There is no irony lost that the term “gig economy” is pulled from a phrase describing the employer-to-employer situation musicians endured for centuries. An ahistorical understanding of music labor often misassesses the extent to which musicians are ignorant of the technological changes that happened over the last couple of centuries. Each new technological advancement since the first recordings altered the livelihood of working musicians, but such labor was always precarious. However, the American Federation of Musicians understood that this employment was unsustainable and engaged in collective fights around these core issues.
The early employment heights of the AFM occurred in the 1920s during the silent film era. While this new medium displaced popular late 19th-century vaudeville performers, it aided in the creation of an entirely new career path for working musicians. In 1926, tens of thousands of musicians across the country were working in theater pits but that bubble burst quickly with the introduction of Vitaphone, a new technology that allowed sound to synch with film projections. Suddenly, movies could have their own soundtracks, thus entirely eliminating the need for theater pit musicians. Over the next decade, over 22,000 union jobs were lost as this technology spread across theaters and then, in a blink, a solid gig for musicians evaporated.
James Petrillo, a former trumpet player from Chicago, inherited this weakened union when he was elected AFM President in 1940. He rose up from the Chicago Federation of Musicians, where he carefully levered the union’s power while also staking out a larger labor strategy. Petrillo called for strikes directed at radio stations to help protect musicians’ jobs, saw alleged attempts on his life, and managed to make enemies of both the mafia and local politicians. His early victories in Chicago to retain union radio jobs helped inform the strategic path he’d pursue once elected head of the AFM.
After the death of theater musicians and the slow rise of music recordings, musicians reached a consensus: a plan needed to be made to prepare for the union’s uncertain future. If recordings threatened radio jobs, there needed to be a way to level the playing field. Petrillo’s plan would require a bit of strong-arming of fellow workers, but it was a decision he and the union felt necessary to accomplish their goal. Under Petrillo’s command, the AFM directly attacked the American Guild of Actors and Musicians by threatening to forbid AFM musicians from working with AGAM soloists unless those musicians joined the AFM. The logic was that if there was going to be a musician recording strike, then the AFM needed all parts of the music recording industry on board. AGAM fought but ultimately acquiesced to the AFAM, losing a number of its soloists to Petrillo’s union.
The other target in Petrillo’s aim was the Boston Symphony, whose anti-union owners kept them from organizing for decades. The AFM once again managed to slowly squeeze the symphony by limiting the potential cities where its performers could play, effectively isolating the Boston musicians and limiting the symphony’s exposure. This tactic, along with a sympathetic orchestra leader, eventually got the symphony to defy its management and join the AFM.
The final goal of this organizing effort was to go on a strike where musicians refused to record for any label. The strike towards record labels was pointing out that if recordings were going to be made, potentially taking out union radio jobs, then record labels needed to help sustain the lives of musicians that were seeing the destruction of stable work. Petrillo called for a strike on August 1, 1942, during the middle of World War II. This was a highly unpopular decision with a particular poll saying 73% of Americans wanted the government to end the strike. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in an effort to force Petrillo to cease the strike, alleged that he and the union were going to hurt war morale. (Former AFM president Joseph Weber was often thought to be too close FDR for the liking of rank-and-file members.) Neither musicians nor Petrillo moved for a year and when a deal was struck the union achieved a fairly radical agreement.
The AFM was able to create the Recording and Transcription Fund, which used profits from the record industry that were funneled back to the AFM. The funds were used to finance public concerts for underemployed musicians and also pay at the union wage. This model of welfare capitalism would be used by other industries (coal mining, automotive manufacturing, and steel) and unions post-WWII, but it was the 1942 strike that set the foundation for what could and should be demanded by a union. However, the victory would be quickly undercut by the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which ruled the fund illegal. The AFM ultimately went on strike again in 1948 to protect its recently created fund, which was seen as potentially opening the door for more welfare programs won by unions like the United Mine Workers of America.
The union’s decline in the second half of the 20th century was not solely caused by technological shifts; Petrillo’s tenure offered a robust solution to what should’ve strained the union’s long-term prospects. However, the Recording and Transcript Fund would cause splintering in the union, as those who made the most income did not want to continue subsidizing musicians that did not work full time. This lack of solidarity could also be found in the union’s ignoring of rock music and its historic hostility towards non-classically trained musicians (read: black musicians), much in the same way it did to rock-and-roll’s progenitors of blues and country. There was a movement in the 1930s to unionize song pluggers to fight against payola, but white-collar worker unionization never took a stronghold within the recording industry.
By the 21st century, the AFM became completely alienated from popular music, leaving it with little power to address issues of exploitation in major label contracts or the giant tech platforms holding an oligopoly on music distribution. Over the last twenty years, the result was a fragmented but potentially-radicalized base of musicians who are now long-divorced from the labor movement, but increasingly understand that the best avenue for change is through collective action.