info I contact
editorial schedule
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive



Education Feature: Music

Education Feature: Career options and job tracking

Helen Lancaster

Helen Lancaster is formerly Foundation Director and Professor of the International Academy of Music in Bangkok and Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music. As guest editor of Sounds Australian (no 64, August 2004) she surveyed 49 Australian tertiary music institutions.

Lucy Holmes, 100% Kylie	Lucy Holmes, 100% Kylie
Courtesy Lucy Holmes
Not so long ago, would be musicians only had performance and teaching as career options. Now a range of professional alternatives reflect increasingly hybrid artforms and a diversity of music industries. A comparable array of training programs are also now available. Students are wise to remain flexible, however, as many will have to rely on diversity to sustain their careers. As Rick Rogers recently wrote in Creating a Land with Music (HEFCE, London, 2002): “Being a musician today involves having the opportunity to take on a series of roles, different from and broader than the act of performing or composing.”

The options

The Australian Guide to Careers in Music (Michael Hannan, MCA, Sydney, 2003) lists over 150 categories of professional opportunities for musicians, describing the nature of the work, potential remuneration range and required training. Music institutions reflect this diversity: a survey of music training providers conducted by the Australian Music Centre (AMC) in April 2004 uncovered more than 30 undergraduate degrees in music, 40 postgraduate degrees with music specialisations and a similar number of vocational awards. Now that Australian conservatoriums are located inside universities, it’s not surprising to find combined degrees pairing music with commerce, law, psychology, science and visual arts. Musicians have the chance to play around with their emerging careers and fewer opt for performance in its traditional guises. Even teaching now comes in a range of shades: studio, classroom, multi-instrumental and community mentoring. Some options are available online.

Music has always included many traditions and styles. What musicians do and how they do it parallels social, economic and technological factors as much as new forms of artistry, so inevitably current trends in collaborative practice and recording have created new careers. Some emerge from technology: multimedia, complex audio production, delivery of real time performance online and composing direct to computer all offer fresh options for performers and composers. Courses in music technology are now extremely competitive and demand high quality applicants with music ability on entry. Increasing reliance on technology is also making room for more specialist librarians. In fact, behind all this technology lies an array of career options arising from music’s associations with engineering, production, administration, management, distribution, publishing and law.

Therapy, theatre, film

Then there are the makeovers. Music Therapy was previously available only at postgraduate level at the University of Melbourne, but is now offered to undergraduates at the University of Queensland. Interest in Music Theatre inspired its early elevation from an elective to a discrete degree at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, followed by more recent programs devoted exclusively to music and Musical Theatre at Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music and the Arts Academy at the University of Ballarat. Screen composition, originally the postgraduate responsibility of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, now appears in varying forms elsewhere.


The pop music industry holds numerous potential careers for musicians as performers, audio/video engineers, producers, entrepreneurs, agents and distributors. Recognising this potential, some institutions have adopted pop (or ‘contemporary’) music in a serious way. Most providers within the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector focus on ‘commercial contemporary’ music performance, music technology and music business as complementary pathways into the industry. Box Hill Institute (Victoria) is a notable example: it is an accredited Digidesign Pro School offering certification in ProTools, which is essential in cutting edge production of live and recorded audio.

Southern Cross University was the first to move away from traditional training, and has focused on contemporary music since the late 1980s. The Gold Coast Campus of Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University has since joined the pop-only club, collaborating with a conveniently co-located multimedia department. While other universities offer popular music as an option, only these 2 have devoted their resources exclusively to this field.

The jury is still out on whether institutions can keep up with the rapid pace of change in pop music, but its recognition as a formal training option can’t help but strengthen interest in the industry as a viable professional arena. Clearly its inclusion has underlined the range of specific and generic skills necessary for survival in the commercial music industry: “Contemporary popular music practice typically involves instrumental performance, vocal performance, songwriting, record production and business skills in equal amounts” (Michael Hannan, “The Training of Contemporary Popular Musicians”, Music Forum, vol 7, no 1, Sydney, 2000).

