February 2, 1997

Stage to Studio: Musicians and the Sound Revolution, 1890-1950.  By James P. Kraft.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.  255 pp.  ISBN 0-8018-5089-4.  $35.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

The role played by musicians’ unions, notably the American Federation of Musicians, in the history of the recording, film and broadcasting industries is a subject that has received relatively little study.  Stage to Studio is an interesting overview of labor relations in these music-reliant industries, from the dawn of “bottled music” in the 1890s through the great labor battles of the 1940s.

Technological unemployment was an inevitable consequence of Thomas A.  Edison’s invention of a practical means to record sound.  However, as the author notes, the late 1800s was somewhat atypical in the opportunities it afforded professional musicians.  In the years following the Civil War the United States was changing from a rural to a urban society, and a burgeoning, sophisticated middle class expected to be entertained.  Initially this took the traditional form of live entertainment, in band concerts, minstrel shows and vaudeville.  Jobs for musicians and other entertainers, even those with only passable skills, abounded.  Much has been made of the inconveniences suffered by itinerant performers traveling the entertainment circuits of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  However compared with the conditions under which most American workers toiled, these were relatively clean, safe, good paying jobs.  It was a “golden age,” too good to last.

The introduction of recorded music in the 1890s did not at first threaten this happy situation.  For the first two decades of the twentieth century–until the rise of radio, really–vaudeville and other “live” entertainment continued to boom, employing thousands.  Radio, closely followed by talking pictures, changed all that, virtually overnight.

The working conditions, economic status and management relations of studio musicians in the early twentieth century would seem to be an interesting field for study.  How much clout did Billy Murray really have?  Or the musicians in Charles A. Prince’s Columbia Orchestra?  Scattered information that I have seen suggests that those whose names are most familiar to us from record labels were pretty far down the totem pole, in influence and income (except, of course, for a few major stars).  Edward Easton, the founder of Columbia, died a millionaire but Charles A. Prince, who led the company’s studio orchestra and largely determined its “sound” for 25 years, retired to work as a music teacher in his old age.  Even the most successful studio men (Len Spencer, Murray, etc.) seem to have led comfortable, but basically middle class, lives.

Unfortunately this book is weakest in its coverage of the period from 1890 to the 1930s.  There is much discussion of changes in music and society, sprinkled with anecdotes about musicians, leaving the reader craving a more substantive treatment of the industry itself.  The author obviously knows little of the history of the phonograph, mixing up eras, confusing the major players, and misinterpreting anecdotes as trends.  The parade of misinformation at the beginning of Chapter 3 (about the recording industry) is almost comical.  In quick succession we are told that Brunswick was one of the “Big Four” labels at the start of World War I (the label was not even launched in the U.S. until 1920); that most people still heard recorded music through coin-operated machines in commercial places (that was in the 1890s); that each such machine had a “hand crank, horn (and) storage battery” (a crank and a storage battery?); that Victor’s discs were acoustically “much superior” to Edison cylinders (not so); that the phonograph “provided only limited competition to coin-operated player pianos, to which it was acoustically inferior” (ever hear a vocal solo or vaudeville sketch on a player piano?); and that most consumers favored recordings of traditional folk or classical music (just the opposite, Tin Pan Alley popular songs were the top sellers by a wide margin).  As an example of the last statement, the author cites the “big hits” of Bessie Smith and Fats Waller.  As laudable as those performers were, they would have been buried under the avalanche of pop tunes churned out by Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra!

Later the author tells us that after 1929 “RCA-Victor (sic) introduced and popularized electrical recording as well as slower-turning, longer-playing, and more flexible discs.”  Wrong on all counts (electrical recording began in 1925; long-play discs were pioneered by Edison in 1926; and flexible discs by Hit of the Week in 1930).

Fortunately such gaffes do not affect the principal purpose of the book, which is to outline the rise of the labor movement among musicians, and the union’s response to technological change.  The founding of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) in 1896, by breakaway members of the National League of Musicians, is described, along with the forty year reign of its second president, Joseph N. Weber.  When radio and sound movies decimated musicians’ ranks in the late 1920s and early 1930s Weber looked for ways to adapt to the new realities, believing that it was futile to resist technological change.  Such accomodationist tactics, combined with the deepening Depression, only made things worse however, as thousands of musicians who had once made a good living in movie houses, theaters and radio studios were displaced by recordings.  The feisty head of the Chicago local, James C. Petrillo, succeeded Weber in 1940 and turned the AFM in a radically new direction, calling sweeping (and largely successful) strikes against both the recording and broadcasting industries.

The book is much stronger in describing the era of Petrillo, whom the author clearly likes.  In fact the entire book is pro-labor.  However the author acknowledges the many serious criticisms of Petrillo, that he was a dictator, ruthlessly ignoring the public interest even in time of war.  (Petrillo even defied Franklin Roosevelt’s request to end the World War II strike–on relatively favorable terms-in the interests of wartime morale.)  The twists and turns of the 1942-1944 and 1948 recording strikes are detailed, as well as the changing political currents that eventually turned Congress against the union.  Petrillo himself was largely responsible for this, defying the President in wartime, even shutting down a national broadcast by a children’s orchestra because it didn’t employ union musicians (the famous Interlochen incident, in 1942).  Petrillo’s stated reason for the 1942 recording ban was not to gain better wages or other concessions, but simply to destroy that industry–which he felt was eliminating opportunities for live musicians.  (Similarly, in the late 1930s, the union attempted to force movie theaters to rehire the live musicians they had laid off with the advent of sound pictures.)  Such Luddite tactics were doomed to failure in the long run, but Petrillo did succeed in forcing employers to set up substantial “royalty funds” to benefit musicians displaced by the new technologies.

Although basically an academic study, Stage to Studio is written in an accessible style and will be engaging reading for those interested in this aspect of recording history.  The author is an associate professor of history at the University of Hawaii (he appears on the dust jacket with long hair, a big smile and a loud Hawaiian shirt).  Fully sourced, it is a useful study and reference book on recording industry labor relations.

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