The Music Wars of the 1940s

Clashes over copyrights and labor disputes in the 1940s shaped the style, content, and length of today’s popular music.

Portrait of Charlie Barnet, WOR broadcast, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1946 (William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)

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Tastes change, technologies change, times change — and all keep America’s music in a state of continual transformation. But music changed more than usual in the 1940s.

Part of its evolution was a consequence of U.S. involvement in the second world war. But far greater consequences were brought about by arguments over music royalties.

Enter Alternative Music

During the 1930s, radio broadcasters became increasingly reliant on recorded instead of live music, which put many musicians out of work. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers — ASCAP — wanted to help musicians by increasing the amount they made from records. So in January of 1941, it tripled the licensing fees it charged radio stations to play its members’ music.

Radio broadcasters responded by ceasing all performance of ASCAP music and building their own royalty agency: Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI). They also began playing more music in the public domain, arranging traditional songs or classical music for their studio orchestras.

Some radio stations ventured into unexplored territory. They aired songs that ASCAP hadn’t bothered to license — what was called “hillbilly” and “race” music. The songs soon built a sizeable, enthusiastic audience. As these recordings gained popularity, they were given the more respectable titles of “country” and “rhythm and blues.”

Another source of popular non-ASCAP music came from South America. The U.S. took a sudden interest in the fresh rhythms and driving beat of “Latin” recordings. They became familiar with the rumba, conga, and samba, and with performers like Xavier Cugat and Carmen Miranda. The popularity of Latin music grew even more during World War II, when our good neighbor policy promoted the culture of our South American allies.

Realizing it wasn’t gaining support, ASCAP dropped its demands for higher royalties in October of 1941. ASCAP music returned to the airwaves. But it now had to share a little of those airwaves with the new music.

Rise of the Singer, Fall of the Big Bands

The following year, in 1942, popular music was shaken up when the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) went on strike. The union demanded the record companies pay bigger royalties to its members.

AFM musicians could still play on radio shows and in concerts. They just couldn’t make commercial records. (They could, however, make recordings for V-Disc, a record label that produced music strictly for members of the U.S. armed forces during the war.)

Refusing to meet AFM’s demands, the big recording studios — Columbia, RCA, and Decca — recorded music sessions around the clock, hoping to stockpile records it could release during the strike. But months rolled by and AFM didn’t budge. As strike entered its second year, the record companies were running low on new material.

Fortunately, singers weren’t covered by the AFM strike. Record companies could record their most popular singers backed by vocal groups instead of bands. The move unintentionally helped shift the emphasis in pop music from instrumentalists to vocalists.

Popular music had traditionally focused on instrumentalists. In the 1920s, singers were often instrumentalists who had been pressed into vocalizing to add some variety to a record. They would usually enter after the band had already played the refrain and chorus once or twice. On the record’s label, the singer’s name appeared in small print, if at all.

Now, records prominently featured the crooning of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra without the distraction of instrumentalists. When the strike ended, and they returned to singing with bands, the singers were the stars. Their name was listed first on the record label, and often they had bands who accompanied them, instead of the other way around.

Meanwhile, the big bands were having trouble during the war years. They were losing venues as curfews and blackouts reduced attendance at night clubs, and ball rooms were closing because of the 20 percent entertainment tax. Tire and gas rationing made it difficult for bands to travel to gigs, and and often they couldn’t find room on passenger trains crowded with servicemen. Furthermore, bands continually lost members who were called up for service.

The strike ended in 1944, and the war in ’45. When it was over, homecoming musicians didn’t want to travel anymore. And night-club audiences shrank as customers stayed home for the excitement of watching their new television sets. Big bands began to disappear.

They would enjoy a comeback in the 1950s, but never again regained their pre-war popularity

The Long Players

In the postwar years, Congress passed laws that struck down parts of the agreement between AFM and the broadcasters. So the musicians called another strike for January 1, 1948.

However, Columbia records and the musicians’ union both still wanted to sell records. Columbia saw the strike as an opportunity to expand its market without involving broadcasting. It introduced its 33 1/3 rpm long-playing (LP) record. A 12” LP could provide over 22 continuous minutes of music at a higher fidelity than what was offered in the three minutes of a 78-rpm record.

The long-playing “album” encouraged greater productivity by artists, who were now recording and releasing far more music than they did in their 78 rpm days.

The LP also affected modern jazz. Struggling jazz labels tried to save money by paying royalties on fewer songs. They instructed their artists to record more original works and to take up more of the album with extended improvisation. As a result, jazz moved into the less structured, more expressive style we know today.

All the World’s an Open Stage

Today, the internet has left far behind the tight controls of the 1940s music industry. Musicians are no longer bound by the restrictions of broadcasters or record companies. They can record, edit, and release their own music with an ease that would have been unthinkable to the struggling musicians of the 20th century.

One thing has changed little though: the trouble musicians have in getting paid to make music.

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