Music is integral to the social, cultural and economic well-being of any mature society, yet musicians face less job stability and lower income than other professions. They also face low public perception of their contribution to the economy. Much of what is understood of the public view derives from musicians’ personal experiences rather than directly from the public. While current research generally provides insight into various aspects of musicians’ careers, training, and motivations for choosing music as a career, little research explores the public’s view of music as a career. Our survey of concert-going audiences affords better understanding of how a career, specifically in classical music, is understood and regarded. The results suggest an alternative view to musicians’ perceptions; but on further investigation, the ‘undervaluing’ perceived by musicians becomes evident in the lived reality of the performing arts sector.


The study presented in this paper assessed public opinion regarding classical musicians’ livelihoods in Australia. The aim was to gain some insight into what the public understands to constitute a classical musician’s daily work life and what they contribute to society. The study comprised an online survey, conducted in Australia in March 2020. The survey and results are discussed briefly here alongside important research that illuminates aspects of musicians’ livelihoods.

The study was undertaken because research suggests that musicians face low public perception of their contribution to the economy and to society. We also know from recent research that they face less job stability and lower income than other professions in a highly competitive workplace (Throsby and Zednick 2010). As a profession it is often romanticised, viewed as an indulgence, or belittled due to its poor financial rewards (Gross and Musgrave 2017; Parker 2015). This is underpinned by the quantitative capitalist approach of defining ‘value’ as monetary worth (Meyrick, Phiddian and Barnett, 2018; O’Connor 2017).

Such a definition is reflected in the content of organisation and sector reports which typically focus on analysis of such metrics as: attendance at live performances, music participation and involvement, audience music preferences (program statistics), the economic contribution of live performance, employment in the sector, philanthropy, music education, and revenue from recording and streaming. This quantitative understanding of ‘value’ consequently leads to a dearth in research exploring the public’s view of classical music as a career. Current research generally provides insight into various aspects of musicians’ careers, training, and motivations for choosing music as a career (cf. Tolmie 2017). However, much of what is understood of the public perception derives from the musician’s personal experiences, underlining the importance of further research to gain better understanding of community valuing of a classical music career. Consequently, the research team undertook the study outlined in the following pages to provide a more specific qualitative report on how a career in classical music is understood and regarded through a case study of classical music organisation audiences.

The research team was particularly interested to find out the views of classical music concert goers with no musical background and compare this with the views of concert-goers with a musical background. Further, our aim was to gauge whether these views accurately reflect the realities of the profession as understood in current research relevant to the Australian context, in particular by Tolmie (2017) and Making Music Work (Bartleet and Bennett et al. 2020).

Globally, what constitutes being a musician (in the current study, we equate this with ‘classical’ musician) has received particular attention by scholars in the 21st century as the nature of the work, demands, and external forces such as the economy and technology change (see, for example, Bartleet and Bennett et al. 2012; Bartleet and Bennett et al. 2020; Bennett 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012; Bennett and Bridgstock 2015; Canham 2016; Cutler 2010; Haynes and Marshall 2017; Mills 2004; Parkes and Jones 2012, Tolmie 2017).

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of ‘musician’ is “a person who plays a musical instrument, especially as a profession, or is musically talented”[1]; or in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary “a composer, conductor, or performer of music; especially: instrumentalist”[2]. Tolmie (2017) notes that these are not indicative of current contexts of music making and cites other scholars who agree that what constitutes a professional musician now needs to encompass more than just performance skills. In fact, it is further argued that this even goes beyond a career of performing andteaching and needs to be inclusive of a range of competence skills beyond musicianship.

What constitutes being a professional musician is central to Tolmie’s (2017) doctoral thesis as well as the Australian-based Making Music Work study (Bartleet and Bennett et al. 2020). Tolmie’s study assembled information drawn from the views of working musicians, informing a tertiary music vocational preparation strand that aims to resolve disparities between university and music industry realities. Making Music Work examined what is entailed in a music career through a survey of 592 Australian musicians from a diverse group, and 11 in-depth interviews. The study mapped the creative, social, cultural and economic realities of the music career, highlighting that the vast majority of Australian musicians undertake a portfolio career which encompasses a variety of concurrent music and non-music roles. Our small but timely survey of concert audiences in an Australian setting brings views from outside the profession, focussing on the classical music sector. The results are not conclusive but suggest an alternative view to musicians’ perceptions; however, on further investigation, the ‘undervaluing’ perceived by musicians becomes evident in the lived reality of the performing arts sector. Importantly, such research can help classical music organisations “proliferate and propagate the art form” (Bergauer 2017) at a time when the livelihoods of Australian musicians have never been more threatened.

