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History of the AFM

In the mid-1800s musicians in the United States began exploring ways to improve their professional lives. They formed Mutual Aid Societies to provide members with loans, financial assistance during illness or extended unemployment and death benefits. A number of these organizations became early unions serving various constituencies, but problems arose between them due to competition. In 1896, delegates from these organizations gathered at the invitation of American Federation of Labor (AFL) President Samuel Gompers to organize and charter a musicians' trade union. A majority of the delegates voted to form the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), representing 3,000 musicians nationally. They resolved: "That any musician who receives pay for his musical services, shall be considered a professional musician." Within its first ten years, the AFM expanded to serve both the US and Canada, organized 424 Locals, and represented 45,000 musicians throughout North America.

Select a time period:
1896-1909 | 1910-1919 | 1920-1929 | 1930-1939 | 1940-1949
1950-1959 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999

1896-1909 Back to top

1896 - The American Federation of Musicians was established and chartered by the American Federation of Labor. Owen Miller served as AFM President from 1896-1900.

1900 - The union changed its name to the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada as interest grew in organizing professional musicians throughout North America. Joseph Weber was elected AFM President and served until 1914.

1903 - In response to competition between foreign and domestic bands at the World's Fair in St. Louis, the union discouraged the hiring of foreign bands.

1904 - The union set the first wage scales (minimum prices) for orchestras traveling with comic operas, musical comedies and similar shows and attractions.

1905 - The union set the first wage scales for traveling Grand Opera.

1907 - On behalf of composers and the AFM, operetta composer Victor Herbert appeared before the US Congress in support of copyright reforms.

1910-1919 Back to top

Novelty "music machines" that do not require a musician to play them have existed since the Middle Ages. In the 19th century music boxes, mechanical orchestras, and player pianos were popular, but these machines did not seriously affect the ability of musicians to earn their livings. With Thomas Edison's production of a voice recording on tin foil in 1877, a revolution began in the way music was heard and sold. By the early 20th century, the recording of everything from vaudeville sketches to the classical repertoire was under way. Unemployment for musicians increased during this period because of the economic effects of World War I and the growing success of commercial recordings.

1910 - The first volume of cowboy songs was published. The word "jass" or "jazz" began to appear in newspapers.

1912 - The union made a donation to the widows and orphans of the musicians on the Titanic.

1913 - The AFM and the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) signed an agreement to support each other during controversies in theaters.

1914 - Approximately eleven thousand members were employed in theater orchestras in the United States and Canada. Frank Carothers was elected AFM President and served for one year.

1915 - Joseph Weber was re-elected AFM President and served until 1940.

1916 - US Congress passed a law prohibiting members of the armed services from competing with civilians. This helped to alleviate a long-term competition between civilian and military bands.

1918 - In the US, the AFM waged a campaign to prevent passage of the 18th Amendment, also known as the "Prohibition Amendment." To support the war effort, Congress adopted a 20% "Cabaret Tax" on admissions to various entertainment establishments. Both prohibition and the cabaret tax decreased employment for musicians.

1919 - The AFM worked to change immigration rules for musicians. It was successful in arranging easier access for musicians traveling between the US and Canada, while curtailing unregulated admission to the US of foreign musicians working for poor wages. The year also brought additional unemployment for theater musicians due to a strike by Actors Equity.

1920-1929 Back to top

Problems of unemployment among musicians continued in the 1920s. The cost of living after World War I remained high and the 20% Cabaret Tax (US) enacted during the war limited employment opportunites. Radio broadcasting of musical performances began to reduce the number of job opportunites for live performers. In addition, the popularity of "talking" pictures caused musicians to lose work because they were no longer needed to provide music in movie theaters for the "silent" pictures.

1920 - The union required conductors of grand opera and symphony orchestras to be members of the AFM.

1922 - The AFM publicized its opposition to child labor.

1927 - With the release of the first "talkie", The Jazz Singer, orchestras in movie theaters were displaced. The AFM had its first encounter with wholesale unemployment brought about by technology. Within three years, 22,000 theater jobs for musicians who accompanied silent movies were lost, while only a few hundred jobs for musicians performing on soundtracks were created by the new technology.

1928 - While continuing to protest the loss of jobs due to the use of "canned music" with motion pictures, the AFM set minimum wage scales for Vitaphone, Movietone and phonograph record work. Because synchronizing music with pictures for the movies was particularly difficult, the AFM was able to set high prices for this work.

1930-1939 Back to top

As recording technology progressed, musicians' workplaces became increasingly diverse. The AFM leadership believed the organization should be progressive and that all musicians should be represented by the union, whether they worked in the most traditional workplaces or with the newest emerging technologies.

The economic problems of the Great Depression killed some recording companies. However, the recording business revived enough by the mid-thirties so that the first Encyclopedia of Recorded Music was published. Newspapers started record columns. Radio, recorded music and music education created a music-conscious nation. Many great musicians and composers came to America to escape the growing conflicts in Europe.

1930 - Still working to save the jobs of musicians who played music for silent movies, the union established the Music Defense League to gain public support for its fight against "canned music" in movie theaters.

1935 - The AFM secured relief for unemployed musicians through the United States government's Works Projects Administration.

1940-1949 Back to top

1940 - James Petrillo was elected AFM President. He was to become a famous and pivotal figure in the union's development. He remained as President until 1958. During his tenure, much legislation was passed by the US government that affected the strength of the union in bargaining for musicians. While some anti-union laws affected all unions, the Lea Act (repealed in 1980) specifically limited the AFM's ability to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with radio broadcasters. This bill was introduced in retaliation for strikes Petrillo called against radio broadcasters. Petrillo struggled to find ways to compensate the thousands of musicians who continued to lose work because of recording. As a result of his efforts, the AFM and the recording companies agreed to create the Recording and Transcription Funds (later named the Recording Industries Music Performance Trust Funds) which continues today to promote music appreciation and music education through sponsorship of free public performances throughout the US and Canada.

