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Screen Tests: A historical snapshot of the Musicians’ Union and technological change – John Izod


Today’s post by Professor John Izod, of the University of Stirling, has a historical bent and concerns the fate of musicians employed by cinemas in the 1920s. In many ways, the issues facing musicians then were a world apart from those of today, although one of the advantages of historical research is that it allows us to take a step back and adopt a broader view, which can reveal patterns that pertain over the longer term. The cartoon below showing pit musicians wondering where a recorded sound is coming from, and the suspicion about ‘mechanical music’, may seem quaint to modern eyes (and ears). But underlying them is a process that continues to impact on the working lives of musicians and audience habits to this day – disruptive technology. Synched sound with films is something that almost everyone alive today will have grown up with; a commonplace feature of our everyday lives. But the battles over copyright that rage on are no less the result of disruptive technology – digital copying and distribution – than those augured by the gramophone, radio and, in this case, ‘talking pictures’.

With festivals now being streamed live on the web – on top of the long history of live television broadcasts – along with cameras and screens a standard feature at major gigs, the relationship between live music and the moving image is evolving apace. Indeed, the recent launch of a new trade body, the Event Cinema Association, in response to the burgeoning market for cinemas offering screenings of live events, is testament to that fact. Ironically, with home entertainment technology and digital distribution disrupting the cinema marketplace just as they wrought havoc on recorded music, one of the effects seems to be an increase in people going to the cinema to watch ‘live’ (albeit mediated) musicians. As ever, the effect for the musicians in question will be a new set of employment and contractual issues to handle.

Shifts in technology bring new challenges and opportunities and some of those facing the Musicians’ Union today would have been unrecognisable in the 1920s, but it can be useful to look back at the resonances between the disruptions to our current status quo and those that it brought about in the past.

 (Musicians’ Union Archive, University of Stirling)


The piece under this heading in The Musicians’ Journal of April 1925 referred to a no less earth-shaking event than a change of musical director at two of the town’s more important picture houses, the New Grand and the Empire. W. H. Lowkes’s rickety hyperbole reveals that, in common with most contributors to the Musicians’ Union’s quarterly publication, his talents lay in trade union organisation rather than journalism. Nevertheless he recognised that the tectonic plates on which professional musicians stand frequently shift unpredictably. Materials held in the Musicians’ Union Archive at the University of Stirling reveal how true this proved to be when Lowkes was writing, especially so for those making a living in cinemas in the late 1920s.

During the 1920s, the Musicians’ Union (MU) kept in close contact with the Ministry of Labour, seeking to maintain a protectionist policy aimed at restricting foreign professionals from working in Britain. A Journal article in January 1926, ‘The Growing Menace Of Alien Musicians,’ protested the absence of tougher Government restraints and did not conceal a racist agenda. Later that year, another piece referred to the ‘dumping down’ (sic) of a black band in a London Theatre. On this occasion, the MU did a deal with the Ministry of Labour so that the same number of British musicians were employed as the visitors, but not required to play. The Union failed to comment on the plain implication that at the height of the Roaring Twenties, these Americans must have attracted audiences big enough to make the costly doubling of player numbers affordable.

The MU’s protectionism went beyond obstructing foreign musicians. The Union also contested vehemently the right of police and military bands to give free public concerts in civic venues. They argued that the Forces bands undercut civilian musicians, whose income, unlike their uniformed brothers’, was in most cases ultimately dependent on ticket sales.

Rates of pay and the terms and conditions of service are always at the core of a trade union’s activities. In the mid 1920s, the MU was fighting the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association to establish musicians’ right to have a day off each week. The Union secured the legal verdict it sought, prohibiting managers from enforcing a seven-day working week; but after the 1926 General Strike many employers ignored legal decisions and imposed less favourable terms to compensate for a claimed downturn in business. They did this confident that numbers of instrumentalists sufficient for their picture houses’ needs would break ranks. And, at a time when work was hard to secure and rates of pay were falling, they were proved right. In order to sustain their families, a significant proportion of musicians felt they had no choice but to endure exploitation and agree to play all the hours required for whatever wages that were offered.

