Phil Graham outlines unavoidable facts about life as a professional musician and proposes that career education must respond to them.


Thorstein Veblen makes the following note on the role of higher learning:1

In any known civilization there will be found something in the way of esoteric knowledge. This body of knowledge will vary characteristically from one culture to another, differing both in content and in respect of the canons of truth and reality relied on by its adepts. (Veblen, 1918/1965, p. 1)

As well as drawing comparisons across cultures, Veblen notes that canons of knowledge may also vary across time within a given culture, perhaps to become ‘only an instrumentality in the service of some dominant aim or impulse’, such as educating a political dynasty or a ‘commercial aristocracy’ (p. 9). Even the briefest glance at our higher education system in Australia cannot fail to note the increasing influence of commercial imperatives over the past three decades. These imperatives have been felt at practically every point that was previously considered to fall within the definition of ‘the commonwealth’: from banks and airlines to electricity and water provision, the ‘public good’ aspect of so many of our institutions has been subsumed into a commercial definition of public value and so have gone the way of Telecom, Qantas, and the Commonwealth Bank. While our university system remains publicly owned and funded, the pressure to operate on commercial terms as a corporate facsimile has transformed our universities beyond recognition.

Combined with the commercial reorientation of the Australian university sector, today’s music students are also confronted with an almost entirely disrupted career landscape. While some areas, such as careers in school music education, remain relatively untouched, the path to professional musicianship has become more challenging and perhaps more doubtful than it has ever been. All recent reports indicate that the prospects for a sustainable career in music are at best bleak, at worst practically non-existent2. Dave Avery’s ‘Get a haircut and get a real job’ would seem like good advice for any young mind aspiring to a career as a musician.

But we must remain positive and assume that these dire facts and trends are nothing more than the latest blips in a sector known historically to experience the effects of changes in technology, politics, culture, and economy before and perhaps more directly than any other. Let us also assume that undergraduate tertiary music education is more in the order of a professional degree than being primarily concerned with the intellectual pursuit of abstract knowledge about music. That is to say: a music degree is, at least in many cases, education for a profession. Those assumptions allow us to ask a very specific question about the nature of music education in universities: ‘in the contemporary environment, what aspects of musicianship are required to educate professionals who can sustain a career in music ?’

At this point I should declare my interests. I am head of Music and Sound at an Australian university and so the answers I give to that question will necessarily reflect the biases I have towards the degree courses that I administer and teach. I also spent decades as a professional musician working in licensed venues, theatres, recording studios, circus, and just about anywhere I could make a living being musical. Our degrees cover many of the areas that I am about to describe, though perhaps not to the optimal degree or in necessarily the right proportions. While I understand that there is an ongoing need for more traditional approaches to music in institutes of higher learning, I am also aware that many of our young musicians are preparing for careers and circumstances that none of us can easily anticipate or even imagine. So here are the areas I contend that a degree-level education for musicians need to offer, or at least seriously consider offering, if the degree is oriented towards turning out graduates prepared for a profession in music.


Of course a music degree must teach musicianship and impart the crafts of performance and composition. However, details of the kinds of musicianship that can now sustain a professional career vary greatly. There will always be a need for conservatory style, one-to-one teaching aimed at mastering a musical instrument. But given changes in technology, the array of new instruments, and the new ways in which music is written and produced for games, video, animation, toys, and manifold digital platforms, the concept of musicianship has changed in very profound ways. A music degree for future music professionals needs to engage with these changes and pitch their musicianship pedagogy at multiple levels. In some cases it may be that a student never spends an hour in one-to-one lessons for a traditional instrument. They may instead be taught how to manipulate waveforms, algorithms, and other sources of sound in musical ways that result in a sound design outcome for a game, gadget, or movie. Others may become experts in rapid rehearsal techniques for the temporary ensembles that are so common today. Others may learn the subtle blend of musical, technical, and social psychological skills that excellent record production demands. As professional musicianship changes, so too the content of the professional music degree.


There is almost no avoiding the impacts of new technology upon the professional practice of music. Whether it be in production, composition, amplification, or communication, rapid and sometimes chaotic advances in technologies are felt everywhere. Those effects can rarely be anticipated nor can they be ignored. So we need to teach our future professionals useful attitudes and concepts that help them critically embrace technological change without succumbing to the kind of technological fetishism that replaces musicality with mere technique, regardless of the field. The kinds of attitudes and concepts required will ideally prepare our students to expect new technologies, learn to assess their potential and implications, and then make informed choices about whether and how to use them in professional practice. Practical and conceptual approaches to understanding technologies and their effects on music and musicianship are essential learning for future professionals.

