“It’s my job and it matters”

by Nicole Canham. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)

Nicole Canham. Photo by Chris Canham

My research is concerned with the career pathways of successful independent artists. Most of my study participants have had classical music training, but the ways in which they have harnessed their training reflect varying approaches, beliefs and values when it comes to making an independent career.

Eighteen months after my Platform Paper, Democracy versus Creativity in Australian Classical Music, Dick Letts asked me if I would be interested in reflecting upon the content of that paper and whether my thinking had changed in the intervening time. Little has changed with regard to the views I put forward about new ways of audience building. Much has changed, though, through my own reflection as part of my doctoral studies at the University of Queensland.

Part of my literature review concerns a critique of western classical music in the twenty first century.  Musicologists and music critics have much to offer a discussion of perceptions of western classical music.  Quite a bit of what I’ve read could be grouped under the following three headings: 

1.    Changing perceptions of classical music

2.    Masking reality

3.    Life in a networked world

A theme that has emerged over the last forty or so years is that classical music is dying. This view of the death of interest in the form encompasses perceptions of the music itself, challenges to classical music ‘businesses’ and several other global factors. Music critic Alex Ross and musicologist Richard Taruskin have observed declining interest in classical music in the broader media. Ross describes the shift of media interest away from classical music towards popular music as ‘what can only be described as a fall from very great height’ (Ross, 2007, p.514). This shift in attention supports the idea that the status we might accord western classical music within the profession is not necessarily widely shared. A number of other high profile arts commentators such as Kyle Gann, Greg Sandow and Norman Lebrecht have offered a range of differing reasons as to why classical music might be losing its appeal to a 21st century audience from business and artistic perspectives.  They point to the limits that tradition places upon innovation and highlight opportunities. Sandow’s recent blogposts, for example, have focussed on classical music mavericks who are presenting traditional repertoire in new ways. On the business side of things classical music organisations are affected in different ways:

Orchestras in America are struggling financially or folding because revenue does not cover their costs – the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent close escape from bankruptcy being one high profile example.

Research that attempts to capture the sentiments that Australians have for the arts including classical music such as the Australia Council study, More than just bums on seats, suggest that people are interested in the arts, but that their idea of what makes an ideal arts experience may not perhaps fit the current classical music offerings;

Recent growth in classical music performance attendances in Australia have been credited to Andre Rieu and Il Divo tours, not home grown endeavours. 2010 sales data shows declining attendance in both classical music and opera whilst attendance at other cultural events has increased – including a 50.1% increase in attendance at non-classical music events.[1] 

These observations point towards changing perceptions of western classical music, as well as a changing world. Disconnection between the status western classical music is accorded from within the sector and the way classical music is reported in the media (often in the form of criticism or calls for change) create confusion about how the music and our activities are viewed in the wider world. 

A second theme that has emerged through my research is that of ‘masking reality.’ Classical music, just like many other art forms, is driven by commercial realities despite what we might say about its intrinsic value. There appears to be a habit in classical music of masking reality which makes it harder to address issues like the tension inherent in how we define success in a market focussed world when our art form is not widely popular. Whilst defending the value of classical music, are we missing the opportunity to do more to address the issue of its lack of broad appeal? What constitutes a successful approach to access, in my view, is not simply providing a range of tickets at different prices or including directions on how to get to the venue on a website. A successful approach to access also includes a reconsideration of who the music is for. When I attend a classical music performance in Australia, I do not see the same cross section of people that I might encounter in the street. Lyndon Terracini has referred to this as the ‘face of Australia’ – and I don’t see the face of Australia at many concerts, perhaps because traditional classical music is largely marketed as a high end, luxury experience. The potential audience for classical music has a vastly different profile to the current classical music subscriber. So if we mean what we say about the value of the arts, and the importance it has in (all) our lives, then to what degree might we hope to see a wider cross section of Australians at tax payer subsidised events?

A third heading needed for grouping ideas that are shaping the future, not just for classical music makers and listeners but for everyone, would be ‘Life in a networked world.’  One important distinction which comes through in the literature surrounding the growth of the internet is a shifting balance of power from traditional structures to individuals and the crowd. Technological development has accommodated on-demand access to a range of products and experiences. Music has been implicated in this context, and is widely available for free on the internet. As a consequence many commercial models that sustained artistic practice have been challenged, particularly when it comes to the profitability of recordings. New platforms including streaming further drive down decreasing profit margins: American cellist Zoe Keating had her music ‘played more than 1.5 million times on Pandora over six months, [and] she earned $1,652.74’ (Sisario, January 28, 2013).

