Music History: Musicians vs. the Talkies

When Hollywood added sound to movies, it was a revolution

Volume CX, No. 7/8July, 2010

If we don’t know our own history, we’re doomed to repeat it. Local 802 member Dave Schneck recently read about the AFM’s campaign against “talkies” in the 1930’s. Silent movies used to be bread and butter to live musicians, who provided live soundtracks or accompanied vaudeville acts between movies. When talking movies were invented, musicians were up in arms, but found that the public was not on their side.

The story below comes from “Without a Song: New York Musicians Strike Out Against Technology,” by Robin D. G. Kelley, which is a chapter in “Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century,” by Kelley, Howard Zinn and Dana Frank.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The story below is paraphrased from the original text. Some language is reproduced whole from Dr. Kelley’s original. Dr. Kelley has graciously approved this article.)

By 1926, around 22,000 musicians were working in movie theatre pits nationally, and they comprised one-fifth of the total membership of the AFM.

But in a few short years,”talkies” made these movie orchestras obsolete.

If moviegoers missed the live music, attendance figures don’t bear it out, because movie attendance figures rose in a four year period from 50 million a week in 1926 to 90 million a week in 1930.

This was all during the height of the Depression, and now owners could show movies all day long, without concern for union regulations concerning musicians’ hours.

The new technology cost between $9,000 and $15,000, and owners paid for their investment by firing their musicians, because a 15-piece orchestra could run close to $50,000 per year.

In 1927, musicians in St. Louis launched two successful strikes against talkies. At that time, the union had so much power that they were able to win seven weeks with full pay for their movie musicians – and, because the films were using sound already, the musicians didn’t play a note for their pay!

Similar deals were won elsewhere. In some theatres, owners paid orchestras to play for 90 seconds between shows. But this grace period was soon to end. Within two years, most of the movie musicians became unemployed.

During 1928, many AFM locals tried to emulate the St. Louis local and fight.

Strikes were held in Des Moines, Omaha, Seattle, Chicago and other places, but they didn’t stop the layoffs.

The AFM Convention of 1928 was held in Louisville, Kentucky, and the impact of talking pictures was the main topic.

The strategy from the AFM was not based on worker solidarity, but a heavily-financed P.R. campaign to convince audiences of the superiority of live music over the canned music in the film soundtrack.

It was paid for by a 2 percent tax on AFM members and the proceeds went to a “Theatre Defense Fund.”

By the end of 1928 the fund stood at $1.5 million.

Ads were bought in newspapers, magazines and billboards.

One ad featured an iron man ripping out the strings of a harp while a dog howls and an angel cries.

The campaign was expanded in 1931 to include a “Living Music Day,” and it was sponsored by AFM locals and local businesses.

In March of 1929, AFM President Joseph Weber met with Local 802 and its members to discuss the campaign, but local leaders and rank-and-file members were not persuaded.

Many ideas were put forth, such as job sharing, not doubling on more than one instrument, and not working more than three hours on movies per day. (If more hours were needed, owners would have to hire another orchestra.)

A committee of 10 was formed to develop these ideas. By the spring, they produced resolutions calling for negotiating new wage scales, an increase in the price of recorded music of 25 percent in any of its manifestations so that the proceeds could go to a local relief fund for musicians, and collecting royalties on talkies to go into the relief fund as well.

Local 802 raised the initiation fee to $100 and limited new members to 20 per month.

The local was split over a “share the work” campaign, which drew opposition both from union leaders and rank and file.

By the summer of 1936, the International’s P.R. campaign had failed to sway popular opinion.

Sound films were not only accepted, but embraced by audiences.

Plus, the sound films guaranteed some sort of consistency of product. In the past, every time a silent movie was accompanied by an orchestra, the music would be different each time. Sound films changed all that.


Local 802 decided that a more confrontational strategy was required to persuade theatres to bring back live music and vaudeville acts.

So Local 802 held a mass meeting to kick off a campaign to bring the “flesh” back to motion picture theatres.

Close to 5,000 musicians, actors, and “friends of stage shows” were at the Manhattan Opera House.

Dignitaries such as W.C. Handy and Rose Schneiderman, secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League, addressed the crowd.

Local 802 Secretary Fred Birnbach proposed a boycott of neighborhood theatres that did not employ musicians.

The resolution stated that musicians had been “thrown out of theatres in a complete disregard for the public’s love for live entertainment” as well as a disgregard for the economic consequences for musicians and actors themselves.

Over subsequent weeks, Local 802 picketed theatres throughout the city, printed 50,000 buttons, and distributed 10,000 placards for businesses to display in store windows calling for the return of “living music.”

The Local 802 Executive Board proposed more mass meetings and special public concerts.

In a letter to the editor published in the New York Times, Local 802 stated that the theatre campaign was not “a fight against canned music,” but rather a “fight for reemployment by men displaced not by machine but by the elimination of orchestras and actors in order to swell profits.”

Next, the union established neighborhood committees to approach theatre managers directly to request live music. There were no concrete results.

The picket lines thinned out considerably during the winter months of 1936 and 1937, picked up again in March, but by all accounts New York labor leaders had been silent with regard to the musicians’ strike.

It must be remembered, though, that Local 802 was not always visible at labor solidarity events at that time in history, except for its militant left wing, which regularly participated in the city’s May Day parade.

Finally, the union tried a unified campaign against the RKO theatre company. RKO was chosen as a target because, in the union’s view, it actively destroyed live music by taking over former vaudeville houses (which did hire live musicians) and replacing them with movie theatres. At the time, RKO operated 28 houses in the city.

This campaign at first generated more rank-and-file support than any previous efforts, but the fuse was hot and fast and died quickly. One week later, at the AFM Convention of 1937, Local 802 failed to get support for its theatre campaign.

Delegates from 802 introduced 14 specific proposals from the floor to restrict the mechanization of music. The Federation vehemently opposed 802’s proposals, especially suggestions for direct action against the studios and a ban on recording.

With no national support, 802 leadership believed the movement was doomed, and with what the local had paid out in strike funds, vouchers, and relief, continuation of the strike would amount to financial suicide.

So on July 8, 1937, the Executive Board voted to end the strike against movie theatres.