Music lessons for the movement?

What lessons can be learned from studying the working lives of musicians? This question lay at the heart of the research which underpinned our recent book, Players’ Work Time: A History of the British Musicians’ Union. We attempted to use the Musicians’ Union (MU) as a prism through which to examine musicians’ working lives, the industries they work in and broader patterns in Britain’s musical life from the founding of the Union as the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union (AMU) in 1893.

Underpinning our study was the premise that musicians are best considered as workers. Within this journal our approach might seem logical enough, but it is one which had previously only rarely been adopted. Prior to our research, existing studies had seen musicians readily considered as artists, creators, entertainers and much else, but rarely simply as workers. However our contention was that understanding those who make music as workers can give us fresh insights in to both music making and processes of industrial capitalism.

Thinking of musicians as primarily being workers soon led us to consideration of where such people work. Here it is salutary to remind ourselves that music is present at all the major moments in people’s lives. Not without reason was a band called Weddings Parties Anything. Musicians perform at an incredibly diverse range of social occasions from christenings through to weddings and funerals and in entertainment places such as pubs, clubs, theatres, cruise ships, holiday camps, music venues and arenas. They also undertake a range of other activities such as recording, appearing on radio and television and teaching. Some compose as well. Some specialise in one genre, others work across many. All these activities attract differing rates of remuneration from nothing (far too many to mention) to millions (including headline shows at stadiums, but also private shows for the fabulously wealthy).

Understanding such patterns of work leads inexorably to the conclusion that musicians are particular types of worker seeking to work in the ever changing music industries. Importantly, this generally involves seeking work rather than seeking employment in the form of jobs. The dominant mode of employment in music is that of self-employment and currently only around 5-10% of the MU’s 30,000 or so members has a full time, salaried, position – primarily within the UK’s orchestras.

The rest are overwhelmingly freelancers. Consequently, in many ways, the MU is better conceived of as a federation of small businesses rather than a traditional union. It negotiates terms and conditions for only a small part of its membership, albeit one which is vital to the union’s psychology and its determination to – in the words of its longest running campaign – ‘Keep Music Live’.

Today, its orientation is as a service-focused organisation with members more likely to join because of the benefits it offers (such as cheap personal and instrument insurance and free legal advice) than they do in order to take part in the class struggle. The modern MU sees itself as part of the music industry and campaigns alongside major employers (and/or sub-contractors) of musicians at least as often as it takes such employers on.

To note this is not to decry a Union which has throughout its history sought to organise all professional musicians including those semi-professionals, who form a considerable bulk of its membership. In doing this the Union has had to counter those who believe that at least some musicians are better served by a professional association than they are a union. Today, the MU remains clearly a union, if a unique and sometimes idiosyncratic one.

Our history of the MU spans 120 years and as we struggled to do this history justice in a book, so we cannot even scrape the surface here. But, cutting a very long story short, three key areas emerge as particularly important.

The first is changing technology. In the late 1920s and early 1930s MU membership fell from around 20,000 to under 7,000 and the Union almost went bankrupt. The reason was a new form of technology in the form of the ‘talkies’ – films with soundtracks. Prior to the introduction of the first ‘talkie’, ‘The Jazz Singer’ in 1928 (1927 in the US), ‘silent’ cinema had generally been accompanied by cinema orchestras, most of whom were made redundant almost overnight by this new technology. The Union’s unsuccessful attempt to battle the ‘talkies’ was its first major interaction with modern technology which might replace live musicians.

It would not be its last as technologies such as recording, radio, television, synthesizers, drum machines emerged and carried with them the threat of displacing live musicians. However, the MU’s defeat in the battle against the ‘talkies’ led to it adopting a somewhat circumspect attitude to subsequent technological developments. Often wrongly accused of trying to ‘ban’ the latest technological innovation, our history suggests that the MU generally adopted a more nuanced approach, seeking to either use it to increase employment or to militate against any displacement.

Another key area throughout the Union’s history concerned its relations with the music industries. Key here was relationships with two organisations, the BBC and Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) – the collecting society for performers whose recordings are being used in public places such as broadcasting and shops, cinemas etc.