These three points about perceptions of classical music, the masking of reality and our changing society can be used to sketch an outline of a complex set of inter-related problems. Themes in the classical music discourse suggest that challenges are coming from all sides, implicating traditions of performance, classical music organisations and businesses, education, audiences and independent artists. There is evidence of disconnection between perceptions of the value of western classical music from insiders (practitioners, organisations and institutions) and outsiders (the large majority of the general public who would not appear to be that interested), tension within the sector as to what the key challenges are and why (education? creativity? funding? arts vs sport?), and a rapidly changing global environment in which the individual is the focus more than ever before.

Consequently many of our assumptions about the value of western classical music and its practices are being challenged. Increasing the standing of this music in Australian society comes down to the ability or failure to make connections between what seem to be quite disparate elements. In considering how we might best respond to this challenge as a sector, I suggest that the vantage point we use to understand the problems is critical. When we look at the big picture of classical music in Australian society, from whose perspective do we usually view things? In my experience, we tend to look to traditional holders of power within our sector as the key stakeholders – like funders and organisations. However, if we determined the value of stakeholders in the arts in Australia by their majority, then two groups immediately become more central to the discourse.  These groups are the general public whom we never see at classical music concerts (the face of Australia) and the group of artists who are overwhelmingly in the majority in Australia: independent talent.

Most of the classical musicians that we train will not work for our major performing arts organisations or institutions. Survival for independent artists outside of these structures is based upon a very different set of concerns. These could be framed in terms of the different ways in which independent artists make connections in order to build career pathways. Very often the independent artist must build an audience for their work. This is vastly different to marketing to an existing audience.  

Innovation in audience development, then, seems to be falling to those parts of the sector where creating an audience is of significant importance. It is here that my research in the area of independent artists augments the views I expressed in the Platform paper. In my paper I suggested that as a sector we needed to be more genuinely interested in people’s creativity as an entry point into new audience building initiatives. I argued that making connections with audiences is perhaps less about tapping into the reflex of the appreciator, and more concerned with igniting the creative spark in others so that they might recognise and value it more as a part of daily life. My view was, and still is, that this begins with people working in classical music re-educating themselves in order to facilitate new ways of making connections with audiences. On the basis of my current academic focus, to this I would add that part of re-education begins with looking at classical music from alternative ‘insider’ perspectives. 

From the perspective of the independent artist, for example, completely different ways of working and connecting within the world emerge. Yet very often ‘the conversation’ in the form of summit days, workshops and think tanks are dominated by people who tend to proffer an institutional view, or who think (and speak) in terms of the challenges and scope of organisations or the sector as a whole. I suggest that although these perspectives are important, they are not the only way of viewing the classical music world. Organisational concerns are not necessarily reflective of the reality of the arts experience for the majority of people. This focus does not often adequately encompass the audience that we currently fail to connect with, or the practitioners who continue to produce high quality and interesting creative work outside of the sanction of our organisations. In this way, the overview of the Australian classical music sector we are often presented with is incomplete.

The difference between an organisational or institutional view and the independent approach was recently highlighted in some discussion at the National Arts Summit (NAS 2013) held at the Australian National University on February 12.  A four hour video version of the day is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8-VPWtC6Fw. Some ideas that emerged during one of the Q and A sessions seemed to be worth a little more unpacking.

Questions about artistic careers and practical realities, posed to panellists who included Richard Gill, Peter Garrett, Don Aitkin, Julie Dyson, Deborah Stone and Monica Pender, were dealt with in broad social and economic terms. Many of the papers presented were in the same vein, approaching the arts and the activity of being an artist from the perspective of larger challenges including funding, education and sustainable business models. The comments made about artist careers during the first Q and A sessions at the NAS 2013, however, revealed limitations with this approach.

One panellist said that ‘it was not possible, and never would be possible to make a living from music’.  Another panellist suggested that artists needed to ‘be very good at something else’.  This section of the panel discussion around making a living as an artist could have been received as demoralising and unhelpful to those posing the questions, perhaps because the questions and the responses seemed to reflect very different objectives and considerations. 

If we view things from the perspective of competing for a small number of coveted jobs, or that of infrastructures under strain because there are not enough funds to go around, then it makes sense to say that there are simply not enough jobs and that artists should consider pursuing other avenues, or at the very least have a day job. 

Questions from the floor, however, attempted to bring the artist’s perspective into the conversation. Many of the panel responses over-simplified the concerns being voiced during the first Q and A session. Issues of sustainability and excellence in art making seemed deflected in other directions, including whether artists are entitled to government support to make their work, or the limited value in talking about things as they ‘ought to be’, rather than as they really are. 

