Every so often, musicians and the music industry face new challenges when it comes to adapting to emerging technologies, such as changes in physical mediums (vinyl records, CDs, etc.), dealing with downloading and, more recently, whether musicians are being fairly compensated when their music is streamed on sites like Pandora, Spotify and YouTube. Technology is constantly evolving, and as it does, there will always be organizations fighting for artists' rights. The demand remains consistent: Musicians should be paid fairly for their work.
It's this struggle that's at the center of SDSU professor Michael James Roberts' new book, Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock 'n' Roll, the Labor Question and the Musicians Union, 1942-1968 (Duke University Press). An unabashed organized-labor supporter, Roberts uses the example of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM)—once the most prestigious and authoritative musicians' labor union, representing thousands of artists—as an example of how organized labor can get stuck in its ways and, as a result, hurt the overall mission.
"The AFM was opposed to rock 'n' roll in the early years, because they thought that rock music was a fad that would not last," Roberts says in an interview with CityBeat. "That attitude cost them dearly, however, as rock would soon dominate the entire music industry."
Roberts' book also addresses the AFM's early successes fighting for musicians' rights. In the 1940s, when radio shows started replacing live music with recorded music—resulting in the AFM losing tens of thousands of members—the union reached an agreement with major record labels to create a fund for out-of-work musicians.
"It was truly a revolutionary labor contract," Roberts says, "because it proved that big corporations have the resources to compensate workers that lose their jobs when they are replaced by technology."
Roberts says his book should appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in the history of popular music, as well as the history of organized labor, especially in the post-recession world, where unions are steadily in decline. And while the AFM today, in Roberts' words, "still has an important presence in the music industry," he argues that its reluctance to accept new styles of music ultimately led to it losing a lot of ground.
"The decline of the AFM parallels, in many ways, the decline of the labor movement in the U.S. more generally," Roberts says. "I argue that a main reason why the union lost power and influence in the industry is because they took a conservative cultural stance on music and popular culture... Really, the lesson I draw from this story is that the labor movement needs to be more hip."
Roberts will discuss Tell Tchaikovsky the News at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla.
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