A musician’s perspective on Arts Victoria’s report in to the ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Contribution of venue-based live music in Victoria’
By Lochie Bradfield
There is a not so funny joke that circulates around musicians’ circles regarding the general public’s views on the cost of music –
A guy calls the musician’s guild to get a quote on a 6-piece band for a wedding. The rep says,
“Off the top of my head, it’ll be about $3000”
“What? Just for music?” the guy responds
“I’ll tell you what. Call the plumber’s union and ask for six plumbers to work from 6 until midnight on a Saturday night. Whatever they quote you, we’ll work for half of that.”
In 2011 Arts Victoria released a report investigating the ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Contribution of venue-based live music in Victoria’ . Some of the research findings are expected, some are encouraging, some are surprising, and some are disappointing.
The report finds that live music in bars, clubs, pubs, hotels, cafes and restaurants generated $501 million dollars in gross state product (GSP) to the Victorian economy in 2009/10 and increased full-time equivalent (FTE) employment by approximately 17,200 persons.
It reveals that there were approximately 5.4 million punters at live performances in Victorian venues in 2009/10 – compared to 4.3 million who attended AFL home and away games in the state. Live music’s contribution then is of a significant caliber – considering many people would consider the footy to be one of the state’s main cultural draw cards.
Aside from the economic contributions, 92% of patrons believe that venue-based live music ‘improves the quality of life’.
According to APRA, Victoria has approximately 950 venues registered as live music providers. Of these 374 are public hotels, 118 are cafes and restaurants, 85 are bars and 34 are nightclubs. The survey suggests that 74% of these venues regularly feature musicians performing ‘original music’. Fortunate for those of us living in Melbourne, we have more live music venues than any other capital city in the country.
What it means for the performer
So with all these encouraging statistics live-performance musicians must be doing really well, right? Well, not so much.
According to the performer and manager survey results, the average gross income for Victorian artists from live performance in 2009/10 was approximately $19,500. On first look this figure doesn’t seem too bad.
For many musicians living in this country their music career only provides a proportion of their annual earnings, with non-music related work undertaken to supplement their income. How many musicians do you know who are able to get by relying solely on their music? I didn’t think so. Many, if not most, are also working in cafes, call-centers, retail, construction or relying on welfare payments to keep up with the rising cost of living.
Previous studies have found that music is mostly an unpaid profession in terms of employment and career status, and only a small proportion of musicians are able to earn a decent wage from performing, composing or even teaching (Holmes, 2009). In another study (Throsby and Zednik, 2010) it was estimated that 57% of all practicing professional musicians in Australia earned less than $10,000 from music-related work in 2007/08, and only 16% of practicing professional musicians earned more than $50,000. Most likely the latter grouping consists of higher profile musicians, as well as musicians not playing ‘original music’ (e.g. wedding bands)
So what is the net position for the average live-performance musician in Victoria? Not so great. After typical overheads (sound dude, lighting, support act, promotion, transportation not to mention gear & maintenance) retained earnings are ‘minimal’, with many musicians often ‘paying to play’, i.e. losing money. Many of these musicians view ‘paying to play’ as either an investment in their future success or do so purely for the non-monetary gain, i.e. the joy of doing it.
One performance artist business management company suggested that 5% of performers could ‘feasibly draw wages from their annual earnings’, 35-40% are re-investing the funds to attain a break-even position, while an astonishing 55-60% are in fact accruing debt by performing – often in the order of thousands of dollars.
The bottom line? After expenses a gross income of $19,500 translates to around $5850 per annum for the average performer. That doesn’t even cover a year of rent for a room in a modest home in the surrounding suburbs of Melbourne.
Musicians often get heaped in to the romanticised image of the suffering artiste. Admittedly most musicians play music for the love of it, and often, it seems, they have little choice in their destiny – a calling, if you will. But you can’t pay your rent with a ballad, you can’t pay your phone bill with a guitar solo, and you sure as hell can’t buy bread with a II-V-I chord progression.
What to do?
Indeed the status of the ‘suffering artiste’ inevitable feeds upon itself. To advance their position the report suggests performers must:
– increase their share of patron expenditure on live performances
– increase the price of their live performance
– and/or increase their supply of live performance
This however saturates the market, devaluing the very thing that musicians are trying to live off – their music. When the performer attempts to exercise pricing power, by demanding more money for a performance they can almost immediately be replaced by another act that is willing to perform for less – or nothing at all! In short, all those artists who are happy to perform for free, or worse yet, are willing to pay-to-play, are actually devaluing performance pay rates across the board. It is time for musicians to identify the value of their music and charge accordingly.
In light of this, musicians need to become savvier in their understanding of market forces and pricing power. Performers must now begin ‘underplaying’ – or at least employ marketing tactics to have their audience believe that supply is actually restricted. By restricting supply, performers are able to exercise a higher degree of market power. However this only works for more established acts with loyal followings.
Self-management is a good way of cutting overhead costs, however this takes a significant level of time, skill, knowledge, technological know-how, confidence and financial management – not skills that every musician possesses.
So what happened to the romantic ideal of the suffering artiste, operating inside some isolationist bubble, feeding their soul with the creative pursuit of music alone? Well, it seems that in this day and age it doesn’t exist, and what is more, perhaps it never did! In its place we are left with a galaxy of musical entrepreneurs – busy tweeting, posting status updates, making phone calls, sending emails, blogging, uploading Bandcamp and Soundcloud pages, organizing gigs, launches, photo shoots, press releases, graphic design for flyers, product launches, directing, shooting and editing video clips…the list goes on – all for $5850 a year. Am I forgetting something? Oh yeah! Then there’s actually sitting down to compose, rehearse, record and perform the music.
It is not all doom and gloom for musicians though. Today is arguably the best time in the history of ‘music as commodity’ to be a working musician, as David Byrne in his excellent online article ‘Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists’ points out. Recording costs and technologies are at an all time low and online distribution channels have revolutionized the way we share music, making it more accessible than ever.
This does wonders for exposure to new music, helping proliferate music of all forms – from meat & potatoes ‘rock’n’roll’ all the way to ‘pagan devotional’ music. Unfortunately, it probably also re-enforces your mum and dad’s initial reaction to your wanting to pursue music – ‘What? You want to be a musician? You’ll never earn a living out of that!’
Sad to say – in the vast majority of cases – your mum and dad are probably right.
ARE YOU A MUSICIAN?
What are your experiences of performing live music in Australia? Or any country for that matter! Comment below! ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫ ♫