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August 12, 2010

The decline in professional musicians

In recent times I have come across several mentions of the complaint that the number of professional musicians in declining. This is usually followed by some declaration or lament that without professional status, less or worse music will be made. This is laughable ...

Personally, I make music because I enjoy writing, recording and performing music. I have been able to make some money from my performances and sell some of my recordings, but this has never been a full-time thing for me. In fact, one of the most talented musicians I know, Ian Focks, once told me that he had no desire to be a full-time musician.

Shocked, I asked him to explain this. He said that he loved playing music and did so whenever he got the chance to play with people he liked. But if he had to play music professionally, then he would have to play music he hated with people he hated ... and he wasn't interested in doing that. Nice approach ...

So, if there are less professional musicians (and I don't doubt it for a second), why?

The ABS employment stats show that in 1996 there were 7105 people who listed "musician" or similar as their main source of employment the week before the Census. By 2006 there were only 2757. That is a dramatic decline and pre-dates any of the usual explanations.

This means that there are an increased number of "hobbyists" that are propping up the industry. Actually, the hobbyists form the vast majority of musicians and are the foundations of the industry.

The reasons are this are linked to the decreased profitability of recordings but it's not as simple saying "illegal file-sharing is to blame". It's also a function of movement in the live revenue market, in which a disaster in over-pricing and poor risk management is only just being revealed. Will this be the music industry's sub-prime crisis?

Far more damaging is the trend for bands to look for revenue from licensed placement of their recordings in advertisements, TV and movies. This takes away work from a heap of musicians who used to specialise in writing and recording jingles and soundtracks - rather than perform in touring bands. My good mate Phil Graham made his living this way until the late 1990s but technology had long since begun replacing these musicians. I stopped playing session drums and started playing guitar in cafes when drum machines became cost-effective replacements for drummers ...

Music is returning to being a cottage industry. Get your heads around it ...

Posted by Hughie at August 12, 2010 3:59 PM

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