1941 - Arrangers and copyists established minimum wages for engagements with traveling orchestras.

1944 - The union obtained its first written collective bargaining agreement with the motion picture industry.

1946 - The AFM celebrated its 50th Anniversary.

1948 - US President Harry Truman played duets with AFM President Petrillo at the AFM International Convention.

1950-1959 Back to top

In association with other arts groups, the union lobbied for the establishment of a US government department dedicated to conserving the heritage and elevating the position of the arts in America. The Canadian Parliament established a council for the arts in 1957.

1951 - The Lester Petrillo Fund for Disabled Musicians was created by President James Petrillo in memory of his late son.

1952 - The union increased its representation of musicians in the motion picture industry by obtaining its first collective bargaining agreement with independent motion picture producers.

1955 - The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations merged to create the AFL-CIO.

1957 - The Canadian Parliament established the Canada Council which helped to raise achievement in Canadian music to new heights.

1958 - Herman Kenin was elected AFM President and served until 1970.

1959 - Through negotiations with the record industry, the first AFM pension (AFM Employers Pension Welfare Fund) was established.

1960-1969 Back to top

Record sales increased with the coming of age of the Baby Boom generation. More and more adults, as well as teenagers, listened to rock and roll as it entered the mainstream of music. Folk music also gained in popularity. Society and the arts were quickly changing as people grappled with the difficult social issues of that time. Musicians working in both classical and popular musical genres took advantage of increasingly sophisticated electronic instruments.

1960 - The union established its first agreement for Pay-TV. Nightclub bookings rose by $9 million after the US Congress cut the Cabaret Tax to 10%.

1961 - TEMPO was established as the union's political action committee.

1962 - The union undertook a campaign to amend the Copyright Act to establish performance and property rights for performing musicians on recorded music.

1965 - US President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation that created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Although the NEA has become highly controversial, its funding made possible the development of high quality symphony orchestras and chamber music groups throughout the nation.

1966 - The remaining 10% Cabaret Tax was repealed.

1969 - The AFM recognized the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) as an organization representing orchestral musicians within the union.

1970-1979 Back to top

Record sales tripled over the course of the decade. Music marketers analyzed audiences for their "sales demographics." Radio stations which had played a variety of musical styles began programming only one style. This led to a fragmenting of musical styles as musicians geared performances for particular audiences. Disco, punk rock, heavy metal and new wave music grew in popularity. More frequent broadcasting of opera on television increased its popularity and led to the development of more regional opera companies.

1970 - Hal Davis was elected AFM President and served until 1978.

1972 - The US Congress passed a law making music piracy subject to criminal prosecution.

1975 - The AFM recognized the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM) as an organization representing orchestral musicians within the union.

1978 - The AFM opened its membership to military musicians. Victor Fuentealba was elected AFM President and served until 1987.

1979 - The AFM established a full-time international office in Toronto.

1980-1989 Back to top

The introduction of music video changed the way music and performers were marketed. The fame of some musicians made them powerful fundraisers for charities ranging from famine relief to farm aid. Controversy over free speech issues grew in the US when politicians criticized the content of rock songs and began efforts to control how music was marketed to teenagers.

1980 - The AFM and the National Labor Relations Board signed an agreement allowing the union to continue franchising and regulating booking agents.

1982 - The AFM recognized the International Recording Musicians Association (RMA) as an organization representing recording musicians within the union.

1984 - The AFM recognized the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) as an organization representing orchestral musicians within the union.

1987 - The union supported the Digital Audio Recorder Act to prevent unauthorized taping of recordings. Working with US and Canadian immigration, the union secured a reciprocal exchange program that made it easier for members to cross the US/Canada border to work. J. Martin Emerson was elected AFM President and served until 1991.

1988 - The union established the "ROADGIG" Emergency Traveling Assistance Program which provides aid and emergency cash relief when members experience a contract default while on the road. The AFM then follows up with enforcement of the terms of the contract. The program was established in Canada in 1989.

1990-1999 Back to top

In the last decade, music from every era was available both live and through old and new technologies. Popular music includes everything from rock groups performing with synthesizers to those using "unplugged" acoustic guitars; from the "Three Tenors" Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti with full orchestra to multimedia technologies and sound sampling on the Internet; from singers performing original country & western or hip-hop to groups traveling the country performing in the style of big bands of the 1940s. As the AFM moves into its second century, the union continues to protect professional musicians in every area of the music business.

1991 - Mark Massagli was elected AFM President and served until 1995.

1992 - Congress adopted the Audio Home Recording Act, providing musicians with royalties from the sale of digital audio tape and digital tape recorders.

1994 - The union and movie producers agreed on guidelines for low budget film recording in order to extend union representation in the movie industry.

1995 - The union and recording companies agreed on guidelines for low budget audio and multimedia recording in order to extend union representation in the recording industry.

1995 - Steve Young was elected AFM President.

1996 - The AFM celebrated its 100th anniversary.

2001 - AFM Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lee is elected President at the 94th Annual Convention.

International Musician, Centennial Issue, October, 1996, American Federation of Musicians; Harvard Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, Willi Apel, Belknap/Harvard, 1969; Music Matters; The Performer and the American Federation of Musicians, George Seltzer, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1989;
This Business of Music, Shemel Krasilovsky, Billboard Press.

The books include extensive bibliographies.


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