In May of this year, the Musicians' Union (MU) celebrated its 120th year. Formed in 1893 when Manchester-based clarinet player Joe Williams wrote an anonymous letter to his fellow musicians asking them to form a union, it's gone on to become an established stand alone collective in its own right currently boasting over 30,000 members.
Since its formation the MU has fought successful campaigns against Apartheid and racial equality whilst being instrumental in the introduction of such measures as the 2012 Live Music Act and extending terms of protection for performers rights from fifty to seventy years. With many challenges still to overcome; not least the continuing development of new technology and increase in online piracy, the MU has managed to retain a dominant presence within the music industry. Offering a wide range of legal and professional services for its members as well as negotiating contractual issues on their behalf, the MU's influence should not be underestimated, especially in the present climate.
Its General Secretary John Smith currently sits on both the Trade Union Congress' (TUC) Executive Council and General Committee, a far cry from the union's dispute over the introduction of sound into films in 1929 which saw them briefly disaffiliate from the TUC. With members from all sectors of the music industry - Mick Jagger, Elton John and Steve Winwood are among their number - DiS felt it appropriate to join in the birthday celebrations and speak to its General Secretary about the history, development and future outlook for the Musicians Union.
DiS: What is the ratio of members to non members among UK musicians/artists? It's obviously difficult to quantify, but based on signed acts maybe?
John Smith: It's very difficult to quantify. We don't even know how many acts are signed to record companies in this country. By testing the water within the full time workplaces such as orchestras and theatres we've got over 90% density in all of those. Now that falls away in the freelance sector because it's more fragmented. I would estimate that approximately 3/4 of our 30,000 members are professional musicians that want to earn money from their music. Take the BBC for instance. We've got five orchestras employed by the BBC which is quite a significant workforce, and the density is around 70-90% for all of them, which is pretty good.
DiS: Does that include people in tribute bands and such like?
John Smith: Yes, we've got a lot of members in covers bands. And the same with gigging musicians that do the golf clubs and hotels circuit as well. There's a high density of membership among those. I think it's within the young rock and pop sectors where the density is less. Bands trying to break through and earn a deal, which is a very difficult area to organise.
DiS: Do you think that's mainly a generational issue? It's certainly something I've come across in my role as a trade union representative whereby younger generations seem very cynical and apathetic about the relevance of trade unions in the modern age.
John Smith: It's definitely a concern. The reason we do attract them when we finally get to them is through our services such as special insurances for instrument damage and legal services we provide for young musicians. That's usually what hooks them in, and then hopefully they get to use the union's services and appreciate what it actually does.
DiS: Does the MU have a specific strategy for growth through new recruitment?
John Smith: We're trying new initiatives all the while. We've recently introduced a student membership of £20. The Executive Committee had a long debate as to whether they should get all the benefits, and we agreed they should. Which in turn creates all kind of problems. For example, having a student membership then discriminates against young people that aren't students. We were also warned off by the lawyers when we had a young person's rate because then age discrimination comes into play. So it made us have to rethink our strategy, but the student membership scheme is taking off and the conversion rate's not bad. Our membership fluctuates a lot. People are constantly joining then leaving. On average, we lose 4,000 and gain 4,000 members every year. There's no big deal about somebody only belonging for six months then deciding it's not for them and getting on with their life in other ways. When times are hard, we tend to get a spike and then come the end of the year if things are going well the direct debit's cancelled. We have to live with that. We've got a very good network of stewards and it's the old recruiting adage that the best recruitment agent is the person working next to you, not the union official.
DiS: Do you find yourselves dealing with many cases or disputes of an industrial relations nature? Do many end up in Employment Tribunals?
John Smith: We're a very litigious union. Most of our cases are for breach of contract. We go to the Small Claims Court with members an awful lot. A lot of the time it revolves around bands turning up to play at pubs and landlords telling them to clear off without paying them. We have all sorts of cases similar to that. The main legal cases we fight are for non-payment of fees for whatever reason. We tend to go to Employment Tribunals more for our members that teach. We have a fair body of those. Not as many as industrial unions but we do have cases ongoing through tribunals all the while. Most of them take place in either the Small Claims or County Courts for recovering money. There's so much live music going on out there, and part of the initial process is making sure artists have an agreement to get paid. And then the next stage is making sure they actually receive that fee! We have a campaign called Work Not Play which is aimed at people that assume artists are going to play a gig for nothing. We get reports from some of our members that they get embarrassed into playing for nothing by promoters who may be putting the show on for charity or potentially end up out of pocket themselves if they pay their artists. We even had one that once told a band, "Sir Elton's doing it for free so why can't you?" There is this assumption that they'll pay for the venue hire, pay the people setting up the portaloos, pay the caterers, pay the bar staff, yet don't think they have an obligation to pay the bands. This campaign is an awareness raising exercise. It's aimed at just getting the word out there and trying to empower our members.
