Survey of Successful Contemporary Musicians

Stats logo.jpg

The Purpose of the Survey

The purpose was to discover something about the music education of people who have made successful careers as contemporary musicians. Is music education even a factor in this success? Perhaps they are mostly self-taught. If not, can we discover aspects of that prior experience that contributed to their success?

In particular, does music education in school make a difference? Governments are faced with important issues around the implementation of the national curriculum in music. Given the emphasis on the economic contribution of the music industry, how important was a school music education in the careers of the most financially successful musicians.

To acquire information about the music education of people who have not been successful in music might also be interesting: avoid this educational path. But cause and effect would be even more difficult to establish.

Some Key Findings

The survey had 52 respondents.

  • Evidence presented confirms that respondents are indeed “successful” and the outcomes therefore describe characteristics of successful contemporary musicians.
  • In this particular sample, 61% both sing and play an instrument. Only 4% only sing.
  • 85% write songs. On the face of it, this then is important to success..
  • In this sample, 25% of respondents are female, consistent with the findings of the Census.
  • Pop and rock are the most strongly represented among a wide range of genres.
  • Remembering the “success” criterion: only 13% were aged 21-30 and none were younger. The most populated age cohort was 31-40, with another 50% aged 41 to 60. This is a little surprising given the media attention for young players but there is the possibility that the method of selecting invitees was a factor.
  • 90% had taken music lessons. Of those 64% had begun lessons by age 10 70% by age 12. Early instruction seems to be important.
  • Only half reported that their primary school had a good music program and the lowest percentage by far came in the youngest age group, which attended primary school in the period 1988 to 2002. This indirectly supports the observation abroad that primary school music has been declining.
  • 73% said that their secondary school had a good music program. The 31-40 year-old cohort was the most united in a positive assessment (88%); it would have attended secondary school around 1985 to 1999. Most of these contemporary music people enjoyed their high school experience performing in choirs, bands and orchestras, but a few complained about the absence of contemporary music.
  • 25 of the 52 studied at a tertiary institution and 21 took qualifications. They hold 11 postgraduate degrees among them.
  • 19 had won ARIA or other major awards. Of those, 14 had a good secondary school music experience but 12 had no tertiary qualification. 16 had platinum or gold recordings and again, 12 of those had no tertiary qualification.
  • 51 answered a question asking for ‘the most significant things in your music education’. The top ranking factors were inspiring teachers — both private instrumental teachers and secondary school teachers, supportive parents, performing in groups, being self-taught.

Discussion of Some Issues of Significance

We need to keep in mind that those surveyed are only a small sample of the thousands of contemporary musicians in Australia. However, more than half gave evidence of exceptional success and we might have more confidence that the sample is representative of successful musicians.

All are performers. 85% write songs so we might assume that in most cases, they also perform them. However, 15% do not write songs and are still successful. Some write screen music and while able to perform, are possibly not earning income from performance. There is no prescription for success but one might have regard for where the percentages lie.

While women make up only 25% of the sample (consistent with their occurrence in the data from the national Census of all musicians), they appear to achieve as well as or better than the males. They are more represented among those who write songs, among those who both play and sing, and among those who lead their act. The latter two might in part be explained by the fact that of those who play but do not sing, males predominate and are perhaps likely to be the sidemen. On the face of it, while for reasons not sought here women are under-represented, those who pursue success as contemporary musicians are not confronted by a glass ceiling.

Early music lessons appear to be a success factor. 90% had taken music lessons, beginning as young as age 4; half had begun by age 8 and nearly two thirds had begun by age 10. Only 8% were self-taught and had never had music lessons — whether for lack of opportunity or rebelliousness we do not know. They succeeded nevertheless.

Half said their primary schools had poor, or no (23%) music programs. In many of those cases, their music education nevertheless proceeded via their music lessons. In such cases, it is almost certain that parents had to pay — a possibility not available in families that are not affluent. The percentage assessing their primary school music programs as good increased with the age of the correspondents, giving some support to other observations about the decline of music in primary schools, especially in government schools. In the secondary schools, responses suggest the heyday was about 20 years ago, with a subsequent decline.

