So how did these small rebel companies make any kind of impact when facing such giants? There were several factors that came together at just the right time. The most important were the formation of BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) in 1940, the US entering World War II in 1941, and the strike by the union known as the American Federation of Musicians.
Prior to the formation of BMI the publishing of music was totally controlled by ASCAP (American society of Composers). ASCAP had been the only way a songwriter could get their material published and collect their royalties. Since ASCAP was based in New York City, the center of music publishing and recording was in the big Apple. With the advent of BMI, the monopoly was broken and writers anywhere in the country could get their music published and/or recorded. Despite having to fight many legal battles with ASCAP, BMI was able to open the flood gates for new music.
Since ACAP owned all of the pop music of the time, BMI took on the rest of the music that was considered to be “inferior”. Blues, Country and R & B soon made BMI their home. By the time ASCAP realized the times were changing, it was too late. BMI had built up a huge catalog of music from all kinds of genres.
During World War II Shellac was rationed. It was a critical ingredient in the making of the records of the time period. The old 78 RPM records were made of a heavy slate like materials that needed binding. Shellac was used for that binding, but it was also used for the making of bullets. This fact led to one of the many slogans during the war that wouldn’t make sense today- “from ballads to bullets”.
With Shellac being hard to get, the major labels had to cut back. The number of new releases was not only scaled way back, but the roster of artists had to be trimmed. The first music to be cut was the ethnic records that were only popular in certain regions of the country. This included the so called “Race Music”.
This left a big opening for the small labels to get a foothold. Since most of the labels didn’t have nationwide distribution, they were able to concentrate on signing artists who were popular in their region.
The last factor in the rise of independents was a strike by AFM (American Federation of Musicians) in 1942. This strike is a long story. The short, simple explanation of what the strike meant to the record industry is this. Some 120,000 members of the union went on strike. Only union members were used in recordings by the major labels so this was another reason for less music being recorded. For years radio programs were forced to use union players for any music that was broadcasted live on the air. Radio stations wanted to play more and more of “canned” or recorded music. Much of the music recorded by the indies were not recorded with union musicians. The unions fought this practice and eventually they worked out an agreement with the smaller labels, but the giants held out. This was only a help to the smaller labels because it caused a mass exit from artists on the major labels who didn’t want to sit out the strike. That gave the indies a big head start when the war was over.
Once the war was over, everyone wanted to satisfy their hunger for new music. The small labels were in a perfect position to satisfy the new mass audience of record buyers.
The big labels were slow moving. They were top heavy and making decisions took a long time. Often they were so slow that they missed out on signing potentially great stars. Most of the small labels were pretty much a one or two man show. This allowed them to make quick decisions. Many of their signings were gut reactions to what they thought would sell in their marketplace. Unlike the major label movers and shakers, the owners of the indies were on the ground level with their audience and were much better at knowing what was “happening” than many of their counterparts at the big labels who often lived their music lives in an ivory tower.
The smaller labels were often run on a shoestring. Their low overhead allowed them to take chances that the corporate labels couldn’t do. They only advantage the majors had was money. This allowed them to buy out some the stars from the smaller labels once these stars had already made a name for themselves. Sometime s it worked and sometimes it didn’t. RCA made a lot of money with Elvis Presley, but many others were already past their peak or were one or two hit wonders that ended up losing the majors money while the small labels were busy looking and signing new potential stars.
Probably the worst offender was Columbia Records. Mitch Miller, who was the head man at the time, flat out said he would never sign a rock act to his label. This defiance led to Columbia losing a lot of money during the 50’s when Rock ‘n’ Roll was outselling almost everything on the pop charts. Ironically Columbia Records became a major player once Miller was out. Their artist roster in the 60’s & 70’s that included Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, Santana, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Aerosmith and Chicago are just a few of the major stars that found their home on Columbia Records.
In contrast, a quick look at the stars of early Rock ‘n’ Roll shows just how much indies developed the music. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis (Sun Records), Little Richard, Larry Williams, and Lloyd Price (Specialty Records), Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf (Chess Records), Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson (Imperial Records), Ray Charles, The Coasters, and Ruth Brown (Atlantic Records), James Brown, Hank Ballard (originator of the twist) and Little Willie John (King Records) and Buddy Holly (Brunswick/Coral Records) were all on indie labels. In fact, astonishingly NOT ONE TOP 100 EARLY ROCK STARS OF THE 50’S WAS DISCOVERED AND SIGNED BY A MAJOR LABEL!