It was, in my view, a missed opportunity to engage with the genuinely difficult philosophical questions that independent artists are faced with every day.  One of the advantages of building a career outside of larger, supporting structure is the intellectual and creative freedom that situation affords the artist. How and where we make connections shapes the independent pathway.  Circumventing traditional routes can become viable alternative career approaches. And sometimes the most obvious or the most practical solution to the wide range of challenges independent artists face isn’t the solution at all if it means giving up your artistic work.

In the case of the NAS 2013, failing to give independent talent adequate representation in the form of a presenter was also a missed opportunity to include a much needed perspective in the debate. It does not make sense, when talking about the future, to ignore where the future actually lies. When we repeatedly base the conversation on the views of those who are not working independently, in a context where our existing organisations (usually represented) are under threat and/or will never be able sustain the number of artists that we train, we avoid addressing the reality that most artists will make their careers outside of organisations. We do our profession a great disservice when we fail to accurately represent the experience of being an artist, and then, from within the establishment proceed to give advice as to how to exist outside of the establishment. A rethinking of the ways in which we counsel artists to develop their careers would be highly productive in this regard because the future for most artists (and therefore a lot of our art making) will be found in the independent sector. 

How we approach career development (or avoid it) is particularly pertinent in relation to what was said at the NAS 2013 about the value of creativity. Arts Minister Garrett’s keynote address highlighted the benefits of stimulating creativity in children through the education sector from a number of angles. There also seemed to be a distinction being made between lower case creativity – something we all have, develop a bit during our school years, and then move on to the real world and a real job – and capital C Creativity, where we want to make art to a recognised level of excellence. Over the course of the NAS 2013 footage I watched, it appeared there was greater interest in little c creativity. 

Richard Gill brought some balance to the conversation by pointing out that if we really mean what we say about the value of creativity then we need to get behind it in the sense that we ought to be training our artists thoroughly. To this I would add that I'm not sure it's right to be suggesting to aspiring artists, who have already undertaken the first major steps on the pathway towards a life of artistic excellence, to reconsider their dreams quite so quickly simply so they can help to facilitate a future full of little c creativity. I’m not sure we can have creativity for everyone without also striving for artistic excellence. They are different ends of the same spectrum. 

In an ideal world, our national arts conversation would present a considered view of the full spectrum of central concepts like creativity. This conversation might more frequently include the views of people who currently do not engage with the arts, and we would also be wise to afford a place in the conversation to independent artists. The NAS 2013 missed the opportunity to effectively incorporate the knowledge of independent sector which seems to me to be a significant place of innovation and new ideas. Perhaps because we don’t really understand what independent artists do and how they do it, when it comes time to tackle difficult philosophical questions surrounding the nature of how we pursue a life of creative excellence in the current climate, we often fail. Instead, more often than not, we view problems from an institutional perspective of art making, limiting the scope of the solutions that might be found. Given the enormous size of the independent sector, discussions about arts funding, policy, and other forums designed to give an overview of the arts community might better incorporate and reflect the view of lone artists as rightful and genuine stakeholders in the Australian cultural conversation.



Ross, A. (2007). The rest is noise: listening to the twentieth century.  New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sandow, G. (May 30, 2006). New Book Episode - and Allan Kozinn's Essay.  Retrieved from http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2006/05/new_book_episode_and_allan_koz.html

Sisario, B. (January 28, 2013).  As Music Streaming Grows, Royalties Slow to a Trickle, The New York

Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/business/media/streaming-shakes-up-music-industrys-model-for-royalties.html?_r=0


Nicole Canham is an independent professional musician (clarinet and targato) specialising in chamber music and collaboration. Nicole has performed around Australia, in the USA, UK, Mexico, Belgium and France.  Nicole is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland.  From 2005-2008, she was Artistic Director of the Canberra International Chamber Music Festival.  Nicole is a Churchill Fellowship recipient, ACT Artist of the Year (2008), State Finalist, Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year (2007) and has served as a Board member for Canberra Arts Marketing and ACT Cultural Council. Her platform paper, Democracy versus Creativity in Australian Classical Music is published by Currency House Press.

Web: www.nicolecanham.com  www.nicolecanham.blogspot.fr


[1] Ticket Attendance and Revenue Survey 2010, Live Performing Arts Australia see pp.11,14.

[i] Deborah Stone, National Arts Summit Presentation, February 12, 2013