The Great Music War

by Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at


    In 1914, Victor Herbert, the famous operetta composer and grand gourmand, was eating in a swell restaurant in New York.

    He was pleased to hear the small orchestra play a string of his tunes but was irked by his not getting any recompense for this.

    Consultation with fellow writers and a clever lawyer resulted in the formation of the American Society of Composers Writers and publishers (ASCAP). Now places offering live music must pay an annual license fee. All was fine until radio became massively popular by the 1930s.

       Edward Marks, a big music publisher, dismally predicted radio would be “the most disastrous of all mechanical developments which have so altered our Tin Pan Alley”. This was because radio was gobbling up songs crazily, creating a hit in seven days and killing her off in sixty. From the start radio had relied on song but was loath to pay her makers anything.” All we’re broadcasting is electrical energy”, claimed the radio boys. Bills in Congress, lobbied by radio interests, tried to break ASCAP. Several states passed laws against the battling society. Even bodyguards were employed.

       The society was demanding and getting a percentage of radio revenue in return for granting a blanket license for the performance of her members’ music on the air. Her member constituted the very finest in American music: Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter. Standards were high and there was little room for the songs of hillbillies and blues shouters. They must learn their craft, study hard to become musical literates. For ASCAP music was America’s music, beloved old favorites of gaslight days and bright new ballads from Broadway—so why shouldn’t she get over four million dollars from radio in 1939, to be divided among a mere thousand writers and 150 publishers?

       In contrast, the National Association of Broadcasters considered that these songsmiths should be only too glad to be honored by the glory of having their wares advertised. To them ASCAP was a racket run by a guild of greedy men. Small radio stations were annoyed at having to pay for lush Broadway stuff which mostly they didn’t use because they liked to fill up their airwaves with ever-popular hillbilly music. Finally the radio bosses decided they could do without ASCAP music by tapping a root source of America’s music.

    They would broadcast out-of-copyright songs—folk music, Stephen Foster, anything before 1884---and invite writers who had failed to enter the ASCAP club, plus hillbillies, bluesmen, housewives, even the general public themselves—to write for a brand new society organized by radio. Broadcast Music Incorporated became a company on 14 October 1939.

    The NAB now waited to see what ASCAP would do. Would they come to terms and lower their rates? If not, would the radio audience tolerate the loss of their beloved ASCAP music? Battle lines were drawn for THE GREAT POP WAR!

       1940 and the two rival giants bustled about. At the San Francisco Fair ASCAP threw free concerts featuring their finest artists performing their greatest hits. Said the society’s president “There is nothing finer than a song to hang a memory on.”

       Forward they came, the noted songwriters, magicians who could steal back remembrance of times past and set memory free by just a few notes and a few words… George M. Cohan sang his “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy”…Walter Donaldson played his “My Blue Heaven”. Then, finally, the real all -American pop man himself: Irving Berlin with his “God Bless America”.

       Meanwhile BMI bustled, receiving gratefully songs from writers who’d failed to make the ASCAP grade, from hillbilly writers, from boogie-woogie boys, from lawyers, mechanics, and milkmen. One love ballad was set to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner”. 75 staff arrangers swiftly made 400 arrangements of other non-copyright songs such as “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” The catalogue built up and then suddenly pioneer published Ed Marks left ASCAP and rented his huge collection of oldies to BMI for a cool million. That was wonderful and other publishers were encouraged to join the rebels. Proudly BMI stated its purpose:

       “As a nation the United States has long been unduly modest in matters of the arts. The most vital, most original music being written today is American music. The established publishing houses have preferred to deal with only the established writers. BMI has dropped the bars, and now the new men, the young men, the men you have not known can bring you their songs.”

       ASCAP’s 1941 rates were at last announced: one hundred percent increase. Radio refused to pay and for almost the whole of 1941 no ASCAP music was aired- none of the nation’s best loved tunes, its heritage. ASCAP tune sleuths, they said, even monitored auto horns to make sure that the toots didn’t infringe on one of their copyrights. Ray Noble swung “Camptown Races” and generally Stephen Foster had a field day, but he was dead. There was no public outcry of “where are our songs” they were struck dumb. ASCAP came to terms.

       Pop music was a rapidly changing scene: now a bunch of Latin American numbers- “Amapola,” “Maria Elena”- now a whole lot of hillbilly numbers- “I Love You So Much it Hurts,” “Hey good lookin’,” “Your Cheating Heart”. Kids screaming and disk jockeys conducting them. Hank Williams, the hillbilly writer, actually threw a song away if he didn’t complete the thing in a half hour. “Peggy Sue” (by some Texan called Buddy Holly) was only 15 short lines with her name repeated 18 times. ASCAP believed broadcasters and the record companies were involved in a monstrous conspiracy to brainwash the nation with bad sounds not good literate songs. From 1953 the song men had tried to do away with this conspiracy. In that year, they filed an anti-trust action accusing BMI of conspiring “to dominate and control the market for the use and exploitation of musical compositions.” In 1956, there was an investigation by the anti-trust subcommittee of the house judiciary committee in which this statement was made by songwriter Billy Rose (“you’ve got to see Mama every night” and “I got a code id by dose”): “When ASCAP’s songwriters were permitted to be heard, Al Jolson, and Eddie Cantor were all big salesmen of songs. Today it is a set of untalented twitchers and twisters whose appeal is largely to the zoot suiter and the juvenile delinquent.”

       But, later in the hearings a vice president of BMI answered these charges and explained the modern world. BMI had helped democratize pop music,he said. When he visited Nashville, now one of the music centers of America, he was “amazed at the number of people who come up to me and say, “I am John Jones one of your publishers.” And it is exciting”. A cab driver in New York the other day said “By the way, are you with BMI?” and I said, “Yes.” He said, “I am one of your publishers.” And he is”.

       So the Pop War ended with the two societies settling down side by side to make money for their members. Such outsiders as Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan joined ASCAP. Soon there was no cultural difference between the two corporations of pop. Here is an instance of capitalist demands resulting in the happy opening of gates to other worlds of American music .”You are my sunshine” indeed!

       But there was another battle to be fought, one that contributed greatly to the decline of the big band. In 1942, with

the war going badly, the feisty new boss of the American Federation of Musicians, James Petrillo, ordered a strike against record labels because they weren’t paying royalties.Musicians were allowed to play for radio shows, and, importantly, were permitted to perform on  government sponsored V-discs since these were exclusively for the pleasure of the armed forces. Thus some great concerts were captured forever by players who were not occupied on the war front.

       Meanwhile the record  companies had hoped to cover themselves  by stockpiling performances by their most popular artists. Soon they ran out of fresh material—they even resorted to releasing stuff from their mid 1920s catalogs –and then they hit upon the idea of  recording singers sans accompaniment  except for vocal groups since singers weren’t covered by the union.

       This turned out to be a boon for the labels. Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby all enjoyed hit records with only vocal group  backing. Instead of being merely accessories to the  bands  singers now began to take  center stage, gradually edging the bands into a background function. In fact record sales were pretty steady what with the major labels digging into their back catalog and  stockpiles.  And  new independent ventures, like Savoy, specializing in jazz and R&b took advantage of idle pressing plants to issue juke box hits  and to take a chance with bebop groups. All with non-union playersIn 1944 all the labels made royalty deals with the union. The net result of the upset was a victory for vocalists , esoteric jazz and meaty R&B. Records sales zoomed. And preserved on big long-playing  V-discs was some of the finest music produced by the doomed big bands.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at