Australian Music – a Year in Review

Chris Bowen
| December 10, 2014

On the one hand, Music Australia has the great privilege of watching over the entire artform, on the other hand, how crazy is it for a small not-for-profit to try and embrace it all? Well of course we can’t, but we can give it our best shot.

And here’s our best shot at summing up a year in professional Australian music as it has crossed our news desk. Feel free to fearlessly respond, and point out omissions, and we’ll aim to do better next year. Enjoy.


OK, let’s acknowledge the challenges up front; they are real, and every industry has them. We’ll share our list and then move to other issues including the increasingly good news in this vibrant artform.

Maintaining viable employment for musicians is not getting any easier, and some argue the whole notion of a ‘professional musician’ needs to be re-examined. But we subscribe to the great countries have great art provided by great artists view, and a vibrant culture has a viable cohort of professional artists supported by an appreciative and engaged public

So, to do this our challenges are:

  • Valuing and respecting music in our ‘get it for free’ age
  • Arresting a decline in recorded music sales
  • Increasing lawful use of recorded music
  • Addressing continued pressures on live music and on venues
  • Increasing Australian music performed in our concert halls
  • Improving our cultural terms of trade
  • Ensuring equitable remuneration for creators as rights holder of copyright material
  • Equipping our artists and practitioners with the right training and skills

Each challenge represents an opportunity, and we are part of a national network of music companies, businesses and associations dedicated to strengthening Australian music now and into the future.

Contemporary music

Our creative talent across the contemporary genres is doing wonderful work. When Lars Brandle looked at it for us in July he labelled it a Golden Generation. It is clear our talented artists are increasingly well supported by solid teams and good platforms across the country. This is driven by hard working national agencies and associations, engaged State-based contemporary industry bodies, and some solid market development platforms such as Big Sound in Brisbane and Australasian World Music Expo in Melbourne. Strengthened sector professionalism is increasingly apparent, and the Association of Artist Managers recently released Code of conduct for music managers is a great example to foster responsibility in this largely unregulated area.

As a result, our music exports look very promising, offering some of the most significant international success for Australian artists in around 15 years – interestingly this is not rock driven: with a diversity of genres and artists enjoying success, from Gotye, Sia Furler and Five Seconds of Summer to Iggy Azalea. And we couldn’t help notice the last three provided four of the top ten songs streamed over the US summer by Time Magazine. It’s worth recognising this success is due in large part to a very professional international export push through the national Sounds Australia initiative. Australia now has one of the top contemporary music export brands in the world, a very credible accomplishment indeed.

There has been a big growth in streaming. Australians now stream 5 million tracks a day and over 2 billion tracks were streamed in 2013, mostly as mobile listening. There is a trend to increased lawful music consumption, with greater ease of access, and plenty of free and affordable music available from some 40 on demand streaming services. However, this is still clearly early days, and while digital sales are increasing they haven’t yet plugged the gap created through substantial drops in physical sales.  There are substantial debates over royalty rates paid, whether these are fair or sustainable, and are flowing equitably to creators. It is also a hugely complex area with masses of ‘meta data’ to be managed, counted, and communicated.  Increased engagement and proposals by all stakeholders, such as the Fair Digital Deals and Fair Trade for Music initiatives, will be vital as these futures are negotiated.

The festivals market is in flux, with niche or specialist genres that stay close to their tastes of their audiences doing well, and the future of larger more generic festivals less assured. Some have argued the festivals market was probably over supplied, with a shakedown due.

In live music, which earns most musicians at least half of their income, there have been excellent policy initiatives and leadership in some states and cities, mentioned in our policy round up below, and these are starting to bear fruit.  Victoria has implemented the agent of change principle – which places responsibility for soundproofing on those who move near an existing live music venue, and City of Sydney is prioritising live music when leasing suitable Council owned buildings. However the live scene is mixed. While doing well in some centres such as Melbourne and some new venues opening, there are major issues in viability, willingness of audiences to pay and suitable venues in many cities where even experienced venue operators find it difficult to maintain viability. There is also a need and opportunity for further sector development work to match the policy development underway in order to achieve viable live music cultures.

Classical and Art Music Sector

Just as in the contemporary sector, the talent of our classical artists is without question, as a glance at the 2014 Art Music Awards finalists reveals.  Our small ensembles and independent groups continue to be inventive and versatile, and it has been a pleasure to profile some of them in our Classic Innovators series including Camerata of St Johns, DeClassified Music, TopologyEnsemble Offspring and Zephyr Quartet. There has also been interesting growth in the independent cabaret and music theatre scene, driven by some well trained and enterprising music theatre graduates coming out of a couple of tertiary institutions. However, there are concerns for the viability of small to medium sector, with arts funding cuts in most states, which will disproportionately affect independent artists and small to medium companies, with some have already lost their funding. ArtsPeak, an alliance of national service and peak organisations has been in dialogue with the Australia Council and federal Ministry of the Arts on this issue.

