The increasing popularity of music in both recorded and live forms presented a range of opportunities and challenges for the Union in the 1950s. Wages continued to increase while work remained plentiful and new opportunities arose with the advent of a second television channel, ITV. The agreement with the AFM allowed more British musicians to play in the USA (and vice versa) helping to very gradually open the international market to British musicians.

However, the Union found itself struggling to come to terms with the advent of ‘rock’n’roll and its associated dance crazes. The Musician contained numerous disdainful references to both the music (skiffle was particularly maltreated) and the impact it had on live music. The perception of the Union as being out of touch with younger musicians and their audiences continued to be a problem for years to come.

And, while the Union began to benefit from income from PPL, there was a range of issues arising from the windfall, most notably on how they could distribute the money. This was a matter which was still being disputed at the start of the next century. In other copyright related matters, the new Copyright Act of 1956, which set up a Performing Right Tribunal was also the later impact on the Union as copyright became increasingly central to both the Union’s income and strategy.


The matters of foreign musicians, copyright and the control of public performances of recorded music continued to feature prominently at Union meetings and conferences, but issues surrounding race took centre stage for the first time during the fifties. The impact of the Union’s objections to (particularly) American musicians visiting the UK had resulted in it being portrayed as a racist organisation in some quarters, but in this decade the Union was ahead of other Unions and organisations in anti-racist activity. This manifest itself in the successful campaign to overturn the ‘colour bar’ at the Scala in Wolverhampton and in the Union’s early opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa, instructing members not to play there in 1957.

The 1950s were the most stable decade in terms of membership in the Union’s history. It fluctuated between 27 and 29000, peaking at 28960 in 1954, standing at 28317 at the end of the decade.

Key Dates


EC protests to Ministry of Labour over the possible use of foreign musicians at the Festival of Britain. This is finally resolved to the Union’s satisfaction with a number of orchestras being employed at the festival site at the South Bank.

EC condemns musicians recording for non-PPL affiliated companies, most notably “Danceland Records,” a company set up in opposition to and to circumvent the PPL/MU monopoly on recorded music production.

Concern over the report of the report of the Copyright Committee, which would have limit some of the powers of the Union/ PPL to control public performances of recorded music. According to the EC Report of 1953: “if accepted and acted upon by Parliament would have the effect of relieving certain users of recorded music from the need to obtain the Company’s licence, and would result in the establishment of a Tribunal to settle certain disputed questions.”

Report to the EC that the FIM is in considerable financial difficulty and that affiliated members were asked to pay fees in advance.

Union discontinues its funding of the “Arrangers, Composers and Copyists” section on financial grounds. The EC in May 1952 changed its position and made a grant of £5 per month to the section as well as providing office facilities.


The launch of the New Musical Express – which contains a page of “MU News” in its first edition – is tentatively welcomed by The Musician, while it is also noted that relations with the Melody Maker have improved, a policy started by the now New Musical Express editor, Roy Sonin.

The Union opposes their members recording as part of any television programmes which are to be recorded for repeat or subsequent broadcast.

A new national minimum rate of £9 10s per week is agreed with the major dance hall operators – Mecca Dancing; Circuits Management Association Ltd and Hammersmith Palais Ltd.

Members of symphony orchestras receive wage increases after Orchestral Employers Association and the Union put their case to an Industrial Court. Wages for musicians on a permanent contract rise to £11 10s per week (£16 per week for principals)

Copyright Committee publishes a report which is critical of the Union’s arrangements with the PPL and Union plans lobbying to put its case and ensure that the government does not act on its recommendations.

The Union begins to receive significant sums from PPL as part of the 1947 agreement, but found itself unable to decide what to do with them, partly because the taxation status of such ex-gratia payments was unclear and partly because of restrictions placed on what the Union could do with them imposed by PPL. In the interim, a separate account is set up for the funds to separate them from the Union’s general funds.

Ratcliffe attends a Geneva meeting of the International Labour Organisation Advisory Committee as an “observer” in his capacity as chair of the FIM after not being selected by TUC to represent British workers. Despite taking part in the debates, he is frustrated at the lack of additional benefits to performers that were proposed as revisions to the previous (Rome) Convention on Copyright of 1928.


Ratcliffe meets James Petrillo, the leader of the AFM in July to discuss issues of mutual concern including the restriction on musicians from each of their countries visiting the other.


The Union withdraws a threat to boycott the performance of Nat King Cole at the London Palladium after the venue threatened to close the theatre and sue the Union. The Union had refused to allow British musicians to accompany Cole because of the presence of 3 American musicians as part of his act.

PPL set out the conditions attached to what has become known as the “phonographic funds.” The most important of these is that “no part of the funds shall be used for the purposes of pursuing any trade dispute or for any purpose which may be contrary to or adversely affect the interests of member companies.”

The Television Act sets up an Independent Television Authority to provide an independent television service which “might include advertisements inserted in consideration of payments.”


The MU and the AFM agree an exchange agreement which allows some American performers to visit the UK if an equal number of British musicians are allowed into the USA. Early the next year, Louis Armstrong visited London, while Freddy Randall, a British trumpet player was allowed to play in the USA.

