1971-1980

Overview

A decade of further change for the Union, began with a new General Secretary and a growing awareness of the need to engage with the new generation of members, but it was broadcasting which was to dominate the agenda through much of the period culminating with the BBC strike in 1980.

Issues

Changes in both the BBC and the independent broadcasting sector played a huge part in the Union’s business during the seventies. The advent of Independent Local Radio, which was initially opposed by the Union, started in 1973 and offered numerous possibilities of relatively well paid work for musicians, partly because of needletime constraints upon it. Meanwhile at the BBC, the threat to close orchestras at the end of the sixties was lifted, only to reappear a decade later when the Corporation was faced the need to make further cutbacks.

The strike in 1980 was a defining moment for the Union, and while the outcome was not a complete success (some musicians still lost their jobs), the strike showed significant public sympathy for the musicians and forced a substantial rethink on the part of the employer.

The wider overview of broadcasting in the UK under the auspices of The Annnan Report also was a concern for Trade Unions, with fears about the increasing marketisation of broadcasting in the UK confirmed with the confirmation that the fourth television channel was to be awarded to the Independent Broadcasting Authority and subsidised by advertising.

The Union in Numbers

Along with other Trade Unions, the Musicians’ Union was never more popular or powerful than it was during the 1970s. Membership grew every year throughout the decade, culminating in the Union’s highest ever number of members – 41 567 in 1980.

Key Dates

1971

John Morton becomes General Secretary of the Union after the retirement of Hardie Ratcliffe.

Industrial Relations Act launched by Heath government to ‘curb the power of the Trade Unions.’ The MU, along with other Unions, did not register under the legislation, which was repealed by the 1974 Labour government.

1973

The launch of Independent Local Radio (ILR) stations offered a new source of revenue for performers via. PPL. Initially, the stations also had to pay a proportion of their advertising revenue to PPL and were limited in their output by both a series of legislative constraints and the needle time agreement. ILR stations were allowed only nine hours of music per day, while favourable rates were agreed for musicians performing live on these stations.

1974

The Annan Committee set up by government to look into the future of broadcasting. The Union contributes to its investigation with a particular interest in protecting the employment of musicians at the BBC.

The Union forms a Joint Standing Committee with Equity, the actor’s union, to work on issues of shared concern.

The Union begins a series of Rock Workshops in an attempt to generate more interest among younger musicians. These run for a number of years, but the first sees the band, Soft Machine going to Ilfracombe. The Union subsequently appointed its first “Rock Organiser” to develop both the workshops and other activities aimed at rock musicians.

A court battle is won when a Rhodesian concert promoter, seeking to take Gary Glitter to South Africa, tries to overturn the Union’s attempts to prevent their members going to South Africa and Rhodesia.

1975

A John Morton editorial in The Musician (Spring 1975) states the Union’s opposition to the UK joining the European Economic Community (EEC), a view at the time, shared by the majority of Union leaders and Labour politicians.

Hardie Ratfcliffe dies aged 69 in a London hospital.

1976

The Union agrees new rates of pay with ITV, ILR as well as the BPI and Theatrical Management Association. The fee for a musician on a recording session increased to £24.75 for 3 hours; a session for an ILR station paid £15 (except Capital Radio which paid £30) and salaries in London theatres ranged from £50 – £58.50 per week.

The MU and Equity form a joint body called The Performers’ Alliance. The Writers’ Alliance subsequently joins to strengthen the organisation.

1977

Subscription rates were frozen as the Union battled with increased overheads but recognised the “financial problems confronting members.” These ranged from £8-£29 per year depending on income from music.

Annan Report on Broadcasting is published and condemned by the Unions, notably over the proposal to award the fourth television channel to the commercial broadcaster.

1978

Synthesisers become the latest technological point of contention within the Union as they are increasingly as replacing string players in theatres as promoters attempt to reduce the cost of musicians. The cover of The Musician (August 1978) asked “Synthesisers: Friend or Foe?” summarising a debate which was to play out over the next decade.

1980

As part of wider cost cutting measures, the BBC announces the proposed closure of 5 orchestras (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra, BBC Midland Radio Orchestra, BBC Northern Radio Orchestra and the London Studio Players) with loss of 153 full time and 19 part time musicians’ jobs as of 1st September. Having failed to engage the BBC in negotiations, 83% of the Union’s members in the BBC orchestras voted for strike action.

The strike lasted for nine weeks and saw the Union gain support from some unlikely sources (including the Daily Mail and a former adversary of the Union, Kenny Everett). Despite considerable support for the Union during the course of the strike the Albert Hall refused to take bookings for two shows to be performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the MU Hardship Fund.

However, the level of sympathy for the musicians’ case from across the political spectrum meant, that after discussions at ACAS chaired by Lord Goodman, a compromise was reached on 1st August just in time to avert the cancellation of the BBC Promenade concerts (“Proms”).

While this did not save all of the orchestras, it did prevent the closure of Scottish and Northern Irish orchestras and agreed favourable terms for those musicians who were being made redundant elsewhere across the organisation.

The Musician called it “The Strike That Changed History,” while accepting that “no one will claim the final settlement is perfect, but it only has to be compared with the BBCs original proposals to see that the effort was worthwhile.”


The Central London Branch vote to end the ban on musicians performing in South Africa, but, while this receives some press coverage, their resolution is not passed at district or EC level and the ban remains in place.

The first piece of Trade Union legislation under the Thatcher government – the Employment Act severely limited the pre-entry closed shop, with 85% of Union members having to approve.