IASPM day 3: Researching the British Musicians’ Union – Bridging Troubled Waters? #iaspm2013


Ten men in search of a gig.

Ten men in search of a gig in 1893.

Researching the British Musicians’ Union – Bridging Troubled Waters?
Martin Cloonan; John Williamson (University of Glasgow, UK)

This paper reports our findings one year in to a four year funded research project on the history of the UK’s Musicians Union (MU). Tracing its roots back to the formation of the Amalgamated Musicians Union (AMU) in 1893, the Musicians Union was formed in 1921 by an amalgamation of the AMU with the London Orchestral Union of Professional Musicians. Since this time the MU has played a key – but largely under- researched – role in British and international musical life. The research will result in a history of the MU and its work in key areas such as copyright, broadcasting, changing technology and labour market policy. Here we will highlight some of the problems which beset a union which sought to unite musicians across musical genres while dealing with a workforce which was often spread across numerous employers. Drawing on a number of case studies this paper will suggest that a better understanding of musicians’ collective organisations and their problems in organising popular musicians can provide many insights in the music industries more broadly and that the lessons of the past resonate today.

Martin begins by outlining the paper, which is delivered in the early stages of a 4 year AHRC/ASRC project, ending in 2016 with an exhibition. Methodologically they are working historically from MU archives, other archives (e.g. BBC) and broadcast/interview sources.

Membership of the MU is currently around 31,000 in the UK and its membership now is not significantly more or less than it was in the 1960s. It has been involved in almost every significant development in music and music policy for the last 120 years, and yet its contribution has been largely under-reported or under-recorded – hence the need for the project. Martin’s argument is that MU members do not inhabit a ‘music industries’ but rather they work in the music industries, suggesting that the industry is so multi-faceted that the Union must cover many different types of member, activity and workplace. He describes a significant article (Peterson) called ‘Why 1955’. Philosophically, the paper intends to define MU members as workers. This approach is contrasted with other ways that musicians may be viewed (e.g. performers, stars, celebrities etc).

One of the debates has always been whether the union should be based on ‘craft’ (that is, those who have reached a certain standard or career level) or ‘inclusivity’ (that is, bringing in anyone who is in any way connected with music-making). It has tended toward the latter. Historically, the Union has defined its members by their primary instrument, creating a definition/eligibility problem perhaps for singers, DJs and producers.

The paper goes on to discuss how the MU has dealt with the huge breadth of musical activity in its members’ lives, and the challenges it has had in representing their interests in so many contexts. Organisationally, the Union has worked not just regionally but also occupationally. Practically, because it is easier to work with larger rather than smaller groups of musicians, this has led to an arguably disproportional representation of musicians who play in orchestras (as opposed to, say, rock bands, who are less likely to form committees!).

This brings the paper to another important function of the MU – of protection. In the 1890s, the AMU (as it then was) identified three threats to work – amateurs, police and military bands, and foreign musicians. However, given the many semi-pro or amateur members throughout the Union’s history, this has made the ‘anti-amateur’ stance more rhetorical than practical. The ‘anti-foreign’ approach is their most controversial policy, and as John says, the historical position was that ‘anything a foreign musician could do, a British musician could do equally well… given sufficient time.’ In practical terms, this meant that, until 1955, there was an apparent ‘ban’ on US jazz musicians entering the UK. This so-called ‘ban’ is often derided in literature for ‘keeping British jazz white for 20 years’. The paper contextualises this ban and puts it in historical context. Even as late as 2009 the MU was arguing that the country did not need to import musicians (suggesting that there was no evidence that orchestral musicians were a ‘shortage occupation’ demographically.

John then cites the MU’s response to technological developments in the 1920s and 1930s – specifically, arrival of the talkies, the gramophone, and radio broadcasting. He cites a prevailing academic view that the MU’s historical response to all new technologies has been oppositional. This, he says, is not fully supported by the evidence, given that the MU is on record as supporting radio broadcast. PPL was set up in 1934, MU reached a successful agreement recording PPL royalties in 1946. This example and others support the view that the Union has been more opportunistic (rather than purely reactionary) in its policies.

Finally, the paper moves into trades union law, and effects on the MU of the 1979-97 UK Conservative government’s general opposition to unions and unionisation. These policies led to internal disputes and eventually fuelled a fundamental change in the Union’s activities, developing it further into a lobbying organisation, particularly in matters of ownership of copyright. The conclusion is that the project has had access to previously unseen historical material, giving it unique opportunities. By engaging with the definition of musicians as workers (being protected from perceived threats) the project can contextualise some of the otherwise inexplicable decisions and stances it has taken.

More at www.muhistory.com

Questioning – Simon Frith asks whether the language of employees and employers is the right framework, given that most members are self-employed. The response includes a reference to PPL, being an ‘industry’ organisation, is an employer of sorts. There follows an interesting discussion about identification and self-identification as ‘a musician’, which leads, perhaps, back to the point about the ‘inclusivity’ membership issue identified early in the paper. Bruce Johnson wonders, as he says only partly facetiously, if there is any historical relationship with the contemporaneous Temperance Movement, and Martin responds that he doesn’t see one, considering that any historical income controversies were probably more accurately connected with musicians undercutting each other’s incomes.

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