An unlikely free-market hero, New Wave musician Gary Numan was a strong and outspoken supporter of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party throughout the 1980s.
Released in 1979, “Cars” by Gary Numan captured the sound of music-to-come for more than ten years. NPR rated “Cars” as the eighth best New Wave song of all time, beating Duran Duran, New Order, Depeche Mode and other house-hold name artists. Numan is widely credited with being the first artist to fully expose New Wave music to mainstream listeners in the late 1970s.
But his growing success was not met with unanimous praise. Some, namely the Musicians’ Union of the United Kingdom, hated Numan and attempted to end his career before it began.
On its face, this issue may seem simple: an up-and-coming musician facing hostility from the established music community. However, at its core, the account of Gary Numan and his fight with the Musicians’ Union in the late 1970s is an example of a monopolist attempting to push out competition. And, Numan’s eventual success is an example of a free-market triumph.
In the late 1970s, what is now thought of as New Wave music was beginning to make its way onto the airwaves. For British groups like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode, and the Human League, a (mimed) performance on the program “Top of the Pops” was the surest way to stardom. In fact, for most of the groups that would create the synth-infused pop of the 1980s, it was Gary Numan’s performance on Top of the Pops in 1979 that provided the inspiration.
But landing a spot on Top of the Pops was not easy for Numan. In fact, it was the opposite. Numan recalls that the Musicians’ Union of the United Kingdom attempted to ban him, as well as synthesizers, for the first two years of his career. This made it particularly difficult to perform on Top of the Pops, since all performers had to be part of the union. In his own words, Numan remembers “[the Musicians’ Union] said I was putting proper musicians out of work,” and they attempted to block Numan from attracting attention as a result.
Back room skirmishes such as this were common between the music program and New Wave groups throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. The use of electronic instruments served as a large threat to the large collection of string instrument-wielding musicians employed by Top of the Pops and protected by the Musicians’ Union.
The Gary Numan – Musicians’ Union debacle of 1979 served as a precursor to an inevitable conflict between pro-market musicians and pro-union executives and producers throughout the next decade. In spite of efforts to prevent Numan from performing, producing, and selling his music, the public demand for the artist’s work eventually resulted in a victory for markets and choice.
An unlikely free-market hero, Gary Numan was also a strong and outspoken supporter of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party throughout the 1980s. So much so, in fact, that Numan described his open conservatism as “a noose around [his] neck” within the music industry. He now no longer identifies as either right or left wing, but, in his own words, says he is “not socialist, I know that. I don’t believe in sharing my money.”
Numan finally performed with his band, Tubewave Army, on Top of The Pops on May 23rd, 1979. Seven weeks later, his single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” was Number 1 in the UK. And the rest, as they say, was history.