Art music composition covers a broad spectrum of creative practice, across notated concert music, contemporary jazz and improvisatory music, some aspects of screen composition, and the diverse areas of experimental practice, including sound art, installation, and computer and acousmatic musics.

The influences and themes of Australian art music embrace Australia and the world. It is as diverse as the society that it springs from, and reflects contemporary Australia as effectively as any other artform. Whilst some of its branches spring from Western artform traditions and their diaspora across the world, many other branches spring from traditions of other places, and many attempt to reconcile and connect with the cultural diversity represented by Australian First Peoples. However clumsy these attempts have been (and still are), the imperative to meaningfully embrace and learn from Indigenous artists and their practice, to make space for the Indigenous voice in our sector, remains a critical imperative. How else can we appropriately and truly reflect this place, and this time in meaningful ways?

Terminology across this spectrum of creative activity varies greatly according to modes of practice.  There is also great diversity in how Artists undertake their creative and business practice across the art music spectrum.  The term “composer” in this overview applies to creative artists operating in any part of this spectrum.

This overview is not intended to be at all comprehensive, but rather, identify particular characteristics of art music composition, and its current state.

  1. Support for composers

    1. Performers

      Support structures for composers begin with performers, or performing contexts. Relationships between composers and individual performers are central to creating opportunities for a composer’s work to be realised. At a grass-roots level, such relationships result in commissions for new works (paid or unpaid); performances of existing works; or increasingly, creative collaborations between artists that result in new works being developed, often work for specific contexts. At other levels, a composer’s relationships with ensembles, or presenting organisations including festivals or venues, are the catalysts that enable works to be created and performances realised.

      The landscape is rich with performers of many kinds, presenting organizations, and festivals, from the major multi-artform festivals in each State, to smaller boutique music festivals in metropolitan and regional areas.

    2. Funding

      Funding support structures include Federal and State government bodies; philanthropic avenues, both through foundations and individual giving; and private bodies such as APRA AMCOS (via their Art Music Fund, and Music Grants). Demand for funding the creation of new works is very high, and mostly far outstrips any budgets available through these avenues. (Australia Council Music grant round success rates have been dramatically reduced in recent years, from around 25%, to in some instances, 12-15%)

    3. Recording, broadcast, and publishing.

      Concerning recording support structures, in addition to established labels such as ABC Classics and Jazz, Tall Poppies, Move records, and Rufus, there are a range of boutique labels involved in releasing Australian art music, and self-published recordings are not at all unusual, either by composers themselves, or by the performers that they work with.

      Whilst music content on ABC radio has suffered in recent times, broadcast opportunities through ABC Classic FM show some level of revival, with Australian composition programming regularly reaching 12-15% (Australian performance regularly around 25%), and online dissemination of specialist content now via regular podcasts. Online content includes a mix of live performance recording, commercial recording releases, and interviews with artists. Some community radio stations (for example 102.5FM in Sydney; 3MBS and PBS in Melbourne) have specialist programs covering art music.

      Only a handful of Australian composers enjoy the support of the major international music publishing houses, Faber Music (Peter Sculthorpe, Matthew Hindson, Carl Vine), Boosey and Hawkes (Brett Dean, Elena Kats-Chernin), and Ricordi (Liza Lim), and only recently (Jan 2018) composer/performer William Barton was signed with Schirmer/Music Sales. A range of boutique print music publishing enterprises dot the landscape, with Wirripang, Reed Music, Brolga Music, and Orpheus Music perhaps being the most prominent of these.

      Whilst being signed to a publisher does provide benefits, and provide some kudos for a composer’s reputation, there are also other viable options for composers to consider in developing a business model that supports their creative practice.

      Some composers self-publish, and those with larger bodies of repertoire, or repertoire serving particular performers (choral, band etc) have achieved a level of sustainability in pursuing this. Many composers, both established well-known artists and those emerging, choose to use the AMC’s publishing services, where scores are produced by AMC and earn royalties for the composer, and copyrights remain with the composer.

    4. Other support structures

      The Australian Music Centre (AMC) offers promotional support for composers, and a reference point for repertoire, products, and other resources. Artist Representation with the AMC is offered to composers on meeting a list of criteria, including professional performance, commercial record release, commissions or awards via competitive grants, and prizes, amongst others. There are currently around 720 AMC Represented Artists (Mar 2018). The AMC also runs artist development projects (including the Indigenous Composers Initiative), promotion projects such as the annual Art Music Awards (in partnership with APRA AMCOS), and various publication projects. AMC’s online catalogue provides access to the largest collection of Australian art music content, including products from other suppliers, and the metadata constructed in the catalogue records ensure high online visibility, and resulting volume of web traffic.

