Is Australia's live music scene dying, or is it thriving?

A wise man once said “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna Rock n’ Roll.” But is “the top” still relevant to the modern musician? 

Musicians pour countless hours into their craft; touring, creating, managing and consistently performing are just part of the full-time gig that is music. Yet we’ve come to accept hard work in the culture without the guarantee of a fair week’s pay.  We hit up some Aussie musicians and friends of Parlour to find out what keeps their hearts beating in rhythm and their minds fixed on melodies.

One of the biggest kickers for musicians is touring. While it’s widely loved among those who get the chance to do it, it’s also a lot of hard work, a lot of time, and a lot of money. 

“I just finished my first ever headline tour and there are plenty of difficulties, it’s a whole different deal when you’re headlining as opposed to supporting. The organisational part is massive!” - Clea

“It’s all a learning experience. I wish I’d known that I would lose money on touring to begin with, but I don’t really hold onto it. ” - Jim Lawrie

Finding the finances and the time off of work is something that needs to be accounted for, especially considering that you can very likely lose money while touring. Not to mention the fact that you’re without your home or regular routine for the duration of the tour. 

“Eating out, no piano, no space. I’m a homebody who likes to tinker around with painting and playing.” - Leah Senior

It’s like a full time stint that you pay for. So what’s the charm? 

“I’ve done a few charity shows over time, I’m no Mother Theresa, but I do alright. There was one I did for a group called Musicians for Hearing (a charity for hearing loss who arrange sign-language interpreters to sing for the hearing-impaired at performances) It was one of the best things I’ve been a part of.” - Jim Lawrie

"I walked away with a greater sense of value in my music than any paid invoice could give." - Jim Lawrie

Touring and performing alone is something I’m still getting used to. I have really bad anxiety so being so vulnerable on stage without my band is hard work. But, the feeling afterwards always makes it so worth it.” - Alice Skye

Despite the hardships and costs of touring and performing, most musicians we’ve talked to almost unanimously focus on the sense of gratification and accomplishment in being able to give back to the community and simply share their music with others. 

Though all artists in this article expressed to us their satisfaction and appreciation in performing and touring, I was curious as to how they find the time to actually do it, as well as work a day job and make ends meet.

"It’s an endless juggle." - Leah Senior

Rather than allowing for work to intervene with music, we found that our guests avoid this by taking work as a second priority and keeping their efforts in line with their passions. 

"I’ve quit a heap of jobs! Pushing the idea of a career off into the distance." - Leah

Cutting jobs, taking time off, or working in roles that are lacking in glory or glamour (*cough*cough* hospitality *cough* retail) are all commonplace for a musician devoted to the art. Unless you’re last name is Kent and you wear spandex, finding the time to improve as a musician while working full-time is incredibly difficult.

"I’ve mainly worked hospitality and other jobs that are flexible and unambitious in order to keep writing and playing". - Jim Lawrie

"I am notoriously bad at being organised. My idea of being ‘on time’ is usually being 5-15 minutes late.. but when it comes to music I would bend over backwards to make sure I could make it. So a lot of the time it would actually be my music-life getting in the way of my work life. Priorities!" - Alice Skye

Clea mentions having finally made the decision to see how far she can sustain herself on her music “without having to jump back on the hospitality train (hopefully never!)”. Living off of music is obviously no easy feat. With the majority of listening garnered through digital streaming services, it’s a shame that musicians can either earn or a bucketload through digital releases or just enough for the occasional burger.

"Spotify can be your friend if you get onto a good playlist, but because of modern music platforms, indie musicians hardly get a bar from digital and physical purchases" - Clea

"I’ve definitely profited, but not in large amounts! I think once I got a royalty check of $2.75" - Alice

Profits for many artists come from the direct support of fans in the form of actual tickets sales and purchasing of their releases. There is a lot of luck involved in whether or not you can earn a wage from streaming alone. 

