General Articles

War Dance of the Musicians

When Petrillo pipes the tune, the music business jumps. And even if the public dislikes the sour notes, labor’s brassiest union doesn’t care

PIERRE BERTON December 15 1947
General Articles

War Dance of the Musicians

When Petrillo pipes the tune, the music business jumps. And even if the public dislikes the sour notes, labor’s brassiest union doesn’t care

PIERRE BERTON December 15 1947

War Dance of the Musicians

When Petrillo pipes the tune, the music business jumps. And even if the public dislikes the sour notes, labor’s brassiest union doesn’t care


WHEN James Caesar Petrillo announced in October that members of his powerful American Federation of Musicians would never again make records or electrical transcriptions, he was at once compared with an iceman trying to halt production of electrical refrigerators.

Petrillo, as usual, had an answer to this: “Yeah?” he shouted. “Well, at least the iceman didn’t help produce the machine that was destroying him.” The machine that is destroying the musician (according to the Federation) is the revolving turntable. Petrillo’s announced intention is to stop it from spinning. His main enemies are the midtwentieth century phenomena, the juke box and the disc jockey. They represent what the union considers an abuse of records which were made initially for home use and which still bear the ironic tag: “Not Licensed for Radio Broadcast.” Because they have, in many cases, replaced live radio and dance music, the union has announced it will stop making the records which have been feeding the jukes and jockeys.

Actually nobody in the music business believes Petrillo when he says he will stop the manufacture of records, forever and ever, amen. The ban is looked on as the first tactical move in a knock-’emdown, drag-’em-out fight against the American Taft-Hartley labor law which, among other things,

forbids record and transcription companies to pay a royalty into the union’s welfare fund. The union gained this royalty as a result of the last, record drought it ordered—July 1942 to October 1944. From it, the union has collected two million dollars which it has distributed to its locals on a membership basis. The entire sum is being spent on public band concerts and on entertainment to military hospitals. The idea is the concerts will give work to musicians who have been hit by competition from records.

Petrillo and his men are clearly out to create an impasse which they hope will force a government-sponsored compromise, favorable to them. The record companies, in this instance, are the ham in the sandwich. Most people now agree that the musicians should have some sort of continuing right in the sale of the records they help produce,

but nobody has figured out who should get what, or how it should be paid. As usual, the A.F.M. has manoeuvred itself into a position where, if anybody asks for anyt hing, it will be t he companies, not the union. Before the ban ends, the U. S. may view t he strange spectacle of the record companies lobbying in Washington for a return of the royalt y, or somet hing akin to it., so t hey can stay in business.

Radio men I talked to were confident that Petrillo’s second tactic would be to withdraw all musicians off the networks when radio contracts expire Feb. 1. If this happens, t he knocking down and dragging out will start in earnest and t he first stretcher cases are likely to be some of Petrillo’s own men. This doesn’t worry the union, whose policy has always been “the most for the most est.” Only 5,200 members out of the union’s 216,000 make records. About an equal number work for radio. “The people who make records are t he people who can best afford not to make them any more,” says a member of the union’s international executive board. The union is out to protect the bulk of the membership — t he small-town musicians who see network radio, records and transcriptions as a threat to their jobs.

A good many critics of the union feel that this policy may backfire. The once-disunited record companies have at last formed a solid front—in 1944 t hey broke ranks in their eagerness to get. back into business. Big-name band leaders, who stand to lose the most, are known to be exerting pressure within the union against the ban. Unreleased master records are being stacked up like pancakes to tide the record firms over for at. least a year, probably more. (Decca had 70 Sinatra and 70 Crosby recordings made in advance as early as Oct. 1.)

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War Dance of the Musicians

Continued from page 13

“We think the ban may hurt the big men without giving any immediate benefit to the small musician,” a record official said. Yet no one will go out on a limb and predict the downfall of a union which, from its own viewpoint, has always been right, and which has never shown any desire to commit hara-kiri.

It’s a Tough Union

The rank and file of union membership knows no more about the present recording ban than the general public, but with the men who hate the records most, it’s Petrillo ten to one. Anything he does is okay with them J and at each annual convention they give him blanket permission to do it.

