemingly distant, though significant, historical episode, but the issues involved offer a rough parallel, perhaps, to our modern-day Internet radio conflict, as well as the looming performance-royalty battle. In both instances, technological changes in the distribution of music spurred or are spurring attempts by those who represent artists-or who claim to represent artists-to push for new forms of compensation.

The American Federation of Musicians began the 1942 ban (effectively forbidding studio activities by all union musicians except for singers, who weren't considered...well, you know how that goes...) in an effort to force the major record labels to pay the union general royalty fees for radio broadcast and jukebox play of records. "Canned music," in the union's opinion, was putting musicians out of work.

In 2007, recording-industry organizations such as the RIAA and Soundexchange have lobbied for drastically-increased webcasting royalty rates and charging performance royalties as well (in addition to composer royalties)-efforts driven in part by the explosion of new-media distribution of music in the past 10 years.

The AFM recording ban is often represented in a critical light, with union head James Petrillo (pictured above) depicted as a somewhat power-mad labor boss, accompanied by lamentation for the music that went unrecorded-especially bebop, which was just beginning to take hold among a small circle of jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.

But as Scott Deveaux points out in his book The Birth of Bebop, it's highly unlikely that shellac-challenged record companies would have been rushing to put out the-then avant-garde sounds of bebop during the war years anyway. (Although it is highly likely that they would have recorded the legendary 1943 Earl Hines orchestra, which included both Parker and Gillespie.)

And as musician and super-Organissimo-poster Jim Sangrey observed online a couple years back:

The first ban/strike was a great victory for the professional/union musician. The MPTF (Musicians Performance Trust Fund) is still in full gear today, providing entertainment to many civic events at little if any cost to the municipalities. If you go to a "City XYZ Arts Fair" or some such and there's live music being played throughout the day and into the night, odds are good that it's being provided by the MPTF. The musicians get paid (scale) through the union and get exposure to the "general public", plus the city gets to hold a festival that is enjoyed by many, across demographic lines. win-win. If your city has something like this, odds are good that you can thank the AFM MPTF, and for THAT, you can thank the first recording ban. Plus, the MPTF provides many similar services for schools, hospitals, senior centers, etc.

The other two bans, I'm afraid, were less focused, less successful, and were a contributing factor to changing popular taste, especially the one of 1948.

The issues involved in both instances, historical and modern-day, are generally more complex than the black-and-white ways in which they're presented.

Perhaps the AFM was a reactionary force in the 1940s, acting in a shortsighted, retributive manner, but I'm sympathetic to what they achieved.

Today overzealous copyright protection vies with an unfortunate devaluation of intellectual property, although it seems clear that the record labels and the interests that represent them are pursuing courses of action that will ultimately benefit no one, themselves included. (Effectively eliminating radio's ability to broadcast artist performances in particular formats...well, it's New Math to me.)

Greed and/or fear of change (or inability to assimilate it constructively) don't often inspire constructive, forward-looking solutions-and although I always want to see artists and composers properly compensated, I'm skeptical of the industry-related groups allegedly advocating on their behalf. (The industry not really having artists' interests at heart? I'm shocked, shocked...)

For more about the 1942 recording ban, as well as the contemporaneous ASCAP vs. BMI battle, check out the "Rush to Record" chapter in Deveaux's book The Birth of Bebop.

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