In Tell Tchaikovsky the news: Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942–1968 (Duke University Press, 2014), Michael James Roberts investigates the response of the American Federation of Musicians to the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. The AFM never actively organized rock ‘n’ roll musicians, and often even specifically excluded them from membership—even though recruiting them would have been to the union’s political and economic advantage. Roberts persuasively argues that the union’s failures with regard to rock ‘n’ roll can be found in the intersection of race and class, and in the cultural biases of the overwhelmingly classical and jazz musicians that constituted the union’s core membership and leadership. I recently spoke with Roberts about his work on Tell Tchaikovsky the News, and the broader artistic and political implications of his research.
Greg Weinstein: To start off, perhaps you can tell me a bit of the biographical background of the project, how you came to this topic and how it’s changed over the years as you’ve worked on it.
Michael James Roberts: When I was a grad student in New York, I got hired by the AFM local in New York, Local 802, to do research on the changing structure in the recording industry. What they were concerned with at that time—and this is the early 2000s—was how the recording industry had changed over the past couple decades, where the major record labels mainly controlled the recording industry through distribution, no longer through production. The main problem for labor unions was if the big corporations can claim that legally all they’re doing is distributing products, they can say, “Well, we’re not the actual employer of the workers who are making the products.” All the products are being produced for these big corporate conglomerates, but they can claim that, because they have a subcontractor who’s in charge of making the products, that they’re not legally bound to a labor contract. I was looking at the situation in the early 2000s, and the musicians’ union was concerned that there were a whole bunch of independent labels which were not signatories to the contract. The union was trying to figure out what kind of strategy could they develop as a way to organize the musicians who are making music on these so-called independent labels. The main active members of the union are classical musicians and jazz musicians, and it’s been that way for decades.
I got thinking about how long has this problem been going on, where the main active members of the union have no idea about pop music, and I found that the main problem really started in the ‘40s. Earlier decades, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the union was great at organizing jazz musicians, but when it came to jump blues and rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, it’s a totally different story. So it started out as just a project where I was doing research on the structure of the recording industry for the union, and when that project ended, I started doing my own research on the history of the union missing the boat on rock ‘n’ roll and jump blues.
GW: Can you talk a little bit about how this project fits into the field of sociology or musicology, what your audience has been for the research?
MJR: I think I have two audiences, one in the area of labor studies, and the other in the area of pop culture. In my home discipline, which is sociology, I’m sort of on the margins because I’m more into cultural studies, interdisciplinary kinds of things. But if there’s a niche space in sociology, it would be in the area of pop culture. I like to bring different audiences together to think about things they haven’t thought about before. In the area of popular music, the labor question seldom comes up, so I was trying to raise that as something that scholars of pop culture and pop music might benefit from thinking about. The framework in labor studies tends to be political economy. So I’m trying to bring together one audience who thinks mainly about political economy—the labor studies people—and then for people interested in popular culture, I’m trying to make a case for why it’s important to pay attention to the labor question.
GW: Labor as a creative practice in the recording studio is really interesting to think about. As work, the work of making records, rather than the “romantic genius” of making records.
MJR: The professional musicians in the late 19th century didn’t have unions, but they had associations. In the early days, before the AFM was founded, musicians were part of something called the National League of Musicians. They understood their identity as artists, not as workers. It had to do with the whole creative process, because if you lose control over the conditions of your creation, then you move down from artist into this category of “worker.” That group split because of the emergence of a music industry starting at the end of the 19th century. Once there is an industry, then that means that the musician’s status becomes thrown into question. Are we artists or are we workers? Decades later, there’s still this lingering question about whether musicians are workers or artists. Part of the reason why, in the ’50s, the musicians’ union rejected rock ‘n’ roll is because they thought rock ‘n’ roll performers were entertainers, not musicians.
One of the main ironies in the research I did for the book is that here’s a labor union that’s supposed to represent the interests of the working class, and then they turn against the ultimate form of working class musical culture, namely jump blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll is a record culture, and that means that working class kids can learn how to play music by listening to a record, as opposed to having to pay for music lessons and learn how to read music. Working class kids are able to develop huge record collections, they can participate as critics of the music, in addition to being producers of the music. That’s an important part of the story because records were essential for working class kids to be able to enter into a whole new realm of life that they were shut out from—art, basically.
GW: I wonder now if you could talk a little bit about what seems to be one of the big tasks of the book: you shift away from race and put more attention onto issues of labor and class, which has not been the most common way of approaching the topic, and I was curious to know if you’ve encountered any resistance to that approach.