The BBC is the biggest employer of musicians in human history and the MU has continually sought to impress upon the organisation that, as a public body, it has a duty to the music profession. PPL was formed in 1934 and is owned by the major record companies, another key employer/sub-contractor of musicians. Its relationship with the MU is complex, but for many years it resulted in the MU being able to insist that the licences which PPL issued to broadcasters allowing them to play recordings in which PPL held copyright included clauses which limited the amount of such recordings which could be played. These so-called ‘needletime’ agreements underpinned industrial relations in the recording industry for over fifty years. The premise here was that use of recorded music would result in less employment for live musicians, something which was accepted by all the interested parties for a number of years. Muscians

These restrictions on the amount of music which could be played under the ‘needletime’ agreements were deemed to be a ‘restraint of trade’ by a Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1988 and were subsequently abandoned. This move formed part of a broader attempt by those in charge of commercial radio (which began in 1973) to resist any restrictions on the amount of recorded music which could be played on the radio – and on any requirement to employ musicians. While ‘needletime’ was highly controversial, few would argue that live musicians’ employment opportunities or their terms and conditions of such employment opportunities across UK radio have improved since its demise.

The third key area to consider in the MU’s history was competition in the UK’s notoriously volatile music market. Here supply of labour has generally exceeded demand, resulting in a downward pressure on the price of musicians’ labour. Over the years, the MU’s concern about competition within this market has included bemoaning military and police bands that were deemed not only to be providing competition for civilian musicians, but also getting state support to do so via the provision of free instruments and uniforms.

However, the most controversial areas have concerned the MU’s attitude towards foreign musicians seeking to work in the UK, generally via touring or playing residencies. For many years, it adopted a protectionist stance and tried to prevent foreign musicians from touring, often on the (spurious) grounds that anything a foreign musician could do, so, given time, so could his – and we do mean his – British counterpart.

This approach of ‘British jobs for British workers’ reached its apex between 1935 and 1954 when, bowing to longstanding MU pressure, the Ministry of Labour agreed that it would not issue work permits for touring ‘alien’ without the MU’s consent, which was very rarely forthcoming. At this point, the union’s main concern was visits by US jazz musicians, the majority of whom were, of course, black, When this system was abandoned in 1955, it was replaced by a system of ‘reciprocal exchange’ of musicians across the Atlantic based on ‘man hours’. This system lasted until the late 1980s when, alongside many measures to protect workers, it was swept aside by Thatcherism.

The fact during the ‘ban’ that the union appeared to target US jazz musicians for exclusion from working in Britain and that the majority of such people were black while the Union’s membership was overwhelmingly white understandably led to accusations of racism. Certainly xenophobic sentiment was not hard to find during this period (any more than it was in wider British society). The ironies of people expressing xenophobic sentiments while earning living from performing music generally composed or originating from outside Britain are obvious enough. It resulted in something of a schizophrenic approach. The MU passed a motion against racial discrimination at its 1947 conference and in 1958 took a landmark case against the La Scala club in Wolverhampton which was operating a colour bar. It successfully got its members to boycott the club and in 1957 had become the first union to bar its members from appearing in the apartheid South Africa. Here it was at the forefront of British trade unionism.

Attempting to understanding and even explain all this took us a considerable time. Our history is unreservedly revisionist in the sense that histories of both the British music industries and trade unionism had previously either totally ignored or – at best -marginalised the MU. However, this organisation has been at the heart of all the major industrial struggles and agreements in the UK’s music industries for over 120 years. Our strong belief is that if you want to understand how the music is played, then you need to understand both the working conditions of those who play it – and the union which has attempted to represent them. So, take a look at the work of those who play.

Martin Cloonan is Professor of Popular Music Politics at the University of Glasgow where his research focuses on the political economy of the music industries. John Williamson is Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Fellow in Popular Music Studies at the University of Glasgow and is currently researching the history of music on Scottish television.

Players’ Work Time is published by Manchester University Press. An exhibition to accompany the book, Keeping Music Live, is running at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, from 22 November to 5 February 2017. For more see