So 77% attended primary schools with a music program. According to research, nationally only 37% of primary schools have classroom music so it appears that the parents of our cohort may have sought out musical schools. At the secondary level, twice as many attended independent schools as might be expected and younger respondents were much more likely than older respondents to do so, reflecting the more general flight to independent schools. MCA data show that 88% of independent schools have competent music programs, vs 23% of government schools. It appears also that a good number of the government schools attended were specialist music schools. So again, it appears that parents or others, recognising musical talent, attempted to ensure that the children attended schools where it would be given opportunity.

Respondents made very positive comments about experiences in secondary school and clearly felt they had benefited from the school music programs. The most valued educational input came from inspiring teachers and the opportunities to perform. This is important information, confirmed also in other MCA surveys, which should be taken into account by educational authorities.

There was little mention of instruction in composition or song-writing and presumably this is something that has had to be learnt in other ways. That may handicap the Australian music industry as compared, for instance, with the highly successful Swedish industry, where export success rests to a great degree upon composition and song-writing – which are encouraged in the Swedish school system.

61% of the sample members have tertiary qualifications: 29% have bachelor degrees and another 27% have postgraduate degrees.

30% have recordings that have achieved gold or platinum sales; curiously, 75% of these hold no tertiary qualification. Of the 37% who have won ARIA or other similar major awards, 63% have no tertiary qualifications. It is not suggested that a prescription for such high achievement includes avoidance of tertiary music education! However, the lack of it did not stand in the way of such success. In MCA surveys of symphony orchestra members, every respondent held a tertiary qualification. No doubt it is highly desirable as a platform for some complex activities such as screen writing and production.

The Survey

1. This survey has come to you because you are seen as a successful musician. Can you please give some information about the nature of your success? You could include such things as recordings, live performances, international touring, awards, reviews. A few key things would be enough.

Defining “successful”

How to define “successful”? A difficult question given the financial circumstances in the music industry. It was decided that in the circumstances a musician whose primary income is from music is successful in the Australian context. It may be, also, that some fine musicians practise in less viable genres and so cannot depend on their music as the primary source of income, but have high artistic respect from their peers. They also are successful. Our method was to invite assistance from the Australasian Performing Right Association, and from artist managers, all of whom could choose to invite musicians they regard as successful. Many thanks to them all.

Most respondents are performing musicians. But there are also some whose main activity is writing and producing music for film and television. These were narrative answers so categories are not crystal clear but here are some key numbers. The 52 respondents reported as follows:

Alt=Chart 1
47 had made commercial recordings. Recordings of 16 respondents had achieved platinum or gold status, and/or had international as well as national success. Some did not report such success but generally in such cases, the recordings were accompanied by active careers in live performance and touring.

22 reported national tours and 24 reported international tours. These are overlapping groups – the total number touring was larger than 24.

31 reported winning or being nominated for important awards. 19 had won ARIA Awards or awards of similar status; some of those had won multiple ARIA Awards. 8 had won other significant awards that were not specifically identified.

71% are band leaders or leaders of acts.

We sought through this question to test the general proposition that our sample is comprised of successful musicians, according to the above definition. Clearly, it exceeds the requirement of the definition and so our criterion is satisfied.

The final section of this analysis reviews the responses of these high achievers to discover whether their educational paths share common characteristics.

2. Some Basic Information about the Respondents

Alt=Chart 2
There may be an implication that the chances of success increase for instrumentalists if they can sing.

Songwriting included in their activities: 85%. Success may be more likely if they can write songs or compose.

Leader of band or act: 71%

This is exactly consistent with the Census findings about full time music instrumentalists. All the females in the sample are instrumentalists and may also sing.

3. Gender

Alt=Chart 3
This finding is exactly consistent with the Census findings about full time music instrumentalists. All the females in the sample are instrumentalists and may also sing.


Gender / Are you a singer, or instrumentalist, or both?

Exactly one quarter of the sample are females.

Surprise. The two respondents that only sing are both males. A higher percentage of males than females play an instrument but do not sing. A much higher percentage of females than males both play and sing.

Gender / Is songwriting one of your main activities?