Actually, union policy springs not from Petrillo alone but from a nine-man executive board and a host of highly' paid advisors and legal minds. (A former Decca lawyer now works for the A.F.M.)

It is questionable whether the A.F.M. ever thinks of itself as a labor union at all. Petrillo, once forced to trudge up 34 floors during a New York elevator strike, complained that “those

-unions, they’ll ruin this country,”

and it is not unusual for a brother union to find itself on the A.F.M.’s unfair list. The Federation’s leaders themselves talk more like shrewd, hardheaded businessmen than like union bosses. And record tycoons, movie magnates and broadcasting kings, who often come cap in hand to the Federation, treat it like a rival business enterprise for which they have a good deal of grudging respect.

The A.F.M. doesn’t think or talk in terms of workers and capital or labor and management in the way other unions do. Its world is composed of musicians and those the union thinks are out to exploit them. In the 50 years in which it has fought tooth and nail for its members it has become a hard and cynical organization, it is as stern and unbending toward its own members as it is toward its critics, and for the same reasons.

Not long ago three Toronto musicians asked a friend in the recording business if he’d make a transcription of their efforts which they could use as a canned audition to sell a prospective client. The recording man said sure, he’d do it for nothing, provided they got the usual A.F.M. contract.

But a union official turned thumbs down: the trio couldn’t put their music on wax unless somebody paid them for it. The musicians protested that they were only making the record for an audition. The union stood firm. Why? Because it believes, first, that a musician shouldn’t work unless he gets paid for it—even when he’s working for himself; second, that there was nothing to stop the recording company from making a copy of the musicians efforts and selling it to radio stations as part of its transcription library.

The fundamentals of A.F.M. policy were never better illustrated. Its horror of canned music; its inherent distrust of anyone it thinks may take advantage of its members; its insistence that musicians get paid for services rendered; its blanket enforcement of its regulations.

Musicians are, by and large, an easy-going and obliging lot who can often be persuaded to play for nothing,

or next to nothing.

The other day a woman whose two sons are gifted instrumentalists asked

Ettore Mazzoleni, Principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music, if her boys couldn’t be given a scholarship. She could no longer afford their musical education. Mazzoleni was shocked to learn that both artists had given upwards of 100 concerts for which they hadn’t received a cent.

“The mother was actually paying for other people’s entertainment,” Mazzoleni pointed out. “If they’d received union rates they would now have enough money to continue their studies.”

The A.F.M.’s leaders consider it their mission to save musicians like these from themselves, if a musician plays for nothing without the Federation’s permission, he will receive a whack over the knuckles. If he plays for less than union scale, he will be fined.

A good many people think that the union goes too far in its eagerness to enforce its rules to the limit and ensure discipline among its members. Recently, Rubinoff the violinist arrived in Toronto and offered to play free at the high schools. He forgot to ask permission of the Toronto local. The local, which has never felt that its members are duty bound to supply free music to the schools, decided to teach the “big shot” a lesson. it refused permission. In doing so it alienated the pupils and staffs of four metropolitan high schools.

The man who said “No!” to Rubinoff is Walter Murdoch, a mild-looking greying man who is president of the Toronto local, 149, and Canadian representative on the executive board of the A.F.M. One of the toughest bargainers in the business, Murdoch is to Canada what Petrillo is to North America, and local 149 corresponds in this country to Petrillo’s own Chicago local. A good many people consider the Toronto local the most powerful in North America, next to Chicago.

They Do Not Bargain

In private life, Murdoch is known as a pleasant, inoffensive little man who is kind to children and small dogs, but in his official capacity he is often a holy terror. “Underneath, he’s soft as putty,” a radio producer said recently. “But outwardly, he’s hard as nails— he has to be. He’s been fooled too often.”

“Only trouble is the union gives us something as a concession we feel we should have as a right,” grumbled one of the union’s opponents a short time ago. The union may, for example, think it is letting a theatre off easily by forcing it to hire a minimum of only four musicians. But the management will ask, plaintively, why it should have to hire any musicians at all, if it doesn’t want to. (in these cases the union’s position is simply this: If a

legitimate theatre is going to need musicians at all, it must hire them on a salary basis. Otherwise it won’t get any, even when it needs them. An agreement with the stagehands’ union helps enforce this edict.)