      Various composer groups and collectives exist around the country, most prominent being the Melbourne Composers League, which presents an annual concert series, and represents Australia at the Asian Composers League.

      The role of APRA AMCOS in supporting art music composers should not be under-estimated. Anecdotally, APRA indicate that more art music composers are earning live performance, broadcast, and digital dissemination royalties than ever before. This is possibly a result of younger generations of composers (in particular) being more conscious of developing digital content for streaming or download, and the avenues to disseminate such content are now ubiquitous. Further research is required, but certainly, as evident in the commercial music marketplace, whether such income can provide sustainable returns remains a challenge.

  2. Australian Art Music Internationally

    As previously mentioned those composers represented by the major international publishing houses enjoy a level of international exposure stimulated by a publisher, with some being fortunate enough to solicit commissions, or promote repertoire to be performed.

    However, given the global landscape of new music practice, there are opportunities for composers to develop their own networks internationally, networks of particular and specific musical tastes, where creative output in various forms can be promoted, and where opportunities can be created. There are many composers who are highly adept at this, whether they (as examples) are an orchestral composer targeting South American orchestras, or a sound artist or improviser seeking touring opportunities in Eastern Europe, or festival commissions in Scandinavia. Australian artists are globally mobile, have great work ethics, and are generally very well-viewed and appreciated in such contexts.

    AMC represents Australia at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC), and as a member of the European Jazz Network (EJN), and actively promotes Australian artists and their repertoire through these networks. AMC in partnership with Sounds Australia also provide support for Australian delegates attending Jazzahead in Bremen each year, and at Classical:NEXT in Rotterdam.

  3. Education and training

    There are more students studying composition at tertiary level than ever before. With composition being an integral part of secondary music education perhaps this is unsurprising, and there are a plethora of pathways for post-secondary study, from jazz and improvisory musics, across notated concert music, music technology, screen music and gaming, sound design, and more. Courses vary around the country in their focus and emphasis, but there are certainly many options a student might consider, aside from traditional conservatory composition courses.

  4. Audiences

    Australian audiences for art music compare very well with international contexts, with the best examples of ensembles in the small to medium sector doing very well in regard to their connection with their audience. Performers and presenters are generally more nuanced in how they promote and market their art music events. The presentation of new work is also far more nuanced, with increasing attention being paid to production values and stage craft, greatly enhancing the audience experience, and audience loyalty. There are few contexts remaining where new music is the bitter pill that accompanies the assumed “comfort” of the Western musical canon.



  • There are more Australian composers than ever before, working across increasingly diverse range of practices.
  • There are still ways to survive as a composer!
  • There is ongoing interest and demand in music composition as a tertiary study.
  • More Australian art music being performed now than at any time.


  • Diversity, particularly of gender and ethnicity (including Indigenous artists and their work), continues to be a challenge for the sector.
  • Limited opportunity for composers to write works of scale.
  • Ongoing increase in number of composers, particularly post-tertiary emerging generations.
  • Funding support for composers is highly competitive, with demand far outstripping available budgets.


  • Performers of notated music need repertoire, and inevitably, performers’ relationship with individual composers determine who creates that repertoire.
  • Performers/programmers (in general) recognize the imperative for inclusion of Australian content in programming, perhaps more than at any other time.
  • Avenues to disseminate content continue to broaden.
  • Increasing collaborative practice/hybridity, and opportunities to work with other artists.


  • Increasing competition for decreasing opportunities
  • Sustainability of creative practice is an increasing threat, so earning income from sources other than composing is essential.
  • Increasing necessity for composers to possess a diverse range of business and technology skills in addition to their compositional craft, and challenges in achieving this.
  • Ongoing pressures for composers to write for less than standard commission fees, or for nothing.
  • Whilst the avenues to disseminate content continue to broaden, the potential for the composer to earn a sustainable financial return from performance, broadcast, or digital dissemination, is diminishing.
  • Declining level of government financial support.


John Davis
DATE: 23 August 2018

John Davis. CEO, Australian Music Centre. Vice-President of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC), and of the International Society for Contemporary Music

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