Since we began researching the Musicians’ Union, we have given papers on various aspects of our research at a number of national and international conferences.

As the research continues, we will also publish a number of journal articles, culminating in a book to be published around the end of the project.

Below are the abstracts and powerpoint presentations from the various conferences at which we have presented. If you would like a copy of any of the papers, please contact us.

Conference Papers

IASPM UK and Ireland, University of Salford, September 2012

“Researching the Musicians’ Union”
[John Williamson and Martin Cloonan]

Founded in 1921 by an amalgamation of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union with the National Orchestral Union of Professional Musicians, the UK’s Musicians’ Union (MU) has played an important, yet under-researched role in British musical life. This paper reports on the origins and initial stages of a four year project which will result in a history of the organisation. It examines issues such as how musicians were defined by the MU, how it dealt with changing technology, its dealings with foreign musicians and their representative organisations, genre, broadcasting and gender. The paper aims to tease out the implications of such a study for both an understanding of the lives of popular musicians and for Popular Music Studies.

IASPM UK and Ireland, September 2012 from John Williamson

IASPM Canada, McMaster University, Hamilton, May 2013

“For The Benefit of All Musicians”
[John Williamson]

This paper derives from the same archive work on the history of the British Musicians’ Union. However, it will look more specifically at how the monies collected by record companies for the public performance of their recordings has (or has not) been passed on to the musicians who played on them.

To do this it will examine the nature of the agreements between PPL (Phonographic Performance Ltd) and the Musicians’ Union. These were in place between from the formation of the former in 1934 until the intervention of the Monopolies and Mergers’ Commission in 1988. Since 1946, PPL made annual payments to the Union, which the MU decided to use “for the benefit of all musicians.”

However, the consequences of this arrangement have impacted on the Union ever since, with a number of allegations by members and their subsequent rebuttals playing out within the Union, in the media and the law courts.

The paper will investigate the nature of the payments, the controversies around them and will then address three issues raised by them.

The first will relates to the question of the problematic employment relationship between record companies and musicians. The second will examine the role of both the Union and recording industry in defining what is “for the benefit of all musicians.”

Finally, it will ask to what extent this inclusive yet facile notion has underpinned the Union’s subsequent relationship with the wider music industries: wondering whether the agreements made in the 1930s and 1940s provide the starting point for a number of temporary lobbying alliances (notably over copyright matters) between the music industries and the Union which, contrary to their stated intentions, may not always be “for the benefit of all musicians.”

IASPM Canada, May 2013 from John Williamson

Changing The Tune, University of Strasbourg, June 2013

“Researching the UK’s Musicians’ Union: Some reflections on politics and power”
[Martin Cloonan]

The UK’s Musicians Union traces its history back to 1893. This paper reports some initial findings from a four year project which will provide a social history of the Union. It argues that the Union has played a pivotal, but largely unexplored, role in the history of British music and its related industries. Based on a range of archive materials, press accounts and interviews, the paper will show how the Union has positioned itself both in opposition to, and alliances with, key organizations within the music industries. In 1893 the Union said that musicians main enemies were “amateurs, unscrupulous employers and ourselves”, 120 years later is this still the case?

Strasbourg from John Williamson

This is The Modern World: Pour une histoire sociale du Rock, University Lille 3, June 2013

“Synthesisers: Friend or Foe?”
[John Williamson]

This paper borrows its title from the cover story from the August 1978 edition of the MU’s magazine, The Musician.

At the time the Union found itself having one of its periodic existential crises caused by the advent of new technology. Historically it had either resisted or outright opposed developments which were seen as a threat to the employment of their members (the talkies, radio and television) using these stances as a means of negotiating the best terms for their members when the formats eventually took hold.

In the late seventies, however, the membership of the Union was close to its highest ever level as a result of the influx of pop and rock musicians with different working practices from the Union’s traditional base of orchestral musicians.

The outcome of this was a protracted debate within the Union that, in 1982, resulted in the Central London Branch of the Union voting in favour of a ‘ban’ on the use of synthesisers.

The paper will start by examining the historical precedents for such a ‘ban’ before considering the internal and external politics involved and asking what the debate tells us about the attitudes of musicians on both sides. Lastly, it will consider what this reveals about the nature of trade unions representing musicians in the twenty first century.

In doing so, it will argue that the changes in technology (exemplified by the synthesiser debate) and the changing nature of musicians’ employment have combined to change the Musicians’ Union from a traditional trade union to a service provider and rent-seeker for musicians, and that in doing so, its outlooks and interests have increasingly overlapped with tose involved in the employment of musicians.

This Is The Modern World, Lille, June 2013 from John Williamson

IASPM, Gijon, Spain, June 2013

“Bridging Troubled Waters: The British Musicians’ Union”
[Martin Cloonan and John Williamson]

This paper reports our findings one year in to a four year funded research project on the history of the UK’s Musicians Union (MU). Tracing its roots back to the formation of the Amalgamated Musicians Union (AMU) in 1893, the Musicians Union was formed in 1921 by an amalgamation of the AMU with the London Orchestral Union of Professional Musicians. Since this time the MU has played a key – but largely under-researched – role in British and international musical life. The research will result in a history of the MU and its work in key areas such as copyright, broadcasting, changing technology and labour market policy. Here we will highlight some of the problems which beset a union which sought to unite musicians across musical genres while dealing with a workforce which was often spread across numerous employers. Drawing on a number of case studies this paper will suggest that a better understanding of musicians’ collective organisations and their problems in organising popular musicians can provide many insights in the music industries more broadly and that the lessons of the past resonate today.

IASPM, Gijon June 2013 from John Williamson

Sound Affects: AHRC Network on Subcultures, Popular Music and Social Change, UEA, 15th April 2014

“Conflict and Consensus:The Musicians’ Union and industrial relations in the British music profession.”
[Martin Cloonan and John Williamson]

This paper examines industrial relations in the British music profession since the formation of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union (AMU) in 1893.It will do this is three parts. It will begin by identifying the changing nature of both the employers and the working musicians across the profession before considering the role played by the AMU (and its successor, from 1921, the Musicians’ Union) in pursing improvements for musical labour. In doing so, it will explain how the Union used both its own power and a series of alliances of mutual benefit with other Unions and employers to do this. Finally, it will reflect on the outcomes of the Union’s interventions in the professional lives of musicians and these compare with the wider changes in the trade union movement in the post 1979 period.

The Music Of War – The British Library, 29th – 31st August 2014

“All In It Together: Organising musicians in the First World War.”
[John Williamson]

This paper examines the issues facing the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union in its attempts to organise the music profession in the UK during the First World War.

All in it together? Organising musicians in the First World War from John Williamson

One Century of Record Labels: Mapping Places, Stories and Communities of Sound – Newcastle University, 6th-7th November 2014

“Improper Recordings, Monopolies and Scab Musicians: Danceland Records and the battle of the ballrooms”
[John Williamson]

This paper tells the story of Danceland Records, a short lived British record label that was set up with the backing of some of the major ballroom operators in the UK to circumnavigate the restrictions on the public performance of recorded music imposed by Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL) at the behest of the Musicians’ Union.

Danceland 051114 from John Williamson