What do Musicians do for a Living?

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The Need to Know

Alt=Dawn Bennett
Once, a long time ago when I was starry eyed and new to academia, I set out to design the perfect curriculum for aspiring classical musicians. I had worked as a musician for twenty years, and was determined to make a valuable contribution. The concept was quite simple and went something like this: look at what musicians do for a living, document where they do it and why, ask about barriers and opportunities and then write a curriculum for delivery in collaboration with the profession. Four years later, having realised that nobody had yet defined what musicians do, I completed a PhD with a thesis that I would have liked to call 'So, what’s a musician anyway?' Without a clear understanding of what it is that musicians do, there is no potential whatsoever for the development of curricula that can meet the needs of graduates and practitioners. Nor is it possible to provide reliable intelligence to funding and support agencies, government and advocacy groups. The MCA Knowledge Base is a crucial step towards closing this gap.

Answers are not found in statistical collections, nor are they revealed by graduate destination data. Both of these data collection exercises measure 'main occupation' and are geared towards the mono employment model that is less and less common within the general labour market. In fact, the only people who can provide valid, empirical data about what it is to be a musician are musicians themselves. The most valuable research that is being done in this field is empirical and ethnographic, which means that it listens to the profession. [1]

This piece is designed to raise rather than seek closure on critical issues, and aims to prompt other contributions to the Knowledge Base. In particular, I hope to encourage smaller contributions in the form of observations, stories, profiles, insights and links. Qualitative information of this kind is essential to the Knowledge Base, and contributions from within the profession are especially welcome. The facts and figures that follow are derived from surveys and interviews with classically trained instrumental musicians who reflected on their work, training, successes, lost opportunities and careers.

They also draw upon a survey of individual creative artists. In the interests of not becoming too 'academic', the following description of approaches has been kept very brief; however, I am happy to expand on the methodology on request. Altogether, about 500 musicians and artists have contributed directly to the research, which is building a retrospectively longitudinal picture of careers in the creative arts. Approximately 80% of participants were based in Australia at the time they participated. Given the longitudinal objective, the demographic for each study has provided representation along the breadth of a career in terms of both experience and age. Survey methodology is used extensively for several reasons: for example, as the studies are longitudinal, responses are sought from intending and new graduate artists through to those nearing retirement. Interview methodology is also widely used in the form of individual interviews and focus groups. To ensure the inclusion of independent artists, purposeful sampling is often employed to locate dance artists through professional associations, companies and informal networks.

Literature reviews include data from governments and Arts organisations, media sources, curricular documents and an examination of existing literature in Australia and overseas. Inductive coding is employed to extract and expand upon emerging themes. Quasi-quantification of qualitative material is used to record groups of responses into a database, and additional literature is read with respect to themes that have not previously been considered.

Survey Findings

Musicians' Work

  • Less than half of musicians are paid for all of their work, and there is a gendered difference in the amount of work for which payment is received: over three times more female than male musicians receive payment for only 0-25% of their work as musicians. Payment for 26-50% and 51-75% of work was received respectively by 2.3 times and 2.2 times more males than females. Correspondingly, males are more likely to receive payment for 76-99% of their work.
  • Of the musicians who receive payment for 100% of their work, there are clear differences between the primary roles held by male and female musicians; performance being the primary role of 35% of females and 55% of males, and teaching the primary role of 58% of females and 41% of males. Australian Government data on extra-systemic teachers in music, art, dance and drama shows a similar gender breakdown of teachers, 68.5% of whom are female and 31.5% male.[2]
  • Performance was the primary role for 42% of surveyed musicians, 52% of whom were primarily instrumental teachers with the remaining 6% primarily administrators. There are differences in the primary roles of male and female musicians, with more female musicians likely to have a primary teaching role, and more male musicians likely to work primarily in performance.
  • The most common role for musicians is teaching, where 82% of musicians spend an average of 56% of their time. Classroom music teaching was not included in this data on the basis that classroom teaching falls within a separate occupational group. If we include classroom music teaching, the percentage of time spent in teaching activities will be much higher. Despite the commonality of instrumental teaching, analysis of the composition of Australia’s undergraduate performance degrees in 2003 indicates a mean of only 1.1% of core course time allocated to pedagogy. Although 44% of musicians claimed to have taken on teaching roles because of a lack of performance opportunities, 57% of musicians communicated the enjoyment gained from teaching: “Teaching is an integral part of most musicians’ lives. I consider it my most important role and I find it very satisfying”. Many musicians conveyed that they had not expected to find such a high level of satisfaction from roles such as teaching.
Table 1
  • Performance is the second most common role for musicians, and involves 70% of musicians who spend an average of 52% of their time in performance.
  • On average, male musicians spend a greater percentage of their time in performance, composition, examining and technical roles. Female musicians spend proportionately more time in teaching, ensemble direction and administration. The mean percentage of time spent in each industry role is shown as Table 1.[3]
  • Surveyed musicians engaged in an average of 2.2 music industry roles, which is indicative of the multi-functional nature of careers in the music industry.
  • Over one-third of musicians hold roles outside the music industry, and they suggest that many people engage in non-performance and non-music related roles for their intrinsic value as well as for more obvious extrinsic benefits such as regular income: when asked whether they would prefer to be working full time in music, 30% of musicians replied that they would not. Of the 68% of musicians working full time in music, 13% indicated that they would prefer to work within the sector only part time.
  • Data indicate that women increase the extent of their performance role until somewhere between their mid-thirties and mid-forties, at which point performance is less likely to be their primary role. Male musicians appear to maintain their performance role until their mid-fifties.
Figure 1
  • Primary teaching roles seem to become less common with age for women and more common for men.[4]
  • Only 8% of surveyed musicians worked solely in performance, and less than half of those musicians had completed an undergraduate performance degree such as a Bachelor of Music.
  • The most common factors influencing musicians to change the extent of their performance role appear to be increased job satisfaction, stable employment, a higher salary, and family reasons. An earlier study of creative artists revealed exactly the same factors. Shown at Figure 1 are responses from a 2003 study of musicians, which suggest similar influences for male and female respondents in most factors; however, there are three exceptions: (1) responses relating to family responsibilities came predominantly from female musicians (47% compared to 29% male responses); (2) a reduction in the amount of travel was a factor for 24% of female and 13% of male respondents; and (3) injury was cited only by female respondents (10%). Injury amongst musicians is often not spoken about, even with colleagues. Self-report may therefore have been a factor in deciding whether or not to report injury, particularly for male respondents.[5]

