Labour History Review

Early Musicians' Unions in Britain, France, and the United States: On the Possibilities and Impossibilities of Transnational Militant Transfers in an International Industry

Labour History Review (2009), 74, (3), 288–304.


The end of the nineteenth century marks the beginnings of the popular music industry. Although the symbolic figures of this period are undoubtedly the decadent music-hall stars, the situation for the majority of musicians was all but glamorous. As their working conditions ineluctably deteriorated from the 1870s onwards, many started to consider the possible benefits of unionization. In this context, modest instrumentalists often chose to leave their country of origin in search of better opportunities abroad, while music-hall singers were touring the world in the hope of increasing their audience. This international professional mobility led to numerous artistic exchanges. It also facilitated militant transfers between the newly formed musicians' unions. This article examines the progress of the music industry and its impact on the conditions of performing musicians in Britain, France, and the United States from the 1870s to the 1920s. Keeping in mind the wider evolution of the traditional labour movement, we study the emergence of musicians' unions in these international circumstances and analyze the transnational relations between the French, British, and American associations, which culminated in the creation of the 1904 International Confederation of Musicians. Finally, as unions were exchanging ideas and ultimately influencing each other, we consider the possibilities and impossibilities of transnational militant transfers in an industry where the attitude towards art and labour was essential and ultimately so rooted in national identity.

Access Token
If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here
If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here


Author details

David-Guillou, Angèle