One of the strangest episodes in American radio took place in 1941, when the major players of the radio industry joined together and boycotted all music licensed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
In the process, the move changed the face of American popular music.
The increase in popularity of Western bands in the 1940s can, in part, be credited to the 1941 boycott. This WCMB photo is from the collection of John Schneider. ASCAP was created in 1914 by songwriters led by Victor Herbert. It took on the task of enforcing the 1897 copyright law, which required that anyone performing music for profit must have the consent of the copyright owners. This was relatively easy in the days when all music performance took place in theaters and other public venues; ASCAP simply collected royalties from theater owners based on a percentage of their box office sales. But the new radio industry created a problem for them — there was no way to know the number of listeners.
This spawned two decades of haggling. Early broadcasters, led by Zenith president and pioneer Chicago broadcaster Eugene F. MacDonald, formed the National Association of Broadcasters in 1925 specifically to deal with the music licensing problem. In 1932, ASCAP set a blanket annual fee of 5 percent of a station’s advertising revenue. While burdensome on the radio industry, which continually fought for better terms, this became the recognized formula throughout the 1930s.
Everything fell apart in 1940, when ASCAP announced it would triple its music fees for radio. Broadcasters vehemently opposed this, arguing that the exposure the music industry received via the radio helped popularize new music and boosted sales, but ASCAP refused to back down. An impasse had been reached, and drastic action was needed.
In September of that year, industry leaders met at the NAB convention in San Francisco and decided on a drastic move to demonstrate the influence of radio on popular music — beginning Jan. 1, 1941, most radio stations and all the networks would boycott ASCAP music. That meant that, virtually overnight, more than 1 million ASCAP tunes disappeared from America’s airwaves.
In 1939, broadcasters and the NAB had established Broadcast Music Inc. as the radio industry’s own music-licensing agency, and $1.5 million had been set aside to create new music compositions for broadcasting. BMI actively sought out new composers who weren’t already contracted to ASCAP and released their music to stations at a much more favorable rate. These were mostly third-rate tunes penned by unknown composers. When the boycott happened, there wasn’t enough BMI music to meet the need.
To fill their airwaves, broadcasters turned to other sources of music. They played songs from the public domain, such as familiar melodies derived from classical works, and old American standards like “I Dream of Jeanne with the Light Brown Hair.” (Time Magazine said that song was played so much that Jeanne’s hair turned grey.) And they performed foreign music that wasn’t licensed by ASCAP, especially Latin American standards like “Perfidia” and “The Breeze and I.” Still another source of new music were the “hillbilly” and “race” tunes that ASCAP considered beneath its dignity to license.
Radio’s ASCAP boycott had far-reaching implications. Most radio programs in the 1940s had opening theme songs, and many of these were controlled by ASCAP. This meant that Jack Benny couldn’t play “Love in Bloom” on his violin, and George Burns and Gracie Allen couldn’t use their theme “Love Nest,” which had been written by ASCAP co-founder George M. Cohan.
Instead, substitute theme songs were found, and some astute program producers had avoided the problem completely by choosing public domain theme songs, such as the Lone Ranger’s “William Tell Overture” and the Green Hornet’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
The boycott also affected the record industry, because recording artists knew their releases of ASCAP tunes couldn’t be heard on the radio. Some popular bandleaders responded by recording swing versions of public domain songs, such as Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol” and “Song of the Volga Boatmen.”
Coinciding with the start of the radio boycott, the Department of Justice began investigating all the parties — ASCAP, BMI and the broadcast networks — for criminal monopolistic practices. This was resolved in February when ASCAP voluntarily signed a consent decree, agreeing to offer broadcasters both blanket and per-piece licenses.
However, several more months of negotiations went by before all parties could agree on the rates to be charged. By the end of summer, ASCAP had signed an agreement with NBC for 2.75 percent of net time sales on network broadcasts and 2.25 percent for local station programs — less than half of what it had been getting before 1940.
The boycott officially ended in October 1941, and America’s popular music returned to the airwaves.
But something had changed in those 10 months — American listeners had been exposed to new music genres, and they liked what they heard.
“Hillbillly” music quickly morphed into the more refined “western” genre, which became immensely popular on radio throughout the forties, eventually leading to today’s country music. “Race” music became rhythm and blues, which then merged with jazz to become rock and roll. Latin rhythms and dances like the rumba and the mambo became national sensations.
In short, radio had demonstrated its tremendous ability to shape popular music tastes.
Unfortunately, with time, broadcasters lost control of their own creation, BMI, and it has become a functional clone of ASCAP. Once again, the radio industry is battling with the music industry — this time over performance royalties.
In radio’s golden era, most broadcast music was performed live, and so the artists were paid for each performance. In fact, the American Federation of Musicians exercised its own substantial power to keep most recorded music off the airwaves. Of course, today almost no live music is heard on the air. And so the debate rages as to whether radio should pay performance royalties, and the radio industry still argues that its influence over popular music creates a symbiotic relationship.
With today’s greater diversity of music delivery methods, some people wonder if a radio music boycott could ever have the same impact today as it did in 1941.
John Schneider is a lifelong radio history researcher and a longtime Radio World contributor. Write the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.