MJR: I’m interested in race/class intersectionality, mainly, and there are really good histories already on the question of race and gender in rock ‘n’ roll, but class has been underdeveloped. I wanted to focus a little more attention on class to show how that intersectionality between race and class is a little more complicated than has been portrayed in the other treatments. When class comes up in the histories about rock ‘n’ roll, it’s usually just about the biographical background of the musicians: they come from a poor area or something like that. But in terms of the content of the music, I wanted to focus on class conflict and class struggle, and how the content of the music is mediated by the social context of class struggle.
I’ve been very influenced by David Roediger’s work, Wages of Whiteness. Roediger looks at how the white working class developed a sense of itself as a class largely as a way of saying that they’re not black. The way the working class in the US develops its own identity was largely about excluding the “other,” whether it’s black workers, or immigrant workers coming from China, or Latino workers, or women. Part of how they created their identity is through exclusion, and although I think that’s largely correct, I also think there’s another way to look at intersectionality there. What I look at in the book is how the union was able to develop interracial solidarity amongst white musicians and black musicians through a different kind of exclusion: excluding working class forms of music.
In the union, jazz musicians and classical musicians were developing a way to racially integrate the union. Part of the strategy for the musicians’ union to integrate the white locals and the black locals was to create the identity of a “legitimate musician” based on skill and taste, and that meant excluding working-class musical forms like the blues and country music—which for many decades was called “hillbilly” music as a class marker. I was trying to complicate the narrative and say it’s true that a lot of ways in which the white working class has developed an identity is based upon racism, but there are other interesting examples where, when the labor union is trying to develop interracial solidarity, the way they develop that is through excluding the class “other.”
GW: And then, as you talk about at some length in your book, it’s also then expressed in terms of taste—which you show for bebop musicians talking about southern Black audiences and their taste in jump blues instead of bebop, which would be the “better” thing for them to listen to.
MJR: The chapter on bebop was difficult for me because I love Dizzy Gillespie, one of my favorite musicians of all time, and I love bebop. I had to be careful about how to write that chapter because I didn’t want to come across saying that Gillespie was wrong about how he was framing the politics of bebop. I largely agree with how they were framing the politics of bebop at the time. The bebop musicians were conscious of the politics they were pursuing: they were doing really good work at getting recognition for their music, which is very important to do. But there’s this other narrative going on there I think needs attention, which is that in order to get the recognition they were looking for, there was this attempt to differentiate themselves and distinguish themselves from working-class forms of Black music.
When I was doing the research on the jump blues musicians, I found that they themselves would say, “We shared venues with the bebop musicians, but the bebop musicians ignored us when we would show up.” I thought it was interesting, because all these musicians are coming from the same place. They made their careers in the big bands during the Swing Era, and then when the music industry splits between bebop and jump blues, the bebop musicians don’t want to have anything to do with popular dance music anymore.
GW: Could you tell me a little bit about some of the resources that you mined for this project? There’s a couple histories here that, as far as I can tell, have not been told in as rich detail as you’ve done: the recording ban, the importance of Louis Jordan. What are the sources that you drew on? Did you conduct interviews with anybody?
MJR: Because I established a good relationship with the local in New York, they let me get into their archives. I looked at the union’s newspaper, “The International Musician,” and when I started looking at their newspaper, I noticed that the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” didn’t appear in print until 1968. At the same time, I saw all these advertisements for electric guitars and amps. The phrases they used in the advertisements were phrases like, “This new amp is very powerful, it gets very loud.” Clearly they’re trying to appeal to musicians who play rock ‘n’ roll. One advertisement actually featured Jimi Hendrix, a Fender guitar advertisement. In the editorial content of the paper, rock ‘n’ roll is never mentioned. It’s only in the advertisements. It’s an interesting contradiction.
The more I went into their papers, I was getting the story from the point of view of the union. And then that led me to look at the archives in Washington, D.C., documents from the US Department of Labor. I found all these letters from Beatles fans that were going to the US Department of Labor, even to President Johnson, just a huge file of these letters. That was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of the research, was looking at Beatles fans and how they felt empowered to reach out to the President of the United States on behalf of their favorite rock ‘n’ roll band. In the United States, the president of the musicians’ union petitioned the US Department of Labor to enforce a ban on the Beatles, and they got the agreement from the British musicians’ union to construct that ban. The agreement was if a musician was considered an “artist,” then they could move freely between the two countries, but if a musician was considered “not culturally valuable,” then they would have to come under a separate category. The Beatles were categorized as “not culturally valuable.” That meant that if the Beatles would come to the States for a paying gig, the United States had to send over a band to Britain as an equal exchange. But if you were “culturally valuable” it didn’t apply to you, so if you were a jazz musician or a classical musician, you could move freely between the States and Great Britain.
