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Organising music’s precarious workforce: What gigging workers can teach gig workers

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The Musicians’ Union has 30,000 members the majority of whom are self-employed and have portfolio careers: gigging, teaching, working in freelance orchestras, session musicians or composers and songwriters working from home.

As our member Stephen Wright recently told the Scottish TUC conference:

“The gig economy: welcome to our world! We need to recognise that the world of work is changing and the trade union movement needs to embrace this”.
More and more workers are finding they have to manage a number of activities with corresponding income streams. This has been the case for people in entertainment industries for some time. Musicians who engage in a bit of performing, a bit of teaching, a bit of writing, and a bit of recording are not unusual. Managing these diverse activities and the corresponding income streams is not unusual. These workers can even be employers at times.

Meeting members’ needs

In order to meet the needs of this diverse workforce, the MU has developed a package of services that specifically appeal to them . These include contract advice and assistance in negotiation, help recovering unpaid fees, specialist insurance, and grants for parents and adopters.

We also lobby and campaign on a wide range of issues of concern to our freelance members, for example  our Work Not Play campaign tackling low or no pay.

Organising the workforce

Alongside services, we also issue a range of guidelines for freelance musicians which advise them on aspects of their career, such as the Fair Play Guide (covering live performance) and our Media Composition Commissioning guidelines (covering composers writing music for film, TV etc).  We are constantly working on new guidelines, services and campaigns to appeal to our serve our members and potential members.

We have Stewards in freelance bands, such as in the West End or on touring theatrical productions, who inform us of problems where they work.  We have also recently appointed some Roving Stewards who work across a range of workplaces.

Where there is a trade body – for example the BPI (British Phonographic Industry representing record labels) – we try to get an agreement.  We have many, many trade agreements in place covering almost all aspects of our members’ work.  This isn’t exclusive to employed members and we find employers are just as keen to agree terms covering self-employed workers as it limits the amount of time spent in individual negotiation. For example, we have around 70 agreements covering the engagement of self-employed musicians either by freelance orchestras or employed orchestras who book self-employed musicians as Extras or Deputies.

A recent example of the MU effectively organising is in the music education sector. Where music services have closed down or offered unacceptable terms to music teachers we have advised members on starting up their own Music Teaching Cooperative (check out Cooperatives UK website).  For example, Swindon Music Co-Operative started with 20 tutors and now has over 50 – they are self-employed but effectively working together, sharing training, and setting standard rates.

In the recording and broadcasting sectors, we have ‘MU approved contractors’ who agree to engage musicians under MU terms and conditions.  We also have Fair Play Venues who agree to meet certain terms we set in the live performance sector.

Our experience shows it’s possible to effectively organise a workforce who don’t work in a traditional workplace.  We’d be happy to share our experience with other TUC affiliated unions.

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