Yes from 92% of females, 82% of males. This is interesting because in the classical world, female composers are a minority although females probably are no longer a minority of performers. There are hard to shift assumptions about a “natural” superiority of males as composers which may well affect the desire of females to become composers. In our admittedly small sample of contemporary musicians, females are a minority of 25% but assumptions about males being the more natural creators may be challenged by the response here.

Gender / Are you the leader of your act?

A slightly higher percentage of females than males lead their act. We could construe the responses to indicate that sidemen are more likely to be male.

4. What is your main musical Genre?

Alt=Chart 4
Alt=Chart 5

To the left are shown the eight main genres most often named, in order of percentages of people naming each one. Respondents were asked to name the genres. Returning to the detail of the responses, there could be a more careful reading because some responses were hybrid forms (roots/world/blues, for instance).

5. In what other musical genres are you active?

Nine genres most frequently named. We see no greater significance in these numbers than identifying the nature of our sample.

11% of these musicians are active in classical music. In a parallel survey of orchestral musicians, MCA found that 27% of classical musicians stated that they are active in contemporary music genres.

6. Age

Alt=Chart 6
Alt=Table 1
It could be conjectured that career success is rare until the 30s. Or perhaps younger musicians, even if successful, do not have managers to suggest they respond to this survey, or do not respond to surveys.

7. Age when musical activities begun

All but 4, possibly 5, had taken lessons. So contrary to some suppositions, most contemporary musicians are not just self-taught. In a later question, 9 report being self-taught, but so are all musicians to a greater or lesser degree. Clearly, at least 4 of the 9 were self-taught and took lessons.

Half had taken their first lessons by age 8 and 81% had taken them by age 12.

There is a surprising spike at age 15-16 of people taking up an instrument and/or singing.

8. Did your primary school have a good music program?

Error creating thumbnail: File missing
Exactly half said yes, half said no. All responded.


Age / Did your primary school have a good music program?

This is a fascinating result. There has been much public reference to the decline in the provision of education for primary school teachers and the probably consequent reduction in school music provision. Here is evidence from successful contemporary musicians that shows that the experience of primary school music is much more positive for those who attended primary school before around 1990. The response from the 51-60 age group does not fit the pattern but this group’s results seem to be anomalous in all of the correlations shown in this study. When a sample of 50 is split across five categories, the numbers become small and vulnerable to individual responses.

Type of school / Did your primary school have a good music program?

Government and independent school attenders voted 50/50 but 2/3 of Catholic school attenders said ‘no’.

Gender / Did your primary OR secondary school have a good music program?

At primary school level, a significantly higher percentage of females compared with males thought it did. This applied also at secondary level but was not so pronounced. Fewer males than females took music lessons at school.

9. Did you participate in your primary school music program?

Alt=Chart 8
So 77% had a program.

This latter figure is interesting because research by Petrova[1] found that 63% of Australian primary schools have no classroom music programs. On the face of it, then, our respondents disproportionately found their way to schools with music programs. How did that happen? Did parents seek out these schools? Or did our respondents enrol in them serendipitously and were by good fortune given the basis for their later professional success? – that is, without the schools they may not have been successful?


Age / Did you participate in your primary school music program?


Type of school / Did you participate in your primary school music program?

Percentage of attenders who participated: government 72%, independent 60%, Catholic 33%. We begin to get a picture that music provision was weakest in Catholic schools.

10. If your primary school had a music program, which of these activities did it include?

Alt=Chart 9

Petrova found that 63% of primary schools have no classroom music, but 61% of these 77% of our respondents’ schools do have classroom music (=47%). This is further evidence that our respondents overall were provided with well above average opportunities for school music education.

In this sample of schools, 55% of 77% (=42%) offered instrument lessons. We do not have national figures for the percentage of schools offering instrumental lessons but would guess that it is lower than 42%. NSW, for instance, has no state-provided lessons nor does Victoria at primary school level.

Prize comment: My school had no music program until I wrote to the state minister for education (when aged 9) demanding one. We got a music teacher the next year.

Where are you now we need you?

11. Did your secondary school have a good music program?

Alt=Chart 10
73% said yes, 27% said no.

