Our history began in 1896 when musicians gathered in Indianapolis and organized the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) for “any musician who receives pay for his musical services.” Representing 3,000 members, AFM was granted a charter by the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Wherever there was music, there were musicians organizing in the early 20th century—in theaters, restaurants, night clubs, hotel ballrooms, amusement parks, carnivals, symphonies, operas, ballets and increasingly at theaters as accompaniment for silent films.
In 1927 the first “talkie” film was released and within two years, 20,000 musicians lost their jobs performing in theater pits for silent films. This was not the first—or the last time—that technological advances would transform musicians’ work.
Yet musicians remained strong and established minimum wage scales for vitaphone, movietone & phonograph record work. In 1938, film companies signed their first contract with AFM. Musicians continued organizing in orchestras, radio and in the making of film scores. But musicians were losing income as phonorecords replaced radio orchestras and jukeboxes competed with live music in nightclubs. In 1942, AFM members embarked on one of their biggest campaigns—a recording ban.
Musicians went on strike in 1942 shutting down the U.S. recording market for two years until they won. By standing together, they forced the recording industry to establish a royalty on recording sales to employ musicians at live performances. That’s how the Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF) was established and it continues to sponsor free live performances throughout the United States and Canada.
Numerous labor actions in the following decades improved industry standards and working conditions for musicians. New agreements covered TV programs, cable TV, independent films and video games. Pension funds were established. Musicians also secured groundbreaking contracts providing royalties for digital transmissions and from recordings of live performances.
“The only object of AFM is to bring order out of chaos and to harmonize and bring together all the professional musicians of the country into one progressive body,” said AFM’s first President Owen Miller in 1896. 120 years later, AFM musicians continue standing together to have power. Now we are 80,000 musicians strong playing in orchestras, backup bands, festivals, clubs and theaters—both on Broadway and on tour. We also make music for film, TV, commercials and sound recordings.