Broadway Musicians' Union Sounds Off About Recorded Music

The fight between the AFM local and a stage play’s producers echoes 1940’s disputes that helped result in modern-day residuals.

The fur – and feather boas – are flying in New York, where the Broadway musicians’ union is waging what the New York Times in a story Sunday calls “an unusually aggressive, political-style campaign” against the producers of the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The dispute centers on the use of recorded music as a substitute for some of the 18 or 19 live musicians generally required under the union contract for Broadway musicals.

In particular, the show’s orchestra omits a string section and instead uses digitally-manipulated recordings of live string players, such as violinists, in order to create what the producers call a unique “synthetic pop flavor” for several of the numbers in the show, which is based on a 1994 movie about Australian drag queens.

The head of the union – Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians – says the sound the producers really care about is the ka-ching of cash registers. They’re doing it “in order to save money,” argues Tino Gagliardi, president of the Local, as quoted in the Times. “There are no strings in the ‘Priscilla’ pit. This is an awful thing that we can’t allow to become a precedent.”

The union lost a mediation on the matter and so now an arbitrator must decide whether the producers are worshipping Mammon rather than Madonna. In any case, the disco-infused dispute echoes that of an earlier era, when big bands were all the rage. Hepcats of the day – the day being the 1940’s – went to live music, thank you very much, with the (then-upstart) recorded variety viewed as an inferior substitute by some listeners and a job-killer by most musicians.

Among those who preferred his music in vivo rather than on discs was James Petrillo, president of the entire AFM for almost two decades and a force within the union for over forty years. Now all but forgotten, Petrillo was viewed more as a buzz-kill than a hepcat, and struck fear and loathing into the hearts of the radio and record industry, the general public, and politicians. Even Bugs Bunny remarked in a 1950 short “I sure hope Petrillo doesn't hear about this!,” with “this” being the rabbit’s employment of an apparently non-union monkey as an organ grinder.

And the source of what many viewed as Petrillo’s discordant notes? The same as Gagliardi’s: a campaign against recorded music in favor of live. But Petrillo operated on a larger stage than the Local 802 leader, one better described as national than proscenium. The threat in his era was not stringless stage plays but, rather, the companies that made records and the radio stations and radio networks that increasingly played them rather than employ live bands. And, as ancient as that time may be, the resulting disputes ultimately played a role in the development of modern residuals.

What Petrillo wanted was royalties on recorded music, payable to a union fund, to make up for revenues lost by live bands. When the industry refused, Petrillo’s solution was more aggressive than arbitration: he called the nation’s musicians out on strike. For the duration of the work stoppage – the “Recording Ban of 1942-44” – no union musicians recorded music anywhere in the country. Since John Cage’s 4′33″ (an entirely silent composition) was some years in the future, the result was a public uproar, but when the finale played, the union leader had won the royalties he sought.

For a variety of reasons, Petrillo performed an encore in 1948, calling a ban that lasted about a year. This one related not only to the recording and radio industries, but also to the nascent television business and, in particular, to the issue of television exhibition of theatrical films – which have soundtracks and scores, hence the AFM’s interest.

Settlement of the 1948 dispute led to contracts that evolved to require payment of royalties when theatrical films were played on television. Today, of course, those royalties are called residuals. Though not the earliest form of residuals – credit for that belongs to AFTRA’s pre-television precursor, AFRA – Petrillo’s royalties were a milestone in the development of those payments for all manner of talent: not just musicians, but also actors, writers, directors and others. And, that, of course, is truly music to entertainment workers’ ears.


Twitter: @jhandel