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Executive summary

Making Music Work: Sustainable Portfolio Careers for Australian Musicians (2015-19) was a national Australian project which examined the ways in which Australian musicians navigate their portfolio careers. The vast majority of Australian musicians undertake a portfolio career which encompasses a variety of concurrent and often impermanent roles. While this is not a new phenomenon, major shifts in how music is made, paid for and consumed, as well as a changing commercial, funding, educational and policy landscape, further complicate the factors which impact how musicians develop and sustain their careers. Making Music Work sought to provide a more nuanced and granular understanding of these key sector dynamics and how musicians navigate them.

Making Music Work employed a national survey of 592 musicians and 11 in-depth interviews with a diverse group of musicians. Participants, who were aged from 18-24 years to over 75 years, practised in a variety of genres with popular music the most common. More than four in ten musicians reported having more than 20 years’ professional experience, with another 25% reporting between 11-20 years’ professional experience. Participants reported between one and five concurrent roles including in performance, composition, direction, production and teaching. The most common mode of employment was self-employment, which accounted for almost half the responses.

The project was funded by an Australia Research Council Linkage Grant (2015-2019, LP150100497) and led by the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Griffith University, with one chief investigator located with Curtin University. Industry partners included the Australian Council for the Arts, Create NSW, Creative Victoria, the Western Australian Government Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries (DLGSC) and the Music Trust.

Musicians’ work and careers

This report provides a detailed snapshot of the musicians’ work practices, taking into account key variables such as geographic location, age, gender, education, work experiences and music genres. The findings show that to engage across a variety of markets, genres and performance sites, including in online, digital, community and educational settings, Australian musicians need diverse and agile skillsets. Among the 592 survey participants in the Making Music Work study, the most common types of music work activities were music teaching/education, composition, performing, producing, instrumental music, and vocal music. The portfolio career in music emerges as the most prevalent form of work, with more than six in ten participants holding more than one role at the time of the survey. The roles that were most likely to be undertaken as part of a portfolio career included, artistic or music director, music teacher (private tuition) and instrumental musician. Participants most often held either one (37%) role or two (27%) concurrent roles, and 21% held either three, four or five concurrent roles. The most common role titles were “instrumental musician” and “music teacher” (private instrumental or vocal teacher). The musicians who reported a single role were almost all working in education institutions or as studio teachers.

The most prevalent form of work for Australian musicians is the portfolio career, which features multiple, often impermanent concurrent roles. To engage across a variety of markets, genres and performance sites, including in online, digital, community and educational settings, Australian musicians need diverse and agile skillsets.

According to the study data, sixty percent of musicians work only in contemporary genres with 15% working only in classical genres and 26% working across classical and contemporary genres. Sixty percent of roles are situated in the commercial sector, with the community and not-for-profit sectors accounting for 21% and 19% of roles respectively. Self-employment is the most common mode of work, with less than one-fifth of all work being paid on a continuing (salaried) basis. The data also suggest that over half of Australia’s portfolio musicians receive income from non-music related sources; non-music work accounted for an average of 89% of musicians’ overall income. The average annual income for survey participants, based on all current work, was $41,257.18, with a median of $30,576.

In addition to mapping the diversity of musicians’ work practices and career configurations, sources of income and unpaid work, the study outlines the career development strategies used by musicians to find, acquire and/or create work. On average, the survey participants had used 2.93 different career development strategies over the preceding 12 months; work creation and informal strategies were more commonly used than formal strategies. The most popular developmental strategies included establishing or continuing an enterprise, band or ensemble, and using informal social networks. The use of networks was reflected in the experiences of the eleven interviewed musicians, who described the vital nature of these networks in the development and maintenance of their portfolio careers. Interview participants emphasised the importance of networks in terms of peer support and collaboration, generating and accessing work, and informal professional learning.

Over half of Australia’s portfolio musicians receive income from non-music related sources; non-music work accounts for approximately 90% of musicians’ income overall. Musicians use multiple strategies to find, acquire and/or create work and networks are essential. Digitisation and new technologies offer new opportunities for creative collaboration and work acquisition, and new challenges for gaining visibility in the massified market. The most common sources of career challenges reported by musicians are the inter-related challenges of insufficient work, financial stress and the prevalence of precarious work.

The report also examines the impact of digital and online environments and how these environs influence the configuration, viability and business practices of portfolio musicians’ work. All eleven of the interviewed musicians recognised that digitisation of the music industry alongside new technologies in business and social media have changed the ways in which musicians develop and sustain their careers. In positive terms, the digitisation of the music sector has facilitated new ways of working including new approaches to creative collaboration and both identifying and securing work. Negative implications include more difficulties in “cutting through” the massified, online and virtually connected music market.

