With an anti-Union Conservative government in power, the Musicians’ Union found itself through much of the 1980s fighting a rearguard action against restrictions on its activities which were to greatly curtail its power, in particular with regards to industrial action. As a consequence, there were fewer strikes involving musicians in the aftermath of the BBC strike in 1980, but members were still involved in other pivotal Trade Union disputes, notably supporting the miners and the printworkers at Wapping in 1984/5.

It was not just Union legislation which was weakening the Union’s position, but the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission into the Collective Licensing in 1988 was to examine the activities of PPL and have profound implications for the Union in the subsequent decades.

The decade ended with John Morton retiring and Dennis Scard being elected as the sixth General Secretary of the Union.


After the resolution of the BBC strike at the start of the decade, much of the decade was spent dealing with the restrictions and administrative burdens placed on the Union by a raft of new legislation. John Morton remained heavily involved in both his capacity as General Secretary but also as a member of the TUC’s General Council.

The heavily politicised nature of the decade also saw Union members involved in both other industrial disputes at home and abroad with the breaking of the both the Union’s ban and the United Nations’ Cultural Boycott of South Africa.

However, the Union also found itself increasingly aligning with the recording industry in lobbying and disputes, a tacit recognition that recorded music had become such a significant source of income that it could no longer be viewed simply as a threat. This saw the Union campaigning against cassette piracy with the BPI and MPA, but it continued to fight against pre-recorded music being used in place of orchestras in theatrical productions, with some success.

Another technological development, in the form of the synthesiser, was also a further of dispute among members: again it was seen by some as a threat to employment, while synthesiser players saw their playing as no different to that of other musicians.

The MMC report meant that the Union was to lose a great deal of its control over the use of recorded music while simultaneously being burdened with the ramifications of its findings for more than a decade. John Morton’s retirement left these problems for his successor, Dennis Scard to attempt to resolve.

The Union in Numbers

Membership of the Union dropped a little from the high water mark of 1980, but was still just below 40000 (39598) in 1988.

Key Dates


The Union in collaboration with the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and Music Publishers’ Association (MPA) take out a half page advert in The Times and The Guardian claiming that “Home Taping is Wiping Out Music.” Among the signatories are Cliff Richard, Henry Mancini, Simon Rattle, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, Elton John and Gary Numan.


A tour by Barry Manilow which instead of featuring an orchestra (as on his previous tour) involved a number of synthesiser players raised issues about the replacement of string players. A meeting of the Central London Branch in May 1982 passed a motion for an outright ban on synthesisers, which though never official policy of the Union (the Executive Committee passed a much more nuanced resolution on their use in November) attracted a huge amount of attention, notably among synth players themselves (some of whom briefly formed an organisation called the Union of Sound Synthesists) and the music press, the NME characterising the Central London Branch as “MU loonies.”

Another Employment Act comes into law, this time narrowing the definition of trade disputes, outlawing most forms of industrial action that were not directly related to the workplace in question and for “political reasons.”


Queen play 7 of their 12 scheduled shows at Sun City in South Africa. As Union members, they were prevented from playing in South Africa, but Brian May defended their decision firstly in the press and then directly to Union members. He told Record Mirror: ‘this band is not political. We are not out to make statements, we play to anyone who comes to listen’ and subsequently reflected to Phil Sutcliffe: “We broke one of their (the Union’s) rules, there’s no doubt about that. I think we broke that with the best motives in mind. So I got up and made a speech to them. Afterwards, lots of members came up and said ‘thanks, we understand now – but we still have to fine you because it is in the rules.’ We have totally clear consciences, but I’m sure a lot of people still think we are fascist pigs.” (Sutcliffe, 2009: 183)

The 1984 Employment Act makes it illegal to strike without a ballot and forces Unions to have a vote every ten years on whether to retain their political funds.

MU members play a part in the Miners’ Strike with benefit concerts, donations and fund raising records. Among those taking part in concerts are Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, Sade and Wham!


A week-long strike of MU members at the Royal Opera House in pursuit of a 10% pay rise. After initially rejecting an offer of 8.5%, the Union finally agrees to a 9% rise after an anonymous donor had helped the Royal Opera House to increase their offer.

Union members remain involved in other industrial disputes – a musician was among those arrested on the picket line at News International’s Wapping plant.

John Morton is deposed from the General Council of the TUC and is described by The Times as “one of two sitting left wingers.”

