musicians' union chief interviewed
The Musicians' Union: a tireless defender of the rights of the downtrodden instrumentalist? Or a haven for Luddites bent on holding back musical progress?
Either way, the MU has maintained its membership at around the 38,000 mark over the last few years, despite the encroachments of dehumanising and deskilling technologies (Letters to: Dr Spliff, One Two Testing etc... ).
The man at the centre of things is John Morton, a 60-year old former pro pianist ("I was never a great name," he says) and long-term union man who will hold the General Secretaryship until his retirement. He was elected to the post in 1971, giving him a handy 19-year stretch in which to make his mark.
I met him at the union's comfortable HQ in Stockwell, south London, for a chat about the MU, past, present and future.
"Historically the union's roots go back to the end of the last century when the main part of it grew up in the music halls and theatres of the period," says Morton. "That was the mass musical activity, as it were, and a surprising number of musicians worked at that sort of work.
"Then in the 1920s, that body, which had started in Manchester but spread all over the country as the Amalgamated Musicians' Union, came together with a body that started off originally in a rather more genteel style as a sort of orchestral association, and they formed the present union.
"Then there was the cataclysm of the talkies, which wiped out hundreds of cinema orchestras," he complains. New recruits came along, from the early dance bands, but they were "regarded with quite a bit of suspicion".
The character of the union did not settle down until after the war when the decision was made to avoid future problems of definition by recruiting anyone who earns money from playing music. That remains the basis for entry today.
"I believe that the union is grossly caricatured by some people who don't know as being still stuck in the dance band days, but the facts are quite against that," he says.
He insists on the breadth of the union's membership, from the symphony orchestras, through session players ("they're not all blowers and scrapers, some of them are synth players and percussionists and Linndrum operators"), to brass bands and folk singers. "Anybody who's significantly in music is likely to be a member," he says.
Unlike some unions the MU doesn't bother to check whether its members are actually earning money from playing music. As Morton says, if they're not, then presumably they'll stop paying their subscriptions. Nor is there any test of professional competence, as is periodically demanded by some members.
The General Secretary says there is no musicians' union in the world where there is an entrance test. "Some of the American locals have had very perfunctory tests. You turn up carrying your guitar and if you can walk in straight carrying it, you're in.
"It would be very difficult to devise a test that would take care of all the different kinds of qualities. Art Tatum would fail a sight reading test... on the other hand Menuhin would probably fail a busking test.
"We offer organisation and services to anybody who's involved in music and we don't really feel that we would help those by keeping people out," he says.
Morton sees the union's role as threefold: organisation and negotiation to uphold wage levels for all forms of musical employment; services, including legal advice; and general representation of music as an industry, especially in dealing with Government.
The MU also tries to promote live entertainment, usually by exhortation, issuing some antique-looking leaflets to publicans and hoteliers. And it encourages the BBC to keep up the tradition of live sessions by groups without recording contracts. And then there's the slogan Keep Music Live. "We hope it has a sort of subliminal effect, 'Guinness is good for you' and 'Keep music live'," says Morton.
I put it to Mr Morton that for all the union's apparent efforts, most rock musicians don't bother with the union until the point where they get to Top Of The Pops and find they have to join. He agreed that this was a popular impression but insisted it was inaccurate. "The vast majority of our members who are in that area haven't been on Top Of The Pops and aren't likely to be. And conversely, when people come into that stream to appear on Top Of The Pops, the majority of them are already members of the union," he says.
He doesn't deny that the union's various membership agreements mean that it forms a "gateway" at the entrance to the worlds of television, radio, foreign touring, and video. "You find it, just as you would if you were a cameraman or an actor," he says, which is true.
But the union isn't only for the elite. For the one-or-two-gigs-a-week player, it's "somewhere to turn if you've got a problem".
Of course, there is an argument that such individualistic people as musicians are ill-suited to union organisation.
Morton feels that the organisation comes to reflect the individualism of its members, "and even the most individualistic of persons will find it useful to drive on the left-hand side when they come into the city".
But the idea of representing different elements within the union by their own officers has been dropped. At one time "rock" had its own "organiser", which must have been a singularly thankless task. But now that's seen as a kind of positive discrimination and has been replaced by the idea of organising areas of work: broadcasting, sessions and so on.