DiS: Is "Pay to Play" still a major issue?
John Smith: Unfortunately it is. It happens quite a lot where bands are asked to bring a specified minimum number of punters to a gig in order to guarantee any kind of payment. We've even had venues ask bands to pay them money up front for use of the PA system! And then they're on a door share split. Door share splits work. We've actually got a standard contract for bands to use for that. I'm not knocking that because I understand it's difficult for venues too. But at the same time, it is a bit like the wild west out there. There are no collective bargaining agreements to back us up. It's very much on individual contracts. We've got a pretty good relationship with the British Beer & Pub Association. They're very supportive of what we're doing, and at the end of the day it's also in our interests to keep small venues such as pubs open. And they realise that music is an added value for a lot of their premises.
DiS: I guess administering a collective bargaining agreement or even proposing any form of industrial action must be difficult for a union like the MU to organise?
John Smith: It depends which sector. Going back to the BBC, that's a proper employer and we have a number of collective bargaining agreements with them. We also have one with the record industry for session musicians, which doesn't just cover terms and conditions, but also intellectual property rights. The record company doesn't have permission to use that music for anything. So for example if a session artist plays on a track that is subsequently used to advertise a product they receive an additional fee. The record company doesn't have the right to decide who gets paid and who doesn't. The musicians get paid an extra fee. We've also got a similar one with the film industry. We've got one for ITV as a company, then one for independent television producers. Then we have another one for touring theatres around the country outside of London, and a sophisticated bargaining agreement specifically for the West End theatres. On top of that, all of the orchestras around the country - there's about fifty of them - also have their own separate agreements.
DiS: How many representatives or stewards are there in the MU?
John Smith: All the symphony orchestras have one apiece, so around 50-60 there. We have them in the pits of the West End as well, but we don't have a steward system for freelance members. We have roving Health & Safety representatives that cover our freelance people, but not actual stewards. It's quite difficult because they get paid in accordance with the number of members in their band.
DiS: What level of accreditation do your Health & Safety representatives receive? What powers of enforcement do they hold?
John Smith: They're fully accredited under the Health & Safety at Work Act. We have special training courses for them. And like a workplace Health & Safety rep, they can go backstage into a theatre and demand to see risk assessments, RIDDORs, Safe Systems Of Work and all the rest of it. So they do have the power to check out venues, and if necessary to enforce certain courses of action. If something is seriously wrong we advise them to contact one of our full time officials. The system works quite well to say it's so fragmented.
DiS: I would imagine some of the inspection reports you get back from certain venues must be horrific?
John Smith: Sadly. Faulty wiring and lack of PAT testing on electrical equipment are an all too common occurrence. We've actually had members killed through electric shock when they've plugged equipment into faulty sockets in venues. Some real horror stories. Backstage conditions that are terrible. We've had ones that are vermin infested. We've had areas where bands are just given a corridor to change in and leave their instrument cases.
DiS: In many ways it's a Catch 22 situation, because while you're concerned about the safety and well-being of your members, you also don't want to see more venues closed down either. How difficult is it to strike an appropriate balance between the two?
John Smith: It's difficult, but we have to try and balance how many sanctions we impose on them, and how much it's going to cost to put those sanctions in place. Ultimately it is about trying to keep the work, and that's where striking such a balance can be difficult to judge. The Victorian theatres in many big cities are a good case in point. Some of those are in a terrible condition by modern standards yet at the same time, still quite functional. To a certain extent you learn to live with it. Electric faults are the biggest concern for us, particularly when artists rely on the electricity supplies from the venues.
DiS: What's particularly disappointing is when comparing the UK to other European countries, parts of Scandinavia in particular, how much the Arts Councils over there support live music and those responsible for making such events happen.
John Smith: There is much more of a culture for live music over there. The 2012 Live Music Act was a big step forward. But apart from that they don't do anything proactive in the UK. They pass the legislation and then say, "Get on with it!" So even though it was a step forward there's no kind of encouragement from the government departments for Culture, Media or Sport at all. So it's down to us to ensure venues know about the licensing regulations.
DiS: Would you consider the introduction of the Live Music Act to be one of the Musicians' Union's greatest achievements? You started campaigning for it in 2003, right?