A new minimum pay deal for West End Theatre musicians is reached, with weekly salary increased to a minimum of £200.

Derek Hatton, the former deputy leader of Liverpool City Council, is refused membership of the Union, applying after a record of his speeches in released in aid of the surcharged councillors. It was suggested that he join Equity instead.

A show featuring ice skater Robin Cousins at the Bristol Hippodrome (Ice Majesty) is forced to close after a row over its use of pre-recorded music.


John Morton returns to the General Council of the TUC – this time his election is described by The Times as “a victory for moderates.”

Viewers in South Africa were unable to see pictures / audio of musical performances at the Royal Wedding of Prince Andrew as a result of the MU ban / embargo on South Africa.

MU takes part in the 1st Annual Conference of the Association of British Orchestras, described by Nicolas Soames in the Times as “a kind of CBI for the orchestral world.”

In line with new Trade Union legislation, the Union conducts a postal ballot on whether to retain the political levy, under which members contributed to the Labour Party. On a 36% turnout. 10492 in favour and 3237 no. 


Pay continues to rise – at least for the musicians in West End shows, with the offer of a £300/ week minimum from the Society of West End Theatres.

The West End musical, Cabaret, featuring Toyah Willcox and Wayne Sleep, is forced to close after a dispute involving the musicians. A strike was called after five musicians were sacked for playing out of tune and “excessive drinking.” After attempting to go ahead without the orchestra (producer William Hancock spoke of ‘a musical without music’) the show closed two nights later as only 41 people crossed the picket line to watch it.


A high budget (£4.5m) London Weekend Television series, Betty, is scrapped because of a dispute between the producers and the Unions involved (the MU, Equity and ACTA – the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians). This prompts a Monopolies and Mergers Commission report into working practices in the film and TV industries. As part of the inquiry, the BBC claims that “restrictive practices operated by actors and musicians cost it millions of pounds in lost revenues.”

Monopolies and Mergers Commission Report into Collective Licensing investigated the PPL and its agreement with the MU with regards payments to performers on recorded works. Among its many conclusions, it rules against the continuation of needle time restrictions and and questions the nature of PPL’s relationship with the MU, noting that none of the monies paid by PPL to the MU had “been made to MU members whose work had generated the income,” and that non-Union musicians would not have benefited from the payments in any way. However, the report stops short of being critical of the MU, noting that “we recognise the MU is doing no more than its duty to its members in seeking to preserve such opportunities as there are. But we cannot endorse the needletime and employment requirement constraints:they are anti-competitive practices which we think should be abandoned.”

Copyright Designs and Patents Act (1988) become law : among other provisions the setting up of the Educational Recording Agency, which has been a source of revenue for the Union subsequently.

Another Employment Act forces Unions to use postal ballots rather than workplace ballots when deciding on political funds or Union executive elections. It also become illegal for Unions to expel members who refuse to take part in industrial action.


John Morton announces his intention to retire at the age of 65 in 1990, though he remains chair of the International Federation of Musicians – and subsequently becomes its President Emeritus.

Dennis Scard defeats Stan Martin by 6636 votes to 5080 in the second ballot to become the Union’s sixth General Secretary.

The findings of the MMC report begin to have serious consequences for the Union: PPL asks it to take responsibility for the distribution of the ex-gratia payments to non-featured musicians until the introduction of the proposed statutory right for performers. This creates a huge administrative burden as the Union has to attempt to find a way of matching the income with performances on records dating back decades. In addition, the “needle time” agreements are no longer enforceable and radio stations are no longer restricted in how much PPL controlled music they can play.

Tony Blair becomes The Labour Party’s employment spokesman and the party ends its support for the closed shop.

The Union launches its own credit card after a deal with Unity Financial Services.


After a handover period of 3 months, Dennis Scard becomes General Secretary at the start of April.

Barbara White becomes just the second woman elected to the Union’s Executive Committee.

Needle time agreements end in accordance with the MMC ruling on 1988; the Union and PPL remain in discussions about the distribution performers’ royalties in the wake of the report.

The Broadcasting Act (1990) also further weakened the control of PPL over radio, as the newly constituted Radio Authority represented a move towards a much more commercial model of broadcasting.

Further legislation in the form of another Employment Act has potentially the biggest impact on membership by making pre-entry closed shops illegal.