The 1930s were arguably both the worst and most significant decade in the history of the Union.

Beginning with the death of its second General Secretary, membership fell off rapidly, dropping below 7000 in 1936, less than a third of the number of members it had at the time of its formation. Caused mainly by unemployment and declining wages, this resulted in a huge dropping off in Union income, resulting in serious cutbacks in the Union’s organisation.

Union members however, most notably the Voluntary Organising Committees which aimed to recruit dance band musicians, did much to stabilise the situation by the end of the decade.

As cinema employment decreased dramatically, the BBC became a major employer of musicians and an agreement was reached with the record companies’ organisation (Phonographic Performance Ltd) which would potentially result in additional income from recordings for session / non-featured musicians.

The upturn in membership and renewed optimism evident in the Union’s publications towards the end of the decade came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War II with many musicians being called up for service, despite attempts by the Union to have their enlistments deferred.


In a decade bookended by unemployment and War, the issues of foreign workers and copyright became increasingly important. Further meetings with the Ministry of Labour meant that by 1935, the Union was effectively able to veto the visits of most foreign musicians, something which was done with some relish in the case of Americans given the AFM’s restrictions on British musicians visting the USA.

As the recording industry expanded, the Union had to find a way of balancing this as a potential source of additional income for musicians, while trying to ensure that records did not come to replace live performance in other walks of life beyond the cinema -a balance they were still dealing with some fifty years later.

The Union in Numbers

In 1937, only 131 members out of 7023 contribute to the Political Fund. 47% (3374) of membership in 1937 is in London. The second biggest branch was Manchester with 456 members with Glasgow (445) third. With the exception of a small amount of interest (£166), all the Union’s income of £7903 came from members.

Membership in 1931 was 16921. It reached a low in 1936 of 6741 before increasing slightly in in 1937-9. With a drop due to musicians going to war it ended with 7946 members in 1940 – still less than half the number of members it had at the start of the decade.

Key Dates


ES Teale dies after a long period of illness. After an election involving several long-standing members of the union, Fred Dambman becomes the third General Secretary, defeating William Batten by 1716 votes. W.Murdock was appointed Assistant General Secretary.

The election was determined along the lines of London against the Provinces: with London Branch Secretary, Batten, receiving the majority of his votes from within the London Branch. Batten campaigned on the slogan: “The Policy that has succeeded for London can succeed for the whole country” while Dambman concentrated on urging non-London members to “Stand Behind Your Fellow Members in the Provinces and reject the London scheme.” The ‘London Scheme’ involved the absorbing of the South East Area in the London branch.

MU office moves from Manchester to London. This was agreed on the condition that the General Office find separate accommodation from the London Branch.

Further cuts in expenditure were instigated as income again decreased. These included salary reductions, using the number of permanent officials and reducing the salary of the General Secretary. This was advertised as “commencing at £8 per week.”

Some articles in the Musicians’ Journal offer an optimistic take on the return of musicians to the cinemas – one uncredited piece claims “it looks as if the Talkies are not going to have it all their own way, and that the silver lining is going to show itself after all.”

The Union finds itself in the first of many disputes with the BBC – this one over the Corporation’s desire that the permanent orchestra perform outside the studio. Outside broadcasts are to be a point of contention for a number of years.

The death of J.B.Williams’ mother, who is referred to as the “the mother of the AMU” is acknowledged in the October issues of the Musicians’ Journal.

The much disliked Entertainment Tax was increased in scope during the 1931 Budget to include a tax of 16.66% on all theatre seats – the Union campaigned against this throughout the 1930s.

Union is critical of the Labour government’s decisions to permit several “alien” bands to enter and work in the country: “we have had as much indifference, if not hostility, shown to our protests against the open door to alien musicians as under Liberal or Tory governments.”

Further meetings with the Ministry of Labour result in agreement that: “both sides agreed that there was little necessity for importing complete American bands, and while the dilution of British bands by one or two star alien players might be necessary, the Union should be given a reasonable time in which to submit British players for the vacant posts, before any application was made to the MInistry of Labour. It was agreed that a reasonable period would be one month.”

