Skip to comments.How the Taxman Cleared the Dance Floor (How a 'cabaret tax' brought the decline of Big Band Music)
Posted on 03/27/2013 7:36:37 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
These are strange days, when we are told both that tax incentives can transform technologies yet higher taxes will not drag down the economy. So which is it? Do taxes change behavior or not? Of course they do, but often in ways that policy hands never anticipate, let alone intend. Consider, for example, how federal taxes hobbled Swing music and gave birth to bebop.
With millions of young men coming home from World War IIeager to trade their combat boots for dancing shoesthe postwar years should have been a boom time for the big bands that had been so wildly popular since the 1930s. Yet by 1946 many of the top orchestrasincluding those of Benny Goodman, Harry James and Tommy Dorseyhad disbanded. Some big names found ways to get going again, but the journeyman bands weren't so lucky. By 1949, the hotel dine-and-dance-room trade was a third of what it had been three years earlier. The Swing Era was over.
Dramatic shifts in popular culture are usually assumed to result from naturally occurring forces such as changing tastes (did people get sick of hearing "In the Mood"?) or demographics (were all those new parents of the postwar baby boom at home with junior instead of out on a dance floor?). But the big bands didn't just stumble and fall behind the times. They were pushed.
In 1944, a new wartime "cabaret tax" went into effect, imposing a ruinous 30% (later merely a destructive 20%) excise on all receipts at any venue that served food or drink and allowed dancing. The name of the "cabaret tax" suggested the bite would be reserved for swanky boîtes such as the Stork Club, posh "roof gardens," and other elegant venues catering to the rich.
(Excerpt) Read more at online.wsj.com ...
Economics....Rock and Roll came along, and it only took 2 or 3 musicians......and then rap came along, and you didn’t even need musicians anymore.
“.........and then rap came along, and you didnt even need musicians anymore.”
Or the ability to speak English.
But you do need a gun.
I had no idea but always wondered what really killed the Big Bands so quickly after the war. Leave it to the FEDS to screw up a good, no GREAT thing.
Yep, I agree. More of the same now...only going to tax the rich.
Interesting read. I’ve generally always bought into the notion that after the war ended, the public actually wanted a little less rambunciousness in their lives, and tastes veered from loud bands to calming vocalists. It does make a fair bit of sense.
The draft really killed off a lot of bands well before 1946, though. They were struggling, with sidemen being taken away left and right, needing constant replacements, etc.
Looks like the government made a few offers that Big Band leaders couldn’t refuse.
Interesting article, something I’ve wondered about but never gave much thought to.
I’m not subscribing to the WSJ to read the story, but it’s a specious conclusion that some sort of tax caused the decline of BB music. Evolving tastes and teens with money who liked RnR a lot more than BBm probably caused it’s decline. There were still plenty of big bands around when I was a kid, but my parents never bought one stinking music album. In fact, they used to listen my Tijuana Brass albums. But few teens wanted to hear brassy music. They wanted to hear that rock and roll guitar a lot more.
That said, I have to note the questionable value of posting article here that cannot be read in totality except by subscribers.
That and ASCAP’s royalty collection caused the demise of small groups peforming at your local watering hole. That feud also brought on Rock and Roll to radio with rival groups representing “recording” artists which broke ASCAPS stranglehold .
No, there was a pretty long gap between the big-band craze and the rock-n-roll craze. The latter didn’t replace the former. There was indeed a huge cratering of big-bands in 1946, when both major bands and minor ones disbanded. Some of the milder bands (like Les Brown) generally seemed to survive a bit better, and ultimately lasted many decades, but at a much lower profile.
It had nothing to do with music moving on to a new genre, like 1950s Rock -n- Roll?
All of it occured before I was born, but my Grandfather and his brothers were all in bands prior to the war. Aftewards, from what I recall, he said the bands just weren’t around anymore for whatever reason.
Seems Rock and Roll didn’t really pick up popular steam until around ‘54/’55 - that’s almost 10 years after the article cites the big band death.
Curious what was happening in the interim. Sinatra was definitely around, but IIRC, that between period coincides with a lull in his career as well.
Better sound systems and more affordable records and the prevalence of radio may have been a factor. Eventually TV too - Lawrence Welk started in ‘55 so there must have been some demand for big band music still around.
I’m not saying rock and roll immediately replaced all bb music. I stated that bb music was around in the sixties and into the seventies. I watched them on the Ed Sullivan Show and other venues. But my parents, who grew up during the BB era, never bought one album of any type of music. However, the future was dictated in the fifties when teens started getting their grubby hands on more money. Teens liked rock and roll and shunned bbm. When those teens got older, they didn’t start buying BBm albums, they started buying more r and r. If BBm would have been popular, it still would have made money.
Federal taxes caused bebop? Baloney.
The whole big band thing had gone stale once into the 40s, cabaret tax or not. Creative musicians were stifled in big bands, and they moved on to something new.
I also always wondered why the big bands died so quickly.
Interesting to hear.
I am no fan of cabaret or any other form of tax. I believe the compelling theme for taxing the rich is the simple vice of covetousness. (I want what you have and give it to me now or at least share it with everyone else - or else)
But I believe like others here that the death of the Big Band would have happened anyway.
For this reason - people love the loud sound of many instruments.