ITV is launched on 22nd September – the Union, after complex negotiations (over 20 meetings) reaches agreement on a minimum rate of £6 per musician for any recording for the service lasting less than 4 hours.


The Bonsor vs Musicians’ Union court case rules in favour of a musical director who has been expelled by his Branch Secretary after falling twelve months in arrears. Owing to a breech of rules (the Branch Committees had to expel members) the five judges ruling agreed that Bonsor was entitled to take action against the Union for damages for effectively denying him an income due to the effective closed shop operated by the Union. While a relatively minor event in the MU’s history, this became an important piece of case law and gave some clarification (in legal terms) of the status of Trade Unions.

The Ministry of Labour intervenes in an attempt to resolve a dispute between the Union and the BBC. In February, the Union had called members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Northern Symphony Orchestra out from a number of TV performances as part of a pay and conditions dispute (the Union was seeking wages parity for freelance musicians with the rates offered by ITV). The programmes went ahead without orchestral backing and the musicians salaries were stopped by the BBC. The dispute was resolved in March with an increase in the minimum rate for orchestral players of £2 per week with the number of hours to be worked every four weeks reduced from 144 to 132 hours.

The Copyright Act (1956) is passed into law and sets up the Performing Right Tribunal, partially in response to the Gregory Committee’s criticism of the rights’ societies.

Often ill-matched exchanges between British and American artists begin with the first exchange of big bands taking place: Stan Kenton and His Orchestra came to the UK, Ted Heath and His Orchestra went to the USA.


Bill Haley and his Comets become the first rock’n’roll band to tour in the UK, one of unintended consequences of the loosening of restrictions on American musicians visiting the UK.

Union instructs members not to perform in South Africa in opposition to the apartheid regime. This pre-dates international boycotts and prevents artists including The Rolling Stones in 1964 visiting South Africa. This contrasted with the government of the time’s ambivalent attitude towards the South African regime.


Union withholds services of its members from Scala in Wolverhampton because of the proprietor, Michael Wade’s colour bar. Wade refuses admission to single black men, justifying this as purely “a matter of economics.” (The Guardian, 15 June 1958, p.13) This begins with the refusal of admission to an Indian student, Udit Kumatr Das Gupta, who subsequently complained to the mayor of Wolverhampton. His complaint was passed on to the licensing authorities who granted a licence to the premises in spite of the colour bar, and despite opposition from Unions (Equity were also involved) and the Labour Group on the Council.

The Scala issued a statement in defence of its actions, quoted in The Guardian (ibid):

“Before anyone condemns us they should ask themselves whether they are genuinely sincere. They could ask themselves what they would do if on calling at the Scala to collect a teenage daughter she could be seen dancing with a coloured man employed as a labourer. We must acknowledge there is prejudice and when it is overcome coloured people will be admitted.”

The Union’s opposition to a colour bar stemmed from a resolution passed by its executive in 1947. However, the Wolverhampton branch sought the lifting of the ban for seven days to allow for a legal test case. When the case – Scala Ballroom (Wolverhampton) vs Ratcliffe and Others – reached the Court of Appeal it found the Union’s actions in withdrawing labour to be legal. However, non-Union musicians continued to play at the club.


Paul Robeson returns to UK after 8 years and addresses the MU conference, held at the College of Aeronatics in Cranfield.

The colour bar at the Wolverhampton Scala was lifted after a change of ownership. Other colour bars in Ilford and Chigwell also lifted after MU action.

EC members, Tom Hodgkiss and Ratcliffe visit the USSR for a trip which is recorded in glowing terms by the former in The Musician. He reports that “the phenomenon of the Western World, the guitar-playing (?) shouter of the top twenty has not yet managed to pierce the Iron Curtain,” and that while shops in the USSR have yet to reach the standards of the West, they were “more on a par with our Co-operative Societies.”


The “Keep Music Live” campaign has its origins with the Manchester branch adopting the slogan (which had previously appeared on the Union diary ) as a stamp for envelopes. The following year the Executive Committee decided that “an improved stamp should be designed for wider distribution.”

New rates for orchestral recording sessions are established. Three hour session in which 20 minutes of music can be recorded would pay Principals £6, Sub-Principals £5 12s and all others £5 5s.

A Nov 1960 editorial in The Musician reflects on growing preferences for recorded music over live bands in dance clubs, highlighting the way in which some dance halls have started paying musicians not to play: “It is particularly humiliating that many of our members engaged in dance halls are paid their salaries to stay at home on certain evenings whilst young people, who should be developing a taste for good dance music, gyrate to the sound of the latest ‘rock’ records from ‘Tin Pan Alley.’

EC agrees to pressure PPL to help them “end the so-called record sessions presented at Mecca Dance Halls.”

EC calls for TUC to produce a charter of rights to follow the successful action of the Union against racial oppression and segregation. The Union also supports the TUC’s boycott of South African consumer goods due to the “revulsion against the racial policies being pursued by the government of South Africa.”