How music education builds economic growth in South Australia.

“Stage Fright”; the author (and his elusive editor’s) high school band. 25 years later all of it’s members remain involved in the South Australian performing arts industry.

By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

As a former professional musician who spent most of my gigging days in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia (SA), I like to keep up-to-date with what’s happening in my old scene. I’ve been reading with interest about a new tertiary jazz studies program that has recently been established in the regional South Australian city of Mount Gambier by Aussie jazz legend James Morrison. Managed strategically, Mount Gambier, and SA more broadly, should greatly benefit from the ‘James Morrison Academy of Music’, which was opened by the Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill, and accompanied by $500,000 of State Government funding. Government funding of tertiary music courses are an important part of the funding mix that enables music courses to succeed. In a coming post, I will write more about this exciting and forward thinking venture.

Unfortunately though, there is a flipside to the Mount Gambier activity. I read in despair reports about the shutting down of advanced music courses at colleges and universities in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. Last year I was devastated to learn that the contemporary music program at Noarlunga TAFE had been killed off as this was where I had studied music in the 1990’s and worked as a guitar tutor until about 2002. More recently, as InDaily reports, the University of Adelaide is looking to reduce its music teaching staff and cut some of the music programs offered, including ‘the university’s pioneering Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) – one of the only dedicated indigenous music educational institutions of its kind in the country’.  One of the main reasons cited by the educational institutions for these cuts has been decreases in funding from the SA Government.

In this post I will provide a business case for why governments need to adequately fund tertiary music education by discussing some aspects that aren’t often considered when funding cuts are made. Whilst I deliver this argument through a South Australian perspective, the same concepts could similarly be applied to many other low-growth states.

As any tertiary music student knows, the real benefits of music education to a society have nothing to do with money, but there are many who don’t understand this, which too often includes some of the bean-counters who hold decision making positions within governments.  It’s for the benefit of people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing that I write this post. For cultured people who get it – I apologise in advance for demeaning music by measuring its value solely in economic terms.

People ask: ‘What is the economic rationale for governments to fund tertiary music education?’

There are many standard reasons given to why tertiary music education should not receive government subsidy. In SA, a particularly common argument for reducing funding to music programs is that the amount of music graduates produced each year greatly exceeds the number of actual musician jobs available. The same thinking is rightly applied to monitor university entrance numbers in many fields, nursing or primary school teaching for instance, but the same approach doesn’t fit so neatly when it comes to music education for some important reasons.

To start with, unlike many other subjects, music students learn a very broad range of skills in their studies that are highly applicable to a diverse range of jobs. If you think music school is only about learning an instrument and playing in ensembles you’re totally wrong and I’ll demonstrate this later. Music students know in advance of commencing music studies that actually earning a living as a full-time musician is very difficult to achieve. Whilst it’s unfair on nursing students to accept vastly more students into university courses than there will ever be nursing jobs, it’s not the case with music students who use the skills they learned in their music studies to move into other fields. To consider enrolment numbers in terms of how many students will go on to be full-time performing musicians is to misunderstand where the economic benefits lie in regards to the careers of music graduates.

Broadly speaking, most music graduates will fall into one of three categories:

Those whose main income is derived from:

  1. Performing music (professional full-time musicians)
  2. Working in a field related to music
  3. Working in a field unrelated to music

In South Australia, most of the economic benefits that stem from music graduates are from those who fall under categories two and three and not from those who went on to become full-time professional performers in category one. There’s various reasons for this; to start with, the number of full-time musicians in SA is so small that in comparison to categories two and three, the benefits obtained are less significant and furthermore, most music grads seeking to become full-time professional musicians move interstate or overseas and their agents, record companies and employers are outside of SA, which means that SA derives very little economic benefit from the investment put into their training. In other words, whilst it seems counter-intuitive, the state receives very little economic benefit from music graduates who turn pro compared to the benefits it receives from those who don’t.  Considering student numbers in relation to the workforce demand for performing musicians makes little sense in SA and to look at it economically in such a way has it all the wrong way around.  How South Australia can benefit from the professional musicians in category one will be the subject of a later post (we can certainly do better), but in this post I want to examine some of the economic benefits that music grads in categories two and three bring to Adelaide and why government funding of tertiary music education is an important investment for the state’s economy, delivering strong returns that benefit all South Australians.

