This was a decade of rapid change within the music profession and one which the Union spent the majority of the decade trying to keep up. Central to this were major changes in broadcasting, notably with regards the BBC’s output and their relationship with musicians. With new radio networks, including the launch of Radio 1, the BBC needed more recorded and live music. While the Union, via. PPL, was still limiting the amount of recorded music to be played the BBC was facing financial cuts and wanting to close some of its orchestras. The Union was also opposed to independent broadcasters and (less surprisingly) the pirate radio stations which were broadcasting without regard for any of the PPL needletime restrictions.

The huge impact of new forms of popular music also presented a challenge to the Union and the both the leadership and rank and file members from the orchestral ranks which had been the bedrock of the Union’s membership found this difficult to adapt to. Nevertheless, the colossal success of The Beatles and the many bands who followed them, did have the effect of increasing Union membership in spite of the leadership’s lukewarm (and sometimes hostile) attitude towards them.

Internally, the Union also had its problems during the sixties, most notably during the short strike of Union staff in 1961 and the subsequent resignation of the General Secretary, Hardie Ratcliffe. His differences with the Executive Committee were patched up and the Union was still able to broker some substantial pay rises for musicians throughout the decade, but a number of divisions (between pop and classical musicians and between those that earned their living from performing live against those who did so from recordings) emerged which were to remain for decades to come.


Important changes were also evident in the areas in which the Union had been campaigning for years. The Rome Convention was partly the culmination of international moves to recognise the role of the performer. The “Keep Music Live” campaign was launched to tackle the perceived threat from recorded music – both in dance halls (where much reference was made to the “French discotheque” scene) and on the radio. South Africa also remained on the agenda, with some members either ignoring or circumnavigating the Union’s boycott. Lastly, the import and export of musical workers remain contentious as the exchanges between British and American artists continued, but in a climate of mistrust and suspicion.

The Union In Numbers

Union membership fluctuated during the decade, with an influx of “pop” musicians taking membership to 35596 in 1964 (up from 29009 in 1961). By the end of the decade it has settled at 32892.

Key Dates


MU blacklists the Mecca Circuit for Bradford Locarno’s policy of refusing admission to single black males. 7 band leaders resign from the Union to form a short-lived breakaway union, the British Federation of Musicians.

Sixteen employees of the Union go on strike, including Ratcliffe. In February 1960, they claimed a £2 a week increase on the basic pay of £15 18s for London staff and the £15 7s paid to the others. The Union’s executive committee initially deferred consideration of the demand before offering a 5% increase (12s) in May. This offer was subsequently doubled in August 1960, and increased again in November to £1 10s but these were also rejected. The EC finally offered the full amount but not retrospectively as the employees requested resulting in the strike. Ratcliffe said the strike was about their “cavalier treatment” by the committee. The strike lasts only 3 days with the TUC intervening to negotiate a solution.

A pay rise is achieved for musicians in London’s West End when the Union reaches agreement with a committee representing hotels, restaurants and clubs, having threatened strike action. The rise takes their minimum wage from £16 to £20 per week and reduces their working hours from 43 to 38.

The UK signs up to the Rome Copyright Convention which commits governments to legislation which includes enshrining in law the rights of performers. (This finally happens in 1996)

The origins of the “Keep Music Live” campaign can be found in the conference report of 1961 – when it was decided to adopt the slogan, which had previously appeared as a stamp on letters sent by the Manchester branch. New stamps were to be created for other branches to use.


Hardie Ratcliffe announces his plan to quit the post of General Secretary in January after fourteen years. He explains this by saying that too often “his views and those of the Executive Committee clash. But it has been over internal matters, not those of general policy.”

Ratcliffe and the Executive Committee later make their peace and he remained in post.

Further threats of strike action, this time among orchestral musicians who gave three months notice of their intention to strike from the start of the September concert season. As well as pay demands, the Union sought better conditions – notably longer contracts, holidays, sick pay and pensions.


Ratcliffe appears as a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. His selections can be found here.

The BBC agrees to an initial pay rise of 25% for musicians in the BBC orchestras, taking into consideration pay rises elsewhere since the BBC last increased pay in 1960. Annual pay rises of between 2.4% and 3.8% were agreed for the years between 1965 and 1972.

A renegotiation of “needletime” between the Union and the BBC results in an increase from 27 hours in a 280 hour radio week to 75 hours in a 374 hour week (Briggs, 1985: 346)

Dusty Springfield is expelled from South Africa after insisting on playing in non-segregated venues. Like many other singers, she was not a member of the MU, but of both Equity and the VAF. Her backing band, Echoes, were members of the Union and had only been granted permission to go on the grounds that they played non-segregated venues. After Springfield was expelled (having played 1 show to a mixed audience), the band followed.


A dispute between the MU and AMU threatens the continued visits of British pop bands to the USA resulting in some hysterical headlines in the US although the Beatles’ autumn tour was not threatened as contracts had already been signed. This stemmed from the US authorities refusing entry to Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen on the grounds of their insufficient “status.” By way of retaliation, the MU cut short the British tour of Louis Armstrong.

Ratcliffe is quoted by Associated Press as telling the Performing Rights Tribunal that “pop music bears as much resemblance to real music as bingo to higher mathematics.”

The “Keep Music Live” campaign is extended as a combination of a response to the perceived threat of DJs taking away work from live musicians and a convenient and agreeable way (along with May Day events and contributions to individual orchestras) of spending some of the proceeds of the PPL funds in a manner that is agreeable to both members and PPL.


The BBC announces plans to reorganise its radio output into Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 covering its pop music, easy listening, classical and speech output respectively. The Union agrees to easing of needletime agreements to allow Radio 1 to play more pop records in return for guarantees of more employment for musicians across the network.

Miming on Top of the Pops (and other BBC programmes with musical performances) is banned. Subsequent performances feature re-recordings of the backing tracks, with all musicians who appeared on the recording having to appear on the show. This was intended to protect work for musicians, but also meant that being an MU member was effective a pre-requisite for appearing on Top of the Pops.


The Variety Artists’ Federation merges with the actors’ union, Equity. Prior to this most vocalists had been categorised as ‘entertainers’ and been members of the VAF – subsequently, more singers join the MU.


The Union prevents Sammy Davis Jnr bringing a band with him from the US.


The publication of a BBC pamphlet on the future direction of the Corporation, Broadcasting in the Seventies, ignites a fierce debate over the future of the BBC’s orchestras, with the corporation coming under fire from both sides of the political spectrum. The document suggested that the BBC needed only 5 of its 11 orchestras (BBCSO, Scottish Symphony Orchestra, The Northern Dance Orchestra, The London Studio Players and the BBC Chorus) resulting in protests from the Unions, musicians and some politicians. The Wilson government intervened to ensure that the BBC “maintain its orchestras at “broadly the existing levels, subject to certain negotiations with the Musicians’ Union and the Arts Council”(Briggs, 1985: 354) in exchange for allowing the BBC to raise the licence fee in 1971.

Some members of the English Chamber Orchestra propose the division of the Union into two sections “classical” and “the rest” after being forced to take industrial action which affected a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at Southwark Cathedral.


Lord Goodman brokers an agreement between the BBC and the Union over future orchestral provision, though the cost of the orchestras is another recurring issue.