The difference to the ear between the acoustic way of doing this with many instruments vs. the electronic way of reproducing lots of sound is pretty small.
And as an unfortunate side note - electronic sound can get much louder.
You can read a succinct summary here:
The issue is why would people suddenly be willing to pay for a 4-piece band, when they used to be able to get a 30-piece band? There’s no denying that music would have evolved anyway, but it would not necessarily have evolved in the direction it went.
The ENTIRE article can also be read here:
Just like the over-produced ballads of the late ‘50s and very early ‘60s led to the boom in small, energetic combos like the Beach Boys and the Beatles.
To add, the real height of the big-band craze was probably more like 1938-42. Records were coming out at a fast-and-furious pace. In 1942 was also when the Petrillo recording ban started (ending in 1944), which prevented records by big-bands, yet allowed the record companies to release vocalists’ recordings. Timing that with the wartime draft snatching up sidemen, gas rationing hampering traveling, and such, it was really crippling things even well before 1946. Seemed like bands were trying to regroup and get their mojo back in late-1945, but tastes had changed, and apparently this cabaret tax was also a factor.
The recording output of major-name bands in 1945 and 1946 (after the recording ban) was very tiny, compared to 1942 and before.
Rock and Roll had virtually nothing to do with the demise of the Big Bands! There were 8 to 10 years between them. 8 to 10 years of Patti Page, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Eartha Kitt, Rosemary Clooney, The Hit Parade, and on and on. No Rock and Roll until years later. I was there. And now I’m stuck with “The Wayward Wind” buzzing in my brain. Help! Time to put on some Gatton and clear away the fuzz.
WSJ attribute the decline of Big Band music to a tax.
Wikipedia attributes it to:
a loss of quality (due to WWII deaths of key members) and
a 1942 musician’s strike (causing vocalists to break away from the bands, leading to an emphasis on the vocalists) and
changing tastes to non-danceable music (bebop, cuban, modern jazz)
I especially like this point: "When Rep. Thomas Pelly (R., Wash.) in 1957 argued that musicians and entertainers were "under the lash" of the tax, other lawmakers suggested the solution wasn't to repeal the tax, but to provide musicians with federal grants." So the cure for federal meddling in the free market is even more meddling.
Argh! Where is it on that page?
Hrmph. It isn’t.
I actually knew about this tax. My father had been in a swing band to earn extra money while in college, then he went off to war. When he returned he rejoined the band briefly until the band dis-banded because of Truman’s tax on music. Most of the bands barely broke even and the tax made is a guaranteed loss.
Oh, I agree that the big-band trend would have gone away anyway. It was also extremely (prohibitively) expensive, having all those sidemen to pay. Indeed, another thing is that by around 1945-46, a lot of the jazzier bands starting veering in the direction of more of a be-bop sound, which has its afficianados, but the general public just never warmed up to it. Same time, some of the mainstream/hotel bands seemed to go in the other direction, more sweet than swing.
Not much middle-ground for the public, which probably found some bands either too harsh/abrasive in the be-bop jazz vein (and bands like Stan Kenton were always an acquired taste), or too syrupy/mellow, referred to as mickey-mouse bands in the Sammy Kaye mold. The “swing bands” of 1937-42 were hitting a happy medium of hot and sweet, and that’s when they attained their highest popularity.
I bought the old rubber records in the 40s (still have some) then the vinyl LPs. After that I bought 8 track, then cassettes. Then the CDs came out and I bought them. Now I have Itunes. But I did like the big bands. My cousin’s husband is 85 and he still has a band that keeps busy in Kansas City.
I've got "In The Mood" in my head now, thanks.
That was always my understanding. Not only were there all those salaries, but the travel expenses of touring with a large outfit. Guys like Louis Jordan were figuring out that you could get a big sound (and fill a dance floor) with a smaller combo, and you could put them all, with instruments, into one or two cars.
I’ve now shifted into;
“How much is that doggy in the window? Arf! Arf!
The one with the waggly tail?”
The cute Teresa Brewer.
If you copy and paste the title into a search engine, a public access version will pop right up.
I think people with a subscription have a slightly different url so when they use it to post articles, we get the suscribe page.
There was also the small problem that ascap and BMI would not allow musicians to record their music....
ha ha ha ha
What happened between the end of big bands in the late 40s and RR in the mid-50s?
The new craze of which many big bands found their way onto.
Try The Ed Sullivan Show, and an endless parade of movies which once cost $0.25 for 15 minute installments, now seen in full for free at (for a long while) a neighbor’s house. Many featured all the big bands, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Abbot and Costello, I Remember Momma, and so on.
The only draw back in those times were the 15 minute commercials.
Who needed to go out and sit in a dark theater when one could sit at home with friends with mom’s cooking and be entertained, or even dance.
My own view is that we have reached the end of music. I don’t mean nobody will ever play music anymore, but that the era of music being improved is over. Everything has been tried, and as I look at the music scene, all the music currently being “created” is mostly awful. Rap, with the recitation of foul lyrics to a beat with minimal melody, represents the absolute nadir of music creativity. I laughed years ago when people said only so much good music can be created. Those people were correct, and I’m not laughing now. The current music scene, in whatever genre you choose, stinks. Said the old fogey Driftless.
Looks like the unions were more responsible than the tax man.
RE: Argh! Where is it on that page?