Civil Liberties

The Music Never Stopped

Recordings depend on music, not vice versa.


When I was young, I thought the music I heard on the radio was coming from live bands performing in the studios as I listened. I imagined pop groups frantically packing up to make room for the next one, then dashing across town to perform their new hit on another station.

I can't explain why I held this weird belief, especially since I knew that records existed. What I didn't know is that my delusional world was the dream of a tough union leader in the first half of the 20th century, James Caesar Petrillo of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). He saw that recorded music, and the broadcasting of that music on radio and jukeboxes, was a threat to his boys' jobs (and his).

AFM strikes brought the recording of new music to a halt in 1943 and 1948, but when the union tried again in 1958 it just didn't work. Live musicians' cultural and political influence had waned too much, even as the average Joe had more access to more songs than anyone in history. (That statement only gets more and more true every year, with every technological advance.) And nowadays—well, one Los Angeles session drummer told me his AFM rep blithely advised him to cross his own union's picket line to avoid inconveniencing himself.

As music journalist Mark Coleman notes in his new book Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money (Da Capo), "It's a pity [Petrillo] didn't live to hear the record industry unload on Napster and file sharing in much the same way he denounced canned music. The echoes are pitch-perfect." Coleman's book documents how new technologies—from the player piano to the iPod—have always rattled to their core the powers that dominate the business of making, distributing, and selling music.

Those powers are right to be disturbed. They tend to become entrenched in selling music in particular manners and styles and systems. New technologies inevitably shake all those things up. Coleman tells us about many such technologies and shakeups: home phonographs and radios that sealed the fate of player pianos and sheet music in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s; the invention of the long-playing record in the late '40s and multitracking in the '50s, which created space for unified 40-to-50-minute works of musical recording art; the late '70s introduction of portable cassette/earphone devices that elevated the cassette to the best-selling recorded-music format in just six years; the electronic synthesizer of the '80s that drove out of business many of Petrillo's boys who somehow had managed to survive the onslaught of canned music in the first half of the 20th century.

Now we face file sharing, and the music-selling industry is shaking and suing and wondering what to do. We don't know how this will all play out. Even where people can steal music conveniently, a new enterprise that sells the same songs we could steal can still move 25 million downloads in eight months, as iTunes has. Don't count out selling recordings over the Internet yet.

As we listen these days to the cries of music-selling middlemen that those sweet songs of yesteryear will disappear in a world of unbridled file sharing, we need to remember that the interests of music professionals don't necessarily coincide with the interests of music listeners. Sure, new technologies and ways of doing business have hurt many trades related to the music industry. There are many fewer people making a living as song pluggers, sheet music publishers, and the like. There are probably fewer professional live musicians than there would be if we had never enjoyed radios, jukeboxes, transistorized stereos, or computerized file sharing. Yet with every change, people's access to better reproduced, more portable, more personalized music grows.

I come from the indie rock scene and ran my own label. Despite record-mogul fear mongering about the sounds of silence that will descend if they can't sell you $18 CDs, you can't tell me people won't still perform music—and even reproduce it in forms that people might be able to pirate—merely because they won't be able to make a healthy living at it.

There are no more AFM bosses like Petrillo, who in the '30s had enough clout to make all the radio stations in Chicago hire union musicians to flip records. But as the moribund music site proved in its heyday, there are tens of thousands of people making their own music and yearning for an audience, though not necessarily a paying one. Music was a vital part of human culture long before anyone was able to mass reproduce and sell recordings of it. And music will survive any number of upheavals in the systems for selling recordings that developed in the last century.