Burnout: Economics, Alienation, and Directionality


A couple of weeks ago, I had arranged to give a little guest lecture to some first-year composition students at my day job – a cohort that I often don’t see or interact with. I was quite stuck for ideas as to what to talk to them about, so I asked a colleague for advice and they suggested that I just talk about my life in music so far, opportunities, etc.

This got me thinking about exactly that, and the multiple instances of burnout that I’ve experienced along the way and what approaches I took to them, plus I want to hypothesise a little bit about some of the causes of those burnouts, with a particular focus on the most recent one that I’m somewhat at the tail-end of. The goal of this is to contribute in my small way to the general discussion around burnout for arts practitioners and workers, particularly in the Australian context.


Phase One

My life in and around music really began around 1998 when I started playing guitar at school, not very seriously, and then switched to bass guitar somewhat more seriously. I went to a public high school in Naarm, and the music program was the best it could be, and was largely configured around popular music. I consider myself mostly self-taught on the instrument as I didn’t find the in-house guitar/bass teacher particularly suitable to me. In 2003, my final year, this resulted in me not being permitted to undertake the “solo” performance stream in music, which possibly would have been helpful, in retrospect, but it’s undoubtedly for the best. Around 2001-2002 I had started thinking that I wanted to have a career in music – to be a “professional” bass player. I felt quite strongly then that I had something to contribute in that field. By 2003, that goal was firmly in place, but I didn’t really know what being a professional bass player entailed. In 2004 I sought out lessons from someone who I could justifiably (in my own way) call a professional bass player. This began a great relationship that continues (albeit, very abstractly) to today. In the same year, after much failure, I also found a full-time job in retail for the princely salary of around $32k per year. I started contributing half the rent and some money towards bills, continued to invest in lessons, gear (including a double bass and a few lessons on that), found some bands to play in, did a bunch of gigs, etc. Sometime in 2005, I took over from my bass teacher at the little school he worked at, which felt like a very big recognition of my ability. In 2006 I secured another teaching job at another little music shop. So I was working full-time in retail, and then rushing off of an evening to teach three or so nights per week, doing gigs, rehearsing, going to gigs when I could, and so on. To say that it was a lot is an understatement. Meanwhile, the drudgery of working in retail was really taking a toll. I put on a lot of weight (and was already very overweight), and my mental health suffered. Every day I needed to visit the shop next-door for an injection of colour and to have a break. I think we would call that burnout, these days. I decided I needed to leave, but needed something to do, so I auditioned to study bass playing at the Victorian College of the Arts, to begin in 2007 – I thought it would help with my career, too. Again, in retrospect, perhaps I should have gone for somewhere less prestigious, but I had quite a high opinion of myself. I asked a guy I worked with, and a friend, to be my backing band for the audition. My audition and application was unsuccessful. It was the first really serious musical rejection that I received, and that was confronting. Thankfully the guy who played guitar in the audition suggested we form a jazz band and he’d just help me learn things along the way, whilst we got paid. So we did. I had also saved up around $5000, and I quit my full-time job early in 2007.

Phase Two

This was astoundingly liberating. I was able to practice (and teach, and do gigs, and rehearse) for upwards of ten hours per day. The buffer money did run out, but it gave me the time to become mostly self-sufficient in income generation from music, albeit at the whims of demand, opportunities, and of course my extreme naivety in running a business. It was often difficult – school holidays were the worst, and required planning-for to cover costs. I learnt a lot about eating cheaply in that time; bulk-cooking, eating leftovers, budgeting. Later that year I started to work as a music journalist, reviewing CDs for a now-defunct website. It was a small, but meaningful, boost to cash flow, when it was available. Also late in that year I took a retail job again, over the xmas period, but this time only casually. I stayed there for about six months I think, though I don’t really remember. In 2007 I applied for a BMus in Composition at Monash University after hitting a kind of existential crisis of “is this it? is this all there is to music?”, but I realised I didn’t know much about composition. I was rejected from that, too, because my ENTER/TER/ATAR score was too low. I was just on the cusp of being too young to be considered “mature age”. But I did pass the audition, and they were helpful in suggesting I take a couple of units online through Open Universities to replace my ENTER score. I did that – I was into writing, so I studied professional writing and English literature in the first semester of 2008. Around mid-year, I also started working back at the retailer I’d left in 2007, as a casual for a fixed period of time to save to go backpacking for four months. While I was overseas I was accepted to the composition degree at Monash, and returned home in January 2009.

