”Phil Graham takes a look at the vexed issue of musicians’ incomes. How can incomes be lifted if musicians undermine each other and cannot act collectively? ”

Musicians’ Mean Income Below Poverty Line

It has become generally unfashionable to speak of labour during discussions about the state of any industry, let alone the industries that surround the performance and production of music. The closest we get to public discussions of labour is the discourse of ‘skills shortages’ which is regularly revived by the government of the day, usually in response to industry personnel needs in areas such as mining, building, IT, or industrially oriented science. However, if we are to address the problems facing the incomes of working musicians, we must first clarify the kinds of labour that musicians engage in and see how value is assigned to those labours. Time and space permit only the briefest discussion of two types of labour here: performance and composition.

Recent surveys conducted by APRA and Arts Victoria1 estimate the mean annual income for musicians to be somewhere between $12,000 – $15,000. All estimates are below the 2010 national poverty line of $18,616 per year for a single adult.2 What can we assume from such figures? That musicians are simply poor negotiators? That Australians do not think music is worth paying for? Or can we assume that music is merely the stuff of hobbies, at least in Australian culture?

Stranger arguments are afoot, such as the one that states that it is ‘OK not to pay for music because record companies rip off artists and do not pay artists anything’ (‘Emily’, cited in Curtis, 2012).3 Curtis (2012) canvasses a number of commonly held positions that people use to legitimise their refusal to pay for recorded music in the online world. Most of them are well aired and need no further rehearsal here. There is of course an entirely different set of reasons typically given as to why musicians should play at live venues for free or next to nothing. These usually turn on the value of ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’, or some other intangible value that performers might glean from performing publicly for free. All such arguments were recently aired during the London Olympics with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) which held ‘an “across-the-board” policy not to pay musicians’, a decision that seems to have been based on the idea that experience and exposure are the main currencies for musicians.4

No Standard Pricing Models for Musical Labour

So far I have canvassed a few common perceptual barriers to adequate remuneration for musical labour. Whether for live or recorded music, those problems are well documented and generally well known. However, fair prices for musical remuneration remain vague at best. Historically such issues have been the remit of collective bargaining award rates organised through labour unions, including the Musicians Union of Australia] (MUA). For musicians, these deal primarily with ‘call’ fees, with prescribed hourly rates and allowances for various ensemble roles and a minimum three hour call.5 Aside from orchestral musicians, it is almost certain that any musician working in the pubs, clubs, and small venues of Australia is not collecting the union’s 17.5% loading for ‘soloist’ duties, the $4.19 weekly ‘harp allowance’, the $12.70 weekly ‘instrument upkeep allowance’, or the double time rates for ‘after midnight’ work prescribed by the MUA (MUA, 2012, Live performance award). As a Trade Union, the MUA assumes an employer-employee relationship in its construction of remuneration rather than the widespread ‘contractor’ arrangements that are generally in place for whomever is the contracting member of a group, or even the ‘sub-contractor’ relationships within those groups. There are many other assumptions buried in the MUA’s schedule of rates and allowances, but time and space do not permit a full analysis here.

The most difficult aspect of pricing musical labour of any sort is the entirely indeterminate amount of ‘socially necessary labour’ to complete any given musical task, regardless of genre, style, or experience. In fact many aspects of musical labour completely defy analysis along standard economic lines of thought. Attali (1985)6 for example, points out that the composer stands entirely outside capitalist relationships (pp. 39-40). Questions about how long it takes to compose a song or a symphony are meaningless to the point of being nonsensical. Remuneration for such efforts are just as indeterminate:

Jeopardy! memorable theme song “Think!” was originally composed by show creator Merv Griffin as a lullaby for his son Tony; in 2005 Griffin told the New York Times that he had tossed the tune together in less than a minute. It might have been the most lucrative minute on record, though. In the same interview, Griffin estimated that the royalties from the theme had put somewhere between $70 and $80 million in his pockets.7

Compare Griffin’s experience with Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue, which he often introduced as a song that took ‘10 years to live and two years to write’8 There is literally no comparison to make, at least not in terms that would help provide a ‘standard price’ for the musical labour of composition, even though the market-based remuneration system used by APRA and other such collection agencies is more well-developed and transparent than almost any other system of payment for musical labour.

The labour of musical composition provides an interesting and unique starting point in many respects. First, the systems underpinning remuneration for copyright have been in systematic development since the 16th century and are enshrined in national and international laws throughout the world. Second, they are essentially market-based rules linked to vested corporate interests and that has been the case since the very beginnings of copyright legislation9 In other words, copyright remuneration has to do with distributing a share of realised prices for works based retrospectively on usage, sales, and so forth. Third, copyright statutes typically assume an intermediary relationship between the person (corporate or otherwise) who holds the right to exploit a work and the person or people who originated that work. Therefore the pricing system of copyright looks more like a sales commission than a payment for any specific amount of labour time. That changes when we consider performance labour.