The most common sources of career challenges reported by musicians were the inter-related challenges of insufficient work, financial stress, and the prevalence of precarious work. Challenges relating to income generation and managing finances also emerge as central themes. Specifically, musicians reported difficulties in generating a liveable wage and acquiring sufficient paid or appropriately paid work opportunities. Diminishing Federal and State Government grants were another common source of concern. Financial stress was further impacted by the need to avoid over-exposure or “over-gigging”, thus reducing the amount of income generated by performances in order to develop a long-term, sustainable career. The most common sources of career difficulty were examined for differences by gender, career stage, region of residence and genre. Notably, females were significantly more likely to indicate financial stress, but no other differences were found including for genre.

Musicians’ education

Both survey and interview data indicate that Australian musicians are well educated; 90% of survey participants had completed formal post-secondary education and 70% held tertiary qualifications in music. On average, survey participants believed that their post-secondary educational experiences had prepared them for their music careers to some extent, but 30% of musicians reported that it had only done so “a little” or “not at all”; similar findings were echoed by the interviewed musicians. No differences were found in gender, region of residence, or career stage (read here as time since formal education was completed). However, contemporary musicians assigned significantly lower ratings for career preparation than their classical and mixed genre counterparts. Of the 11 interviewed musicians, four held doctoral qualifications and one was enrolled in doctoral studies. Of the remainder, two musicians had completed or partially completed music- related Masters’ degrees and two more musicians held bachelor level degrees: one in music and another in commerce. Of the musicians who held PhDs, two musicians had articulated into doctoral study without undergraduate music training, instead gaining direct access via a Masters’ degree by way of decades of professional music experience; the remaining two musicians had engaged in formal post-secondary level education.

The report highlights gaps in portfolio musicians’ initial skills development and career support, informing recommendations for developing these capabilities both within formal education and training and as a feature of professional learning. The most common professional learning activities reported by the musicians were in music (for example, instrumental or vocal techniques, music theory) and in pedagogy (music teaching). In line with increased online visibility and competition, the most important professional learning needs identified by both case study and survey musicians were related to small business administration and management roles.

Australia’s musicians are well educated and they tend to adopt a learning mindset. Their most crucial professional learning needs centre on marketing and administering their business. Musicians report that their post-secondary education prepared them to some extent for their careers; however, they emphasise the need to be prepared for the demands of career self-management and portfolio careerism.

Musicians’ health, wellbeing and career satisfaction

Musicians’ health and wellbeing is of growing interest to the music industry and the arts sector more broadly. Almost one quarter (23%) of the survey participants indicated that they had a disability; the most commonly reported disability was mental illness, which was reported by 12.8% of respondents. In noting the importance of maintaining their physical and mental health as they traversed their careers, musicians reported their engagement in day-to-day activities including hobbies, regular exercise and healthy eating and sleeping habits.

In spite of the challenges inherent in establishing and maintaining a career in music, the musicians conveyed overall satisfaction with their careers. Musicians’ rationale for staying in the profession related to their passion for music and the centrality of music to their identities. Overall, enjoyment of music making was the strongest career motivator for musicians alongside a strong desire to develop individual skills and capabilities; these motivations can be summarised as career calling and a learning mindset. In contrast, the weakest career motivators emerged as career-related stability.

Musicians emphasise the importance of maintaining physical and mental health. Reporting overall satisfaction with their careers, musicians note that career satisfaction encompasses financial, creative and emotional wellbeing. Of concern, the most commonly reported disability amongst musicians is mental illness; this could be related to the challenges of precarious, highly competitive and irregular work.

The study focused on realities of portfolio careers and the external landscape affecting musicians; however, we note that creativity and musicians’ identities are equally important considerations. As our findings show, satisfaction with a portfolio career in music concerns not only the music and non-music work which “add-up” to a financially satisfying career, but also the factors which contribute to creative satisfaction and those which align with the musician’s identity.


Making Music Work presents a comprehensive and detailed picture of the working lives, career trajectories and economic circumstances of musicians in Australia. The findings provide significant insights which have relevance to musicians and the music and broader arts sectors, as well as to the music institutions and organisations which provide professional training and lifelong learning opportunities.

Across the survey and in-depth interviews, musicians revealed how they negotiate life as a musician and the balance between making money and making art. These subtle shifts are testament to the emotional, creative and financial agility with which adept musicians negotiate their futures and make music work. Given the rich and detailed nature of the study data, it is neither possible or desirable to extract a simple map or model to inform musicians entering the field. Rather, the research reveals the multifarious ways in which Australian musicians carve out a life as a musician against a backdrop of considerable challenges. The report concludes with eight key recommendations for the key cultural organisations, educational institutions, policy makers and funding bodies which seek to support and enhance the livelihoods of Australian musicians. These are summarised below.

  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.

Page reviewed 11 September 2023