John Smith: Definitely. It took us exactly ten years to get an amendment to the Act regarding restrictions on small venues that weren't any danger to the public.
DiS: Are there any more laws or amendments which the MU are campaigning to change or introduce at present?
John Smith: There's a legislative reform order down at the moment whereby venues with a 200 capacity or less don't have to be licensed unless they sell alcohol. They come under a different regime if that's the case. We're pretty sure we'll get that extended to 500. And then over 500 where they do sell alcohol and are properly licensed we don't have an issue with. If we manage to get the 500 capacity reform order passed that will probably go down as our greatest achievement this decade. Then of course it's up to us to get out there and let people know.
DiS: You also played a part in the recent extension of the Protection of Performers Rights Agreement from fifty to seventy years. How significant was the MU's role in achieving that?
John Smith: We did a lot here and in Europe with our sister unions in the EU. The reason we started the campaign is because performers rights lasted for fifty years until last week, and we were getting examples of older people who'd made these recordings and they were in the public domain. They'd fallen out of any rights protection. We had one example of one that was used as a sample in a very high-earning track, and this kind of thing was happening more and more. You've got the golden repertoire of the late 1960s coming to an end, and it would have soon fallen into the public domain. A lot of those people are still alive and need the money. They shouldn't have to see their recordings up for grabs within their lifetime. So we got this extension granted to seventy years. You can't do it on an individual basis. That would be administratively impossible. What we discovered was that most high-earning tracks are made by artists while they're in their twenties. The Beatles are a perfect example. The Rolling Stones go on forever but you know, they've bucked the trend! It happens an awful lot with the one-hit wonders, and there are thousands of them. So we wanted to make sure that when they were young musicians and that music had quite a value, they would benefit from it, and not just publishers or record companies.
DiS: Of all the Musicians' Union's achievements over the years, which ones would you say you're most proud of?
John Smith: Getting the Protection of Performers Rights Agreement extended was a big one for me personally. I was very pleased when that came through. And of course the other one we spoke about, the Live Music Act was a good one to be involved with as well. They're two recent campaigns that have been successful, and both really do make a huge difference to how our members earn their living. We've just scored a victory with HMRC to ensure that people understand what their situation is with National Insurance. That's been significant because what was happening - and the courts made a judgment - was they should all pay Class 1. And most of our members were used to being self-employed which meant paying Class 2 and Class 4. And it all blew up around the time they were recording the music for 'The Hobbit' at Warners' studio in London. It was during this period the legislation was passed, and suddenly Warners found themselves issued with a 13.8% increased National Insurance bill. So then they threatened to move the recording to Prague or Bucharest. And that's where we intervened. Our members involved in the project were effectively self-employed, so we went back to HMRC and explained by changing National Insurance classification for our members they were potentially driving work away from the UK. There was a consultation period soon after, and bizarrely the Tory government actually helped us out by listening to the argument and putting this legislation through. So we've got pretty good experiences of the HMRC. It's possibly only a small victory, but it was also a very good one for our members.
DiS: I'm intrigued by your ongoing campaign against music being used as a form of torture. How did that start and what is the MU's ultimate objective?
John Smith: An organisation called Reprieve came to us. They campaign against capital punishment all around the world. They brought it our attention that the US and British armed forces were using deep south American Christian music to torture fundamentalist Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. They'd tie them up in a chair and constantly play this music, partly as a loud sound to keep them awake but also to challenge their own beliefs through the words in the songs using fundamentalist beliefs from another religion. And it was all quite vicious. Music's supposed to entertain people. There's not been much activity on that front for a while but we had a bit of publicity and we still support Reprieve's campaigns. Thankfully, we've had no recent examples since we had that splurge a couple of years ago.
DiS: Going forwards, what do you regard as the greatest challenges facing the Musicians' Union in the future?
