Singing the blues; drugs, sex, and rock and roll; Woodstock. Elvis Presley swinging his hips; Jimi Hendrix tearing up the Star Spangled Banner. We associate iconic musicians and musical genres with places, stars, and cultural narratives. Less often we recognize the markets and economic forces shaping popular music’s trajectory. But in 1940-41, a dispute over music royalties brought music once relegated to local audiences to national radio, spurring the popularity of blues, country, and, ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll. Were it not for a battle over how much radio should pay for music royalties, performers like Ray Charles and Elvis Presley may have never become classic American musicians.
In 1940, the Office of War Information was soliciting Tin Pan Alley -- the dominant force in the music business, whose tunes filled Broadway plays and Hollywood films -- to produce patriotic songs. Sheet music still made more revenue than recordings, jukeboxes made hits rather than radio, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers(ASCAP) held a monopoly on performance rights over its competitor Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI).
You may not have heard of ASCAP or BMI, but they make their presence known in the music industry. The two organizations collected over $1.5 billion in 2013 that they distributed to the copyright holders of music played on the radio, in television, and in bars and other venues. A 1909 copyright law mandates that performers, songwriters, and publishers be compensated for public performances of their music -- whether that’s a radio recording or another musician playing someone’s work at a concert -- so performance rights organizations like ASCAP collect on behalf of the songwriters, musicians, and publishers they represent.
During World War II, ASCAP represented the vast majority of popular musicians. It was also exclusionary. In R&B, Rhythm and Business, Dr. Reebee Garofalo describes ASCAP as a “closed society with a virtual monopoly on all copyrighted music” and notes that as of 1939, only 6 of its 170 members were black. With control over the use of the majority of America’s popular music catalogue, it “exercised considerable power in the shaping of public taste.”
ASCAP’s economic and cultural heft overwhelmingly benefited older musicians, incumbent musical styles, and the music produced by mainly white artists. The society’s voting rights and distribution of royalties both skewed toward older performers, and it unabashedly excluded musicians -- especially those of color -- making blues and country music considered unsophisticated. As a result, blues, country, gospel, and folk performers eventually became part of BMI. Later testimony by an ASCAP representative before a congressional committee reveals the organization’s elitist attitude:
"Not only are most of the BMI songs junk, but on many cases they are obscene junk pretty much on the level with dirty comic magazines.... It is the current climate on radio and TV which makes Elvis Presley and his animal posturings possible... When ASCAP's songwriters were permitted to be heard, Al Jolson, Nora Bayes, and Eddie Cantor were all big salesmen of songs. Today it is a set of untalented twitchers and twisters whose appeal is largely due to the zootsuiter and the juvenile delinquent."
Lobbying by ASCAP helped secure the passage of the 1909 copyright law -- the organization also survived an antitrust case in 1937 -- but it did not become really lucrative until radio performances became a significant source of revenue. After ASCAP’s share of radio revenue increased from $750,000 to $4.3 million from 1932 to 1939, it doubled the fees it charged to play its copyrighted works in 1940. Radio stations balked; after all, they had hosted bands to play on the air at no charge just years earlier, since it was seen as good publicity and marketing for the performers.
In response, a number of radio broadcasters boycotted ASCAP and formed BMI as an alternative. BMI focused on local music -- lots of blues, country, and folk -- that ASCAP ignored in its focus on LA, New York City, and music it considered highbrow. (To the extent ASCAP represented black musicians, they played genres like jazz that white audiences had already adopted, according to Garofalo.) Suddenly rhythm and blues music had a national audience that included white listeners, while other local musicians also received a national airing.
The boycott lasted for almost a year. In late 1941, ASCAP signed an agreement with radio stations at terms less generous than it had before the boycott. The Justice Department also sued ASCAP again on antitrust grounds. This time ASCAP lost, and it was forced to accept regulations that opened it up to other musicians and set blanket rates for licensing deemed fair by third parties.
With the gatekeeper gone, the new genres maintained their national audience and anointed new stars, including the first rock and roll icons in the following years, a development that grew out of the once neglected genres like blues.
Plenty of other economic forces spurred the national adoption of blues, country, and folk. Migration, especially between the north and south, helped spread local music, and the development of African-American communities into a larger economic force also contributed to the music industry’s interest in black musicians. (On the flip side, during World War II, a shortage of shellac, the material needed to make records, was so acute that people had to return a record to buy a new one, which led the music industry to focus on pop music to the detriment of blues, gospel, and other genres.) Advances in recording equipment, including technology taken from Nazi Germany after the war, also democratized music publishing and facilitated the rise of independent record companies that fueled the rise of rock ‘n’ roll.
The boycott of ASCAP, however, played a large role in undermining the tyranny of ragtime, show tunes, and elite taste on national music. And it is not the sole boycott to shape music as we know it today. In the 1940s, one of musicians’ most reliable sources of work was playing live on radio stations. So when radio began experimenting with playing recorded music instead of live performances, the American Federation of Musicians ordered a boycott in 1942.
When the ban ended months later, in Reebee Garofalo’s words, “the musicians returned to the studios to find vocalists in charge.” Vocalists belonged to their own union, which did not strike, and took advantage to establish the dominance of lead singers and solo vocalists. Other forces helped undermine the “big band” and performances involving full orchestras -- among them the demise of ballrooms as central to the music scene -- but the strike helped usher in a new age: that of the crooner in the limelight.