If you’re a musician you’ll undoubtedly have had friends, family and even fans say to you: ‘but you do it for love, don’t you?’ And yes, as creators, we often do. We do what we love because we can’t not — because it is our way of giving back to society; of telling stories; of reaching people and communicating beyond words. It is our way of using our skills and gifts. It is our way of making sense of the world.
But just think for a second what asking that question actually says to us as musicians.
Effectively, though unintended and often well-meaning, this consistently asked question completely devalues us, and the work we do. It implies that we should, as artists, not expect to be remunerated in any way for our cultural labour — that we should gift it to the world. It implies that the work that we do is worthless.
This doesn’t necessarily accord with the social value, both cultural and financial, that people and (some) governments place on the arts — as many, when asked directly, will answer that they value the role of the arts in our cities and culture very highly, and that they couldn’t imagine a world without music. Yet, when it comes to understanding and valuing the individual labour on which that cultural identity is built, the economic argument doesn’t seem to stand.
In essence, and particularly in the emerging global, digital marketplace, we expect to consume the artistic labours of our talent pool, but we don’t expect to have to pay for the privilege. In what other industry is intellectual and creative labour expected for free?
This is not to say that I think that just because a musician makes music, they necessarily deserve to be paid for it. Anyone can learn a basic skill— but that doesn’t make it art. In our highly competitive society, no-one gets a trophy for turning up anymore.
But honestly, musicians are not asking for a free ride — as professionals, we understand that our worth is only as good as our product. But those musicians who have worked and studied tirelessly to become good at what they do, have produced professional quality music that people are actively ‘consuming’ by attending performances or listening to their recordings, those artists should be respected and paid for their work, because art is work, and work that few do well.
Currently, in the symbiotic live and recorded music sectors of the music ecology, cultural labour has become a cheapened, disposable commodity, disrespected by venues, festivals and global digital distribution platforms.
Most local, original artists will be able to tick a few of these off their ‘done it’ lists:
Venues booking multiple back-to-back bands on a no retainer ‘door deal’ in rooms they can’t fill while expecting the bands to not only do the cultural labour of creating, rehearsing and performing the music, but also the promotional work of providing the audience / drinking punters, then offering $20 and a free drink in exchange for that effort.
Festivals paying five-piece bands $200 to perform at a festival after having to drive an 800 kilometre round trip to attend and not even covering the cost of fuel.
Venues marketing their support of ‘live music’ while running unpaid open mic nights whereby both the entertainment and the audience are provided by the artists (for ‘free’ beer).
Venue booking agents whose first response when a band enquires about playing at the venue is, ‘what size is the audience you’ll be bringing?’, or ‘how big is your social following?’.
Venue booking agents calling themselves ‘promoters’ while hounding artists to spend their time incessantly managing social media and begging their friends and family to support their performances.
Music performance fees having stagnated, or declined over the past 20 years of live performance.
Music streaming platforms offering ‘freemium’ services, giving away creative work gratis.
While global streaming promised to be an accessible distribution channel with almost unlimited global reach, the average song play nets an artist less than 0.005 cents. One million streams generates between $700 and $7000. Many unsigned artists won’t achieve this kind of digital exposure in their lifetime. Without labels and marketing to drive engagement, achieving sustainability from streaming is beyond most local, independent artists’ capacity and capability.
Australia is the 6th largest music market in the world by revenue. Over 12.7 million people streamed music in Australia in 2020. Australian digital music spend will reach $763 million by 2023. However, these statistics don’t reflect Australians’ consumption of Australian music; they refer largely to music consumers’ spending on international artists, sending royalties offshore.
In an industry worth 16 billion dollars to Australia’s economy, the average earnings of an unsigned Australian musician from music creation is less than $7500 per year. The impacts of COVID have highlighted how vital the value of recorded product is to musicians, and how much digital disruption has devalued this revenue stream.
Streaming has rendered physical product and digital downloads obsolete, removing key recording revenue streams. Once music is uploaded to a crowded global marketplace and is instantly and cheaply accessible, it is difficult for musicians to attract consumers to access their music through other platforms, affecting their visibility.
Live performance revenues for original, unsigned artists are also declining, and are barely considered viable in this time of global health crisis.
These impacts all devalue the art and the artist, and are pervasive across the current Australian music industry.
The threats to the mental and physical health of artists.
In an industry plagued by myriad threats, this phenomenon has very real, untenable impacts for the individual creatives and arts workers who are the lifeblood of our music communities.
Multiple studies have shown the devastating impacts of financial uncertainty on the music industry. An estimated three million Australians are currently experiencing depression or anxiety — 12.5% of Australians as estimated by the most recent census. This already concerning percentage however is considered to be far higher in musicians as a discrete community, estimated at up to 65%.
