Facing the music

Musical talent is being lost as funding calls the tune

Kim Cunio

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

8 May 2018

Australia’s music sector is rarely heard at budget time. Kim Cunio writes that emerging musicians must be supported by the community, institutions and more generous arts policies if they are to succeed in the modern economy.

Why is it that so many families spend thousands of dollars providing a musical education for their children? It might be the notion of music civilising the mind, the desire for parents to give their children new opportunities, or the emerging research about music being good for brain plasticity.

Many of us have a friend or a relative who was a fine musician. They either excelled on an instrument as a child or showed prodigious ability on the guitar or another popular instrument. They were probably the best musician in their school.

Some time, at around year 11, their careers advisor spoke to them: “I know you are really good at music, but it is such a hard career. Because you are really good at school, you would also make an excellent (insert profession)”. That used to mark the day that many young musicians gave up, but today the story is different. Young musicians just keep studying, and many now commence their formal study at a tertiary level.

Going to a tertiary school of music, as record numbers of young adults now do, puts this dark day of economic reckoning off. Both public and private schools recruit heavily with the ‘cool factor’ of music making. Students take a lecture in their final year of study where they are encouraged to have portfolio careers: a little teaching, some performance, a little composing. However, that lecture rarely makes it clear that in this career path there are no mortgages or superannuation.

When the day of reckoning comes, it is terrifying. Imagine yourself as a 21-year-old musician who has friends who are already working and on track to a six-figure salary. You must come to terms with the statistical truth that there are few jobs in music, even in the related career of high school music teacher. You might continue to study, first an Honours year, then a Masters or PhD, but the looming crisis never really goes away.

At some point, all young musicians have to address the economic realities of music making. That reality for most, even those with PhDs, is a life of metaphorical Uber driving.

For every full-time position in an orchestra, there are up to two hundred interested musicians, with orchestras no longer able to hear all applicants. Our last two full-time music teaching positions at the ANU fielded over 100 applicants, most with PhDs, many from Europe and the US. Most of these musicians were the best in their school years, the stars in their university courses; people who have practiced the mythical 10,000 hours that define mastery yet they may never work in their chosen field.

We talk structurally about the difficulties of finding a professional job in most disciplines, but the statistics in music are deeply sobering. Musicians are elite athletes with no Olympic Games.

What then can government do? Ironically the places where trained musicians have done best is in planned economies, where music is hardwired into state finances. The Chinese Government, for example, is a significant commissioner of new music.

We might ask, what of the Australia Council for the Arts, or the state-based arts organisations? Yes they exist, but the majority of money is spent on our major companies, which are also struggling. Opera, ballet and symphonic music are really expensive to sustain, yet vital. Our whole field needs more money, yet at budget time we are rarely heard. There is a larger shift taking place in how we perceive and value culture in Australia; the plight of small companies and independent artists has been well documented.

What musicians urgently need is funding that is administered by a register of peers. We are not talking lifetime support for every musician, but sustained modest support for the crucial 5-10 years after tertiary study that would allow a musician to find out if they can make it in the music world.

This can be solved collaboratively, and the public-private partnership model is well suited to this. Large companies can support independent and developmental music as they do opera and ballet; this model already exists in community sports funding. Funding can then be matched by the government.

Let us imagine what each extra million dollars would do. With $1 million, 200 musicians would be able to complete a project with a ballpark budget of $5000. Ten million would help 2000 musicians, while $20 million allows us to make real inroads.

Let us imagine a system that offers modest tax benefits to elite musicians. Imagine a tax-free threshold that lasts until a musician rises above the poverty level in Australia, or an exemption that allows a portfolio musician to claim that tax-free threshold with multiple employers. Imagine further peer-assessed access to subsidised housing and a series of lab spaces that allow music to play a part in our collective vision of excellence and innovation.

At ANU we are playing our part. The new ANU Music Press will enable our state of the art recording studio and not-for-profit music label to disseminate music directly, slashing the costs for music release in Australia. We want people to directly support artists through this venture. To be successful we need a public-private partnership that inspires philanthropy, institutional support and the right policy settings.

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