Performance Labour

Performance labour is, generally speaking, the bread and butter, professional training ground, and cultural coal mine of musical labour. In Australia, a relatively small market, its size is almost impossible to calculate. Despite best efforts to calculate the size of the performance labour market by APRA, Live Performance Australia, Ozco, MCA, and Arts Victoria, the only aspects of the market that permit of relatively accurate estimates are licensed music venues and ticketed events. Large areas of activity such as corporate events, weddings, parties, licensed venues, and other informal events that use live performance labour are so decentralised, random, and/or spontaneous it is unlikely that a full and accurate account can ever be calculated. The MUA and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) have specified award rates for performance, with allowances for travel, ‘overtime’, and other eventualities. However, these rates rarely affect the remuneration of the bulk of musicians working on any given day in Australia. According to Throsby and Zednik (2009),10 there were just over 250,000 people in Australia involved in live performances in 2009. Of those, just over one third (90,647) were paid for the work they did. Just 7,800 of those made their full time living as musicians (Throsby & Zednik, 2009). That number is almost exhausted by the number of musicians and music-related professionals employed in the Major Performing Arts sector.

Historically, remuneration for performance labour has been fee-for-service, and that is reflected in the various union rate cards. However, this approach continues to be undermined by a ‘profit sharing’ model called the ‘door deal’. This approach to payment relies on paid attendance, with headline acts being expected to conduct publicity, put together a support lineup, bring their own crowd to the venue, and encourage support acts to also promote and publicise the event. These kinds of arrangements often include four or five acts on the same bill in venues that typically hold no more than 200 patrons. Sometimes a share of the bar is included in the contract. Such ‘deals’ often see musicians performing for as little as $20 per night. With door prices typically set at between $10-15, a full house can take between $2,000 – $3,000 at the door. From this, the headline act is charged a venue hire fee of up to $1,200. They also bear production and publicity costs, and the costs of the support acts. Support acts in such arrangements are currently being paid as little as $50. Such models are typically sold under the rubric of ‘exposure’. That is to say, the licensed venue positions itself as a medium for bands to show off their talents to the public, thus positioning itself as service provider to the performers rather than as beneficiary of live performance.

A much worse deal for performers are the ‘open mic’ nights at hotels and bars that seem to be proliferating. Such arrangements are also premised on the rubrics of ‘exposure’ and ‘experience’. While the door deal typically provides at least a miserly sum for performers, the open mic night promises nothing. Admittedly such events are useful for very early career artists who want to gain experience in public performance. However, there is a kind of ‘fair use’ aspect to them that seems to go unrecognised and certainly unregulated. For example, in some cases, such as the Music Kafe in Brisbane’s West End, almost the entire week of entertainment is comprised of ‘open mic’, ‘jam’, ‘open stage’, and ‘guest’ lineups. While from one perspective the venue can again be seen as providing a service to musicians by offering exposure and experience for ‘free’, from another, the venue’s business model is based on appropriating performance labour at zero or almost zero cost to the venue.

Whether paid or unpaid, the labour of performance goes well beyond actual time spent on stage. Music shares with dance and drama a requirement for a sustained rehearsal regime. Equipment costs are high. In Australia, it is not unusual to travel for up to three hours each way to venues beyond the CBD. Add to that promotion, accounting, and general organisational matters associated with any small business, and the labour cost of performance is many times that of actual stage time.

None of this will be a huge surprise to musicians familiar with current circumstances. At the heart of many problems musicians share when it comes to making a living is their own willingness to work for free in exchange for some vague promise of exposure or experience, or to undercut other acts on price for the same reason. This same tendency can be seen in the history of Australian copyright legislation).11 The businesses that surround musicians (media, record companies, venues, publicity agents, equipment sales and rentals, booking agents, and so on) are far better at extracting money from music than are performers. They are better organised, far more focused on the business of music, and, most importantly, they act collectively wherever it is in their interests.

Aside from the subsidised sector, in which PAYE employment for musicians is common, one could be forgiven for thinking that the MUA offers little help to musicians. The simple fact is that the majority of venue-artist relations prevents the union from intervening in arrangements because, in the simplest arrangements, the structure is one of contracting by the venue rather than PAYE employment. The other arrangements I have described above turns employment arrangements on their head because in one, the act is positioned as the venue hirer, in another (‘open mic’ nights), no money changes hands and the venue is again positioned as providing a service to musicians that results in ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’. Such arrangements entirely negate potential for collective bargaining by the union on behalf of the musicians concerned.

Where remuneration for the labour of composition is concerned, there are collective bargaining arrangements in place through APRA. However, the composer’s position is very weak thanks to a long history of the commercial radio sector positioning APRA and other royalty collection societies as aggressive monopolies.12 The net result of the collective arrangements for music copyrights is, on the positive side, a nationally and internationally convenient system for blanket licensing that protects broadcasters and other licensees. On the negative side, royalty figures are capped and the blanket compulsory licensing system makes a copyright strike (for example, withdrawing licenses to broadcasters) impossible, or at least legally very difficult.