Only 50% said their primary schools had good music programs. One possible cause is that in Australia, while music is taught in secondary schools by specialist music teachers, in most primary schools, music is the responsibility of the generalist classroom teachers who on average have been given 17 hours of mandatory music education in their preservice undergraduate degree courses. They have neither the knowledge nor, in many cases, the confidence, to teach music. This is probably an important reason for the fact that 23% of our respondents found themselves in primary schools with no music programs.

Meanwhile, in secondary schools, it is more likely that there will be a music program and because it will be taught by specialist music teachers, it is more likely that the program will be successful.


Age / Did your secondary school have a good music program?

It seems that the best years were about 15-25 years ago. There has been a decline since then, on the combined testimony or our respondents, but it has not been as severe as for primary school and indeed, it appears that the experience of our youngest respondents was better than that of the oldest.

Indeed, about 30% of the two oldest age cohorts testify in the following question that at their secondary schools there were no music programs.

Type of school / Did your secondary school have a good music program?

Yes: government 80%, independent 70%, Catholic 67%.

12. Did you participate in your secondary school music program?

61% participated, 29% did not. In the remaining 10% of schools, there was no program.

25 people chose to comment on their high school music experience. Many comments were just factual: eg I wasn't allowed to do Music in Grade 11 and 12 because I hadn't studied it in year 10, but I was allowed to join the orchestra, participate in band camp and also use the facilities in my rock band. Most were positive and the positive comments for this and some other questions were mainly about inspiration from excellent teachers: eg GREAT high school music teacher, probably the reason I am a musician today, and the school ensembles. There were two comments regretting the exclusion of beginning students, all the more cogent given that according to Petrova, so many primary schools offer no classroom music and their graduates would present as music beginners at secondary school entrance.

The absence of contemporary music from the program was the cause for complaint by a few people: eg I no longer thought my instrument was cool when i reached high school so i decided to stop going to lessons and participating. Part of the reason was the concert band offerings within the high school program were dated and we had to wear really daggy embarrassing uniforms. I wish i hadn't given it away because my musical knowledge now would be far greater, but back then i had an image to keep up and was very scared of being made fun of for wearing a pirate shirt and playing the trombone.

However, most of these contemporary music people seemed to have no problem in performing in choirs, bands and orchestras. Now they play contemporary genres and most are writing their own music.

13. Did you graduate from high school in Australia?

Alt=Chart 11
85% did.

Of these, the percentages graduating from the different types of school were:

Government 57% Catholic 20% Independent 23%

71% of schools in Australia are government; 18% are Catholic and 11% are independent schools (ABS 4221.0, Schools, Australia, 2011). Many of the latter have significantly more funds and better music education than either government or Catholic schools, so our sample has, on the face of it, once again benefited from a higher level of opportunity for music education in schools.

However, many of the correlations are not what we might expect.


Type of artist / Type of school attended

In the government cohort, 40% were instrumentalists only, and 56% played and sang. In the independent school cohort, 20% were instrumentalists only and 70% sang. The Catholic numbers were 33% and 67%, so in between. Those are quite substantial differences. What is your theory?

Gender / Type of school attended

2/3 of those attending government and Catholic schools were male, but 90% of those attending independent schools. Only 10 respondents attended independent schools so the percentage is vulnerable to chance.

Age / Type of school attended

The percentage attending government schools ranged from 29% for the youngest cohort to 100% for the oldest. The increase was progressive except for the 51-60 cohort, which seems to break ranks for many of these variables. Does this support observations about the deterioration of government schools? The percentage attending independent schools was highest for the youngest age cohort (43%), down to 10% for 41-50 and zero for the oldest.

When the respondents are broken into so many categories, the numbers in each one are small and we should be cautious about their significance. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, these numbers do seem to reflect the known flight to the independent schools.

Type of activities / Type of school attended

60% of the Catholic schools attended by respondents had choirs, more than double the percentage in the other types of school. On the other hand, only the Catholic schools had no orchestras at all, and gave no instrumental lessons. The availability of instrumental lessons was a little higher in government schools (27% of schools) than independent schools (19%). But this would not be generalizable to government schools, at least; it must depend upon the choice of schools by our respondents.