Research Questions

Primarily, this research asks: How does the public view/perceive classical music as a career in Australia? In particular, what is the view of non-musicians who are classical music concert-goers? Sub-questions ask:

  1. Does a greater level of musical training affect knowledge of what is entailed in a classical musician’s career in Australia?
  2. Do the results mirror the realities of the profession in Australia, as understood in current research by Tolmie (2017), Making Music Work (2020) and others?


The study comprised a survey based on an embedded mixed methods design with a predominantly qualitative approach (Creswell & Plano Clark 2018). We devised a combination of closed- and open-ended questions to determine the demographic of our respondents and to collate and interpret their views on classical music as a career. This allowed us to identify themes from their responses in line with goals of qualitative analysis (Hennink, Hutter and Bailey 2020). Two major and recent Australian studies from within the music industry provided an interface for comparison of our results and understand whether ‘public’ views of the profession reflect the realities.

Several classical music organisations identified as presenters with a strong subscription base in South East Queensland were contacted initially to participate in the study. The study proceeded with the agreement of two: Musica Viva Australia (MVA) and Stradbroke Chamber Music Festival (SCMF). The potential participant pool from these organisations comprised concert subscribers from 2019. MVA restricted their contact list of concert subscribers to Brisbane subscribers due to survey fatigue elsewhere.

An anonymous online survey went to 539 subscribers across the two organisations. There were up to 21 questions in the survey. The questions were grouped in three parts and respectively explored:

  1. The participant’s musical background;
  2. Understanding of aspects of a classical musician’s career;
  3. Selected demographics of participants including age, gender, education and occupation.

All participants were invited to respond to the questions. The first set of questions helped define the participant’s level of musical training, providing nuanced information for our research questions. Qualitative information provided in the second set of questions further helped determine if there is a causal link between level of musical training and knowledge of a musician’s career. The third set of questions also contributed to profiling the participant pool in order to compare responses in terms of ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’ perception of classical music as a career.

Analysis of the data was undertaken through the Survey Monkey platform which offers basic analysis of quantitative and qualitative data through their subscription service. A key strength of the study was the use of the qualitative data for a detailed and specific understanding of the factors contributing to public understanding of the classical music profession.

Limitations to the study

Constraining factors in the survey platform and implementation had an impact on the significance of quantitative data gathered in the survey. Firstly, the Survey Monkey platform allows only one survey submission per IP address. This ensures that there are no duplicated responses. On the other hand, as both participating organisations are local to Queensland, there is possible overlap of subscribers to both organisations. Participants were not asked to name all concert series that they subscribed to; therefore, it is possible that some participants may have been contacted by both SCMF and MVA. Because of the possible overlap, it is not possible to determine the true response rate (number of respondents as a percentage of total number of subscribers). Secondly, a glitch in the survey platform affected one of the questions, preventing some participants from completing a full survey.  Thirdly, the survey was unwittingly scheduled during the global outbreak of COVID-19. Due to both the glitch and the disruptive concurrent events, a second release of the survey was proposed. With the survey glitch resolved, both MVA and SCMF were contacted to reissue the survey; however, only SCMF could do so.

In drawing conclusions from this survey, we acknowledge that it is not known whether the gathering pace of the COVID-19 crisis at this time had an impact on the respondents’ opinions. Further, the surveyed ‘public’ in this study can be defined by their shared interest: subscribing to a classical music organisation. Therefore, the surveyed opinions are not indicative of a ‘general’ public. Another limitation that leads to this outcome is that even within the subscriber pool, participants self-selected to participate, and therefore may represent people with a stronger than average opinion or bias regarding the survey topic (see Chadwick 2013).

Analysis and Results

From the 539 subscribers emailed across the two organisations, there was an uptake of 65 respondents (12 percent). The respondent number includes the two releases for the Stradbroke Chamber Music Festival. This is a standard response rate for an external survey (Surveygizmo). In the first release, the survey was open for two weeks and had 46 respondents. The second release (which was sent to subscribers of the SCMF only) saw a further 19 respondents in the single week that it was open.