Whichever way we look at the music industry, it seems that the individual musician, whether performer or composer, is prevented from participating in standard types of collective action (eg strikes, collective bargaining, boycotts, etc) to improve their lot by the very structure of the industry itself. Looked at from one perspective, the arrangements are mediaeval in character: in the case of performers working outside the subsidised sector, the most straightforward deal they can typically hope for is decent piece-work contracts with venues. All other arrangements tend towards pay-to-play models. Aside from rare commissions, composers are remunerated according to national laws that a) reject any common law right to ownership of copyrights and b) were developed during the first half of the twentieth century with the explicit aim of balancing interests among collection agencies, publishers, record manufacturers, and broadcasters13

Concluding Remarks

Much more needs to be teased out where the political economic positioning of different types of musical labour is concerned. New technologies have facilitated new opportunities for the kinds of work that musicians can do themselves, regardless of the areas in which they are active. Recording, promoting, publishing, narrowcasting, ‘plugging’, booking, and all sorts of activities that were once the sole province of non-musician experts are now technically within reach of most musicians, at least in the developed world. But with that facility has come a whole raft of expectations that they will do at least some major part of that work on behalf of venues, record labels, and any other group of professionals whose job it is to exploit music.

Whether or not collective action can be taken in Australia by musicians to improve their lot seems unclear. The intense competition between acts that I have mentioned elsewhere in this series of articles, along with a never-ending supply of raw talent simply wanting to play and be seen to do so, almost at any cost, seems to undermine the capacity for collectivity in musical labour. In no other industry are workers and primary producers so poorly served or, on the whole, remunerated. The results are evident in the steady decline in revenues going to musicians, and in the rapid decline in the numbers of full time musicians registered by the ABS.14 The cost is immense, culturally, economically, and professionally. Of course other factors have fed into the decline of Australia’s professional music workforce, including the many changes to licensing, noise, fire, cultural, and economic legislation over the last three decades.15 However, the apparent inability or unwillingness that Australian musicians have to act collectively appears to me to be the most significant factor of all. Whether the answer is some kind of guild arrangements, or the ‘muscling up’ of current unions in their ability to bargain collectively and affiliate more effectively remains to be seen. But if some kind of collective consciousness and associated collective action does not emerge, nothing is surer than the eventual death of the full time professional musicianship in Australia. The quality of our music, and our future ability to compete internationally, depends on an organised and professional class of musicians.


Philip Graham. First published in Music Forum, Autumn 2013, Vol. 19, No. 2, 16-18. Entered on knowledge base 21 May 2013.


  1. Summarised in Casual Music Workforce. Ed.↩︎
  2. Chadwick, V. (2012, October 15). More than two million living in poverty. The Age. Available online at http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/political-news/more-than-two-million-living-in-poverty-20121014-27kpc.html. Accessed November 2012.↩︎
  3. Curtis, R. (2012). Piracy Devastates Music Artists’ Income. Authors, Tomorrow It’s Your Turn. Available online at http://curtisagency.com/blog/2012/08/piracy-devastates-music-artists-income-authors-tomorrow-its-your-turn.html . Accessed November 2012.↩︎
  4. Hewett, I. (2012, July 10). Is the London 2012 Olympics exploiting musicians? The Telegraph. Available online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/9382467/Is-the-London-2012-Olympics-exploiting-musicians.html . Accessed November 2012.↩︎
  5. Musicians Union of Australia (MUA). (2012). Live performance award. Available at http://www.musicians.asn.au/union/rates.html. Accessed November 2012.↩︎
  6. Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The political economy of music. (Trans. B. Masumi). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.↩︎
  7. Trex, E. (2010). Merv Griffin’s $80 Million Lullaby & More Royalty Tales. Available at: http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/57927. Accessed November 2012.↩︎
  8. Rolling Stone. (2012). The 10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs of all time. Available at: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-10-greatest-bob-dylan-songs-20110511/tangled-up-in-blue-19691231. Accessed November 2012.↩︎
  9. Atkinson, B. (2007). The true history of copyright 1905-2005: the Australian experience. Sydney: Sydney University Press.↩︎
  10. Throsby, D. and Zednik, A. (2009). Do you really expect to get paid?: An economic study of professional artists in Australia. Sydney, Australia: Australia Council for the Arts.↩︎
  11. Graham, P. (forthcoming for 2013). Australian Copyright regimes and political economy of music.” In Tschmuck, P., Pearce, P., & Campbell, S. (forthcoming for 2013). Music Business and the Experience Economy: The Australasian Case. New York/Heidelberg: Springer.↩︎
  12. Atkinson, 2007, see previous reference↩︎
  13. Atkinson, 2007.↩︎
  14. Graham, forthcoming.↩︎
  15. Johnson, B. and Homan, S. (2003). Vanishing Acts: An inquiry into the state of live popular music opportunities in New South Wales. Sydney: Australia Council and the NSW Ministry for the Arts↩︎

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

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