Our 14 music based major performing arts companies (orchestras, chamber music and opera companies) are all stable, indeed some are doing very well. This is a big deal, as it is not necessarily the case overseas, with increasing reports of big deficits and company difficulties. The prestigious Dutch Concertgebow Orchestra lost 0.8 Million euros last year, and there have been many company closures, notably opera companies in Italy and Orchestras in the US. Audiences are also stable with AMPAG data showing performance attendances of these companies at 1.53 million in 2013, compared with 1.48 million in 2010.  Many are doing extraordinary work artistically, and also active in the education and engagement space – AMPAG data also shows a further 438,393 attended school programs and workshops by the music companies in 2013.

Yet we can’t assume it’s all OK here; there are continued pressures on these companies as costs inevitably rise faster than the ability to grow income. This can be exacerbated in times of static government funding, which exists and is likely to continue.

Interestingly, the global question of the relevance and place of the ‘classic artforms’ into the future, with a few exceptions from people such as ANU’s Peter Tregear, Opera Australia’s Lyndon Terracini, and Anzarts Justin Macdonnell, is not a big topic of conversation here. Neither is the question about viability of audiences in the long term. For while audiences are stable, they are generally not growing, and are certainly not keeping up with population growth.  There is overseas evidence that audiences are not being replaced as they age, and it would be helpful if age data on Australian audiences was collected to enable this trend to be monitored.

Concerns also exist about the small amount of Australian repertoire , ‘music of our time’, to be found in the major companies programs, and that this is less than you find on radio or TV, or could reasonably be expected given significant tax payer underwriting in these artforms. More dialogue and engagement across the sector about the role and future of these companies would be healthy.


The good news has been that, despite federal funding cuts, the Australia Council grants budget is stable, and indeed has increased over previous years. Coupled with a new clean strategic plan and revamped funding model, our federal funding body finds itself in a solid place. This is no doubt underpinned by an Arts Minister passionate about the intrinsic value of the arts, and committed to maintaining Government support.  Some good news also in some States, notably Victoria where some suburb sector advocacy has seen music become an election agenda item.

It’s less encouraging in other states such as Queensland where cuts, and changed arts and cultural priorities risk leaving some areas of the sector exposed. There is also really concern of the knock on effect of cuts or policies in other federal portfolios. For example, the ABC decision to reduce recording of concerts by ABC FM could have a substantial impact on the ability of smaller and regional companies and festivals to reach a national audience. The loss of free to air community TV may also affect the artform.

Careers and Training

Australia’s Creative Industries are a vital part of Australia’s economy and provide employment to more than 5 percent of the workforce, some half a million people. However creative occupations are complex and disaggregated, and work is needed to better understand their nature, to strengthen career pathways and to promote and communicate opportunities and provision. Music Australia’s Industry and Careers Advisory Group is working on just that and has published the first in a series of articles and snapshots for use by industry professionals.

In Training the vocational music industry packages, which determines what music is taught in TAFE colleges, are being updated with increased industry consultation which is a healthy sign. To date, gaps in entrepreneurial and contemporary music management capabilities have been identified, and there is scope for more structured platforms and partnership based approaches to encourage engagement between training providers and industry. There is also anecdotal evidence that there more adaptive and flexible classical music graduates are needed to enable them to pursue broad opportunities, for example in in community arts where music is under represented.

Policy and Research

In Copyright the Australian Government released a discussion paper into online copyright infringement. We support the Government’s broad goals, but question whether the proposed approach is workable. The risks are that push back from interested parties could delay or stall reform to increase lawful access to music. Some good initiatives are underway to break the business models of piracy sites, and there is now a plethora of free and subscription services offering access to legal online content, and good information on how to find them: an alliance of content industries has released the Digital Content Guide, covers music, TV, film, books, games and sport.

The Government’s Review of the Australian School Curriculum offered a mixed bag – while there is good news for music as the Review proposes it be part of the core curriculum – where this leaves the other artforms remains to be seen. There is important work being done by advocates to point out that the arts are not the problem when it comes to the ‘crowded curriculum’ indeed making up an almost alarmingly small part.  We feel more work is needed to make this Review effective.

An Opera Review has been announced, but we are waiting for release of the Terms of Reference. Arts Minister Brandis has appointed a respected & experienced review team led by Helen Nugent, and is seeking to achieve viability for artform.  There seems to be a pattern with the Australian Government here: reviews are announced and discussion papers released – then all goes quiet. We look forward to some 2015 action on these subjects.

Interestingly, some of the most dynamic music policy work is coming out of cities and states working in with close engagement with the sector – witness the live music work of City of Sydney and the Agent of Change initiatives in Victoria (which places responsibility for soundproofing on those who move near an existing live music venue). The hard working professionals at the Live Music Office and their supporters are to be recognised for their vital contribution here.

On the research front the latest Australia Council data shows we love our arts and music more than ever with 94 percent engaging in the arts in the past year.  And more people and creating music, participating in music, playing and singing music than when the last survey was carried out in 2009.  And as we noted recently live music is bigger than sport despite our national obsession. This is all fabulous information for advocates and music lovers across the country.

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