14. If you graduated from high school in another country, which country?

Three from NZ, one from South Korea. One said he (presumably male) was expelled in year 7 in Sydney for having long hair. Some older readers will remember those days. A foreigner in his own land.

15. During your school years, if you took music lessons, where did you take them?

Alt=Chart 12
Note that respondents may have taken lessons in more than one of these places and of course, they did so because the percentages total to more than 100%.

37 (71%) answered. 84% of those purchased the services of private teachers. So these were not, for the most part, people from disadvantaged backgrounds – unless they had received scholarships. We did not ask that question.

Type of school / Where did you take music lessons?

29% of those attending government schools took their lessons at the school but only 11% of those attending Catholic or independent schools did so. This is not what we might have expected.

16. If you studied music at a tertiary level, where did you study?

TAFE 4% University/conservatorium 96%

25 responded, 27 skipped the question, the implication being that 52% did not study music beyond high school. This is high compared with, for instance, the number of classical musicians who did not study at tertiary level.

Australia 38% Overseas 13%

While 25 responded to the question about TAFE/university, only 12 responded to this part of the question. One of the three studying overseas went to the UK and one came from South Korea.

17. What qualifications did you receive?

Alt=Chart 13

33 responded (63%). Of those, 38% (12) said they had received no qualification. The implication, referring to the previous question, is that 4 of the 25 who studied at tertiary level did not receive any qualification. Three of them actually confirmed this in their comments.

Those taking Bachelor degrees usually do not have a prior qualification but those with postgraduate qualifications would usually have completed a Bachelor degree. 15 took a Bachelor degree; one of these studied architecture/design and the other, visual arts. So 13 took Bachelor degrees in music. Between them, 8 respondents hold 11 postgraduate qualifications, including 4 doctorates. One of the respondents with a doctorate is a classical composer so not within the usual Australian definition of contemporary music.


Age / Level of tertiary qualifications

As already discovered, this group of musicians is not well represented at tertiary education level. 40% have awards; 37% have music-related awards.

The 21-30 age cohort does not hold any qualifications beyond the Bachelor level. Postgraduate qualifications are found in all of the age groups above 31 years. This seems to indicate that such musicians who take on postgraduate study do so after they enter their 30s or possibly in their very late 20s.

Gender / What tertiary qualifications did you receive?

There were not great differences between the genders excepting that all of the certificates and diplomas were won by males and a higher percentage of females than males had Bachelor degrees (38%/30%). But these are small numbers.

18. If you undertook postgraduate study, in what country did you do it?

Among them, 8 respondents hold 11 postgraduate qualifications. Two studied in England and the other six in Australia.

19. Have you taken any informal workshops in music or music business?

47 responded. 32 (69%) had done so. Three had taught courses. A few cited attending only single one-day workshops. The most frequently mentioned type of workshop is songwriting (not small business). Most are not specific about topics.

20. If you studied music at primary or secondary school in Australia, looking back, what do you think of the programs? What were the best things? What were the worst things?

A crucial question. 38 responded. This is a fairly open question but we attempt to categorise the responses.

Best things

  • Music was fun in primary school
  • Band performance and singing in primary school
  • Primary – recorder group and guitar group
  • Great music teachers, high standards 9 respondents
  • Specialist music teachers
  • Working one on one with a dedicated instrumental teacher
  • Secondary music was taught to 6-8 students, allowing great personal attention from teachers 2
  • Group violin lessons in high school
  • Variety of the music covered, 1. Access to learning numerous instruments 2
  • Opportunity to play in many different types of ensemble. 7
  • Access to regional or combined orchestra 2
  • Encouragement to participate as much as we wanted.
  • Open, easy flow of learning tailored to each student’s taste and ability.
  • Performing music of your own choice for assessment.
  • Allowed to participate in all the activities without being enrolled in music classes; flexibility
  • Access to use of the school music facilities
  • Teaching all kids to read music and play an instrument
  • Participation in school production, produced and directed to high standards
  • The VET course in school
  • I was taking private instruction outside school

Worst things

  • Primary school recorder lessons from classroom teacher who knew nothing about music. Appalling.
  • Programs were ‘archaic’. Contemporary music shunned. 5
  • Class focused on classical music. Should also have been more pop-based stuff
  • Lack of instruments suited to contemporary music
  • Teachers older, approaching retirement, out of date
  • Force fed classical music, which I love, without sharing any of the joy in it.
  • School music program limited, inadequate
  • Not enough industry education
  • Inequity: I was privileged while other children were missing out
  • School indifferent. Great teachers had a constant battle with the school 2
  • Too expensive
  • Not well resourced
  • Music program only open to those already proficient. No provision for beginners.