Part 1 survey analysis: Respondents’ musical background

All respondents answered the question on musical background from which we learn that 88.5% have learned a musical instrument or singing. Of these, 95% have had formal music lessons at some stage in their life. All respondents answered the question of whether they have musicians (amateur or professional) amongst their friends, with the result that almost 80% do. All respondents answered the question concerning how many classical music concerts they attended in 2019. Fifty percent of respondents attended 10 concerts or more over the year: of this 32% attended between 10 and 19 concerts, and 18% attended 20 concerts or more. Forty-one percent of all respondents attended between one and nine concerts and 9% registered no classical concert attendance for 2019. All respondents answered the question of whether they attended other types of concerts in 2019, with the result that the majority did (62%).

The results from Part 1 show these two organisations have a subscriber membership with a strong personal music background.

Part 2 survey analysis: Perceptions of a classical musician’s livelihood

Part 2 asked the participant for opinions that would help clarify their perception of a classical musician’s livelihood. A glitch in the survey mechanism occurred in this section, causing a critical impact on overall survey response rate, data sample size, and capacity to address the primary research question: only two respondents without a musical background completed every question in the survey.

The glitch occurred in relation to the format of numerical values entered in response to a question of estimated income. The survey mechanism disallowed incorrect formats but did not activate an error message. This resulted in thirty participants unable to continue to the next question nor could they then complete and submit the survey, including 6 of the 11 participants without musical backgrounds. Twenty-five participants answered some but not all of the questions, including the other 5 participants without musical backgrounds. Twenty-one participants with musical backgrounds answered all questions in this part.

A considered explanation for the low response rate is that the open-ended nature of these questions may have been a deterrent (as noted in de Vaus, 2002). Of those who did answer Part 2, we conclude that there was no appreciable difference in ways of responding according to musical and non-musical backgrounds. Rather than abandon our research altogether, we have chosen to present aspects of what we consider the ‘insider’ view for Part 2, based on 43 respondents.

Participants were asked what activities a typical classical musician might engage in on a daily basis in order to make a living. The large majority of responses mentioned teaching and performing, followed by practising. Participants were also askedwhat skills a typical career in classical music involves. Respondents frequently mentioned the high level of technical, physical and artistic skill required, but also skills such as patience, self-discipline, self-motivation and dedication. Teaching skills were also mentioned, as well as skills to do with management, administration, organising, and networking.

Participants were also askedwhat aspects of a typical career in classical music might be similar to or different from other professional work. The single most mentioned difference was the uncertainty of employment, with respondents saying, for example, that the work is intermittent, irregular, insecure, temporary, mostly untenured, seasonal; that there is a lot of unpaid work, casual work, freelancing, self-employment; that there are limited employment opportunities and fewer benefits such as sick pay and holiday pay; and that there is a need to have a multi-faceted income stream. There was also mention of working for the love of it rather than for the pay, the degree of financial stress due to lack of certainty around future income, and that the pay is likely not to equate with the level of skill and education required. Other differences noted concerned irregular hours, late hours, very little time off, and much more time spent in continued study (i.e. practising). Numerous respondents noted the number of hours spent in unpaid practice compared to the actual paid performance time. The only similarities with other professions mentioned were to do with high level of education, and that diligence, application and routine are required, as in other professions.

When asked to identify the main source of income for a typical classical musician in Australia, respondents were united in stating teaching as the main source of income, with various types of performance activity stated as a secondary source. To the question of estimating the average annual income of a typical classical musician in Australia (the question containing the glitch), ten respondents gave an answer between $30,000 and $49,000; eleven answered between $50,000 and $60,000, ten answered between $65,000 and $85,000; and there was one answer each for $100,000, $140,000, and $150,000. Fewer respondents answered this question compared to other questions overall.

Participants were askedwhat they consider to be the “pros and cons” of a career in classical music. A powerful, unified message comes across in the responses: Music as a career is a passion and a joy in giving, but it goes financially unrewarded. Respondents’ comments provided in Table 1 demonstrate the consistency of their views.

In relation to how classical musicians contribute to society in general, this question was again met with a unified response. There were resounding themes of beauty, joy, pleasure, culture, spiritual enrichment, health and well-being, entertainment, emotional expression, connection to humanity, and motivation. An overarching theme is that a classical musician’s contribution is vital. Respondents’ comments in Table 2 demonstrate their views.