Phase Three

By mid-2009 I was able to access the full amount of financial support for being a student. Having this stable income – coupled with a return to teaching work and, less frequently, gigs, was profound. Crucially, this stable income specifically to do something creative was profound. Yes, it’s not a lot of money, but for me, it was perfect. It facilitated a time in my life – really a continuation of what I began in 2007 – that was almost entirely dedicated to musical activity. My experience working professionally prior to studying was a great asset. It gave me a level of criticality to my education that allowed me to both do well, but also to drag more out of the degree than is perhaps possible. In discovering 20thC art music, and a bit later, 21stC art music, I also found a broad aesthetic domain that both resonated and made sense to me, particularly the modernist end of things, including experimental music. This is not to say that all modernist music sounds self-similar, it absolutely does not, but the broad concerns of experimenting with the medium itself resonated with how I had approached playing bass earlier in my life; for me, a natural extension of that time.

In the interest of brevity, having provided this broad background, I will give a general overview of subsequent events with minor commentary as needed.

  • 2011: Finished BMus
  • 2012: Started and completed Honours year looking at spectral music and improvisation. Accepted for publication by Wirripang. Applied for Master of Fine Arts at Victorian College of the Arts. Quit teaching bass at the end of this year. Began formulating plans with Alice Bennett for what became Tilde New Music and Sound Art Inc.
  • 2013: Accepted into MFA (Sound Design) with full paid scholarship. Quit playing bass completely this year. Travelled to Austria for the Impuls Academy and Festival. Alice and I organised and ran the first Tilde New Music Festival.

It is worth a little additional detail here. From maybe 2011 onwards I had begun to feel as if I were pulled in two contrary directions. The past, my past, as a bass player, and my present and future as a composer. The requirements of practicing as the latter eroded the practice of the former, and performance anxiety had begun to creep in as I was unable to make the time to practice properly and in many gigs could not rely on reading charts. So I chose to give it up. I sold all of my equipment except for a couple of rare things and my very first bass and said goodbye to that phase of my life.

  • 2014: Convert MFA to PhD. Tilde New Music Festival II.
  • 2015: Began teaching in higher education. Tilde New Music Festival III + Tilde New Music Academy I. Travelled to Impuls again.
  • 2016: Completed PhD.
  • 2017: Graduated from PhD. Tilde New Music Festival IV + Academy II. Start to become disgruntled with the arts/music culture/scene in Australia.
  • 2018: Post-PhD/general artistic burnout begins to set in fuelled by the above. Accept permanent teaching position and give up other casual teaching positions. Financial security is good, mostly.
  • 2019: Tilde New Music Week (Festival V + Academy III). Burnout. Burnout. Burnout.
  • 2020: Move to full-time teaching position. Pandemic. Interesting opportunity for burnout reflections, but also stressful for a number of people close to me.
  • 2021: More of the same.
  • 2022: A grotesque push by society back to “everything is normal”. Burnout continues, but I start to try and work on it and figure it out and move past it.
  • 2023: Efforts continue, start new full-time management role at employer.
  • 2024: Burnout starting to lift. Time to reflect.

It is also worth at this point noting a couple of things. First, since I began studying in 2009, I have taken on and embraced the fairly wide-reaching work options as a composer, including installation/sound art in galleries, notated, semi-notated music, performance with custom-made electronic instruments primarily using a laptop (MaxMSP, Pd, SuperCollider, etc.), have received funding for a range of projects, been commissioned a bunch, and undertaken artistic residencies. Since 2017 or so, this has somewhat been against, or despite, the increasing feeling of burnout and disillusionment. It is also worth noting that the lockdowns implemented by the Victorian Government during the main first two years of the Covid19 pandemic gave me an astounding amount of space despite my job to reflect and work through things, to come to some conclusions, and to start the process of working through and addressing the burnout. Conversely, while I personally quite enjoyed that time, it was the catalyst for a collapse of the music and arts (at least from my perspective) not only in Melbourne, but in Australia and undoubtedly elsewhere. To be clear, I don’t think it was the cause, but when something is precarious and the people in it are pushed so far, constantly, in unfavourable conditions, it takes the right conditions and pressures (simultaneous access and lack of access to financial security measures) to break an already fractured system.


To re-cap: I’ve experienced some sense of burnout from my work/context notably three times in different ways. I also note the average cycle-time of six years.

  • Circa 2006 with the pressure of sustaining paying work because working as a musician did not pay anywhere near a liveable amount. It is not all that surprising, given both the economics and my business naivety. This ended with me leaving my retail job to pursue music full-time.
  • Circa 2013 leading to me quitting bass altogether.
  • Circa 2017 with the concurrent removal of financial security for art-making and community associated with institutional support.