21. What were the most significant things in your music education? What helped (or hindered) you the most?

51 answered.

  • Supportive parents 10
    • Music in the house 3
    • ‘Countdown’ every week 1
  • Teachers
    • Inspiring 13
    • Flexible 3
  • Instrumental or singing lessons from formal teacher, tailored to student’s need 11
  • Performing in groups 9
    • Opportunity to perform in front of people – step up to the challenge. 4
  • Self-taught 9
    • A note. All musicians must be to some extent self-taught. 9 respondents specifically claimed to be self-taught, but 3 of them also referred to their formal education. The genres in which the 9 worked: roots (2), pop (2), pop/folk (1), rock (1), children’s (1). There does not appear to be any pattern.
  • Peers 7
  • Playing from a very young age
  • Enjoying the music, discovering own musical taste, personality 1
  • School program
    • High school
    • Extra-curricular music
    • Opportunity to learn an instrument, otherwise unaffordable 2
    • Initiated interest, later explored
  • State music camps
    • Improvising 1
  • Learning on the job 2
  • Access to music facilities
  • Visual arts classes. Lessons transferred to music

Hindered by:

  • Lack of access to school facilities 2
  • Regrets not having sung in choir 1 learning piano 1
  • Not learning to read or write music at a young age 1
  • No theory or aural skills because absent in their school education 2
  • ‘Lack of structure in programs for practical application’
  • Terrible teachers at Con High
  • Lack of understanding of industry 1

Some Other Correlations

Educational experiences of respondents who have won major awards, and/or released platinum or gold albums, and/or have had significant international success

These findings depend upon respondents’ descriptions of their achievements. The categories emerge from the descriptions but individual descriptions do not always serve the categories. For instance, one respondent appears on 400 albums but does not tell us whether any have achieved platinum or gold sales. We can conjecture but not assume.

A good number of these respondents appear in several of the categories below: it is not surprising that a winner of a major award would also have platinum or gold recordings or have achieved international success.

Alt=Table 3
One of the most obvious outcomes here is that many of these artists achieved high success without benefit of a tertiary degree. That is not to say that tertiary degrees were not very important to those who hold them. We found, from question 17, that less than half of the total sample actually studied music at the tertiary level and of those, 4 out of 24 did not complete their courses. So we do not know how important a tertiary education would have been to those who did not have one, but on the other hand, its absence obviously did not prevent a good number from earning these particular distinctions.

(We can conjecture from some of the responses that a formal education is very valuable to those who write music for others rather than only themselves, and especially for technically complex and diverse music such as film soundtracks. Note that Sweden’s exceptional success in contemporary music depends importantly on its sale of such services to foreign musicians and companies.)

We can speculate about the significance of school music education for this sample. A good number of the primary schools attended had poor music programs, according to respondents, and the same applies, with slightly smaller percentages, to secondary school programs. Some of these respondents state their regret at not having received a satisfactory school music education – eg the lack of a knowledge of music theory was an impediment to some songwriters/composers.

On the other hand, a number who attended good school music programs attested to specific aspects of their value. Aspects mentioned many times included:

  • Inspiring school music teachers
  • Lessons from instrumental teachers (presumably, many of these were not provided by the schools)
  • The opportunities to become familiar with a variety of musical instruments
  • Opportunities for ensemble performance (most often, bands, orchestras, choirs)
  • Some found the inclusion of classical music to be important, although others resented the exclusion of contemporary music

It is possible to say that for many in this sample of high achievers, the music education received came in their school years and in some cases was crucial to their later success.


Richard Letts, May 2013. Entered on knowledge base 6 June 2013.


  1. See Primary School Music Teaching for a summary.
Share your opinion