Participants were asked if a career in classical music was one that they would encourage young people with suitable training to pursue. Almost 80% of the 45 respondents who answered this question answered ‘yes’. Not all offered reasons. Of the reasons given for ‘yes’, many provided a condition, as shown in Table 3.

Part 3 survey analysis: Respondent demographics

For reasons explained previously, there were only 43 respondents for Part 3 of the survey. Of these, 76% were women. The age range was from 31 to 80 with only 6 people under the age of 50. Seventy-six percent were 60 or over. Concerning education, 40% have Bachelor (undergraduate) degrees; 48% have postgraduate degrees.


From the data collected from Parts 1, 2 and 3, and taking into account the limitations, we conclude that our surveyed audience has a high regard for classical music as a career and generally understands its inherent challenges. Survey respondents in our study tended to consider classical musicians the ‘soul’ of society, valuing their capacity to express through music the complexities about what it is to be human. This raises one of the most important points of comparison between our study and other research. Amongst musicians, Tolmie (2017) describes an evident level of professional self-respect, but a sense of lack when it comes to societal value. Tolmie reports that musicians generally feel that the Australian non-musician public largely misunderstands the musician, is ignorant of the work, skills and lifestyle required to sustain a music career, and do not realise that a respectable income can even be possible. Because of this, Tolmie’s research reveals that musicians believe that non-musicians romanticise the concept of being a musician (2017, 204). Consequently, musicians’ experience of non-musician respect for the profession varies from none to overwhelming admiration. Germane to the comparison of views in our survey, Tolmie adds that musicians concede that members of the public more educated in the arts possess greater understanding of the life of a musician.

Overall, respondents in our study showed a generally high level of background classical music knowledge, and demonstrated an apparent understanding of the spectrum of skills required for a career as a classical musician. This concurs with the findings of Tolmie (2017) and Bartleet and Bennett et al. (2020). Our respondents mentioned some form of teaching and/or performing followed by practising as central to the daily activities of a classical musician earning a living from their craft. Therefore, the ‘portfolio career’ concept (in which a musician takes on a number of part-time or casual music-related roles) is more or less understood by our survey participants, though it was not explicitly named.

The range of income estimates in our survey corresponds favourably with Tolmie’s (2017) results. Our respondents seem aware of the complex reality experienced by musicians (as described by the participants in Tolmie’s research). Tolmie (2017) also notes that there are motivations other than financial for following a career in music: the “transformative power” of music was the most prevalent reason given (2017, 261). Tolmie further notes that reasons for staying in the profession relate to passion for (connection with) music, and the centrality of music to their identities.

Our respondents also observe that an intrinsic motivation to play and connect with music is a positive aspect of working in a classical music career, but also recognise that a career in classical music goes largely financially unrewarded and has financial risks and uncertainties, including job security. In Tolmie’s study (2017), it is this lack of stability that causes the greatest anxiety amongst the surveyed musicians, despite knowing of this at the outset of their careers. Risks associated with mental health were largely not mentioned by our survey respondents. The risk of burnout was mentioned once, and separately, the issue of stress in relation to finances. This is in stark contrast to Bartleet and Bennett et al. (2020), who report that one of the greatest concerns of musicians is health and wellbeing. Elsewhere, Bartleet et al. (2019) claim: ‘Low incomes, irregular work patterns, romanticising the “tortured artist” and the dismissal of music as being a worthwhile career pursuit, have all been contributing factors to the mental and physical health and wellbeing of musicians’ (p.288). This is supported by other research (for example, Gross and Musgrave 2016) that reveals working as a musician can have a significantly detrimental impact on one’s mental and physical well-being. That there was not more focus on matters of health and wellbeing in comments made by our survey respondents, particularly as a downside of this career, suggests that there is a gap in audience appreciation of this important aspect of a musician’s livelihood.

Age, gender and educational background of our respondents shows a typical audience sample for classical music (see Australia Bureau of Statistics, ABS 2011). Despite the small sample and limitations of our survey, this finding provides reasonable assurance that the views expressed in the open-ended questions in Part 2 may be typical of other classical music audiences. However, this does not validate generalizability to a broader population.

