Newsletter of the Mercurians, in the Society for the History of Technology
Volume 10 No. 2, May 1998
Stage to Studio: Musicians and the Sound Revolution, 1890-1950. By James P. Kraft. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Pp. x + 255; illustrations, endnotes, essay on sources, index. $35.00 (cloth).
The social history of music is a vexed topic. With varying degrees of success, twentieth century scholars from a variety of disciplines (sociology, anthropology, history, music, cultural studies, and philosophy) have sought to tease out the relationships between musical practice, technological change, and class dynamics. Not surprisingly, the results of this work have usually reflected the analytic techniques of the scholar in question. The best research has combined the approaches and perspectives of more than one field of study.
James P. Kraft's engaging book, Stage to Studio: Musicians and the Sound Revolution, 1890-1950, draws on a novel constellation of disciplinary perspectives and provides important insights into the impact of technological change on the struggles of union musicians during a period of profound social transformation. Combining techniques from social history, labor history, and the history of technology, Kraft weaves together archival material, oral history data, and secondary sources to produce an accessible narrative and a rich analysis. Where much contemporary music research focuses on listeners and the ideological content of the music, Kraft is one of the relatively few scholars who focuses on the musician and views that musician as a worker. The perspective is refreshing.
The first chapters of Stage to Studio set the scene for the analysis that follows. They describe the changes occurring in labor relations, music technology, and American culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kraft delineates how urbanization, the burgeoning leisure industries, and new technologies such as silent film led to a growth in the labor market for the musicians of this period. Placing the development of the musicians' unions in the context of other contemporary labor struggles, Kraft chronicles the success of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) at organizing and defending the interests of its members.
In the following chapters, Kraft portrays specific ways in which sound technology innovations (remote radio broadcasts of live music, sound movies, jukeboxes, high fidelity recordings, radio networks, and later, FM radio and television) steadily diminished job opportunities for working musicians during the twenties. This history of sound technology is interwoven with a detailed labor history, chronicling the largely accommodationist tactics of Joseph N. Weber (AFM president from 1900-1939) and the more aggressive approaches of James C. Petrillo, who succeeded Weber as president in 1940.
Kraft is at his strongest here. He shows how the struggles between the music industry and labor were informed by tensions within each camp, and he explores the unique impact that individual sound technologies had on various industry segments and union locals. Few readers will be surprised to learn of the corrosive effect of the Taft-Hartley Act on labor's negotiating power, or of the fact that management used its connections with the press to influence public opinion. Kraft's analysis of the rhetoric of that ideological battle is rewarding. His discussions of pro-management newspaper editorials and Petrillo's witty and persuasive congressional testimony nicely illustrate the role of ideology and rhetoric in social struggle. Kraft devotes his greatest attention to the bans of 1942-44 and 1948 during which the unions halted the production of new recordings and the ways in which the Lea and Taft-Hartley Acts eventually stripped the AFM of its maneuvering room. While the union was able to win some small concessions in the forties, their main goal was to require radio, and later television, to hire more live musicians. Kraft ends the historical narrative by describing how attempts to improve the labor market for musicians were ultimately rebuffed.
Kraft's synthetic approach to historical problems yields a rich narrative and powerful analysis, but some dimensions of the study would benefit from greater attention. For example, the issues of race and gender are discussed in the early chapters but fade into the background as the book wears on. And though Kraft creates evocative images of the lives of working musicians, he is less adroit at discussing the music itself. In his conclusion, for example, Kraft suggests that the popularity of recordings over live music on radio was an effect of market forces and taste-that American mass audiences simply preferred the recordings of the famous, national big bands to the live performances of local musicians. But Kraft's data only support the conclusion that radio found it cheaper to play recordings, not that the industry-supported big band jazz of the period was in some way "superior" or that most Americans actually preferred it. To conflate musical quality or listener preference with record sales is to oversimplify the dynamics of taste in American music cultures.
These difficulties, however, represent only minor problems in what is, on the whole, an excellent study. Kraft's broadest aim is to find a middle ground between Luddite denunciation and an unproblematic celebration of technology. In his conclusion, Kraft interprets the sound revolution and its technologies as well as the struggle of union musicians that emerged from that revolution as a case study in the complex social consequences of technology history. While it is difficult to understand the national big band jazz of the thirties as superior to the local music and musicians it harmed, Kraft's overarching insight is doubtlessly correct: recording technology has provided great benefits, even while it has undermined the livelihood of countless performers in the first half of the twentieth century. His concluding insight-that we, as a society, must pursue the real advantages of changes in technology without ignoring the negative human consequences they may entail-is one with broad relevance and profound importance.
Harris M. Berger is an assistant professor in the music program at Texas A& M University. His forthcoming book on heavy metal, rock, and jazz explores the relationship of musical sound, musical practices and issues of race and class in American society.