I was very pleased that the wonderful Making Music Work project report begins with a description of Australian musicians’ career motivation and values. And that the career motivation for over 90% is intrinsic to the task: ‘doing what I love, and developing my music-related skills and capabilities’.

Because that’s not the life experience of a lot of people, whose work is to do something or make something for reasons that are not intrinsic – to pay the rent, or just to fit in somewhere, or to be rich or prestigious.

To work in a field where basically the reward is the experience of the work seems to me to bring a treasured integrity and satisfaction. A sense that the worker and the work are one and that the work is whole and complete, or that that is just around the corner.

The motivations reported as next most important are to contribute to the artform, the community, to collaborate with and help others. These are very nice people.

The more extrinsic rewards – recognition by others, financial rewards and security – come at the bottom of the list of values.

Just as well that high value is not placed on financial rewards because for most, they are in slim supply. I guess that’s where this study began, with the realisation that so many musicians have to work in other tasks to get the money to pay the bills. So it is natural that this be recognised and that there is attention paid to how  to prepare musicians to cope with the reality.

That needs to happen. But there can be an alternative focus: to somehow create a situation where more musicians can do that intrinsic work in their art without unwanted diversion into other activities. A country, a government, with a heart – indeed, with a soul – would want this and could make it possible.

The study finds that despite the great emphasis on the intrinsic rewards of music making, the musicians define career success as including financial sustainability, and peer and audience recognition, and among all such factors see themselves as least successful in achieving their income needs. That brings anxiety.

It follows that 12.77% of our musicians self-report mental health problems. This is an issue that has grabbed broad public concern in the time of the coronavirus.

But the incidence of mental health problems overall in the Australian population is 17.5% – about 40% higher than in musicians despite the musicians’ precarious situation.

So we need not say you must be mad to take on a musical career.

Rather, we can say you’d be mad not to.

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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