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Music draws a crowd
Music draws a crowd

The term ‘essential worker’ has become a part of the national vernacular in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic, right up there alongside ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolation’.  Today, the Morrison government announced that childcare will be free for families of essential workers, saying, according to a report, “If you have a job in this economy, then that is an essential job, in my view, in terms of (the) running of the economy and it is important that all of those parents who have children, that they get access to the childcare and those facilities will be there for them in the many months ahead.”

Paying musicians a minimum wage will guarantee the growth of the music industry’s contribution to Australia’s GDP. We’re going to need a healthy and growing music industry to help lift us out of the economic depression that will inevitably follow the pandemic.  This measure is an investment rather than an expense and one that, according to all the available data will reap at least a 3:1 return for every dollar spent.

As all musicians in Australia were made instantly redundant by the closure of live music venues in the early stages of the pandemic, it is reasonable to conclude that the Federal government and our Prime Minister do not consider them to be essential workers.

Yet, if you look at it from an economic point of view, as it seems the Prime Minister is, the argument for musicians to be counted at essential workers is strong.  Estimates of the music industry’s value add to Australia’s economic bottom line vary.  According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, music is a $6 billion a year industry in Australia.  A recent Senate inquiry estimated that that live music contributes $15.4 billion a year to the Australian economy, generating 65,000 full and part-time jobs.  Either way, the music industry is larger than both the manufacturing and health care sectors and makes a strong contribution to our nation’s wealth.

While there is no arguing that closing down Australia’s live music industry during the COVID-19 pandemic was the right decision, the discussion over whether musicians are essential workers doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar right now.  In a way, this is understandable, because we’re all busy just trying to survive.  But, while we’ve hit the pause button on music, perhaps now is exactly the right time to be thinking about what the future of Australia’s music industry should be.

Working on the premise that, from an economic perspective, the case that music is an essential industry in which musicians are essential workers has already been made, the question remains, what else is it that makes this industry worthy of special treatment come the new world order?


Let’s start with national identity.  At every public gathering of any significance we hear and sing our National Anthem.  Whether we like it or agree with its lyric and sentiment is irrelevant in the context of this discussion.  The point is that, without a music industry and musicians, songwriters and performers, we would be denied this opportunity to express and share our fundamental national identity.  Every country has a national anthem, because, since the first voices were raised in song, music has been a means of rallying humans around common causes, moving bodies, minds and hearts.

In a 2014 article in Frontiers in Neuroscience, US researchers Jay Schulkin and Greta Raglan observed that music is a fundamental part of human evolution, “strongly linked to motivation and to human social contact.”  Further, music promotes human well-being by facilitating human contact and is as fundamental to the human species as is language.  The difference is that, while most humans acquire language, only a relatively small proportion of us can create and play music. 

Schulkin and Raglan observed that, “music is like breathing—all pervasive. Music is a core human experience and a generative process that reflects cognitive capabilities. It is intertwined with many basic human needs and is the result of thousands of years of neurobiological development. Music, as it has evolved in humankind, allows for unique expressions of social ties and the strengthening of relational connectedness.”

Music is entwined with what it means to be human, it is at the very core of our being.  It is as essential to the quality of our social and cultural existence as the air that we breathe and the water that we drink are to our physical existence.  Without music, what it means to be human changes fundamentally and, immeasurably, for the worse.

Not all of us play music, but the majority of us consume it.  Australia is the eighth largest market in the world for recorded music despite ranking 55th in terms of population.  According to the Australia Council’s National Arts Participation Survey, 97 per-cent of Australians listen to music, with 54 per-cent attending live music performances.  It would be difficult to find a more pervasive arts form or pastime than music, including sport.