Meanwhile, the Great Synthesiser Controversy seems to have died away for a while, but it could break out again any day. So, is the MU against synthesisers? Does it want them banned?
Morton offers his own interpretation of the union's position, conjuring up a slightly bizarre picture in the process. "Supposing Sinatra came and wanted to do the Albert Hall with three synthesisers. That's not at all different from what Andy Williams did, or that other fellow, the guy with the big nose, Barry Manilow. We would get a hell of a lot of moans, immediately, here, from people who'd played with Sinatra last time.
"And in the course of that you'd get 'bloody synthesisers' and so on. But that doesn't represent a policy on synthesisers, it's just the reaction of people whose interests have been affected by a change.
"Whether it's a synthesiser or even an organ if it comes to that, on the sheer question of manning on certain engagements we would want to say, 'Well, that job's worth 10 people, 10 people ought to be working on it.'"
At this point it becomes clear that the people the union principally defends, people who treat music as a career in the same sense as banking, or joinery, are slightly different to the rest of us, who treat it as a recreational activity with, perhaps, some money attached. So what about us, as The Coasters once put it?
"All the uses in what we would broadly call groups are, in my view, legitimate," says Morton, uncannily like a man making policy on his feet. But what about people getting a Fairlight and making a string quartet? Isn't that four jobs?
"I've never heard an objection raised to a case like that," he says, adding that the union relies on people who insist on the real sound of strings. But there's a codicil. If you are a commercial arranger doing strings behind a singer and you hire two string players and a synth to fill in the sound, with a "clear intention" to circumvent the cost of employing a full section at union scale rates, then there could be trouble.
The union recognises a difference between people working on their own records and people arranging and producing tracks for other people. It's the latter who are likely to get into difficulties, but this distinction has not, apparently, been firmly defined on any piece of paper.
Recently, attention has turned to the drum machine and, once again, views on what to do about it are many and various, even at the level of the MU's national executive. I'm not sure whether Mr Morton was giving me his own view or paraphrasing the committee's recent discussion on the question, but he seems to take the view that drummers will move towards becoming drum computer programmers.
"There will be plenty of places where they won't apply in any case. One of our members is a very fine jazz drummer, for instance. Now, you're not going to want to find somebody operating a drum machine at Ronnie Scott's too often, nor on the concert platform.
"But in the course of the transition we do have an economic responsibility to look after people affected by those developments," he says.
One more threat to the working musician, though in this case not usually working rock musicians, is the use of recordings to accompany other types of live performance — for instance, ballet and ice-dancing.
The union's most recent foray into the public eye came when it allegedly pulled the plug on Robin Cousins' ice spectacular and instructed him that he had to use a real orchestra rather than the tape recording he had planned. Cousins flatly refused, and that was the end of the show.
In general, the union likes live music to accompany ice dancers, but in practice it accepts tape in clubs and single-venue events. But Cousins' show was a full-scale, touring "Ice Spectacular" and, as such, the union thought he ought to have live music, or a combination of live music and recordings.
"We concede that there may be a case for recorded music, but the question then is, what is the recorded music? Because in the Cousins case, the tape itself consisted of re-recordings of commercial records," he said.
Previously, Torvill and Dean had agreed a deal with the union for a similar show, whereby they would use a tape — but a new tape, made for the occasion.
The Cousins tape, though apparently made in ignorance, would have been an illegal copyright infringement. The MU wanted the Cousins contingent to do what the Nottingham skating sensation (©The Sun) had already agreed. "They could at least have afforded to do that, and to be honest we would have probably settled for that, plus some arrangement for a band to play in the interval or in the opening or closing, to get a bit of work for some musicians.
"At the end of the day, we're not a religion, we're engaged in the practical activity of trying to get a fair deal for people in music," concludes Mr Morton.
He's been engaged in that task since the mid-1940s, when he was "an ordinary working musician, making an honest living". But does he play now, I asked?
"No, I don't really. I'm not in that stream where I get any fulfillment out of playing," he says, a little sadly.
One Two Tactics
Feature by John Morrish
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