A student of the Royal Academy of Music, he had been Principal Tuba player in the orchestra of English National Opera for twenty years from 1974 before becoming a full time Union official. Having initially worked as London District Organiser, he was moved to a role as Assistant General Secretary (Media) where he was responsible for trade agreements with broadcasters and the contentious sphere (in the late nineties) of the administration of residual payments from recordings to members. It was during this period that he developed the relationships between the Union and other music industries’ bodies that were to be a feature of his period of office.
Having won the election for General Secretary in 2002, he set out his priorities in terms of the internal organisation of the Union.
“Over the next few months I will concentrate on rebuilding a cohesive Senior Officials’ team at National Office. We must also begin, without delay, work on a Strategic Review of all of our operations and draw up a new Rule Book. Drafts of this work will be presented to next Summer’s biennial MU conference, prior to being put out for general consultation to the membership. I hope that the community of working musicians that we represent will unite and work with me, using the existing democratic structures of the Union to move forward and prepare the ground for the much needed modernisation of the Musicians’ Union.”
There were immediate signs of Smith’s influence on the Union, with an overhaul of the Union’s branch structure (which had been in place since the 1890s), being proposed, voted through and implemented by members by the start of 2005. In addition, a new Union hierarchy was assembled over the early years of his leadership to solidify and support his modernisation of its structures.
Internal reorganisation was supplemented with active involvement in external bodies to increase the influence of the Union across the music industries. He is a performer director of PPL as well as begin a director of UK Music and the Educational Recording Agency (ERA). He has also been a member of the General Council of the TUC since 2007 and currently serves as President of the International Federation of Musicians.
On his unopposed re-election in 2007, Danny Longstaff, the then chair of the Executive Committee, praised the “accomplished and professional way in which John has led the Union out of an uncertain future in the early part of the decade, through to the solid position we find ourselves in today.”
His second term of office saw the Union increasingly involved in lobbying and campaigning particularly in matters relating to copyright and licensing. Membership remained solid (and even increased a little) at a time when trade union membership generally was falling while the Union has offered an increasingly wide range of service for members.
This consolidation of the Union’s position and recalibration of the Union’s priorities meant that in 2012, Smith celebrated his ten years in charge by being again re-elected as General Secretary. He was also re-elected as President of FIM, with his emphasis for the next five years on increasing musicians’ pay:
“Musicians are currently facing some very difficult issues – such as increasingly being expected to work for free, dealing with devastating cuts to arts funding and facing the damaging effects of illegal downloading. 76% of musicians earn less than £30000 per year, and my priority over the next five years term is to improve pay across the board.”