All legitimate theatres are asked by the union to hire a minimum of musicians depending on the size of the theatre and on whether a musical show or a play is being presented. This minimum number must be paid a salary whether they are needed at a particular performance or not. Some theatres have successfully beaten this edict by simply closing down or showing movies. This throws stagehands out of work and has sometimes persuaded them to break their A.F.M. agreements

The A.F.M. long ago reached the position where its locals never have to bargain. Each local simply has its own book of rules (different in every towTi)

which cover everything from fiveminute smoke periods to the number of record sides an orchestra is allowed to cut in one hour. The rules also cover rates that musicians shall be paid for every conceivable type of performancefrom Jewish weddings and midnight Masses to symphony concerts and dances in an officers’ mess. (The rates differ from town to town.) The radio station, dance hall, etc., either accepts these rules or goes out of the music business. There simply are no other musicians available except union musicians. Everybody from Heifetz to the reserve army drummer is a member of the A.F.M.—the number of holdouts is negligible.

Nonplaying Members

The A.F.M. has 31 locals in Canada, with 9,000 members, 2,300 of them in the Toronto local. A high percentage are part-time men who work in dance halls at night and at another job during the day. (Even in Toronto, which has the best opportunities in Canada, there are only 520 full-time musicians.) Many union members haven’t played a note in years. Some of them are doctors, lawyers and professional men who continue to hold cards in case they should ever want to play in public again. Others are radio men, producers and program directors who keep their union ties because of the information and contacts they gain. Dues differ in different locals (Toronto musicians pay $10 a year or $6 if they pay in advance, Montrealers pay $22 a year) but every local sends 95 cents per member per year to headquarters at New York and an additional 30 cents per member per year to cover the cost of producing the International Musician, the union’s journal.

The Toronto local is the oldest in Canada—older than the A.F.M. itself. The 11 musicians who met over Thomas Claxton’s music store on Dec. 2, 1887, called it The Toronto Musical Protective Association.

The local was so poor in 1917 that only the mass entry of Walter Murdoch’s Imperial Concert Band enabled it to pay the winter’s coal bill. Shortly after, when the union had a chance to sell its building on University Avenue, Murdoch asked to be allowed to do the bargaining. The union expected to get $15,000 for the property. Murdoch, a better businessman, asked point blank for $75,000. He got it (from an insurance company). Ever since, he has done a good deal of the talking for the Toronto Musical Pro-

tective Association and for Canadian musicians as a whole.

Murdoch, who still leads the band at the Maple Leaf Gardens during hockey games, has been good to his bandsmen. In 1917 they were paid $2.50 a concert. Now they get $6. Outsiders charge that the union is run by and for bandsmen (as distinct from orchestra men), but union members seldom complain. Dance orchestra men and classical musicians admit that they can’t get to the meetings and orchestra leader Marl Kenny points out that “if it wasn’t for those older men there’d be nobody to run the union.”

In the early thirties, the musicians fought a losing battle against the talking pictures which threw thousands of theatre orchestra men out of work. If the battle were fought today, the outcome might have been different. “If we’d been more farsighted,” Murdoch now declares, “we simply would have refused to make music for the movies unless orchestras were retained in the theatres. They could play overtures and intermissions.”

The initial battle with radio, on the issue of whether musicians should be paid at all, ended in victory. When radio was still a toy, orchestras were persuaded to play over the air for nothing on the grounds that it was free advertising. This situation was gaining wide acceptance when the union suddenly woke up to it. Since then, radio wages have been rising steadily—too steadily according to radio station managers who now find it cheaper to produce a nonmusical drama show than an all-musical program. In 1929, rates for musicians were $5 an hour for commercial and sustaining programs. Now a sideman gets $12 an hour sustaining, $16 for commercial broadcasts plus payment for rehearsal time and an extra if there is a studio audience.