J.Lyons and Co. and many of the London music halls reduce to rates of pay to musicians as a result of the economic crisis, but to the annoyance of the Union continue to make large profits.

AFM successfully stops the visit of the St.Hilda’s British Band to the USA and Canada. The Montreal Gazette reports that this had nothing to do with the US Department of Immigration and was a result of the Union’s intervention, which meant that were they to appear in the USA “the stage hands, electricians and other employees would walk out.”


Louis Armstrong visits the UK and plays shows in London, while Jack Hylton broadcast to the USA, via. arrangement with NBC. However, while this broadcast was taking place the AFM had struck a deal that the same number of American musicians would sit in a New York studio and receive the same fee as Hylton’s band without playing a note. This typified the bizarre nature of reciprocal deals between the UK and US unions, which returned in the 1950s and 1960s.

Despite the original plans not to, the London Branch and General Office end up sharing premises.
Executive Committee agreed a reduced subscription fee for unemployed members, but they would have any reduced fees deducted from any funeral benefit due.


Duke Ellington plays a series of shows in London and is quoted as saying “if it doesn’t become an annual trip, I’ll be most disappointed.” However, the protectionist policies of both the MU and the AFM, meant that he would be unable to return until 1958. This was the last major performance by a US dance band in the UK until the 1950s.

Negotiations begin with the BBC over their desire to make records for broadcast overseas. The Union imposes a whole range of restrictions on their use, including the condition that they could only be played five times in overseas countries before being destroyed.

Musicians are forced to take wage cuts in the wake of economic problems across the country. The Union engages in negotiations with the Provincial Entertainment Proprietors and Managers’ Association, the Theatre Managers’ Association and Entertainments Protection Association to try and safeguard salaries. The outcome resulted in pay decrease but by less than the amounts initially sought by the employers.

Subscriptions to the Union remained at 6d per week though this was reduced to 3d per week for any musicians who had been unemployed for a period of four consecutive weeks.

Proposals from Glasgow and Nottingham branches highlight the dire state of the Union’s finances after the decline in membership since the end of the talkies and wider economic downturn. Both seek an increase in subscriptions and a cutting of costs at General Office level.

The Union is still concerned about ‘alien’ workers, The Musicians’ Journal reporting that a German conductor had employed “two coloured sax players” who were part of a “coloured band” at Ciro’s Club in London. They were ultimately deported and replaced by a white band.


Record companies form PPL (Phonographic Performance Ltd) to collect payments from public performances of recorded music. They offer a number of ex-gratia payments to the MU in respect of musicians whose performances have generated this income.

The record labels are keen to point out to the Union that “musicians have no statutory rights” but are willing to offer payments to the Union for “specified purposes.” The relationship between the MU and the PPL becomes a recurring issue into the 21st Century.

Union funds are severely depleted as membership falls to below 7000. A report in the Musicians’ Journal notes “at this rate, it is only for a very limited number of years that there will be a surplus at our disposal.” They also note that “we could not sustain a dispute of even a very small magnitude for any length of time and our effectiveness is growing less as time goes on.”

The demise of the cinema orchestras is also recognised in an editorial which notes “The AMU was established for the professional musician at a time when the cinema was hardly thought about. The advent of the cinema musician was an episode during the development of the Union; unhappily, this episode is a thing of the past, and the Union has reverted to its original type.”

Pressure is exerted on the Executive Committee by branches (notably Glasgow and Edinburgh) to reduce the number of salaried staff in London branch and General Office.

The emergence of “fee-charging” employment agencies is also a concern for the Union, but little encouragement is given by the government in their attempts to lobby. These are seen as “a legitimate form of private enterprise.”

Attempts to abolish the Entertainment Duty (a tax imposed during World War I on tickets to see live entertainment) are also a political issue with the Union combining with other entertainment Unions and organisation to lobby the government.