John Smith: At the moment the government are looking to bring in the Exceptions to Copyright Law, which there's a private copy exception we don't have in the UK at the moment which is ridiculous because everybody rips music to put onto their iPods or iPhones. Everybody accepts that, and yet technically speaking it is an illicit act. The way France, Spain and the Nordic countries get around that is they have a levy placed on the hardware manufacturers rather than the consumer. There is a levy on Apple. Just as Apple pay for patents and software licenses they pay a fortune for this. So the government want to introduce this exception with no compensation for the artists. It may work in France and Spain but if the UK introduce it our colleagues' positions in those countries would be greatly undermined where they've had this income for a while. The irritating part for me is why don't they just introduce a sanction whereby the likes of Apple are forced to pay properly? I think Cameron has ingratiated himself with Google and Microsoft and all those other multinationals. They've got a lot of influence politically. Business is partly driven by their influence. So we want the government to take a judicial review over this. If nothing else to prove the matter of principle and back up our European friends. That's a really big issue to us at the moment. On a general term, I suppose we always have to deal with encroaching technology. That maybe one day, you could actually have a device for an orchestra in a West End pit that replaces the band. We've actually dealt with this throughout our existence. We hold the line, and what we've always got behind us is public opinion. They like a live band. They don't want a machine doing it. We do involve the public in our campaigns when we can. The other thing is the way this government's dismantled the local music and teaching services. It's awful. A lot of our members rely on their teaching work to supplement their performing income. They've had their hours extended, their pay cut, and there's no uniform rate. Previously there was a national pay scale based on full time teachers salaries. Now that's gone. So they're setting their own rates of pay, and there's no uniformed pay for instrumental teachers.
DiS: So I guess more and more people are being forced to choose between one profession or the other?
John Smith: That's right, and it makes things really difficult for them. They're in a sector that's not recognised now because of the way Michael Gove has dismantled it. So we want to restore it to at least what we had before. And then they're talking about music as being a social inclusion tool like sport. As in not actually teaching kids to become professional musicians. This government don't see it. They just don't get that. We're currently working closely with the NUT (National Union of Teachers) on those issues. We've got a partnership relationship with the NUT.
DiS: How do you work with other closely related unions such as the actors union EQUITY for example?
John Smith: We work quite closely with EQUITY. We've got a Federation of Entertainment Union which they also belong to. BECTU, the technicians union also, and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) belong to it as well. The PFA (Professional Footballers Association) and the broadcasters sector of Unite belong to it too.
DiS: In the past the MU has been in conflict with the TUC. What's the relationship like now?
John Smith: Very good. I've been on the Executive Committee and the General Council for a while. The TUC are actually quite good at recognising our sector and the importance of the creative industries. Not just music, but also design, software and games too. I think it was in the distant past where we fell out. We hit really hard times in the early 1930s, mainly because most of our members were employed in cinemas with silent films. And it wasn't just a single pianist, it was big full-on orchestras. For example, there was a cinema on Edgware Road in London that employed over 100 full time musicians on stage. They used to have one group rehearsing in the day and the other group performing in the evening. Then this ended overnight, and the union's membership plummeted by over three-quarters. So for that reason we couldn't afford our membership fee to the TUC so ended up dropping out, although we did rejoin soon after. That was one strand of work that just disappeared because of technology. We became a closed shop union at that time and we had closed shop agreements. At the same time there was a big surge in work towards the war with the dance bands that came over from the States and emerged here, and we regained most of our membership. We got to a position where we affiliated to the Labour Party in 1943, which is really interesting as it was in the middle of the Second World War. I suppose it was getting ready for the peace time and paving the way for the Attlee government. We'd recovered financially to be able to do that which is quite something.
DiS: One of the most widely publicised success stories for the Musicians' Union was its fight against Apartheid.
John Smith: We were very dogged. The most high profile moment came when Queen were charged under our rules for playing in Sun City. There was a lot of publicity around that. They apologised in the end, although Brian May's a big Tory party supporter. Saying that, he's also a member of the Musicians' Union. We did get a letter in the end from the ANC thanking us for sticking to our guns. We wouldn't allow our members to work there. We put out a complete embargo on members working in South Africa. The majority of members were great throughout that whole period.
DiS: You've already mentioned Brian May as being a member. Have you got any other high profile members?
John Smith: He's still a member, Mick Jagger's still a member, David Bowie's still a member, Elton John's a member. They've got no need to belong but when I meet people like that they like to belong to a community of musicians. There's quite a lot of high profile people within our union who certainly don't work for the minimum terms and conditions. They've got a sort of collective conscience and I think it's really good such a thing exists.
DiS: Finally, what are the MU doing to celebrate its 120th year in existence?
John Smith: We had a big bash at our Conference in the summer, which was great. It's good because we have bi-annual conferences, so when we get to 125 it isn't a Conference year, so we'll have to put on a special do to celebrate instead! All of our archives are stored at Stirling University, but the academics from Glasgow University - they have a professor of music and politics there - are currently writing our definitive history. It's due to be issued in 2016. With the celebrations this year, I guess we're preparing the way for that.
For more information on the Musicians' Union visit their official website.