Music Australia News

Making Music Work: How Do Australian Musicians Create and Sustain Their Careers?

Rob Nassif (credit Rachel Barrett)
Brydie-Leigh Bartleet
| June 21, 2020

By Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Dawn Bennett

Last week the results of a ground-breaking Australia Research Council Linkage study into the working lives of Australian musicians were released. The study shows that the vast majority of Australian musicians undertake a portfolio career which encompasses concurrent, overlapping and often impermanent roles.

This is not a new phenomenon. However, major shifts in how music is made, paid for and consumed, along with the impact of COVID-19 on the funding and policy landscape, has dramatically affected how musicians develop and sustain their careers – or not.

The study

Over the past three years, Making Music Work mapped the creative, social, cultural and economic realities of a music career. The team drew on insights from more than 600 musicians to provide a granular understanding of their working lives, creative ambitions, career trajectories and economic circumstances.

While the study was conducted before the COVID-19 global pandemic, its findings show why music has been among the first and hardest hit industries in the current crisis.

How has COVID-19 impacted the music industry?

The loss of jobs can be seen in Australian Bureau of Statistics reports. For example, jobs in ‘Arts and recreation services’ decreased by 27%, second only to ‘Accommodation and food services’ (33%) in the four weeks from when Australia recorded its 100th confirmed COVID-19 case. Between the week ending 14 March 2020 to the week ending 18 April 2020, arts and recreation services also suffered the second highest wage loss.

The impacts on tourism and hospitality have received justifiable attention. Despite their importance to the Australian economy and society, the arts have received very little by comparison.

Why has music been hit so hard?

First, the Making Music Work study shows that performance is the most common source of income for musicians. Given that live music was immediately impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions, and will be slow to return, musicians’ abilities to maintain their livelihoods have been severely limited.

Live performances are also crucial spaces for peer networking and career development. Making Music Work shows that peer networks, built and maintained in large part through events, are key to musicians’ building and renewing skills, developing new creative collaborations, and securing job prospects. It will be quite some time before these spaces return.

Second, the vast majority of Australian musicians balance a portfolio career, which encompasses a variety of music and non-music roles. More than 60% of musicians surveyed in the Making Music Work study had two or more current paid roles, and are self-employed (44.4%) or in temporary employment comprised of part-time contract roles (15.6%), casual roles (12.50%), or volunteer/unpaid roles (13.2%). This means many are not eligible for the Government’s current JobKeeper scheme.

More than half the survey participants received income from non-music related sources, accounting for an average of 89% of the musicians’ overall income but varying by individual between 4% and 100%. Ironically, music careers are often combined with work in other industries which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic because of the prevalence of insecure forms of work.

What does this mean for the future?

Making Music Work revealed that the most common “reasons to leave” the music industry are financial stress, lack of income and family/caring responsibilities. These stressors have all been heightened by the pandemic.

And yet in spite of the challenges, Australian musicians have shown tremendous creativity and resilience in adapting to performing in online environments during the pandemic.

Musicians stay in the music industry because of their love and passion for music, which is central to their identity. Far from the “starving artist” myth, they combine music and non-music work in highly entrepreneurial ways to make this possible.

This is unsurprising given how creatively and financially agile Australian musicians have proven to be when negotiating multiple music and non-music roles.

Making Music Work also highlights that Australian musicians are generous. They recognise the crucial role that peer networks play in developing their creative practices, sustaining their livelihoods, and nurturing the sector. These skills and networks are likely to be central to the recovery of the industry in a post COVID-19 landscape.

As a society, our ability to leverage the skills, networks and expertise of musicians—and in turn to protect this vital industry—depends on policy, action and some radical collaboration.


Making Music Work has made nine recommendations aimed at creating a sustainable environment for Australian musicians to flourish both now and into the future.

  1. State and Territory-based music organisations should renew and collaborate on professional learning programs relating to small business management and networked forms of work, collaboration and learning.
  2. Multiple agencies should collaborate to build collective agency and maximise capacity by maximising the visibility of, and access to, collaborative professional learning programs across jurisdictions.
  3. Post-secondary educational institutions should utilise the evidence from research, industry and alumni partnerships and secondary datasets to engage in evidence-based curricular reform. This should both include broad career development, learning, small business management, and inclusive notions of career “success” in music.
  4. Post-secondary educational institutions should take collective action to reduce the prevalence and impact of mental and physical health conditions among Australia’s music workforce.
  5. Post-secondary institutions should emphasise inclusion, diversity, equity and access in admissions, processes and public engagement.
  6. Providers of initial and ongoing professional learning should support and develop broad facets of musicians’ careers, recognising that the administrative and career development learning aspects of a musician’s practice often underpin the outputs and outcomes of their creative work.
  7. Aspiring musicians should be made aware of their ethical rights and responsibilities and associated support mechanisms and sources of advice.
  8. The music sector should increase the provision of specialist and peer support mental and physical health initiatives through further research and education and by informing the establishment of industry codes of practice and clearer identification and support pathways for those in distress.
  9. The music sector should advocate for the revision of national data collections so that multiple and impermanent job-holdings can be recorded.

To read the full report, summary brochure, fact sheets and musician profiles, go to:


Making Music Work is an initiative of Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre (QCRC), Griffith University, with industry partners, Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW, Creative Victoria, Western Australian Government – Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries (DLGSC), and institutional partner Curtin University.  It was supported by the Australian Research Council as a Linkage project.

The research team includes Professors Brydie-Leigh Bartleet, Dawn Bennett, Ruth Bridgstock, Scott Harrison, Paul Draper and Vanessa Tomlinson, and Research Fellow Dr Christina Ballico.



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