The A.F.M. is not as strongly Petrillo-cont rolled as the public has been led to believe and in regional affairs the individual locals have full autonomy. To Murdoch’s chagrin, some of the weaker locals still tolerate the idea that musicians can play on the air for nothing.

Everybody’s A Suspect

If the union is tough with people who exploit musicians, it is equally tough with musicians who allow themselves to be exploited. Some years ago an out-oftown dance spot near Toronto persuaded its musicians to circumvent union rules by handing back a portion of their pay until the place showed a profit. The musicians complied and when the dance hall began to make money asked for full pay. The management refused and dared them to take up the matter with their local, knowing that the men had broken the rules. Nonetheless the orchestra men reported the infraction. They were promptly fined sums between $50 and $100. The dance hall went on the unfair list.

The union is especially severe on members who break their contracts. A group of musicians, driving to Owen Sound in an old car to keep a New Year’s Eve dance engagement some years ago, were halted by a blizzard and couldn’t get through. They pleaded an act of God, but the union refused this argument pointing out that they should have had the foresight to take a train or bus, both of which got through. The union ordered the musicians to pay their Owen Sound employer the full cost of the engagement plus all his incidental costs, including advertising.

Because of the union’s insistence that contracts be scrupulously kept, musicians are rarely late for w’ork. Most of them allow an extra half hour in case of motor accidents or streetcar tie-ups so

that the last musician often arrives on the job 15 minutes ahead of time. On recording dates the entire orchestra is usually in its place, ready to play, 10 minutes before contract time, but not a man would consider blowing a note until the second hand crosses the hour. And if musicians play a minute of overtime they will insist on overtime pay. Overtime is paid on each extra half hour or portion thereof and, according to one transcription official, the men themselves are sometimes embarrassed at being paid a considerable sum for one minute’s work, but they are afraid not to take the extra money. If the union finds out it means stiff fines. A former Toronto musician remembers one occasion when an orchestra failed to report to the union that its pay checks hadn’t included overtime. Every one of the 40 musicians was fined $100. The leader was fined $500.

The union has an uncanny way of finding these things out. The other day a theatre manager, in the course of a private conversation, called Murdoch a naughty name. He saw Murdoch the next day. “1 hear you called me a —,” Murdoch said.

They’re Not Starving

The union celebrated its 50th anniversary last summer. Since it came into being, musicians have come a long way. Despite the mechanical inventions which the union still battles there are more musicians today than ever before. (The A.F.M. took in 30,000 new members last year.) Most of them are well fed. Except in towns like New York where there is a glut of musicians, there is little unemployment in the ranks of the good ones.

“The union would be in a better moral position,” a record company official commented, “if its members were actually hard up.” The musicians, once outrageously exploited, are now in a position to exploit.

In its desire to outfox those who wish to fox it, A. F. M. has become the world’s most unpopular union. It hates to make exceptions to its rules because it is afraid exceptions will lead to loopholes. It often keeps school bands off the air, not because it has anything against school children, but because it fears that radio stations will, if given a chance, get as much free amateur musicas possible in order to avoid paying professional musicians.

The union seldom goes out of the way to explain its actions, and its truculent manner and bull - in - the - china - shop methods have alienated even some of its own members. It distrusts and hates the press and doesn’t appear to give two hoots how the public feels. Murray Cotterill, president of the Toronto Labor Council (C.C.L.) voiced a universal labor opinion when he declared recently that the A.F.M. has “the crummiest public relations on the continent.” Yet at the June convention Potrillo himself vetoed a resolution to create a public relations’ department. The union now finds itself battling the Taft-Hartley bill with the same kind of bludgeoning tactics that helped produce the bill in the first place.

To all this criticism the A.F.M. remains serenely indifferent. Flexing its corporate muscles, it is plunging cheerfully into the most critical struggle of its existence, secure in the belief that its cause is just. And, to the small-town fiddler and part-time drummer and trumpeter, the union’s cause is just. These are the men who in the long run control the union’s destinies—not the Harry James’ or the Tommy Dorseys. As long as the A.F.M. keeps them playing, they will be quite content to let the union’s stubborn, hard - boiled leaders call the tune. ★