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Researching the UK's Musicians Union:
Some Reflections on Politics and Power
Introduction, Origins, Methods, Outputs
A Brief History:
Overview, some views from employers, academia and the
Musicians as workers:
What is a musician? Who are Union members?
Some significant issues:
Copyright, the music industries, relationship with PPL
From the grant application:
“full account of the history of the MU by making use of the MU
“to give full consideration to the ways in which the MU has influenced
British music and musicians in its mediations between its members
and their employers since the late C.19th”
“create an account of the changes in the career of the professional
musician in Britain, as well as the changing relationship between the
amateur and professional worlds of music making, and the MU‟s role
in these changes”
“to consider the role of the MU in influencing the policies of
institutions and industries in Britain.”
“to supplement archival research with interviews of key current and
former MU members, activists and staff . . . “
“To build capacity in creative industries research and dissemination
via collaborations with academics in other fields as well as non-
“to publish and disseminate research findings to the academic
community through conference presentations, journal articles, a
monograph and a website”
“to create impact beyond the academy through an exhibition; public
lecture and concert; regular articles in The Musician magazine;
educational workshops; project website and to pitch a radio or tv
documentary. . .”
Origins, Soruces, Outputs
Live Music history project:
etworks/livemusicproject/ - role of MU and importance of
the music industries pre rock „n‟ roll
Sources and Methods:
Musicians‟ Union archive:
Other archives: BBC, TUC, Orchestral Employers‟ Association, Farmer
Existing Literature – Teale (1929), Jempson (1993), David-Gillou
(2009), Cloonan and Brennan (2013)
Website (www.muhistory.com), conference
papers, articles, book, conference, exhibition
Part 2: History and Criticism
Amalgamated Musicians‟ Union (AMU) founded 1893 by
J.B.Williams in Manchester.
Split in profession between “gentlemen” (LOA) and
AMU = a type „organised tyranny which is the curse of
modern trade unionism in this country‟ (LOA 1894).
Merger in 1921 with National Orchestral Union of
Professional Musicians (NOUPM, formerly LOA) –
formation of Musicians‟ Union
Decline in membership in 1930s, post-War growth in
membership and power.
Consolidation since 1960s; anti-Union legislation (1980s/
Part 2: History and Criticism
Williams – job of Union to protect musicians from
amateurs, unscrupulous employers and ourselves.
MU = “the spoilt darlings of the musical profession” (William
1935-1954 - “ban” on foreign musicians entering the UK -
“what do we want Louis Armstrong for? We‟ve got Kenny
McKay: (the MU) “did sterling work in keeping professional
British jazz and dance music white” (2005: 112)
Paul Oliver: MU “ban” inflexible and stupid (1980: 80)
See Cloonan and Brennan “Alien invasions”, Popular
Music, 32:2, pp.277-295
MU opposes the
“talkies”, radio, television, records, synthesisers,
Frith: “the MU has always been out of touch with the particular
needs of rock musicians” (1978: 162)
Street: “as each innovation appears to threaten jobs, the MU
has resisted each one in turn . .while inspired by a desire to
protect members, the MU‟s policy appears as merely
reactionary.” (1986: 147)
1980s: Proposed breakaway Guild of Professional
Musicians, Sunday Times warns of restrictive practices and “Dr
The Guardian: “A left-wing doctrinaire organisation as tight-
lipped as the KGB” (2001)
The Independent: “the glorious, unreconstructed ways of the
Musicians‟ Union” (2001)
A organisation to spend some time on?
The Musicians‟ Union:
Out of touch?
Or much more complicated than that?
Interlude: Some Themes
4 original themes underpinning the research:
Musicians as Workers
Part 3:Musicians as Workers
What does the history of the MU tell us about working
as a musician?
What does it tell us about the music industries?
Craft Union or General Union? Open or closed?
“Anyone who follows the profession of music” –
“if they are amateurs in the purest sense, we wouldn‟t
be able or want to recruit them” (Jjohn
Morton, GS, 1985)
Who is allowed to join?
