Home / General / This Day in Labor History: April 2, 1964

This Day in Labor History: April 2, 1964


On April 2, 1964, the Department of Labor announced changes limiting the ability of non-American musicians to work in the U.S. after lobbying from the American Federation of Musicians. This led to outrage from fans of The Beatles and other British invasion bands. It’s a somewhat ridiculous moment in American labor history and not one that makes the Americans musicians look very good, but it’s also a way to get into the thought process of these unions and the threat of foreign competition.

The American Federation of Musicians was a fairly powerful union in the mid-20th century. The position of union musicians was already slipping with the arrival of movie soundtracks laid over the film, which cost musicians who played live in theaters a lot of jobs. Like a lot of trade jobs, the AFM was as much about establishing professional standards as it was about protecting jobs or getting better wages. For that union, the core professional standard was the ability to read music. Rock and roll musicians were not exactly great traditionally trained musicians. The union simply wasn’t set up for this kind of popular music coming in and overwhelming the ways it had set up its work rules.

The other part of this is that to get consistent work for its members, the AFM had to promote live music over recorded music. Think about all the orchestras used on TV and radio shows back in this era. These were union musicians making a living. Moreover, consider the types of instruments used here. There wasn’t much room for clarinets and trombones and flutes in rock music (well, at least until Ian Anderson came along…..). So rock and roll was a threat in a number of ways. While the union had won some royalties for recorded music, it still relied on live performances. But while rock and roll was great live, it also was most certainly not set up for the type of orchestra setting. There weren’t that many popular rock musicians and Jerry Lee or Elvis or Chuck Berry were not going to be working for a talk show. They were going to be on tour.

Notably then, a lot of rock artists, as well as the other new genres such as electric blues and R&B, were on new labels such Motown and Chess instead of the traditional labels where the AFM made it harder for them to work. Moreover, even if a rock artist was to record at a unionized label, AFM rules made the singer and bandleader more like an employer than a musician. Ultimately, the bandleader was the boss and union rules reinforced the idea.

In March 1964, the AFM and its counterpart in Britain came to an agreement to support the free exchange of culturally important musicians, which on both ends definitely did not include rockers. The AFM also lobbied Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz to stop British rock bands from coming to the U.S. The justification for this, if you want to call it that, is that the Beatles and other bands made music so easy to play that American musicians could just cover it. So union jobs could be protected while still allowing the performance of such “mediocre” music. Wirtz probably didn’t really understand rock and roll at all and so he agreed to this in a April decision. Moreover, it’s at least worth noting that the position of the Labor Department is usually to promote American workers. It doesn’t per se make sense to think of rock bands as workers in the same sense as steel or auto or housecleaners, but it is work, you are getting paid for your labor, and the AFM had a vested interest in protecting its members. Moreover, it wasn’t only the AFM fighting on this. For example, in 1963, Actors’ Equity, the leading actors union, complained to Wirtz about all the British actors coming to the U.S. to work, undermining American actors ability to get paid. So on April 2, Wirtz and the DOL decided to limit the ability of foreign musicians to perform in the U.S.

This might not have gotten a lot of attention if it wasn’t for the loathsome anti-labor columnist Victor Riesel, by this point already blind due to his mob ties, even though he blamed unions because of course he did. He wrote a column about this as another way to stick it to his hated unions. Any column titled “Keeping Out the Beatles” in 1964 was going to get attention. To say the least, the AFM’s position did not make them friends with the legions of young Beatles fans. A girl in Scottsdale, Arizona gathered thousands of signatures on a letter to AFM president Herman Kenin in protest. Moreover, these letters took Kenin to task for his snobbish view of culture. Interestingly, many of these letters also put all of this in a Cold War context, noting that the U.S. was supposed to be about the free exchange of music and ideas and that the AFM was playing a Soviet-style role here. Some went so far as to accuse the AFM of being commies, which was very much not the case.

Kenin was shocked by this response. After all, real music was CULTURE and rock and roll was definitely not CULTURE. Why would the kids not want to listen to his musicians instead of those floppy headed morons from Liverpool? It wasn’t just Kenin. Wirtz was also inundated with letters from furious Beatles fans. Of course, none of this really mattered. Promoters got around this rule by having American bands open for British bands. Easy enough. Everyone got work. It was a wildly overstated issue. No, the AFM does not look good here. But it is an interesting moment and a unique way to get into a particular issue in labor history.

The funny part of all this is that The Beatles were almost done with live shows by this time anyway, playing their last show in, yes, San Francisco, in 1966.

In fact, The Kinks’ “Get Back in Line” references all this directly.

‘Cos when I see that union man walking down the street
He’s the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve, or I eat

Then he walks up to me and the sun begins to shine

Then he walks right past and I know that I’ve got to get back in the line

While this could come across as directly anti-union and maybe was (it’s not as if unions were exactly popular with the cultural radicals of the period due to their top-down nature), Ray Davies later said this was his response to the American musician’s union and the 1964 ruling. The Kinks blamed this for not being at Woodstock. Of course, Ray Davies could also be quite whiny. He also got into an actual fight with one of the set guys on American Bandstand, which seems to have made him hate unions in general. But in fact, The Kinks had so infuriated American unions by their behavior that the AFM specifically ensured that they could not get into the U.S. to play all the way until 1969.

This post borrowed from Shaun Richman’s exploration of this issue from 2017 as well as Michael James Roberts’ Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock and the Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 19421968, which is a very interesting book.

This is the 432nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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