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How 1948 Changed Everything

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In today's Wall Street Journal (go here), I write about the American Federation of Musicians' little-known second recording ban of 1948 and how the 12-month job action unintentionally and dramatically altered jazz and other music styles for the next 50 years.

The first AFM recording ban from 1942 to 1944 was an attempt by the union to halt technology's impact on its membership. While radio, the phonograph, records, talkies and the jukebox entertained the country on a national scale in the '20s and '30s—making a relatively small percentage of highly talented musicians wealthy—the devices also tossed thousands of average musicians out of work. Thanks to playback technology, the need for live musicians declined precipitously at radio station, in movie theaters and local bars and restaurants.

The result of the first ban was the establishment of a union fund to hire unemployed musicians and an agreement by the recording industry to make fund payments based on sales. But Congress wasn't pleased that the union had managed to tax an industry to support workers who no longer could cut it in an evolving business.

But there was little Congress could do legally, since the agreement was binding. So it passed a law prohibiting unions from managing their own funds. Congress's motive was to prevent corruption and misuse of funds. Once the new law passed, the recording industry told the union it had no intention of renewing their agreement at the end of '47. So the AFM prepared for a second ban, to begin when the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve.

Badly burned by the last ban, Columbia decided to fast-track a new format. Clearly the union's main target was radio—since the spinning of records reaped a fortune in ad dollars but zero revenue for the union or its members. By contrast, the union had no problem with the home market, since a couple who purchased 78-rpm records by Louis Armstrong or the Boston Symphony wasn't earning ad revenue or charging others to hear it.

In June '48—midway through the second ban—Columbia unveiled a longer playing vinyl record that turned at 33 1/3 rpm. The 12-inch LP lasted 22 1/2 minutes per side while the 10-inch version for pop and big bands lasted about 15 minutes per side. The improved convenience and duration of the LP didn't catch on immediately, largely because RCA didn't adapt it right away and consumers were hesitant to invest in what they perceived to be a temporary format.

When Roosevelt won a fourth term in November 1944, the recording industry decided to settle. In December, the union agreed to hand over management of its fund to an independent trustee, satisfying Congress's new law, and the recording industry's payments continued.

Not to be outdone by Columbia, RCA introduced its own format in 1949—the 45 rpm. The smaller record with the large hole at first went head-to-head with the LP. But when RCA's lucrative classical artists began defecting to Columbia in the early '50s, RCA also embraced the 33 1/3 speed, as did the rest of the industry. As for the 45-rpm, it quickly was used by radio and jukeboxes as a much better-sounding and more cost-effective alternative to the bulky and brittle 78-rpm.

The results? Once jazz labels began recording on 10-inch LPs in the early '50s and then the 12-inch LP in 1954, they needed more artists, more original material and longer solos to reduce the number of tracks per side and hold down royalty costs. During this period, the best jazz artists became superstars—Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck and others.

As for the 45-rpm, R&B blossomed in the early '50s thanks to the format, particularly with the rise of portable phonographs, local radio stations and stronger signals—all of which inspired the teen market. By mid-decade, R&B would branch out into rock and roll as a mainstream, crossover forms.

If the union had simply shuttered its fund at the end of '47 and not initiated a second ban, Columbia might not have released the LP when it did and RCA wouldn't have developed the 45 to trump its rival. Without those two formats, long-form jazz might only have been heard in clubs while rock may never have developed at all.

At any rate, take a read in today's Wall Street Journal. I devote an entire chapter of my book Why Jazz Happened to the second AFM ban and the “speed wars." You can buy my book here.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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