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volume 19
november 2016

Needle time, what's the point?


  The resistance against recorded music
by Derek Lamb
  One of the reasons behind the success of offshore radio stations in the 1960s — at least in Great Britain — is the restricted air time made available for recorded music by its producers. Derek Lamb here tells us more about the importance of "needle time".
  Needle time: the duration of commercially recorded music
on disc that can be broadcast over a specific period;
the fee payable for this right.
1 Background. The origins of UK pirate radio in the 1960s are closely linked to the issue of "needle time". Currently in the UK, listeners have a choice of over 100 national, regional and local stations, both BBC and commercial. All but a handful base their schedules entirely on commercially produced pop and popular music. Just over 50 years ago however, pop and popular music on records were only available in Britain from two sources: the BBC Light Programme (very occasionally) or Radio Luxembourg (evenings only, signal strength permitting). These dramatically different situations have a common origin: needle time, its strict application on the one hand and its eventual abolition on the other.
2 Origins. When radio broadcasting began in the UK in the early 1920s, several organisations and businesses saw it as a threat. These included newspapers, theatres, record companies and professional musicians. All tried to restrict the impact of this new medium on their activities. Newspaper publishers, for example, insisted that news bulletins on the BBC were restricted to protect sales. However, this was a very modest constraint compared to that achieved by record companies and professional musicians.
  Right: Radio car Normandie

The interwar recession forced closures and mergers between record companies, so that most labels were part of just two groups: EMI and Decca. They felt that excessive broadcasting of their records would depress sales. Professional musicians took a simpler view: every record that was broadcast would be at the expense of musicians playing "live". This simple coincidence of interest against excessive broadcasting of records was to influence the shape of popular music radio in Britain for six decades. In 1934, EMI and Decca and most other labels formed Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) and began needle time negotiations with the BBC. Starting in 1935 the BBC would pay 20,000 a year for the privilege of playing records.

  This does not appear to have significantly affected the BBC's use of records. Although hard to appreciate now, listeners then wanted live dance band music rather than records. The 1930s were the heyday of British dance bands, which broadcast every day on the BBC (except Sundays). Commercially produced records played a small role; in 1939, only 4.22% of output on one of the two BBC networks was records. Radios Luxembourg, Normandy and others of the BBC's continental based rivals featured similar "concert style" programmes by popular bands rather than just records.
3 Post-war developments. Wartime saw a growing appetite for record programmes, assisted by a relaxation in needle time. However, the fact that the first "hit parade" charts in Britain in the early 1950s were based on sheet music sales and not records confirms a continuing interest in live popular music.
  The real significance of the 1934 agreement was the precedent it set. BBC radio would be severely restricted in its ability to accommodate the growing demand for popular music on disc from the mid-1950s onwards. By then, the era of the dance bands was over and that of American and British pop music on disc was beginning. At the same time, the expansion and success of commercial television was forcing the BBC to divert more resources from radio to television. Replacing expensive live music with cheaper and more flexible record-based programmes on radio was an obvious economy.
  Record companies were beginning to see the reasonableness of an increase in needle time duration. The Musicians Union (MU) did not. As most "pop" records recorded in the UK involved the use of MU members, record companies were not keen to see a withdrawal of labour from this profitable aspect of their activities. The MU had considerable muscle. In the early 1960s, pop groups would mime to their latest records on television programmes like Ready Steady Go and Top of the Pops. This loss of employment for musicians led to a ban on miming, which increased the amount of "live" performances (all using MU members, naturally). Ready Steady Go changed its name to Ready Steady Goes Live in acknowledgement that miming had ended.

Increasing needle time. Not surprisingly, progress to increase needle time was slow. Between 1955 and 1958 negotiations produced a rise in the fee paid by the BBC but no increase in duration. Eventually the allowance was raised to 34 hours per week for all BBC radio. The BBC had wanted 75 hours!

This was broadly the position when Radio Caroline began in 1964. Its immediate success stiffened the resolve of the BBC with PPL. One written agreement includes the handwritten word "midnight!" indicating that negotiations went on much longer than expected. When Radio 1 launched in September 1967, needle time was 51 hours per week.

  Curiously, while restricting the use of records by the BBC, record companies continued to buy extensive airtime on Radio Luxembourg. Why would record companies pay for airtime when the BBC would play their records for nothing and pay royalties as well? It was actually an astute business decision. Record companies could decide the content of their programmes on Luxembourg. They used it largely to promote new releases but not to the extent that over exposure jeopardised sales. Once a record reached the charts, its appearance on Luxembourg was reduced. Interestingly, the BBC's Caversham archives confirm that Sir Edward Lewis and Sir Joseph Lockwood, Head of Decca and EMI respectively, were concerned at the over exposure of their products on the pirate stations. They stated that the pirates acquired their records from the pop stars' management companies and not from EMI or Decca's publicity departments.
  Their bias towards airing new releases was applied to the BBC. Part of the expanded needle time had to be devoted to new releases. Programmes like Newly Pressed on the Light and What's New on Radio 1 were entirely new releases. Some of this allowance was used elsewhere. The opening programme of Radio 1 included a review by Tony Blackburn of "five of the latest 45s hot from the press."

In conclusion. Although part of British broadcasting history now, needle time shaped popular music radio for almost 60 years, especially between 1955 and 1973. Oppressive needle time restrictions forced on the BBC was the direct cause of the pirates and their enormous popularity. Their demise in 1967/68 in turn led to the start of commercial radio in the UK in 1973. With a few exceptions, commercial stations broadcast pop and popular music on disc. This was made possible by a steady increase in needle time in the 1970s and 80s and its abolition in 1990. The payment aspect continued.

Needle time was a result of the peculiar nature of radio in the UK:

  • one risk averse, national, non-commercial broadcaster
  • agreement by record companies to restrict the broadcasting of its products by the BBC
  • strongly unionised musicians whose threat of industrial action would undermine the activities of both the BBC and the record companies.

  Perhaps readers in the Netherlands and Scandinavia will document the role of needle time (if any) in the development of pirate radio in those countries?
  2016 © Soundscapes
  This article first appeared in Radio Review in 2015