Sound Work: Music as Labor and the 1940s Recording Bans of the American Federation of Musicians

By Peterson, Marina | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Sound Work: Music as Labor and the 1940s Recording Bans of the American Federation of Musicians


Peterson, Marina, Anthropological Quarterly


ABSTRACT

Twice in the 1940s, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) banned recording by its members. According to the union, the use of records on radio and in jukeboxes was replacing live performers, thus eliminating work for musicians. In an era of shifting federal policies and changing modalities of labor, the bans put sound at the center of a struggle between labor and corporate interests. The bans provide a case through which to explore the significance and multidimensionality of music as labor. As a case that is integral to, yet distinct from, histories of audio technology and intellectual property, the bans are an important yet overlooked moment in the formation of current configurations of sonic value. [Keywords: Music, labor, audio technology, radio, liberalism, United States]

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In the 1940s, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) organized two recording bans, during which no recordings were made by union musi- cians on major record labels. The bans occurred at a moment in which records were stable objects that allowed repeated play and the commer- cial radio network system was largely in place. As a consequence, the nature and source of musicians' jobs were being transformed. The bans' organizers argued that by making recordings, musicians were displacing themselves as workers while radio broadcasters and jukebox owners were profiting from the free and repeated use of recordings in contexts in which live performers might be used.1

The first ban took place during World War II, lasting from August 1,1942 until November 11, 1944. A major outcome of the ban was the formation of the Recording and Transcription Fund (RTF). Administered by the union, the fund drew a percentage of record sales in order to hire union musicians to perform free concerts. Distributed to all locals in the US and Canada, it was part relief fund, part civic effort. The second ban began on January 1,1948, the date when the Taft-Hartley Bill was to go into effect, a clause of which deemed the RTF illegal. It ended on December 14, 1948, upon restructuring the fund as a trust that was separate from the union.2 In con- sidering what some have described as a radical silencing, I ask, what did the recording bans sound like?3 Keeping the historicity of this question in mind, here I focus less on what was played on the radio and what was re- corded than on the terms of the bans.4 In other words: what kinds of noise did the bans make, both at the time and as lasting effects, and what was silenced by the bans (Trouillot 1995)?5

The recording bans are moments of productive rupture, in which an emphasis on music as labor challenged existing norms. This rupture was structured around musical value, destabilizing and refiguring existing or naturalized tendencies, if only for a moment. The bans' effect on the status quo was apparent in the energetic responses of the National Association of Broadcasters and the federal government, directed especially at James C. Petrillo, then president of the musicians' union. Personal attacks calling him czar, dictator, or the "Mussolini of Music" (Parsons and Yoder 1940) and deployment of his middle name "Caesar" were frequent in the press, while Senate committees brought suits against him and the AFM in an ef- fort to limit the power of unions in general. As suggested by its response, the state's interests were threatened by the power of the musicians' union to affect the commodity nature of music, to limit its circulation as such, and to define the meaning of music itself. Music thus had a critical role in crafting the terms of liberal democracy, notably the balance between labor and capital, and the role of the state therein.6

The range of notions of music as labor opened by this case allows for a dual examination of what labor can tell us about music and what music can tell us about labor. In an era of shifting federal policies and changing modalities of labor in the US, the bans put sound at the center of a struggle between labor and corporate interests. …

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