As I mentioned earlier, I studied and later taught contemporary music performance at the gloriously named Onkaparinga Institute, Noarlunga College of Technical and Further Education, to provide its full and CV-unfriendly title. Whilst a handful of graduates from any given year continued on to become full-time performing career musicians, most didn’t.  Many grads, myself included, entered into related lines of employment.  Jobs related to music performance, but not music performance itself might include:

  • composing for a range of productions like film, TV, computer games, live theatre or dance etc
  • live or studio sound engineering
  • music teaching
  • music or arts administration
  • music or arts writing
  • producing for radio, TV, games or the internet

All of which serve growth industries that are important for South Australia’s economy, and should become more important as SA seeks to diversify its revenue base.  To start off with, SA is Australia’s festival state. If there weren’t any musicians providing the live music or compositions for the performances, technical crews setting up and managing the sound and lighting, arts administrators planning the events, and arts journalists reviewing them, there wouldn’t be any festivals in South Australia at all, or any other cultural event that features music for that matter.

Uncultured people might say “so what?” if there are no arts festivals in SA, “surely Government funding would be better spent on reducing emergency room wait times at hospitals or improving peak-hour traffic flows”.  But to put it in economic terms they might understand, South Australia’s festivals contribute tens of millions of dollars to the state’s economy each year, bringing money from outside of the state into the state so that hospitals and new roads can be built. What’s more, the government uses SA’s festivals as a selling point to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and companies use the Festivals to attract staff from outside of the state. Our vibrant festivals also reduce the brain-drain out of the state. So even uncultured people or people who would never go to a festival show, or even complain bitterly about the festivals being “arty-farty” or a “waste of taxpayer’s money” still benefit greatly from the festivals, despite their uneducated whining.

Graduates of SA’s music education programs, be they TAFE or the University of Adelaide, can be found in the offices of the Adelaide Festival Centre, the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Fringe, Carclew, Come Out – you name it; any arts presentation body in South Australia with more than a handful of employees will have music graduates contributing to or leading their operations. At any given performance in SA at anytime you would be likely to find a music graduate either on-stage, doing the sound, managing the event, promoting it or reviewing it.

Without music graduates, Adelaide’s festivals and year-round arts scene, so important to the state’s economy and image, would be seriously diminished.

But that might not even be the best economic argument for the importance of maintaining strong tertiary music education programs in South Australia, and in fact, the best economic argument might rely on those music graduates who go on to work in fields totally unrelated to music.

When you study music you learn how to creatively solve problems.  Of course you can learn how to solve problems in any course, from engineering to nursing, but in studying music or any other creative art, it is more pronounced.

As I wrote in Fun:

Most of the time that an original artist spends creating their art is on solving problems.  Take for example the songwriter who solves problems like “this chord doesn’t sound right”, “this lyric doesn’t fit” and “this tempo’s uncomfortable”.  To write a novel, writers solve problems such as “this character’s actions aren’t believable”, “this plot device leads nowhere” and “this section is really boring”.  A good artist is a good problem-solver. 

When you study music, you are constantly problem solving, finding solution after solution, second-to-second, minute-to-minute, and eventually year-by-year. This type of sustained creative problem solving makes music and other creative arts graduates highly creative people. They have learned how to approach and solve problems by learning various techniques and developing the ability to approach problems from many different angles.  These advanced problem solving abilities are valuable to business.

As I wrote in my Culture destroys silos post, businesses are placing a renewed emphasis on recruiting creative people and promoting them to management positions. As Austin Carr reports for Fast Company:

For CEOs, creativity is now the most important leadership quality for success in business, outweighing even integrity and global thinking, according to a new study by IBM. The study is the largest known sample of one-on-one CEO interviews, with over 1,500 corporate heads and public sector leaders across 60 nations and 33 industries 

In the same blog post, I wrote about how creative people have an ability to think and act ‘across silo’s’ thus improving the productivity of the businesses that hire them.

After obtaining a Diploma of Music I went to grad school and got a Masters of Management, and right now I’m taking some Masters subjects in International Business. I learned more practical business skills at music school than I did at business school.

Amongst other things, at music school I learned how to:

  • strive towards quality (this is the essence of what a musician does)
  • be disciplined in my approach to work
  • be organised
  • show up sober and on time
  • manage a small business (which a musician essentially is)
  • creatively collaborate with others (for example, by playing in a band)
  • improvise
  • be confident presenting to large groups
  • build a supportive industry
  • plan ahead and set goals
  • understand current trends and foresee future ones
  • engage with competition
  • lead and work in culturally diverse teams
  • be sociable with a diverse range of people (eg: band mates and audiences)
  • be flexible with the application of my skills
  • market my services
  • be creative and innovative

Such things can be taught at business school, at a theoretical level, but at music school they are learned through the practical experience of learning an instrument, playing in ensembles and undertaking other related courses. Musicians who don’t develop all of these skills won’t pass their music courses and won’t obtain their tertiary music qualification.