Musicians' Skills

  • Musicians use an average of 3.8 skills in the maintenance of their careers. The two most common skills are performance skills, which were used by 96% of respondents, and teaching skills, used by 88% of respondents. Musicians emphasise that communication skills are imperative to a musician’s ability to create and sustain professional networks, and are essential to musicians’ practice regardless of their roles.
    Figure 2
  • Small business skills were used by 72% of respondents, who emphasised the importance of skills in marketing, administration, financial management and people management: "One thing I have learnt from this industry is that the only way you will ever make it as a professional musician is to get up and personally promote yourself. No one ever taught me this at university".
  • Artists need to be entrepreneurial with effective business skills, and the work patterns and associated generic skills of musicians and other artists are closely aligned. Practising musicians stress the need to be entrepreneurial in order to manage opportunities for employment and career development.
  • There is an increasing requirement for practitioners to be aware of community cultural development and to be able to write effective grant applications, including those for funding schemes that have primarily non-arts outcomes.
  • Very few musicians perform only classical music, and the work of musicians in multiple genres appears to increase the opportunities for, and the enjoyment derived from, performance. Rather than being classical musicians, musicians are musically multi-lingual: "One should be a well-rounded musician and not just a clone". Results are shown at Figure 2.[6]

Sustainability and Attrition

  • There are five key factors influencing attrition from the creative arts, and the attrition factors are very similar between musicians and other creative artists. The five key factors are: (1) insufficient regular employment due to a lack of practitioner diversity; (2) a lack of career mobility; (3) irregular working hours; (4) high rates of injury; and (5) low financial rewards. The same five key factors are the most critical influences on musicians who change the extent of their performance role.
  • When asked about personal attributes, musicians and other artists overwhelmingly attribute passion as the key component to sustainable arts practice: "Music is my hobby, my job and my passion". Passion drives motivation, confidence, resilience and adaptability. Maintaining passion is a critical objective for educators and arts organisations.

Education and Training

  • Formal education and training was undertaken by 94% of surveyed musicians at an average of 1.4 different study locations. The commonality of formal education and training highlights the importance of both quality and vocational relevance within the educational sector.
  • The most common course of study is the Bachelor of Music or its overseas equivalents, which were undertaken by 62% of respondents. The most common reason (33%) for non-completion of formal study is an early transition to work.
  • Graduate or postgraduate study was undertaken by 40% of respondents. Disciplines include music performance (36%), music education (39%), non-related fields (16%), and doctoral studies (10%).
  • Entry requirements for undergraduate performance degrees are criticised by musicians, who suggest that students should be directed to take realistic streams of study at the commencement of their programs. Musicians also suggest that undergraduate degrees should be longer in order to effectively equip graduates for their future careers.
  • The most common informal education and training activities are performance training (58%), pedagogy training (36%), and participation in professional networks (35%).
  • Asked about education and training, musicians advocate: (1) the inclusion of career education and industry experience (20%); (2) instrumental pedagogy (18%); and (3) business skills (15%). In particular, musicians stress that students should be made aware of the potential for them to achieve their goals, and should plan and study accordingly: "open discussion of [the] three key attitudes for success: enjoyment, hard work and resilience. At the start [of the course], a realistic discussion of how difficult this career is, and how poor the financial rewards are".
  • Performance, pedagogy and business practices arise as: (1) the curriculum areas for which educational change is most often recommended; (2) the skills most used by musicians; and (3) the most commonly pursued informal education and training.
  • Experience within the profession is viewed by practising musicians as an important way for students to learn about the potential for engagement in a variety of roles, and to understand the skills required in order to take advantage of available opportunities. In this way it is possible to broaden students’ dreams and aspirations rather than damping their passion with assessments of potential based solely on careers in performance.

