Young MU members play at the rally after the TUC's A Future That Works march. Photo: Jonathan Stewart
Why the union is vital to young musicians (and why they’re vital to the union)
‘The Union that we require is a protecting union, one that will protect us from amateurs, protect us from unscrupulous employers and protect us from ourselves.’
These were the words of Joseph B. Williams, the founding member of the Musicians’ Union, 120 years. Back then he could hardly have guessed that today the Union would comprise of over 30,000 musicians from all around the UK, playing everything from metal, classical, roots, pop, jazz and musical theatre to producers, and DJ’s working with technology not even invented in the early days of the MU.
Joseph Williams was just 20 years old when he made the call to start the Union, then known as the ‘Amalgamated Musicians’ Union’, and like his peers of the day, the MU continues to be of vital importance to young musicians across the industry.
While the benefits of MU membership are aimed at all working musicians, it’s a characteristic of the industry in which we work that younger musicians are often the ones at the end of a bad deal. Unscrupulous employers regularly focus on younger musicians, issuing contracts that would be turned down or drastically revised by any sensible music industry lawyer.
These contracts can be binding for significant periods of time, and young musicians may find that they are tied into bad deals for a significant chunk of their careers, or worse, that they have signed away the copyright in their own work.
Although MU membership includes public liability insurance, instrument cover and other insurances, perhaps the most important benefit for young musicians is the Contract Advisory Service. This scheme offers free legal guidance to members on any industry contracts they are offered, with specialist music solicitors on hand to assess the contracts and help negotiate a better deal.
So far, this scheme has helped hundreds of young musicians avoid dodgy contracts and negotiate better deals, and can mean the difference between being able to have a sustainable career in music or falling at the first hurdle.
Another feature of the music industry which many of our young members will encounter, is that once you become a professional musician, there is not a great deal of support available. Unlike other trades where there is a staff room or common area where you can exchange stories, compare notes and share ideas, musicians often only see each other fleetingly between stage changes. For that reason MU officials take special pride in delivering quality careers advice, and running events where members can meet and network with other musicians and industry professionals. We also try to give face to face advice as much as possible and as we have staff with experience gained in every corner of the industry, there’s hardly an area we haven’t got covered.
All that said; it is not just important to young musicians that they are part of the MU, but also vital to our continuing strength as well.
The last few years have seen the MU at the forefront of the discussion about the importance of British music. We were responsible for the landmark Live Music Act which saw the removal of the need for licenses for audiences below 200 as well as championing diversity in music and extending the term that artists can collect royalties for a recorded performance.
But we couldn’t have done it without the backing of our members. It is our numbers as the largest union of musicians in the world, which make us a force to be reckoned with and make our opinions important in the debate about our music industry. Just as important are those young members constantly driving the discussion forwards. They are our eyes and ears at grass roots level and are often the first to let us know about a dodgy promoter in town, a venue not paying proper rates or a company issuing sub-standard contracts.
And so, 120 years after the MU’s formation, we are delighted to be taking part in the TUC’s Young Workers’ Month to help make sure that the voice of our young members is heard, and we would like to think that Joseph B. Williams’ hopes for the Union have been more than surpassed, and he would have been pleased to see other young musicians getting involved with the debate on the issues that affect their lives.