Live Music Exchange Blog

Getting the Needle – Martin Cloonan


This week’s blog post is by Live Music Exchange’s own Martin Cloonan, who, with John Williamson, has just completed an important piece of work on the social history of the Musicians’ Union (for more on this, listen to Martin on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed). This piece is about how the policy of ‘needletime’, brought in to protect the musicians who were employed to play live on radio, had far-reaching consequences and helped to shape British music radio and the history of UK popular music – it was first published on the Social History Blog

Between the mid 1930s and the late 1980s, radio in the UK was subject to a set of restrictions covering the amount of recorded music which could be played. Known as “needletime”, the system evolved following a legal ruling in 1933 which held that those whose performances were captured in recordings had the  right to receive compensation for the use of those recordings in public places such as shops, theatres, dance halls and – vitally – across the airwaves. This ruling resulted from a case brought by the major recording companies (consisting at this point of Decca and EMI) against the Cawardine café in Bristol which had been playing records without permission of the manufacturers (see PRS for Music & PPL).

Following the ruling, EMI and Decca set up an organisation to issue licences for the public use of recordings  – and to collect money for the issuing them. This organisation was entitled Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL). It exists to this day and remains owned by the major record companies. Henceforth all those wishing to use recorded music in public had to buy a PPL licence, with fees linked to scale of usage. Given the increasingly important (and often lucrative) role that the licensing of recordings came to play within the music industries as broadcasting and other public use of recordings expanded, PPL has gone from being something of an industry backwater to being a contemporary powerhouse. Its story also reflects the fact that the recording industry grew year on year from the mid 1950s until the early 2000’s.

The BBC, PPL and the Union

Prior to the establishment of PPL the BBC had reached a number of agreements with the record companies covering the use of records. Once PPL was established, formal agreements were reached which covered the amount of recorded music which the BBC could use and what it had to pay for such usage. In 1934 the BBC was a monopoly broadcaster, but as first commercial television (1955) and commercial radio (1973) emerged, so the new broadcasters also found themselves having to first negotiate and then pay for PPL licences.

Here I will concentrate on the historic role of the BBC where negotiations with PPL were complicated by the role played by a third party – the Musicians’ Union (MU). Formed in 1893 as the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union (AMU), the organisation merged with the rival London Orchestral Association to be come the MU in 1921. However, the new Union was devastated by the sudden demise of cinema orchestras following the introduction of the “talkies” – films with sound – in the late 1920s. A membership of 20,000 in 1928, was below 7,000 in the mid 1930s and the MU faced extinction.

Under such circumstances, it was not surprising that the Union sought to exercise control over as much of Britain’s musical life – and its employment patterns – as it could. It found a willing partner in the BBC which was heavily reliant on the use of music from its earliest days. Moreover, as a publicly funded service from 1927 onwards, the BBC accepted that it had a key role in helping to maintain and develop the music profession in Britain. It formed a number of orchestras and also used large numbers of musicians on an ad hoc basis, eventually becoming the biggest employer of musicians in human history. However, such widespread use of music came at some cost at the Corporation as it was always nervous about the ability of the Union to disrupt its musical output and thus programming.

Meanwhile the record companies which owned PPL had their own concerns. These centred on the potential ability of the MU to call a recording strike of the sort which its American counterpart, the AFM, had successfully undertaken in 1942-44 and 1948. While it remains unclear whether or not such action by the MU was actually feasible, nervousness about its possibility acted as a constraint on PPL negotiators in their dealings with the BBC as the records companies feared that allowing the BBC what the MU might consider as being too much needletime might provoke a Union backlash.

The Union and the decline of needletime

For its part the MU was ideologically committed to the use of as many live musicians as possible. It saw the use of records outside the home as an aberration and, chastened by its experience with the “talkies”, was concerned that more widespread use of recorded music would hit the employment of live musicians. It therefore fiercely resisted any attempts which the BBC made to increase its “needletime” allowance and continually pressurised PPL in to not making concessions.

One effect of this was that the BBC could not meet the growing demand to hear pop records on the radio which rapidly expanded in the 1960s following the success of The Beatles and others. For a period this demand was partially satiated by the “pirate” radio stations which began broadcasting in 1964 and generally operated without PPL licences, thus leaving them free to ignore needletime and play as many records as they wanted. This way of meeting a the demand for “non-stop pop” was ended in 1967 when the Marine, & co., Broadcasting (Offences) Act made the pirates illegal.

Following this the BBC set up a dedicated pop station, Radio 1, which began broadcasting on 30 September 1967. However it was also hamstrung by needletime constraints and demands grew within the BBC for more time. When commercial radio began at a local level in 1973, there were further demands to extend needletime, this time from the overtly free market Association of Independent Radio Contractors (AIRC) which resented any imposition of conditions within broadcast licences which restricted their members’ ability to make money via selling advertising spots on the back of widespread usage of recorded popular music.

The death knell for needletime came with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. A succession of free market inclined governments followed and made major reforms to broadcasting. The workings of PPL were subject to a Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on Collective Licensing in 1988 which recommended the end of needletime on the basis that it was a restrictive practice. This recommendation was accepted by the government and thereafter  while PPL could still charge for its licences, it could not include provisions within them which limited the use of the recordings.

Concluding remarks 

Hitherto needletime has been seen as something of an anachronism, the end of which freed up British music radio. However, my article suggests that the story is a little more complex. For example, one effect of limiting the use of records by the BBC was that it had to look elsewhere for music and one result of this was the development of BBC sessions  – special recordings of live musicians in BBC studios. So no needletime might have meant no Beatles at the BBC and no John Peel Sessions. The history of UK popular music would have looked rather different without these.

In addition, part of what needletime was about was the provision of suitably remunerated work for live musicians. It was doubtless a blunt instrument via which to achieve this, but one which the Union was able to use to some effect in securing employment for its members. The ending of needletime had significant implications for the employment conditions of musicians within and beyond broadcasting – and few people believe that these have improved in the years since. Ultimately needletime was a balance between a free market and a regulated one. While its demise is seldom lamented outside of the MU, it decisively tipped that balance towards the market – and the employers.

Martin Cloonan is Professor of Popular Music Politics at the University of Glasgow. His work on the Musicians Union was part of an AHRC-funded project entitled the ‘The Musicians’ Union: A Social History.’ His forthcoming article ‘Negotiating Needletime: the Musicians’ Union, the BBC and the record companies, c. 1920-1990’ appears in Social History 41:4.

This article was originally published on the Social Media Blog.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *