V-Discs - Music from the longest strike in American history
Alright, time to talk about a thing from 80-ish years ago.
In 1942, with the War in full swing, some Labor Action happened at home. Specifically, in response to the fact that they were not paid Royalties on records sold, the Recording Musicians’ Association called for a strike. The strike would last for two years, and no Commercial recordings were released in that time.
Live performances continued. Radio performances continued, but no new commercial recordings were produced. Sorta.
The Savory Collection
If you’ve followed me for a while, you might be expecting me to talk about The Savory Collection now. That’s not actually what I want to talk about, but I’m going to do a brief aside about the Savory Collection for folks who are unfamiliar.
The gist: A dude recorded a bunch of radio broadcasts of jazz performances in the 30s and 40s, many of which were recorded during a big recording musician’s strike.
When this collection was initially discovered, it was widely speculated (in the NYT among other places) that copyright law would prevent it from ever being released.
Thankfully, that was not the cas. It’s been released. I own the CDs, which were a fairly limited run. The recordings are on iTunes though, and they’re worth owning.
But there was more music recorded during this strike, music recorded for the war effort, specifically.
Thousands of records made on 10 and 12” vinyl records at 78 RPM. The first Vinyl records that I’m aware of. Increased runtime, increased fidelity, increased durability.
Musicians agreed to record them for free, to ship them to the troops to help keep moral up.
There were hundreds of discs and thousands of tracks. They are collectively referred to as “V-Discs” or “Victory Discs”
There are 900 V-discs on the internet archive, the first hundred are here:
These recordings offer a peak in to what American music was doing at a time when there are scant few other clues.
The only real book on the topic I’ve been able to find is “V-Discs: A History and Discography” (1980) which is unsurprisingly out of print. I was able to source a copy from my local library on an intra-library loan, and I’m slowly exploring it.
It seems a real shame that there hasn’t been more writing about V-Discs in general, as they are some of the only things recorded during the longest musician’s strike in American history.
Even scholarship about that strike in general is hard to find (go figured, bigger things were happening in the world.)
I think it might have been the longest US strike in the 20th century? I can’t think of a longer one, anyway. I can’t find evidence of a longer one. two years! And it had been proceeded by another strike less than a decade earlier, and would be followed by another strike less than a decade later.
And, frankly, those strikes really rhyme with the current writer’s strike.
Think about why recording musicians in 1937 would have gone on strike. Think about why recording musicians in 1942 would have gone on strike. Think about why recording musicians in 1948 would have gone on strike.
In each case, the answer is the influence of technology on economics.
Recording quality kept getting better, avenues for live performances were shrinking. Musicians would get paid for a single performance, and then that performance would be played out over and over again, and they wouldn’t see a dime.
Live radio gigs were replaced by replaying old recordings. Musicians found themselves competing with their past selves, and their past selves were free.
There are shades of that all over the current writer’s strike.
Royalty rates (or, in this case, residuals) have fallen dramatically.
Studios are convinced that they can feed the previous output of writers (things they already paid for and own) in to an LLM and reap from it new writing that they do not have to pay for in the same way that radio stations were replaying old performances, rather than hiring new ones.
What can we learn from the successes and failures of the musicians strikes of the 30s and 40s?