Each of these issues and several others that preoccupied the MU (such as the health of members and providing benefits for musicians who had fallen on hard times) had considerable importance, given prevailing employment conditions. Yet all were dwarfed by the impact on professional players of mechanical music.

In 1925-6 the new industry dependent on ‘mechanical music’ (as British instrumentalists called it when they were being polite) was not cinema but the wireless. The MU understood that broadcasting constituted both an opportunity and a threat to its members. In general, as long as the transmission of music depended on the live relay of public performances, it took the view that broadcasting would increase rather than reduce employment for entertainers. So it focussed on securing additional fees for instrumentalists and singers whose performances were carried by the BBC to listeners beyond the concert hall. Early in the life of the new corporation, the MU discovered that it was dealing with an employer of ever-increasing power that (setting aside the occasional difficulties inevitable in a relationship that was of high strategic value to both parties) committed early to dealing fairly with artists.

The advent of the gramophone, though hardly welcomed by musicians other than those principal artists who commanded fame and big recording fees, appears not in the mid 1920s to have been a source of intense concern among MU members. Possibly this was because musicians who would otherwise have been left out of work by the shrinking audiences for music hall entertainment were absorbed by the rapid expansion of the cinema industry.

However, the advent of sound recorded for movies proved in the harshest way a truth that had been stated succinctly in the July 1925 issue of the Journal, some three years before the new technology reached the UK: ‘No organisation can stand against the public tastes, caprice, and fashion; consequently there can be no permanency of composition of the personnel or values of orchestras.’

The scale and speed of devastation wreaked on musicians’ employment shows clearly in figures recorded for Scotland by Secretary W. Murdock of the Union’s Glasgow branch. In September 1929, seventy musicians were recorded as unemployed in Scotland and 14 cinemas had been wired for sound. A year later between 480 and 500 musicians were out of work and only 27 cinemas remained to be wired. By January 1931 it was all over. The fate of the last two-dozen musicians in no more than ten cinemas in rural Scotland and the Borders went unreported; but, to judge by circumstances elsewhere both in the UK and the USA, it seems probable that these houses succumbed to the radical changes in the business environment and closed because they could not afford conversion to electrical sound systems.

The shocks experienced by the Union in 1929-31 were all the greater given it had boasted in January 1928 that, despite the aftermath of the 1926 Mining Dispute, it now had the largest membership in its history and had succeeded in securing wage increases in a number of cities. Suddenly the deepening pool of unemployed but experienced instrumentalists enabled the more ruthless managers of cinemas and theatres once again to put downward pressure on wages. MU membership dwindled. So too did the numbers of those paying subscriptions. Inevitably faced with the need to reduce costs, the Union had to share the pain of its members and fire some of its organisers.

It is worth pausing to recognise that some of the players now cast out of work would have entered the fledgling movie industry soon after its beginnings only one generation earlier. As in Scotland, so too across the UK, the jobs market for professional instrumentalists was suddenly glutted with men and woman who had few options other than to look for a new way of earning a living or apply for Unemployment Insurance. Some would seek out private pupils, but at a time when ambitious students were the harder to come by precisely because openings for a new generation of professional players had been closed off by the ranks of their unemployed elders. Further, as Evan Williams noted in the January 1932 Journal, instrumental training had now become a less attractive option even for amateurs, with music easily available through wireless and gramophone.

Therefore Mrs. Ethel Snowden, wife of the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, caused much understandable resentment in the Union when she asked in a speech whether a large number of unemployed British musicians could not be better employed as ‘butchers, bakers, or candle-stick-makers.’ Doubtless Warrington, along with every town and city in the UK, was indeed now much disturbed musically.

Professor John Izod, University of Stirling

You can find out more about the  Musicians’ Union on their website here.

A substantive project, ‘The Musicians’ Union: A Social History’, funded by the AHRC and the ESRC and based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow is also underway.

The Musicians’ Union archive is hosted at the University of Stirling. The University Archive’s blog is available here.


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