More optimistic noises from assorted Union branches, with the success of pantomimes at Drury Lane Theatre, The Hippodrome and the Palace. Newton-Brook (Secretary/ Organiser) is quoted as saying “Confidence is coming back. It means that the Union is winning through. It means that we have passed the last milestone of retreat, and that the next milestone we meet will point the way forward instead of back.”

London offices of the Union move to Sicilian Avenue; the previous office at New Burlington Street to be sub-let.

The Union remains unable to pay its affiliation fees to the Trade Union Congress – having not been in default since 1929. However, it remains affiliated to the Scottish TUC.

MU continues negotiations with PPL, with the Company offering an ex-gratia “payment has been received from the company for subsequent disbursement to members who have an interest in Gramophone Records.” PPL are also reluctant, initially, to pay directly to the Union and want it to set up a company for receipt of the funds. An agreement was initially reached that meant 20% of PPL net revenue would be paid to musicians, but that this would be distributed by PPL. Union advised members to amend the proposed PPL agreement if signing it.

The Musicians’ Journal reports an influx of musicians to London from around the country looking for work.

As a response to a potential split in the Union, a Voluntary Organising Committee is set up in London in an attempt to boost membership and involve more dance / jazz band musicians. For 2 months, entrance fee is reduced to 10s and arrears of readmitted members are written off. Monthly subscriptions remain 6d.

The VOC also produces its own, short-lived publication – Crescendo. Some evidence of initial success with 580 new members joining or rejoining in London,with London and Manchester also organising dance musicians.

Some concessions on the rate and scope of Entertainment Tax in the budget.

Dispute with the Lyon’s chain of tea houses over musicians’ conditions, though the lack of employment means the Union is not in a position to extract concessions.

Nottingham branch complain about the large number of members in some branches who are listed as members but not paying subscriptions.

The Ministry of Labour announces that it will not grant any work permits “to American bands to take engagements of the Variety Hall type. He will, however, be gad to revert to his former policy as soon as he can be assured that no less favourable treatment will be accorded to British bands seeking engagements in the USA.” (Parsonage, 2005: 255). This was widely seen as the start of what has been portrayed elsewhere as the MU’s ban on foreign musicians – and while this hugely impacted on the number of American musicians visiting the UK over the next twenty years, it was more complicated than this and some US performers did make it to the UK.


Non-London branches continue to agitate about what they see as the excessive costs of the General Office.

Further evidence of success in recruiting new members -with 814 new members in London, 20 in Leeds, 47 in Manchester and 50 in Glasgow after the setting up of a Voluntary Organising Committee there.

Dambman meets TUC over re-affiliation, but Union does not have funds to rejoin immediately.

London District Branch gains a degree of control over the Union’s publications, which they want to use to assist with their recruitment drive.

Plea for the few BBC employees who are not members of the Union to join up. BBC is now responsible for employing 6% of Union members in London. New negotiations with BBC over the set up a new 35 strong orchestra in Edinburgh, and an orchestra of 20 for playing on BBC TV programmes. Other negotiations with BBC over use of “Wax records.”

Although the London Branch has had an influx of nearly 1200 new members, the September meeting was only attended by “15 or 16 members” out of a total membership of 3000. It soon became apparent that many of the new recruits never paid any further subscription fees after joining.

Attempts by Dambman to negotiate with the AFM over engagements for British musicians for entry to the USA.


Dambman urges the revival of the Union’s Political Fund in order to pursue their policy objectives, namely “the abolition of service band competition, National Insurance; Municipal Orchestras; the reduction or abolition of Entertainment Duty and the establishment of performers’ rights.”

In the Musicians’ Journal: “Musicians are warned that they ought not to permit their performances to be recorded.”

Musicians are also told to refuse BBC “outside broadcasts” until appropriate fees are paid.

Union calls for the Labour Party to repeal the Trades Disputes and Trade Unions Act of 1927.

Renewal of BBC charter – MU and Theatre Managers’ Association express concern that radio and tv broadcasting will “cut very heavily into the entertainment trade and the music hall business.”