While there is obviously a much larger population of people not involved with music than there is of active music creators or workers, this high sector specific percentage is alarming.
A 2016 study by Entertainment Assist and the College of the Arts, Victoria University, into Australian entertainment workers and mental health found that 25% of musicians and over 50% of industry workers have attempted or considered suicide and that on average, musicians have shorter lifespans than their non-musical counterparts.
Additionally, the study discovered that musicians earn over $30,000 less than the average Australian salary, however, this figure includes the small percentage of relatively high earning, ‘famous’ Australian musicians which skews the average significantly, and when applied only to unsigned, original artists presents an even more dire reality.
Interviews with 2,904 respondents across the country found that, when compared with the general population, entertainment workers, which include performers, industry support workers and technicians, experience:
Double the rate of suicide attempts.
Ten times the rate of moderate to severe anxiety symptoms.
Five times the rate of depression symptoms.
2–3 times the rate of suicide ideation.
In November 2016, Help Musicians UK, a charity dedicated to musicians of all genres, published a study titled: Can Music Make You Sick? Interviews with 2,211 music industry professionals revealed that they are three times more likely to suffer anxiety or depression than the general public. 71.1% of respondents reported having experienced high levels of anxiety and/or panic attacks, while 68.5% said they had experienced depression.
This comprehensive report brings together the final findings from a landmark study on mental health within the music community, exploring how working conditions can impact individuals’ well-being.
Money worries, poor working conditions and competition / bullying were found to be among the leading contributors to mental health problems in musicians, including those working in theatre.
A 2018 study conducted by the Music Industry Research Association, showed that 50 percent of musicians reported battling symptoms of depression, and nearly 12 percent reported having suicidal thoughts. A 2019 study published by Swedish digital-distribution platform Record Union, the numbers are even more stark: It found that 73 percent of independent musicians have battled stress, anxiety, and depression.
These are frightening findings — with the impacts of COVID on the live music economy adding yet another layer of complexity to an industry already in crisis.
So, what is being done to address these impacts? Organisations like Entertainment Assist are striving to promote the enhancement of mental health and wellbeing in the Australian entertainment industry. Similarly, Support Act Australia is a charitable organisation which helps Australian musicians and music workers facing mental health issues and other hardships. These organisations clearly acknowledge the difficulty of accessing support services for artists earning below minimum wage from their chosen profession.
There will always be a place for providing support for artists experiencing mental health concerns, but in line with a systems approach, if financial instability is one of the leading causal factors of mental health issues in musicians, addressing the economic pressures and hardships at the core of these mental health concerns is a preventative measure that could reasonably be expected to decrease reliance on these services, and on the health care system more broadly.
Beyond the personal and socio-cultural cost of mental illness and its comorbid physical health impacts, there exists the substantial economic costs of health care, welfare and lost productivity.
Analysis in a report commissioned by RANZCP and the Australian Health Policy Collaboration at Victoria University (AHPC) estimates the annual cost of premature death from comorbid mental and physical health conditions in people with serious mental illness is $15 billion (AUD). These figures increase when the burden of substance abuse is included; ballooning to $45.4 billion.
Cost-of-illness studies attempt to measure the costs to various stakeholders, including government and society as a whole, of the burden of disease arising from particular causes. Most of these studies estimate and aggregate a number of different components of cost including direct health costs arising from treatment, hospitalisation, rehabilitation and medication and indirect costs due to the loss in economic activity caused by the lower workforce participation, increased absenteeism and presenteeism of people suffering mental illness. While it is an inexact science, and there are a large number of determinants to consider, what is not disputed is that the cost of mental illness to the health care system and to Australian society at large is significant.
When measured using the Global Burden of Disease data the cost burden of serious mental illness in Australia in 2014 was estimated to have been A$98.8 billion if opioid dependence is included and A$56.7 billion if this is excluded.
Given the economic burden of mental illness, and the disproportionate comparative rates demonstrated within the music and arts communities, there is a clear case for investing in preventative mechanisms that address the major causes and exacerbations of mental illness in this group, particularly as there are some basic policies, strategies and funding mechanisms that could be simply deployed, and represent a rational fiscal response.
To improve the livelihoods of people, the importance of locality to the music industry, and the tension between creativity and financial return must be reflected.
It is vital for the health of the music industry that the impact of global streaming services on artistic viability is both acknowledged and addressed, and that a focus on fairness and equity, representation, circular (arts) economies and cultural localisation is returned to both government policy, and individual practice.
If you’d like to know more about how The Pack Australia is working towards addressing the impacts of global streaming on local music communities, download our White Paper here.