LABOR: The Pied Piper of Chi

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Child of Edison. He was enforcing three musical bans at once—old bans against television and frequency modulation radio stations (which were not allowed to share standard broadcasts of music), and a brand new and bigger ban against the record and transcription business. He had gone to Washington to let the House Education and Labor Committee ask him why he had done it. He beamed happily, thumbs in suspenders (see cut), over having beaten the rap in a Chicago federal court test of the Lea Act—a piece of legislation which had been written for the specific purpose of bringing him to trial for making radio stations hire standby musicians. He was also negotiating a new contract with the major U.S. radio networks, a process which involved the threat of a walkout by his musicians.

As always, his activity was accompanied by great public outcry. Millions of U.S. citizens considered him a putty-nosed Canute trying to hold back the tide of progress. The nation was full of editorial writers who swore they could see foam dribbling down his jowls and wanted him clapped forthwith into a strait jacket. There was a certain irony in this. Petrillo's carnivorous methods of "getting something for the boys" made him the natural foe of the canned-music business, but he was also part and product of it, as much a child of Edison and Marconi as the electric tone arm and the portable radio.

The Product. The world of music had changed radically in the half century since brass bands pumped lugubriously before U.S. saloons and Americans fought mosquitoes at park concerts for the sweet sake of culture. Music was now a product to be seized by machinery, to be packaged, distributed and sold in wholesale lots. Canning and transmitting musical effects was a huge and complicated industry in which the artist, the advertiser, the salesman and the inventor fought ceaselessly for expression and profit. Its impact upon the people of the U.S. and the world was tremendous—it had given them both the Beethoven Ninth and Too Fat Polka ("I don't want her, You can have her, She's too fat for me"). It had also made possible the use of either Beethoven or boogie-woogie in the sale of elevator shoes or political propaganda.

The change began with the phonograph. The machine which Edison invented in 1877 was an impractical toy which, as its needle scratched a cylinder of tin foil, made noises like a man strangling to death. The commercial "gramophones" which followed (colloquially called screech boxes) were not much better. But the early disc phonographs, which delivered both Caruso and Cohen on the Telephone, were too delightful to be resisted. The speed with which they became a national obsession was reflected by the financial statements of the Victor Talking Machine Co., which did $500 worth of business in 1901 and $12 million in 1905.

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