Business and entrepreneurship

Talk of money can raise hackles in many communities of musical practice. The associated idea that musicians should be businesslike and entrepreneurial is anathema to art purists and ‘indie’ dilettantes alike. We all know the phrases: ‘selling out’, ‘art for art’s sake’, ‘corporate whore’, and so on. Such attitudes are well and good if you do not wish to make a living from music and think that nobody else ought to either. As for jobs in music, they are all but non-existent, save for the rare salaried roles in state-supported orchestras and ensembles, production roles in high turnover environments such as television production houses, or salaried teaching positions. The days of ‘house bands’ in venues have been over for decades. Even lowly ‘covers’ gigs are historically scarce and troubled by low pay and long hours. According to most recent reports, including May’s 100 Songs survey, the working musician is typically a part-timer who earns less than $15,000 per year in the practice of their profession. However there is reason to be hopeful given the new opportunities offered by global media networks. And while it would be disingenuous of higher education to sell to budding musicians, as it does so often to the aspirants of other professions, the idea that a degree is the pathway to a better job, we can and should offer insights into ways of being businesslike, opportunistic, and entrepreneurial in the many established and emerging areas of professional musicianship. These aspects of a music education ought not be the ‘Commerce 101’ common to Business Faculties everywhere. They will be, rather, ways of seeing how art has and can be monetised by established professionals both in music and other areas of art, identifying reliable principles and practices of successful artistic businesses, and having students begin to implement these as early as possible.


It may be that today’s musician needs to know more about the law than almost any other profession outside of real estate agents, politicians, developers of new financial instruments, and the legal fraternity itself. That claim might seem exaggerated, but the rate and severity of legal actions against musicians increases daily, whether related to sample clearance, copyright infringement, or some other rights-based issue. Then there are the changes in contractual arrangements, from ‘360 degree’ deals to the complex kinds of deals being done for catalogue that end up in dismal payments for artists from streaming services such as Spotify — that is to say, they need to be educated well enough to make crucial decisions about where to publish and distribute their music. Musicians are now treated as contractors by most venues in Australia and so liability is a concern. In many cases musicians are required to carry upwards of $1 million in public liability insurance, certification for equipment and leads, and indemnities for multiple parties. New workplace health and safety legislation may be read as having personal liability implications for musicians if someone’s hearing is damaged at a venue. Also, with online distribution platforms now a fact of life, musicians need to be able to read terms and conditions with an educated eye or risk losing rights over the music they publish on another party’s online platform. I have only scraped the surface of the many new and confusing legal changes facing Australian musicians. I am not proposing that music courses ought to teach fully blown law courses, but in their education our future professionals need at least a clear overview of those aspects of law that are a) specific to music and b) could either ruin them financially and professionally or c) be most helpful in their pursuit of a living.


At its most successful, music is excellent communication. It connects people at deep visceral and emotional levels. But that’s not the kind of communication I want to talk about here. What I want to emphasise is the apparent need for artists to speak directly with their audiences in an ongoing dialogue across digital media channels. Successful professionals are these days also great ‘brand’ managers. They are active on social network sites, blogs, and have their own websites that connect all their online presences and draw audiences back to a central point. Whether or not the artists themselves manage all of this is irrelevant. Our students need to know what works, why, how such communication is done well, and why it has become so important to do so. Educating future music professionals requires knowledge of how a communication strategy is developed and implemented, what it means to communicate well in digital environments, and have access to professionals whose can advise on these important aspects.

Concluding notes

I understand the point of view that says ‘All this is nonsense! Education for musicians means teaching them to play well, how to perform, and how to think about music.’ But I believe we are doing our students a disservice if all we do is hone their musical talents. The aspects of education and practice that I have outlined here (and I do not see these as exhaustive, just the most important) are essential for musicians wishing to become professionals and earn a living into the future. Long gone are the days when playing a musical instrument well and getting paid for it was enough to qualify a musician as professional. There are no jobs to speak of, so we must teach our students to also become business people. There is nowhere that technological change does not affect us – from the most abstract aspects of the economy, to the sound we want at a live performance, to our connections with global audiences. The legal landscape has become increasingly hostile to musicians, and so they need to know where to find help and what kinds of traps to look for. Communication has become sine qua non for the music professional – publicity and profile are tied to global communication channels and the web has become the professional directory for the world as well as its ‘billboard’ system. All of these aspects are great challenges for educators and students alike, but they also represent enormous professional opportunities and so education has a duty to teach about both. I am not endorsing the fact that musicians have all these extra tasks and expertises to master. They have, though, become facts of life for music professionals and as educators we are bound to respond.


Philip Graham. First published in Music Forum, August 2012, Vol. 18, No. 4, 56-58. Entered on knowledge base 21 May 2013. Professor Phil Graham contributes an article to each edition of MCA Music Forum magazine.


  1. Veblen, T. (1918/1965). The Higher Learning in America: A memorandum on the conduct of universities by business men. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.↩︎
  2. Australasian Performing Right Association. (APRA). (2011). Economic Contribution of the Venue-based Live Music Industry in Australia. Sydney, Australia: APRA. — Deloitte Access Economics. (2011). The Economic, Social and Cultural Contribution of Venue-based Live Music in Victoria. Melbourne: Arts Victoria. These works are briefly described in Casual Music Workforce. Ed.↩︎

Professor Graham is Head of Music and Sound at Queensland University of Technology

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