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He immediately demonstrated a genius for bad public relations. He banned a broadcast by 160 boys & girls from the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Mich. The press reacted as though he had burned off their heads with an acetylene torch; Congress and the Justice Department jostled each other in their rush to investigate him. He plunged on, hauled the nation's big symphony orchestras into the union, and with them artists like Iturbi, Spalding and Zimbalist. "They're mine," he cried. "What's the difference between Heifetz and a fiddler in a tavern?"
Indeed, as far as Petrillo is concerned, there is no difference at all. Such is his power that any person who wants to play any instrument for profit must be a member of his unionor just play for his friends. This means everyone from Spike Jones, whose City Slickers would rather murder a tune than play it, to Concert Violinist Joseph Szigeti; from Louis ("Satchmo") Armstrong, the king of swing trumpeters, to Susan Reed, who plays a polite zither in nightclubs. Arturo Toscanini is an honorary member but other symphony conductors, like the men in their orchestras, are obedient members of Petrillo's union.
Something for the Boys. In 1942 Petrillo took his biggest gamble. He pulled musicians out of all the nation's recording studios and demanded a royalty on every record sold. Before the ban was over Franklin Roosevelt himself had asked Petrillo to relent. He refused. Some minor companies had already capitulated and, after 27 months, the big record companies surrendered.
Record royalties ($1,756,435 in 1946, about $2,000,000 in 1947) gave Petrillo an enviable opportunity to soothe and comfort his followers and dramatize his fierce boast that he toiled only for the welfare of "the boys." He spent the royalty money employing musicians in free public concerts, the lion's share of it outside New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the three big cities of the music world. Thus records provided extra employment though not for the men who made them.
This conformed to the political pattern by which Petrillo has always governed and maintained authority within the union. Of the A.F.M.'s 215,000 members, only 80,000 are full-time musicians. By cultivating the tavern pianist, the burlesque-show drummer, the small-town clerk who plays a piccolo, Petrillo insures himself a long and presumably happy reign.
This did not mean that the big-time musician resented Petrillo or particularly criticized his royal plan for dispensing royalties. For Petrillo had at least blasted a way toward discussion of the ownership of canned music. The antiquated U.S. copyright laws provide that only the copyright owner shall receive music royalties ignoring the musician and recording firm, the artificers who put the music into salable form. If a disc jockey and a radio station collect revenue from the commercial use of the product, why not the men who made it? Petrillo was not the first to ask this question, but he was a man with a lever to pry out an answer.