Simon Terry

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The Gig Economy

Being on the board of Melbourne Chamber Orchestra gives me a few insights into the life & careers of classical musicians.  There are some interesting parallels and hints for the potential future of work.

Responding to Disruption

By no stretch of the imagination is classical music a growth industry. Largely a creation of the late 19th century, public orchestras face a challenging & disruptive environment. The economics of this art form and cultural practice are dependant on ticket sales, the work of philanthropists and shifting government support. The predictable upfront income of subscriptions are harder to sell in an immediate world. Ticket sales can be a challenge when there are many competing sources of cultural and popular entertainment. Sources of revenue from music recordings have declined with digital media, if not vanished.  Classical music that was once sold at a premium is now a budget category.

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra is itself a response to these conditions. The orchestra is not a full-time orchestra like many of the state and international orchestras. The organisation depends on its agility, its creativity, its exceptional talent, the support of its community and its ability to attract support to artistic projects. Every season is a delicate balance of private philanthropy, ticket sales, subscriptions and some government support for projects. Essential to the ability of the organisation to fulfil its purpose are innovations, like the Australian Octet, and collaborations, whether with local arts organisations in MCO’s extensive Regional touring program or in performances with other arts organisations.

A Work Life of Gigs

For the musicians in MCO this means that their working life has a range of facets that may be more common for everyone in the future of work:

  • Work for Purpose: You don’t choose an artist career for its financial returns. You become an artist to fulfil a personal purpose and to share your art with others. There is little reason to stay around for the money if you are disengaged and certainly no reason for that to be your only artistic endeavour.
  • Gigs: When jobs are few and far between and highly competitive, then work becomes a series of gigs. The diversity of gigs is something that appeals to even those who have a steady job because it offers the chance to play new or different works or develop new skills with new teams of people.
  • Specialists and Generalists: Musicians need a specialisation in an instrument and often a style of music because there is usually a focus to their practice and their purpose. However many will have a general range of other instruments and styles to support themselves and adapt.  A few will compose or conduct to add to their opportunities. Musicians may well back up their music with even more general talents from media to administration to an unrelated day job that helps support a life.
  • Constantly learning:  Musicians are constantly learning. They practice to improve. They work to improve. They want to challenge themselves to better their art. The demanding and competitive nature of the industry means that you must keep learning.
  • Global: Australia is a small market. Creative talent operates in a global economy. To learn, many artists travel overseas to work or to study. With global connection, they can collaborate and learn from people all around the world. Artist can build international reputations through collaborations, teaching, performing or winning competitions.
  • Entrepreneurs: Many musicians need to be entrepreneurs to survive. They have to run their own small chamber groups, orchestras, programs, festivals or events to get the diversity of performance opportunities that they want and to expand their opportunities.
  • Agile organisations: Because of the dynamic opportunities available to talent in a global economy, the organisations need to be agile shifting and reshaping as things change.  If your best artists leave or are unavailable due to other gigs, you may need to hire new talent but you might even need a new repertoire or organisations. These agile organisations can be project based or short lived.
  • Teaching: When everyone is always learning, many people earn a living from sharing their expertise and teaching.

Community Matters

One of the key reasons that Melbourne Chamber Orchestra exists is to enable chamber musicians to practice their art in Melbourne and to help create a rich and deep community dedicated to fine music in this city. Melbourne has great music schools, halls and many performance opportunities. Young and experienced musicians need a diversity of opportunities to practice their art. I am very proud MCO can support artists at the beginning of their career but also allow experienced artists to return home from overseas or interstate and make a career in Melbourne.  

With the support of the Melbourne community, MCO can provide artistic and commercial support to talented musicians to learn, connect and work in the city and help take great music to new and existing audiences in Victoria and beyond.  At the end of the day, the quality of the music and the growing talents of the artists are the surest measure of success for any chamber orchestra.

MCO is currently conducting its 2015 Annual Campaign. Help support the work of the organisation.


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