This raises the question of the value of those who are capable of playing and creating music.  In his bestselling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve world-class expertise in any skill.  Since the book’s publication in 2008, a number of researchers and commentators have debunked Gladwell’s ideas, showing that the value add of repeated practice is often less than Gladwell suggested.  A Princeton study showed that the repeated practice accounted for 21 percent of violinists’ skill mastery.  Further research, reported in The Guardian, suggests that the remaining 80 or so per-cent of contributing factors are due to  quality of tuition, learning skills and, perhaps, natural talent.

What is of interest here is that musicians, in order to master the skills required to be able to play their instruments and compose music, have to devote a considerable portion of their lives to their vocation, in the process changing the physical networks of their brains and excluding themselves from other more commonplace pursuits.  Further, it is possible, even probable, that musicians have a ‘natural talent’ for music for which majority of us could never compensate no matter how many tens of thousands of hours of practice we put in.

This puts musicians in a special category, as they are rare among us and, when coupled with their undeniable contribution to our country’s economic wellbeing and the quality of human existence, irrefutably deserving of special treatment designed to support their existence and cherish their role in society.

A report on the economic and cultural value of music in Australia showed that live music spending delivers a 3:1 benefit to cost ratio, yet research commissioned by the Australia Council for the Arts showed that the median annual income for and Australian musician was $7,200.  This means that many musicians are living at or below the poverty line and working precarious second and third jobs to support themselves while adding to the financial and cultural wealth of our nation.  It just doesn’t add up.

There is another way of supporting music, and the arts more widely, beyond the meagre drip feed of grant funding and the expectation that musicians will generally need to suffer for their art or give up their calling.  If we have learned anything from our government’s response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, it is that extraordinary times can rapidly engender new approaches to problem solving.  The amount of funding the Federal government has already put into economic stimulus is staggering.  According to The Treasury’s website, so far $320 billion has been allocated to economic stimulus, accounting for 16.4 per-cent of annual GDP.  Once we are through the other side of this crisis, this is money that Australians will have to repay over decades through increased taxes and reduced government services.

Why would we not then be discussing economic support for the music industry that provides financial safe haven to musicians for the duration of the pandemic and, in the world that follows, continues to provide ongoing financial support for those few among us called to serve our country by working as musicians?  This is a reasonable expectation given that:  the music industry accounts for a larger portion of Australia’s GDP than many other industry sectors; adds irreplaceable value to our social and cultural existence; and is staffed by small portion of the population who are capable of accomplishing a level of skill mastery that the majority of us are not.

Surely, musicians are worth a guaranteed minimum wage of more than the current median of $7,200?  According to Musicians Australia, there are approximately 6,000 full-time musicians in Australia.  Based on this figure, provision of a living wage of $75,000 to all musicians would cost Australia $450 million a year.  To put this into perspective, because the figures get unintelligibly large very quickly, this is approximately 0.14 per-cent of the government’s current COVID-19 stimulus package and three per-cent of the current contribution the music industry makes to Australia’s GDP. 

These estimates do not take into account the savings to be accrued from the reduction in musicians’ engagement with the health sector.  A Swedish survey  found that at least 73 per-cent of musicians struggle with mental illness as compared to 20 per-cent of the general population at any given time.  With financial security being a major issue for musicians it would be reasonable to expect that this statistic would reduce significantly if musicians were granted the dignity of a guaranteed minimum wage.

Paying musicians a minimum wage will guarantee the growth of the music industry’s contribution to Australia’s GDP. We’re going to need a healthy and growing music industry to help lift us out of the economic depression that will inevitably follow the pandemic.  This measure is an investment rather than an expense and one that, according to all the available data will reap at least a 3:1 return for every dollar spent.  It also will reduce costs and, sandwiched in between these wealth creation and cost saving measures, it will preserve the social and cultural contribution that music makes to our society.  Above all else, once this pandemic has passed, we’re going to need music to help guide us from the darkness and back into the light.

This is the argument Australia’s peak music industry bodies should be putting to the Federal and State/Territory governments right now.  The time for asking for handouts and donations is over.  It’s time to be part of shaping a new world order, one in which musicians are cherished and nurtured and supported financially just for being musicians.

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