I also interviewed union officials. One of the officers in the L.A. local, he’s probably in his late 60s now, but when he was a young man, he was in a rock ‘n’ roll band in the state of Washington. He told me about how the union up there was giving him a hard time back in those days, in terms of making it difficult for him to find venues to play in. The union put on a competition for the best local band in the area, and they ignored the rock ‘n’ roll bands that tried to enter. They also told me an interesting story which I wouldn’t have found if it wasn’t for them: when Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys attempted to join the LA local, they rejected his application because he couldn’t adequately read and interpret sheet music. They acknowledge now they made a huge mistake by refusing people like Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys membership into the union, because rock ‘n’ roll took over the industry in the ’50s, and the union, largely by neglecting rock ‘n’ roll musicians, marginalized themselves in the industry.
GW: To me, it was very interesting to think of how discussions today about newer musical technologies, streaming platforms, for instance, how they unfold. Musicians end up arguing with each other about who’s at fault and who is benefitting, and who always seems to win there are the record labels and the tech companies. The musicians are just tearing themselves apart by arguing with each other, which is exactly the trajectory that is set up at the period that you’re analyzing.
MJR: I was trying to show that it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum thing, it doesn’t have to be the case that we’re fighting over crumbs. There’s a ton of wealth being generated by the industry. This is another reason why the history is important, because you can look at the case of the recording contract that they secured in 1944, and it shows that we can have developments in technology and, at the same time, the standard of living for workers doesn’t have to go down. In fact, it can go up.
I call it a post-scarcity context. To use the phrase “post-scarcity” means that we actually have reached a point, in terms of technology, where scarcity is not really a technical problem anymore. We have the ability to produce enough for everybody. It’s not a technical question anymore; it’s now become a political problem. Records changed everything—changed how the audience consumes the music and participates in the music; changed the way we listen to it; changed the way we think about what counts as the referent when we’re talking about music. Are we thinking about the recording of it, or is the live performance still the referent? That’s an interesting question, too, with the musicians’ union. They saw that records were going to be a threat to musicians, so they thought a good strategy would be to convince consumers of music that records are no good, they don’t sound good, and if you want to consume music, you have to go see a live performance. This ended up being a mistake long-term because the technology did improve, and so they had to switch their tactics.
GW: You talk about the vertical disintegration of the industry, the move from production to distribution. One does wonder if the union, as you say, had not been so myopic and had let folks like Wilson and others join, would this still have been the inevitable outcome? Was there a better way that the union could have done this that might have taken a different path ultimately?
MJR: There’s a story here that really is important. The musicians’ union at one time had a lot of power in the industry—it shut down the entire recording industry in 1942, for example. They were one of the first labor unions to have to deal with the problem of their members being replaced because of changes in the recording technology. The musicians’ union had a very good response to that in the ’40s, which is they were able to force the record companies into arranging a royalty program so that a small amount of the price of each record sold would go into a fund, and this royalty system would be used to hire unemployed musicians, who would perform concerts that were free to the public. It was a win-win situation. The musicians’ union was very aware that one group of musicians was making records, and those musicians were having a negative impact on another group of musicians who were being replaced by records. The union’s strategy was brilliant: they said, We’re not luddites, we understand that the technology is there, and it’s good in some ways. But we’re also not going to allow the corporations to put our members out of work, so we’re going to force them to take responsibility. This is, I think, the most important part of the history of the musicians’ union—they were able to force the companies to take responsibility for the workers that they were laying off because they’re being replaced by records. Tens of thousands of musicians lost their jobs because of these new recordings. That set the way for other labor unions to take on the question of technology and the problem of workers losing their jobs.
But tragically, the musicians’ union undermined their achievement through their cultural politics. They had a very important achievement in terms of the political economy, but then they undermined their achievements because they had reactive cultural politics having to do with jump blues and rock ‘n’ roll. This particular case of the musicians’ union marginalizing and condemning jump blues and rock ‘n’ roll was a foreshadowing of what became a conflict between the counterculture and the labor movement in the ’60s, when the labor movement establishment, the AFL-CIO, actually came out against the counterculture. And they supported the war, too, the AFL-CIO supported the Vietnam War, and of course we know the counterculture was against that. There’s a split here between the cultural left and the political and economic left, and that’s going to have a negative effect on American politics as a whole. My book is about the history of rock ‘n’ roll and the musicians’ union, but it’s actually more than that. I’m trying to point at larger processes of the split between the counterculture and the labor movement.