Institutions/Industry: poor partners

Despite expanding professional possibilities and a range of training to match, there is still little evidence of effective collaboration between institutions and industries. Few universities take seriously their potential to assist graduate placement. Some provide short-term projects in their local communities or with professional organisations such as festivals, orchestras and opera companies. Fewer exploit non-traditional alternatives within the commercial sector or Indigenous companies. Recognising that musicians are likely to need a diversity of skills to sustain a career, several universities encourage activities which develop self-sufficiency. However, on the whole “no-one could accuse Australian tertiary education of being in the (music) industry’s pocket” (Andy Arthurs, “Creative Industries and Music”, Sounds Australian, no. 64, 2004).

Surprisingly, the AMC survey found Vocational Education and Training (VET) institutions less likely to interact with industry than the universities, even though VET focuses on skills-based training. Further, the potential for the VET framework to feed into universities has yet to be realised. Only a minority of universities are dual sector providers offering parallel VET awards, and relatively few recognise VET equivalents in their degree requirements.

Monitoring outcomes

Australian institutions are not required to maintain a long-term professional profile of their graduates—so they don’t. The only national indicator of graduate destinations measures successful first placement, no matter what its specific nature. However, in 2000 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) introduced the following crucial and specific criterion for premium funding of specialist institutions: “More than 75% of graduates are working primarily in professional music performance, as performers of music, within 5 years of graduating from the institution” (Funding of Specialist Higher Education Institutions, HEFCE, London, 2002). This funding implication confines institutions to performance training, contrary to existing Australian trends toward more disparate outcomes. If current discussions on higher education reform in Australia eventually result in similar policies, institutions will be forced to develop more tangible professional connections.

The survey asked music institutions how they interact with graduate destinations. Responses largely centred on informal tracking of graduates via alumni associations and teacher networks, with no indication of how this might be useful. Some draw on visiting lecturers to link with professional practice. Only a few recognised the question as inviting detail of industry involvement in planning, internships or graduate placement, probably because these are less common.

Because many music graduates freelance, they don’t relate to a single career destination in the traditional sense. Still, institutions could do more to forge effective links with various industries. Currently, less than 20% of institutions confirm that they apply industry advice to their courses. Only 12% offer work experience or field placements, and 10% provide showcase opportunities with industry personnel for their graduates, an activity appropriate only to specific programs.

Perhaps these statistics result from attempts to provide some professional practice within the curriculum. However, beyond the lofty claim by one respondent that students “receive all the information that successful musicians need” (Survey of Australian Music Institutions, AMC, Sydney, 2004), the data suggests that while most institutions offer some training in technology, relatively few provide music industry electives, business skills and career-oriented projects.

Go solo or collaborate?

The reality is that building and sustaining a successful career is largely the responsibility of the graduate. With the competitive nature of the music profession, this is a positive requirement for any emerging musician, but it may create a dilemma for those who choose a program with a narrow range of available options. Most will need to apply their creative skills in developing a career path parallel to developing their art. When Lucy Holmes of Brisbane enrolled in a Bachelor of Music Theatre at Central Queensland Conservatorium in the late 1990s, she had no thought of a career based on impersonating pop singer Kylie Minogue. Yet Lucy’s 100% Kylie show has since made her an international success.

The trend toward collaborative practice offers access to a wider range of opportunities, encouraging students to become responsible for their own learning, a positive quality for musicians who must build their own careers. Most institutions encourage and support collaborative work, but relatively few devote specific programs to it. Leading the field, Queensland University of Technology’s Creative Industries focus explores “forms which cannot be easily categorised”, encouraging students “to work across boundaries.” The University of Wollongong has recently redesigned all programs into one Creative Arts degree requiring collaboration in each strand.

Despite inevitable concerns about reduced focus and lack of quality, interdisciplinary experiences soften the edges for musicians who have yet to decide where their individual boundaries lie and how much ‘playing around’ they wish to do.

Helen Lancaster is formerly Foundation Director and Professor of the International Academy of Music in Bangkok and Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music. As guest editor of Sounds Australian (no 64, August 2004) she surveyed 49 Australian tertiary music institutions.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 32

© Helen Lancaster; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

Back to top