Who is/was forced to join?
Who chose / chooses to join?
Musicians as Particular Sorts of Workers
MU members are often part-time, self-
employed, freelance workers with many different
employers in a range of sectors/ industries.
Different needs and expectations from Union . .more
difficult to organise, provide services and act as labour
Melton: “The MU has always been an unusual Union
in a sense: a large proportion of its members are self-
employed, and, politically, the natural instincts of the
self-employed are entrepreneurial. . .I was never
conscious when I was there of the Union charging off
in a political direction that would alienate its members.”
Part 4: External Relations:
The Music Industries and PPL
The music industries and MU oversight of live music, recording
Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL) established 1934 to collect
royalties due to performers for public use of their recordings
Agreed ex-gratia payment (20%) to musicians who played on
1947 – first full agreement between MU and PPL implemented:
12.5% of net PPL to income to go to MU for non-featured performers, BUT
Not all performers were MU members
Amount became much more significant in later years - £60,000 (1951), £2.5
Part 4: MU/ PPL & Live Music
Union always privileged live performance in its view of
1907 Music Hall Strike, Askwith Awards > Setting of
minimum rates for live performance
PPL (1934) and BBC (various) agreements in the
1947 agreement limited public performances (i.e
playing) of recorded music. Licence depended upon
records not being used:
“in complete or partial substitution for musicians employed” or
“where musicians could, having regard to the size and nature of
the theatre etc., be employed”
MU/PPL and the public use of recordings
First PPL funds reached Union in 1951. What to do
with them? How to distribute them?
“For the benefit of all musicians”
Minority of recording musicians impacting adversely on the
majority who earn from playing live
Fear of being seen as a “yellow” union
PPL also placed limits on the use of the fund.
.could not be used for “the purposes of furthering
any trade dispute or for any purpose which may be
contrary to or adversely affect the interests of PPL
or its member companies”
Spending PPL Money
“for the benefit of all musicians”
By late 50s, some of funds were used to support May
Day Dances, Benevolent Fund, etc.
1959: “a large proportion of the Phonographic Funds
should be utilised in the direct promotion of
employment for members.”
Origins of “Keep Music Live” campaign and the
Union‟s Campaign For the Advancement of Live Music
(latterly Music Promotion Fund).
Aim of fund?
“to improve the quantity and quality of situations where the work
of musicians may be heard” (Blain, 1964)
“a very, very mini Arts Council, recycling money to musical activity
of all types” (Blain, 2012)
Several examples of Union working closely with
1965 / Manx Radio / with BBC and PPL
1980 / Performing Right Tribunal – with PPL vs AIRC – MU
General Secretary supports PPL
1996 – Performers right recognised in UK law – MU officials
site on PPL boards
Campaign - as part of UK Music – on copyright term
MU officials on British Copyright Council and Creative
Part 4: MU/ PPL & Broadcasting
BBC becomes biggest employer of musicians in 1930s
“Needletime” agreements restricted amount of time
PPL granted for the playing of records on BBC radio.
I am “opposed to all needletime”, Harry Francis, MU
Initial common interest - record labels believe radio will
hit sales and MU believes it will hit live work
Needletime disrupted/ weakened by pirates and
commercial radio, but remained in place until 1989.
Part 4: MU/ PPL & Broadcasting
PPL took MU line on negotiations with BBC – neither
party wanted to unduly antagonise the MU
Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on
Collective Licensing (1988)
Scard: “PPL’s activities came out with almost a clean
bill of health while the Union’s influence went right
down the pan.” (1991)
MMC report opened up the recording industry to those
who wished to use its “product as a basis for their own
Government attempts to limit Union power and open
up of markets, especially in broadcasting – seen as
“one of the last bastions of Union power”
The history of the MU offers an insight into the
working lives and practices of musicians since
Multitude of approaches to Union‟s history – we
are still at an early stage of the study – today I
have focused on only some of those.
PPL agreement is important in understanding post-
War period and relations with employers in
broadcasting, record companies.
Employers with scruples?