Why Songwriters Stink at Organizing
Screenwriters have a long history of striking. Why don't songwriters?
At the beginning of May 2023, the 11,000 members of Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike over a dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) joined the strike a little over two months later. This was the first time both writers and actors went on strike at the same time since 1960.
Once SAG joined the cause, I saw people on Twitter asking why songwriters never go on strike. I thought this was a valid question. So, I decided to investigate. While there are many factors at play, the biggest is that it’s illegal.
On the Lack of Organized Labor in Music
First, it’s worth noting that musicians have gone on strike before. I wrote about this for Ted Gioia’s newsletter The Honest Broker:
On August 1, 1942, nearly all music ceased being recorded. When I first learned this fact, I struggled to believe it. How could musicians stop recording? That would require coordination on a scale that seemed impossible to manage. But musicians did manage to do it for nearly two years.
The musical work stoppage was overseen by James C. Petrillo, the fiery head of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the largest musicians’ union in the United States. Petrillo was concerned that the proliferation of recording, radio, and jukeboxes would destroy the livelihood of professional musicians, many of whom made a living performing live. And his concerns were founded. Musicians were losing jobs.
Though he made no immediate demands, Petrillo eventually said that the AFM wanted labels to pay a royalty on record sales into a fund that would sponsor concerts performed by out-of-work musicians. The labels wouldn’t budge. Part of this was because three labels—Decca, RCA Victor, and Columbia—controlled most of the industry. It wasn’t that difficult for them to move in lockstep. Plus, they were able to backlog recordings before the strike began.
But the AFM’s members showed resilience in the face of the industry behemoths. With a dwindling backlog and mounting pressure as upstart labels began to agree to Petrillo’s terms, Decca capitulated in 1943. RCA Victor and Columbia followed suit within the next year.
This strike was centered around live performers, the people the AFM represents. In the 1980s, when songwriters tried to organize by founding The Society of Composers & Lyricists, the National Labor Relations Board ruled they were independent contractors and thus ineligible to form a union. Subsequent efforts were also unsuccessful.
Okay. So, it’s illegal for songwriters to start a union. But let’s assume that it’s not for a moment. There are still structural differences between music and movies that would make unionizing difficult.
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