"It can be profitable if you get on a well regulated playlist and rack up plays into the thousands or millions, but asides from that I think the only benefit is that people are able to access your tunes easy, and maybe that’ll lead to them coming to a show." - Jim 

That being said, not all gigs pay well, or at all for that matter. This doesn’t stop any of the guests of this article though, all of them citing and endorsing free shows as worthwhile experiences. 

“I can’t afford to do it all the time but to me the experience is so worth it while I’m still learning to build up confidence.” - Alice

“I’ve done so many (low-paying gigs)! Sometimes it just looks like a fun time, other times it might be an “opportunity”. Although I’ve gotten to a stage where I get tired of playing for nothing, when you’re starting out and full of energy I reckon go for it.” -Leah

With digital distribution being so popular, yet so unreliable financially, the opportunity to perform for the sake of the art becomes rarer. Eventually, an artist has to expect fair payment from their profession. 

Performing is a part of the passion, but is also guided by your ability to sustain yourself financially. As an artist invests more of their life into music, and pursues it as a profession as opposed to a hobby, the scene takes on a large administrative, business side.

“It’s a full time job in itself. And I think you also have to be prepared for the administrative side of it” - Jim

"All the music business stuff is a bit of a drag- especially when you’re juggling jobs and creative stuff" - Leah

At the end of the day, musicians have to be able to sustain themselves from what they do. As such a lot of non-creative work goes into what is intended to be a creative field. 

"Music feels like work when dealing with the admin side of things but more so like play when touring, releasing music, creating music clips and artwork." - Clea

And as with many independent careers, starting up is often synonymous with being tight on cash. 

“Have savings! Just so you can feel comfortable if things don’t start to heat up straight away” - Clea

"Be patient and shop second hand." - Alice

“Before you get to enjoy a sustainable lifestyle as a musician little sacrifices have to be made…cheap rentals, thrifting, lots of home cooking (all of which I believe are very rewarding and good for the soul)” - Clea

There isn’t much of a middle-ground in terms of a musician’s wage. If you aren’t making it a big and living good off of your music, you’re probably budgeting and living frigidly for it. 

“Ultimately I would just love to have a little more financial support so I could keep tinkering away without worrying so much about making ends meet.” - Leah

It’s something that’s become not only accepted, but embraced. I asked Leah what she gets out of being a musician, to which she jestingly boasted :

"Debt and the romance of following your dreams. Also being part of a wonderful community where you are constantly meeting like minded people." - Leah

Despite the majority of this article being focused on discussing the hardships and sacrifices that musicians tend to make, the lifestyle is undoubtedly worth it for our guests. The financial complications and hard work that go into the music aren’t on the mind of the passionate musician when considering the future. 

"I’ve learnt a lot about myself through playing music and one thing I’ve realised is that if I never earned a dollar doing it, I’d still come out richer than when I started" - Jim

"It’ll never be a 9-5 job with a secure salary. I’m okay with that." - Alice

When I asked what it is that pushes them through the constant administrative work and small lifestyle sacrifices, and why they choose to live by music,  our guests explained that choice has very little to do with it. 

"I’ve tried studying and working full time and it’s always something I have to force or talk myself into. Music comes much more naturally. I struggle a lot with making decisions and music is the first thing I’ve never had to question. Obviously performing is hard and can be tiring – but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done." - Alice

"I guess the way I’ve come to see it is instinctual or as a necessity. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be happy, if I wasn’t happy I wouldn’t be alive. That’s a very simplistic way of describing it, but its true for me at least" - Jim

"As long as I have a roof over my head and food on my plate I’m just fine. I don’t see the point in living lavishly but not doing what you love most." - Clea

It comes down to general happiness. People find happiness in many different ways, whether it be through comfortable living, through a sustainable career, through being with friends and loved ones or through watching the zeroes in your bank account rack up over the years. Some people find happiness solely in their passions.

“Life is most definitely too short to not do what you truly want to do.” - Clea

For their music and their passions, small lifestyle compromises become even smaller to the devoted musician, and the focus always returns to artistic expression and experience of sharing music. 

 If there was anything you could change about being a musician, what would it be?

"Honestly? Nothing!" - Alice Skye

Written by Leonard Bernardone