Anyone who has worked in music or in other arts disciplines knows that work rarely constitutes the traditional model of full-time employment with a single employer. Musicians invariably work as small business owners undertaking multiple roles and utilising a broad range of skills. As a result, sustainable careers in music require an entrepreneurial outlook. They often necessitate secondary roles that are unconnected with music, and performing artists are much more likely than other artists to work in unskilled roles. This pattern of work, long familiar to artists, is indicative of labour market trends within the workforce in general, and there is much to be learned from the study of artistic careers.

Proteus is a mythological sea god who changed form at will. Protean careerists expand their work competencies and connections in search of success that is defined not in the eyes of others or on the basis of a pre-conceived hierarchy of success, but in terms of intrinsic—or psychological—success, and on personal and professional career satisfaction. Around the world, musicians work in protean careers which necessitate the continual development of new opportunities and the attainment of the skills required to meet each new challenge. The focus is not ongoing employment, but ongoing employability.

One of the key factors in music is the lack of full-time positions, even within classical music with its so-called 'flagship companies'. For example, to employ all of Australia’s BMus graduates in full-time orchestral roles would require one-quarter of Australia’s orchestral musicians to retire each year. It would also require that no other practising musicians apply for the positions, and that overseas players remain overseas. Four years later the new graduates would need to retire and make way for the new cohort. Someone recently suggested to me that if all of the unhappy orchestral musicians resigned, there would be much more work for the hoards of people desperately seeking a position. This may be true, but there is no guarantee that new players will find happiness in orchestral roles. The lack of creativity and decision making within orchestral roles leads to much dissatisfaction and a waste of the skills and talents possessed by orchestral musicians, many of whom are highly skilled and engage their creative energies away from the workplace.

Success and Perceptions of Success

The issue of success is vital when talking about careers in music. Given that there are many more graduates than full-time performance positions, one would have hoped that the concept of success would have been refined over time; however, performance remains the preferred (if not the expected) outcome for the majority of intending musicians. And the hierarchy doesn't end there; soloists are viewed as more successful than chamber musicians, who in turn ‘out-rank’ orchestral musicians. Non-performance roles such as teaching are often (at least initially) viewed as fall-back careers and the impact of this on practising musicians and on the development of positive career identities is quite profound.

Given the characteristics of careers in music I would like to suggest the adoption of a protean careerist view: success is building and sustaining a career which meets personal and professional goals. A musician is not a performer. A musician is someone who practices in one or more specialist fields. This is problematic given the common use of the term musician to mean performer, and highlights the need to model holistic practice and to communicate the realities of this practice in a very positive light: modelling a holistic view of the profession at every level of learning, and with the simple question: 'What kinds of musician would you like to be?' I have been asking my students this for some time now, and have been helping them to investigate opportunities as they start to see for themselves how they might apply their skills and interests. This has so far led to informal work placements in school and studio teaching, instrument making and physiotherapy. One student is currently investigating careers in radio and another is working towards a casual audition with an orchestra. The expectation that one should aspire to a performance career—particularly for the most talented performers—can be overwhelming, and presents a barrier to a more holistic exploration of the profession. However, with a broader definition of success I have found students to be much more open to testing and adopting multiple musical identities as they plan their careers.

Concluding Remarks

The Knowledge Base "aims to provide a dynamic, comprehensive picture of the music sector, in words and numbers". It will become all the more insightful, useful and authoritative with each voice that is heard. This piece highlights a sample of the results from several extensive studies, all of which have been conducted with artists. [7] It forms part of the Artist Surveys component of the Knowledge Base, which accommodates surveys, reports and artist contributions. If you would like to have your say, please write your comments below or contact Knowledge Base directly. Contributions need not be written in an academic style. For help or advice regarding artist contributions, email Dawn Bennett. General queries may be emailed to Knowledge Base editor Hans Hoegh-Guldberg, or you may contact him through comments placed on the knowledge base.


  1. For example, work reported through ISME Commission for the Education of the Professional Musician (CEPROM); the EU Polifonia project; or individual research such as that conducted with contemporary musicians in Denmark: Traasdahl, Jan Ole (ed.) (1999), Music Education in a Multicultural Society. Copenhagen; Danish Music Council.
  2. Commonwealth of Australia. (2002). Australian job search. Retrieved February 14, 2002.
  3. A clearer version of Table 1
  4. There are many studies relating to women and music. See, for example, Sarah Cooper’s edited book Girls! Girls! Girls! London: Cassell (1995). Also, Diane Jezic’s 1994 monograph: Women composers: The lost tradition found (2nd ed.). New York: Feminist Press. Gendered difference in the working patterns of classically trained instrumental musicians is outlined in my article ‘A gendered study of the working patterns of classical musicians: Implications for practice’, in print with the International Journal of Music Education, 26:1 (2008).
  5. A better reproduction of Figure 1.
  6. A clearer version of Figure 2.
  7. Results from the first study can be found in Bennett, D.E. (2005). Classical instrumental musicians : Educating for sustainable professional practice by.


Dawn Bennett. On knowledge base 2 November 2007. Subsequently published in Music Forum Vol. 14, No. 2, February 2008.

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