Why are we dancing tonight?

May Day has always been an important date in the trade union calendar, but for the Musicians’ Union in the 1950s it became tied to a campaign to boost employment for musicians. John Williamson explains the background to the question posed on the Union’s 1961 flyer, ‘Why Are We Dancing Tonight?'(below).



By the end of World War II, employment in the music profession was growing and Union membership increasing, but its leadership saw a threat to this from the growth of the recording industry. While some musicians in the pre-War years had taken part in recordings, the impact of this on the Union was limited and the vast majority of its members still made their living from playing live, either as members of orchestras or in the growing number of dance bands performing in palais and dance halls.

However, both the Union and the record companies had recognised the potential disruption to the status quo that recording was likely to bring as early as the 1930s.

In 1934, the two dominant British record companies (Decca and the Gramophone Company) won a court case against a Bristol restaurant owner, Steven Carwardine, who had been playing records released by the labels in his café. The court ruled in favour of the record companies and the outcome of this was a new revenue stream for them from public performances of their recordings. The labels quickly formed an organisation, Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL) to collect monies from music users on their behalf.

These recordings could not have been made without the performances of the musicians in the first instance, so the record companies quickly sought to reach an agreement with them. Initial discussions took place between PPL and the performers’ representative organisations (the MU, Incorporated Society of Musicians, Variety Artistes’ Federation and Equity) with a view to making payments through them for disbursement to the recording musicians.

This created some problems for the Unions, who felt that they could not take the money without creating a new company, meaning that PPL took the initiative and decided to make an ex-gratia payment of 20% of their net revenue directly to the musicians involved in the recordings.

While relatively small amounts (and numbers of musicians) were involved, this situation held until 1946, when PPL reached a new agreement with the MU. This was not fully implemented until the following year when PPL reached an agreement with the BBC on the use of recorded music, but eventually meant that between 1st June 1945 and 1st May 1949, 10% of PPL’s net distributable income was paid to the Union, with the rate being increased to 12.5% thereafter.

This agreement was to hold until 1989, but it is worth noting that the record companies dealt only with the MU as, in their eyes, it was the representative of all recording musicians and that the ex-gratia nature of the deal meant that they were able to impose some restrictions on what the Union could do with the funds. The most important of these were that the Union could only use 5% of the funds for the running costs of the Union, and they could not be used for activities that were seen as being detrimental to the interests of the record labels.

The Union first received a payment from PPL in 1952 and still had to decide what to do with the funds, given the restrictions placed on them. This was a lengthy process and the uses of what became known as the ‘phonographic funds’ were debated at Executive Committee meetings and conferences for the best part of a decade.

They were ultimately to be used for a myriad of Union activities, but two important overarching decisions were reached by the end of the 1950s. The first was that rather than distributing the funds to the individual musicians who played on recordings, the money would kept centrally and administered by the union to subsidise and support activities which were seen to be of benefit to the entire profession. The other crucial decision was that the funds would be diverted into live music, in order to create employment which may have been lost as a result of recorded music being increasingly heard both on the radio and in public places where live bands were previously employed.

In essence, the Union’s position was that the proceeds of recording, which involved only a minority number of musicians at this stage, should be used to the benefit of the majority, who did not. This position, while gaining support of the majority of members was, nevertheless, a controversial one, which was to create problems for the Union in the future.

While the ultimate decision on what to do with the money in the long term was put off for a host of reasons, by 1957 the Union had accumulated £45 000 in two special accounts for the ‘phonographic funds.’

It was in the same year that the first, tentative expenditure was recorded. The largest items were the interest on the money, which had been transferred to the Union’s benevolent fund and the agreed 5% which was paid in to the Union’s General Funds.

Beyond this, the main expenditure was a grant of £500 to the Welsh National Opera Company and a similar amount for a two year affiliation to the National Council of Labour Colleges.

The only other item was £1380 for the establishment of a series of May Day dances by local branches of the Union.

May Days

The rationale behind this was set out in the Executive Committee’s report to the Union’s 1959 conference, where it was noted that, as part of the aim to develop live music, “the amount of £10 000 per annum should be allocated for three years to finance a project to provide or promote employment for members (this would include the promotion of May Day dances where these were undertaken).”

Having agreed this, the Union then announced in their Bulletin to Branches newsletter (27th February 1959) that any branch wishing to hold a May Day dance may claim up to £50 from the phonographic funds with the clear instruction that the monies be used to “create employment for members.”

Many branches took the opportunity to supply musicians for existing events organised by local trades’ councils. In 1960, the Bulletin to Branches (19th September 1960) urged that these events become annual and again invited branches to apply for funds for events in 1961. It went on to explain that:

“the decision of the Executive Committee has a dual purpose. It is to bring to the notice of the public and of our fellow trade unionists the aims and objects of the Union and the interest of our members in the working-class movement generally on the one day of the year that workers unite to celebrate their emancipation; and at the same time the object is to create, if possible, some employment for members who as a result of the increasing use of recorded music are experiencing long periods of unemployment.”

To further promote this message, the Union printed some 7000 of the “Why are we dancing tonight?” leaflets for distribution at the May Day dances of 1961. These were printed the week before the dances by Civic Press in Glasgow, who posted them directly to the branch secretaries of those branches who were hosting dances.

The Union’s General Secretary, Hardie Ratcliffe, communicated with Mr.Carmichael of Civic Press, with detailed instructions as to how many copies should go to each branch. Among the 22 branches on the list were those in Aldershot, Newcastle, Swansea, Bristol, Alloa and Glasgow. Indeed, the branch secretary of the Glasgow branch, Andrew Kennedy, replied to Ratcliffe that they expected 500 to persons to attend the dance, seeking another 250 copies of the leaflet.

While the impact of the last minute leaflet is undocumented, it does show some of the Union’s anxieties and priorities in the early sixties and an increasing awareness of having to communicate the message beyond their own members.

The growth of the recording industry, the Union’s increasing powerlessness in preventing and limiting the public use of records and fears about unemployment among live musicians remained issues for decades to come, but perhaps the most interesting thing about the support for May Day dances was that it was precursor for the campaign for which the Union is most famous, under the ‘Keep Music Live’ banner.

Using the PPL funds, the Union appointed Brian Blain in early 1965 to run its Campaign for the Advance of Live Music. This continued to support May Day dances, but extended this to a much wider range of activity that aimed to both create new employment opportunities for musicians and protect jobs in situations where they were under threat.

The MU went on, in subsequent years, to support major live music events and institutions (among them the London Symphony Orchestra and Ronnie Scott’s jazz club), but it is worth remembering that this began with the tentative support for some May Day dances in 1959.

It is, however, doubtful that anyone in 1961 thought that this was why they were dancing.