The Columnist

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So anyway, I used to know this official of the Musicians' Union whom we'll call Kenny, though that wasn't his real name (his real name, actually, was Brian) and I often used to ask Kenny, "Brian," I would say, "what is the attitude of the Musicians' Union to music played by musicians who are getting paid absolutely nothing for it?"

"We are totally against that," he would say. "For far too long the rank and file of professional musicians have been heartlessly exploited..."

"No, no," I would say, "I am not talking professionals here. I am talking amateur music-lovers. What if three people form their own string trio for fun and play Mozart and Brahms in their own home?"

"The MU would be more than delighted," he said. "Any form of live music is preferable to any form of taped music. Just so long as the string trio didn't charge people entrance money to enter their home and listen to them."

"Ah, but what if the string trio turned out to be so good that they put on a concert in the local church and then charged entry? Would you bus in members from all over the country and picket the church on the night of the concert?"

"Certainly not," said Kenny. "The Musicians' Union does not like to appear heavy-handed. We would get things sorted out on an informal level behind the scenes."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning, we'd have the church burnt down the night before the concert."

There was a twinkle in Kenny's eye as he spoke. Like most musicians, he has a lively sense of humour. All this while, by the way, we had been strolling together near Piccadilly Circus, and at about that moment we passed a busker who was playing an accordion. Kenny tossed a coin in the man's hat.

"Thanks, Brian," said the player, and they nodded at each other.

"You know him?" I asked Kenny.

"He's a member," said Kenny.

"My God," I said, "do you mean that buskers have to be MU members nowadays? Have you actually unionised the musical mendicants of London?"

I was about to go on in this dreary moralistic vein when Kenny took my elbow and said:-

"Has it occurred to you, my friend, that the man we just spoke to might be a band musician down on his luck? That he might be a musician with a mortgage who is temporarily out of his work and is busking to keep up the payments?"

"Is that the case?" I said, abashed.

"No, it isn't," he admitted." But it might well be. Hello, we've got trouble here..."
I peered ahead, All I could see was a man playing soprano saxophone, though it sounded as if he had got a whole band with him. As we got nearer I could see that he had got a whole band with him - or, rather, that he had a suitcase-sized tape recorder which was playing a backing track for his sizzling improvisations on "I Can't Get Started". He stopped nervously when we drew abreast.

"Hello, Sid," said Kenny coldly.

"Hello, mate, how's things?" said Sid, trying ineffectually to stand in front of the recorder.

"Playing with backing tapes, Sid?" said Kenny. "I'm sincerely sorry to see you putting people out of a job like this. I hope you've got union clearance for this? I hope at least that you're paying the backing band the going rate? And I dearly hope for your sake that those are union members playing on that tape?"

Sid's mouth opened and closed. He looked round. He glanced at his watch.

"Oops!" he said. "Coffee break time. Mandatory MU stop! Got to stop now. Union orders! Sorry about that! See you, Col!"

And he vanished clutching his equipment.

"Why did he call you Col?" I asked Kenny.

"No idea," muttered Kenny.

I subsequently found out that, unknown to the general public, all buskers in public spaces in Britain are directly employed by the Musicians' Union in order to exclude black leg labour.

I found out that if any free-lance busker dares to set up shop, he is driven out of town by MU members mercilessly putting old buttons and valueless centime coins in his cap.

And I also found out that Kenny, under an assumed name of Colin, was on a dangerous mission for the MU. He had gone underground to investigate the biggest threat ever to real music. A kind of music in which, unbelievably, unpaid amateurs sang to non-union backing tracks and actually paid for the privilege of doing so. It was Thatcherism made vocal. It was called karaoke. Colin was last seen going to a karaoke evening at a pub in Streatham. If anybody knows what happened to him, let me know.


Friday Sep 30 1994