An unauthorised recording of the Leeds Empire Orchestra is made available by Parlophone Records as part of a Harry Roy release, resulting in a court case at Clerkenwell Police Court. This awards in favour of the Union and awards the Union £1 plus costs, but does not order destruction of the records as they had wished.

After complaints from members about the paperwork involved in PRS forms for recording, Harry Francis writes in the journal to encourage members to co-operate. “The PRS is another form of Trade Union,” he claims. “If you shirk filling up the form properly, you are cheating these people (composers, arrangers and publishers) out of part of their rightful income.

The Union contributes £3 from its Benevolent Fund to the Spanish Relief Fund for Medical Aid.

Complaints that The Coronation of King George VI turns out to be of little financial benefit – much like George V’s Jubilee of little financial benefit to musicians. “To expect the MU to reduce its rates because a new King was being crowned is not with in the bounds of sanity,” says Francis.

Union advertises a position as “General Organiser, for an experimental period of 12 months, under the control of the General Secretary.” Salary is £5 10s per week. Hardie Ratcliffe is subsequently appointed.

Reports in the press of formation of a new Dance Band Directors Association provokes a response from the MU, who note that the influx of over 1000 dance band members to the MU “is the most important happening to the musical profession since the invention of mechanical sound reproduction.” Mr.and Mrs. Hylton, Harry Roy, Joe Loss and Bert Firman are all members. In response to the DBDA, the MU appointed its own Dance Band Organiser.

Evidence of factionalism in the London Branch with lack of unity with London Orchestral Association members. London Branch Committee to approach the council of the LOA “with the view of bringing the members into one united body, complete amalgamation, believing that this is vital in defence of our present conditions and essential in going forward on the offensive.”

The MU complains to the VAF about it allowing some foreign entertainers to work in the UK when their performances had included some instrumental performance.


The Theatrical Management Association, with the support of the MU, VAF, Equity and NATE write to the Postmaster General with their fears about the BBC’s reported interest in broadcasting “stage shows in theatres.” They argue that this will “seriously affect the entertainment industry as a whole, and employment.” They go on to claim that “nobody wants to stand in the way of progress, but that is no reason why the invention should not be controlled and restricted in such a way to do as little harm as possible to entertainment provided by the performer in person.”


Formation of Musicians’ Social and Benevolent Council – which though not part of the MU is run by some of its members on a voluntary basis. Monies raised by the MSBC were passed on to the MU Benevolent Fund, to which members could apply in times of hardship.

The first Jazz Jamboree – which attracted many big names over the war years – was organised to raise money for the Benevolent Fund, with participants playing for free and the PRS also waiving fees.

First discussion of a levy on members to help the Union through its financial difficulties and to keep it going.
Outbreak of World War II meant initially musicians being called up to serve, leaving gaps in the orchestras which were often filled by women (who dominated the music teaching profession, but made up a very small proportion of orchestras) or musicians who were viewed as inferior.

The Union condemns bandleader, Henry Hall’s visit to Berlin – a tour which was (initially) supported by the Melody Maker, which argued that “no one could doubt Hall’s patriotism.”


MU lobbies the Ministry of Labour to defer the enlistment of musicians in the forces. These were “regularly dismissed.”

Union argues for morale-boosting qualities of popular music during the War. Union estimated that around 7000 of its 11000 members would be enlisted by 1940. Around 500 of them played in official service bands during the war.

Many of the Union members who were enlisted joined service bands who became better than the civilian bands left due to having more time to rehearse – Melody Maker described the Squadronnaires as “the finest dance band in Britain.” (Baade, 89)

Initially, many of the clubs in the West of London closed during the nightly air raids, though Mecca Dancehalls remained open arguing that their venues were “the safest form of amusement” during the bombing as they were single-level and easy to evacuate. By the end of the year, some venues were reopening but bombs hit Broadcasting House and theatres including the Holborn Empire and the Coliseum.

William Batten, the London Branch Secretary, temporarily retires from the Union after being injured in a bombing raid – he was later to return as chair of the Executive Committee.

A new section for “Arranger, Composer and Copyists” is formed within the Union.