A recent report by professional services firm Price Waterhouse and Coopers says that:

More than 80 per cent (of Australian business leaders) believe innovation is the main driver to creating a competitive economy and the best way to improve productivity. But we need to lift our game; the OECD recently rated Australia as only ‘average’ in its competency and capacity to innovate.

And that:

Modelling shows that the jobs most likely to endure over the next couple of decades are ones that require high levels of social intelligence, technical ability and creative intelligence.

As I’ve shown, music graduates have high levels of ‘social intelligence, technical ability and creative intelligence’ (or what most people simply call ‘creativity’), that have been learned through practical experience. Even the technical ability that music graduates learn is not solely based on the use of their instruments; most music courses will have a ‘music tech’ component along with subjects like ‘music business’ or ‘music marketing’ all of which is immediately adaptable to the business world. You can get a business degree without any level of social intelligence, technical ability or creativity, but you’ll never earn a music degree without all three.

Whilst the South Australian Government’s support of music education in Mount Gambier is welcome, it’s backwards that they are reducing their investment in tertiary music courses in Adelaide that deliver graduates into the workplace with the skills most needed to develop innovation, increase international business competitiveness and build growth in the state.  SA has a proud tradition of music making and education, the Elder Conservatorium at the University of Adelaide, for example, was the first in Australia. Successive South Australian Governments have diminished the importance of music in SA; and don’t for a second buy the claim that one political party is more supportive of music than the other. Many Adelaide musicians of a certain vintage will never forgive the party which legalised poker machines in SA, more or less killing off a once vibrant contemporary live music scene, and they still cast revenge votes accordingly. The two major political parties in South Australia have been as guilty as each other over the years.

State government funding for music education is not charity; it’s not about giving a bit of money so little Johnny can take piano lessons at the Con, nor is it a “luxury”.  As I’ve shown, it’s a solid investment that pays real economic dividends. Every music grad that I keep up with is doing well, earning a living and contributing to the broader society.  We need more music grads, not less, because each one is potentially worth more than their weight in gold by having the skills, creativity and ability to innovate that the state needs. Less music education means more talented music students and all of their applicable skills will head elsewhere, and so the brain drain grows.  Government divestment from tertiary music education is bad cultural policy and bad economics.

It’s distressing that arguments for music education funding have to be put into economic terms such as the above for the benefit of those who can only understand things when viewed through the narrow vertical lens of money. Most tertiary music students know that the real benefits of music education have nothing to do with economics. Unfortunately, our political system itself, as I wrote in Culture destroys silos is structured in such a way that truly cultured people are rarely attracted to it or succeed within its structures, the results being that it’s the uncultured who tend to rise to the top. Tomorrows leaders will understand both the economic and cultural reasons why Adelaide needs a strong music education sector, and will work to ensure it’s the case. This is inevitable because people are becoming increasingly aware that it is a necessity; because without creativity, innovation and culture, South Australia will never crawl out of the malaise that has held it back for so many years.

Thanks for reading, you can read more of my posts about music here.

Disclaimer: the author has had a professional involvement with all of the arts and educational organisations mentioned above.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Great article Grant. I support the tenor of your position. One of the challenges comes from the way society views the role of music. It is often seen as entertainment – and it can be that – or high art – and it can be that too – but it is also a way of thinking and understanding our lived experience as is law, medicine and all other professions. Its part of the social and cultural eco system and must be nurtured thus. I think there is a philosophical problem here that speaks to the way we understand what a musician is and can be and how their skills can be utilised more broadly (more research required for sure). The disconnect between disciplines despite the ‘interdisciplinary’ culture we aspire to is palpable. When music is regarded as essential to health, wellbeing, maths, science etc… there may be more support and appreciation from different sectors of the education system. Last point – curriculum has to evolve to allow musicians to participate more broadly in our society. I have found musical institutions to some of the most conservative narrow thinking places that to some extent have forgone opportunities to grow, diversify and evolve. I am forever optimistic, however, that the eruptions in the system are paving the way for fresh ground. Look forward to reading more of you posts. All the best form Brisvegas.


  2. Grant Hall says:

    Hi Anthony, great to hear from you.

    I completely agree with you and you put your points across very eloquently (I might have to steal some of your phrases for some later posts!). I spent three years in Perth working with Indigenous Australian artists and cultural organisations and I really admired how culture was deemed as a centrality living within Indigenous culture. Your points about curriculum and the need for musicians to participate more broadly in society are really interesting and an area of music education I had not really considered.


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