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Discordant Notes, 1927-31
Musicians’ Union campaigns to safeguard members’ employment.
During the 1920s (and until 1933) the Musicians’ Union published a quarterly journal, the bulk of readers being its members. It often featured a cartoon highlighting dominant concerns of the day.
This exhibition centres on campaigns defending members’ employment during the period when cinemas converted to playing pre-recorded sound. This was not the only challenge facing the Union, which was fighting on several fronts following the General Strike of 1926. Its cartoons were political (directed at both internal and external targets) and inevitably focused on battles that lent themselves to visual representation. For this reason, wage negotiations are not seen in this gallery; but the Armed Forces Bands and those who hired them are derided for undermining civilian bands. Union members themselves are rebuked for refusing to increase subscriptions, thereby limiting the funds officials needed to work effectively.
Most emphatically, talkies were mocked when the threat they posed became clear. In two years that threat engulfed the professional instrumentalists who once sat beneath the screen. These people had, barely more than a generation earlier, benefited from the increase of apparently stable employment opportunities that came with the massive growth of the cinema business. Now, most were being fired with little prospect in the Depression era of re-employment in any job, let alone one that used their talents and experience.
The Musicians’ Union Archive at the University of Stirling provides a unique perspective on the cultural history of Britain over the last 130 years, documenting the various challenges (both political and technological) which have faced professional musicians. The Archive is a key resource for two current AHRC funded projects: British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound and The Musicians’ Union: A Social History. In light of the AHRC's 10th Anniversary, this Image Gallery is a key example of gains made through the AHRC's support for research based on exploration of archival resources.
John Izod (Professor of Screen Analysis) and Karl Magee (University Archivist), University of Stirling
The Musicians' Journal, No. 26 (October 1927)
about The Musicians' Journal, No. 26 (October 1927)
In 1927 the Musicians’ Union was active on several fronts to support members’ interests. It resisted reductions in pay following the General Strike and fought against harsh conditions of service when, for example, some cinema owners insisted their orchestras play seven days a week. However, to achieve its aims, the Union needed sufficient income to employ officials and organise members; but those very members resisted moves to raise the subscription.
The Musicians’ Journal, No. 27 (January 1928)
about The Musicians’ Journal, No. 27 (January 1928)
In this New Year message, the Journal linked its ambition to increase subscriptions with two other campaigns. It targets Armed Forces Bands for playing public concerts free of charge and undermining civilian musicians’ employment. And it scorns what one official called “a glorified Gramophone, the Panatrope, the proprietors of which seem to think it is going to do away with orchestras. …There does not seem to be any immediate danger of this Machine being used extensively to the detriment of our members.”
The Musicians’ Journal, No. 29 (July 1928)
about The Musicians’ Journal, No. 29 (July 1928)
The competition that civilian musicians faced from military bands in public parks and seaside resorts increased in the summer months. A year later, in the summer of 1929, however, this would seem a less menacing challenge than the rush by many exhibitors to install pre-recorded sound in their cinemas.
The Musicians’ Journal, No. 30 (October 1928)
about The Musicians’ Journal, No. 30 (October 1928)
In cinemas, the Panatrope was a two-turntable gramophone with amplified output which allowed operators to play a pre-recorded soundtrack for silent films. Like the more satisfactory systems that reproduced sound recorded on film (represented here by the American salesman, frame right), it threatened the livelihoods of musicians who accompanied films in cinemas. A related article attacked the technology being introduced in Britain and claimed that "the public cannot live on 'canned' music all the time any more than on canned pork."
The Musicians Journal, New Series 1 (April 1929)
about The Musicians Journal, New Series 1 (April 1929)
This front-cover image entitled, “The Key To The Situation” directed musicians to an article advising them to join the Musical Performers Protection Association. However, the company was to fail in its objectives of collecting fees from recorded music. Nor did it reverse the takeover by sound films. Although too few talkies were produced in 1929-30 to fill cinemas’ programmes completely, the studios persuaded owners to meet the cost of conversion by focusing on the prospect of increased takings and cutting out musicians’ wages.
The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 2 (July 1929)
about The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 2 (July 1929)
“Keep Blowing Boys.” This cover image introduced an article designed to raise players’ morale. The piece argued that the failings of talkies were so obtrusive that the fad could not last. For example, it alleged, someone other than the actor has to do the talking. For that reason the actor works with his or her back to camera to conceal the fact that the voice and the movement of the performer’s lips do not synchronise.
The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 3 (October 1929)
about The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 3 (October 1929)
Reflecting the accelerating pace of converting cinemas for sound, this cartoon’s prediction for 1930 relied on a counterattack that instrumentalists thought incontrovertible. In October 1929, few filmgoers would have disagreed that the quality of mechanical sound reproduction was far inferior to live music. But the riposte sidestepped two key facts: sound systems were improving fast and, more significantly, that autumn British audiences, no matter the music’s quality, were flocking to the latest sensation, the talkies.
The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 4 (January 1930)
about The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 4 (January 1930)
This cartoon was reproduced in the Journal thanks to the American Federation of Musicians. Unlike the British cartoonists’ work, which invariably centres on the human figures involved, it is pointedly satirical of the anti-human nature of the machinery. Cupid’s harp (emblem of the movies’ desire to be seen as an art form) is wrecked, and the terrier parodies the mascot for His Master’s Voice. The yowling mutt turns its back on the cranky apparatus, whereas in the famous company logo a serene Nipper focuses lovingly on the gramophone horn.
Musicians’ Union Monthly Report, New Series 3 (March 1930)
about Musicians’ Union Monthly Report, New Series 3 (March 1930)
The vision of orchestras returning to cinemas arose when the Union recognised filmgoers’ continuing appetite (despite improvements in sound reproduction) for hearing live music as part of the programme. Kine-Variety revived Victorian music hall and vaudeville formulas, programming live orchestras and performers alongside talkie feature films. Unhappily, few Musicians’ Union writers recognised that in the Depression era this was exclusively a big-city phenomenon. Only in picture palaces were well-to-do audiences and holidaymakers paying the high prices for these top-class shows.
The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 5 (April 1930)
about The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 5 (April 1930)
Returning to its battle against unfair competition from Army Bands, the Journal here directed its fire at no less a person than Tom Shaw, Secretary for War in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour Government. In a blistering attack on him and Manny Shinwell (Financial Secretary to the War Office) it presented persuasive evidence of serial engagements of Forces Bands in seaside resorts and accused the ministers of evading a major social issue while 4,000 civilian musicians were out of work.
The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 7 (October 1930)
about The Musicians’ Journal, New Series 7 (October 1930)
This cartoon first appeared in the Glasgow Evening News. It reflected the fears of some Musicians’ Union writers about the possible cultural impact of Hollywood talkies on British audiences. One drew attention to the prospect that audiences would have musical tastes forced on them by film companies, whereas a resident orchestra could respond to local tastes. Worse, the children of England might perhaps learn to speak with an American accent and abandon their own “homely and honest” dialects.
The Musicians Journal, New Series 10 (July 1931)
about The Musicians Journal, New Series 10 (July 1931)
This cartoon includes the caption: “Trades Union Congress Resolution, 1923. This Congress emphatically condemns the practice of allowing Army, Navy and Air Force bands to enter into collective and individual competition with civilian musicians, on the ground that it is unfair and subsidised competition, and intensifies the unemployment problem. The Congress further calls on all Labour representatives in Parliament and on Local Authorities to exert all their power to put a stop to this injustice.” Eight years later, with 4,000 musicians unemployed, the Union claimed that the injustice continued.