Although our survey has only a small sample size, the results suggest that public esteem for the classical music profession is not communicated well outside the concert hall. This is perhaps better explained by examining the performing arts in the broader Australian context of the arts in government.


The various placements of the arts portfolio in government, both federal and state, inspires no confidence in the centrality of arts for Australians. Additionally, a combination of funding cuts for small-to-medium arts organisations (McPherson 2020) – sending the message that these organisations are dispensable – and increasing supply to major arts organisations has contributed to a major break in the chain: careers do not commence at the top end; they require a staircase of opportunity often provided through smaller organisations. Over several years, Australia has also seen progressive funding cuts to the Australia Council, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body (Eltham 2020).

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government’s interventions to inhibit the spread of the virus changed people’s ways of engaging with the arts and crippled the arts sector. The closure of pubs, clubs, theatres and recital halls left almost 200,000 creative arts workers out of a job by mid-April (Farr 2020), with musicians being amongst the first affected. While the interventions have been necessary, the government’s response to compensate the performing arts sector has been criticised. Amid the crisis, an update from the federal government states that the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, The Hon Paul Fletcher MP, understands the impacts of COVID-19 on the arts sector (arts.gov.au/covid-19-update). At the same time, the Minister voted against broadening the federal government’s JobKeeper wage replacement program to provide for the freelance and casual arts and entertainment workforce. Most of these performers and workers have been excluded from the JobKeeper’s income subsidy despite defining themselves as ‘sole traders’ (as a tradesperson might). After months of lobbying, the sector was finally advised of a $250m support package, at the end of June. This “bailout” is comprised of $75 million in a highly competitive grant program, $90 million in loans, $50 million to Screen Australia, and the remaining dollars to federal government-funded arts organisations (Fletcher, June 25, 2020). It is at odds with the Australia Institute’s call for a $750 million rescue package for the arts industry (Farr 2020) back in April. It is also not clear how, or whether, any of the funds will trickle down to the individuals who make the art, perform the art, and live by the art.

The final blow is the federal government’s decision to almost double the cost of arts/humanities degrees in universities, “relegating a career in music as an irrelevant job-choice” (Maiden 2020). This is despite the reported advantages an education in the arts provides: creativity skills were highlighted by Gonski 2.0 and the Australian Curriculum as skills for a future Australian workplace (Wade-Leeuwen, Vovers, & Silk, 2018). The perception of undervaluing has never been more pronounced for those working in the arts sector.

The priorities of our federal and state governments are transparent through other agencies; for example, the COVID-19 pandemic allowances for sporting events as opposed to performing arts events. While contact sports are permitted with the excitement of a live match, cheering crowd and no social distancing on the field, a small orchestra that is stationary must socially distance and perform to an empty hall. At the time of writing, limited performing arts venues are opening, and small ensembles are given opportunities to perform with strict social distancing and seating according to “Covid Safe” protocol. Meanwhile, media reports show the breaches of COVID-19 protocol at sporting events that occur repeatedly amongst players and spectators.


Tolmie (2020) proposes that since the COVID-19 crisis, “it must be acknowledged that public values have been recalibrated – I believe, in favour of musicians’ societal value – but musicians need to make their worth explicit”.  Though our study was small and had limitations, it has shown that classical musicians are highly valued by their admiring audience; however, contextual analysis shows that this valuing is of little worth to recent and current governments. This is apparent in government arts management, including in its oversight of the safeguarding of musicians’ livelihoods and in its strong emphasis on statistical reporting and policy. Numbers do not explain the significance of music in people’s lives and livelihoods, but rather their primacy in reporting reflects a society that views value foremost as monetary. For the arts, purely quantitative analysis can act as a barrier to identifying and implementing appropriate forms of recognition, measurement, and growth. Our study offers a small initial insight into a largely unexplored domain, and further research into public perceptions of the classical music sector would be valuable as we witness the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on musicians’ lives and their capacity to make music.


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[1] Oxford Dictionary. 2016. s.v. “Musician.” http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/musician 435.

[2] Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. n.d. 11th edition. s.v. “Musician.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/musician.

Jocelyn Wolfe, Adjunct Research Fellow, Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Griffith University. Email: j.wolfe@griffith.edu.au (corresponding author)

Kirsten Tong, PhD Candidate, Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Griffith University. Email: kirsten.e.tong@gmail.com

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