On documenting the timeline above, I also note some interesting characteristics of my engagement with music, though it is not apparent in this writing. Phase one is oriented around technique acquisition, with the (correct) understanding that good technique (at least, idiomatically) leads to more fluent expression of musical thinking. Phase three is oriented around knowledge acquisition and historic/culture/aesthetic contextualisation. Phase two is a hybrid of technique and knowledge acquisition as a kind of bridging period. This invites two questions that will form the remainder of this essay: (1) can I identify the specific causes, contexts, conditions, and possible solutions to the burnout periods that I’ve experienced? and; (2) do I have an idea as to what phase four is going to look like in my journey?

When I gave the little lecture that I mentioned at the top of the page I talked a lot about feeling alienated from the arts scene and about Australia being antagonistic toward the arts. A student asked for more about that, having come from another country that also seems to be quite antagonistic. My response was that it’s about economics, and that, by and large, a do-it-yourself culture still somewhat exists here, and from what I understand, elsewhere. I posit that there are three main strands that have contributed to all of the burnout instances, at different times and in different circumstances with varying degrees of influence. Those are: (1) economic pressure, (2) alienation, and (3) sustained and focused interest/direction. These are in some cases interconnected and in others not so much. What follows is a brief discussion on each strand and what I mean by it, and how it has affected me. I will then discuss the confluence of these strands on each burnout, followed by strategies and thoughts on how to work through them. And before going further, a short definition of burnout is warranted. The Mayo Clinic provides the following, which is pretty useful in a broad context, but in my use I mean “work” in the broader sense of life-work, regardless of specific employment conditions. The definition is:

Job burnout is a type of stress linked to work. It includes being worn out physically or emotionally. Job burnout also may involve feeling useless, powerless and empty. Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis. Some experts think that other conditions, such as depression, are behind burnout. Burnout can raise the risk of depression. But depression and burnout are different, and they need different treatments.

Economic Pressure

I think this one is pretty obvious: basically, economic pressures contribute to feelings of burnout. In the case of being an artist of any kind, there is the conflict of making creative work both for money and for its own sake, while also attempting to survive financially. It is not surprising from this perspective that a lot of artists who manage to achieve some degree of financial independence from their work come from degrees of financial privilege, affording them time and resources to practice, network, and so on. For those like me who come from a low socio-economic background, this is much more difficult and precarious, requiring balancing of stable income generation with artistic work that may or may not generate income. This pressure can manifest in many ways, but often taking stable income depletes the energy required to undertake creative work, resulting in decrease in time to practice, resulting in skill loss, resulting in less creative opportunities, leading to seeking more stable income, and this just continues until the creative work is gone. This isn’t what has happened to me, but is something I’ve seen, many times. In short: creative work is often not income-generating, and for those of us not financially privileged at birth, we need income.


This has taken a couple of forms, one of which is strongly tied to economic pressure. That first context is described by Marx’s theory of alienation from labour, meaning that a worker is alienated from their labour when they are separated from the benefit of their labour. In other words, when they are exploited for their labour through commodity creation and market-based economics. Brixel (n.d)1

In his 1844 manuscripts, Marx famously argues that labor under capitalism is alienated. What does he mean by this? Among other things, he says of alienated labor that it does not belong to the worker but is external to her, that it issues in a product that does not belong to her either, that it is unfulfilling, that it is unfree, that it alienates the worker from her fellow human beings—for instance, in being egoistically motivated—and that it alienates the worker from her human nature.

The second aspect of alienation for me has come from alienation from community. By this I mean a feeling of being an outsider, almost constantly. That I’m somehow out of synchronisation with the new music world, and that I’m missing some fundamental bit of information. This is not to say that I don’t/haven’t had friends or anything of that nature, just that I was always an outside. I have suspicions as to why this is, and part of it is from the background I described above and not having a background in (and being therefore quite ignorant of) Western music more broadly.

These two aspects are interconnected, I have at various times felt alienated from my labour through needing supplementary income, as described above, and also through alienation from community causing a feeling that the labour I do does not have a specific output target, hence, the outsider, and a general lack of feeling of connection to people through music.


As mentioned above with regard to the three phases and their overarching direction, phase one was focused on technique. The ‘coming to the end’ of my knowledge (and resources for more knowledge) caused me to then orient towards knowledge-acquisition through other means. In phase two, therefore, we get a shift of focus from instrument technique to composition technique, and a transition to knowledge acquisition as being the driving force for my activities, which then becomes dominant by phase three.


Putting these together provides a somewhat useful angle to consider the experience(s) of burnout that I described above. The first instance, circa 2006, is primarily a combination of economic pressure and alienation, primarily alienation both from the retail work (which is totally unsurprising) and from bass playing as a result of the retail work. I am undoubtedly not alone in these feelings, even 18 years later. Two recent articles describe the present context, and while things may have been on average a bit better in 2006, it wasn’t for me. The first article notes recent research that a substantial number of working musicians earn around $6000 or less per year from their labour., while another looks at the effects of the economy on both musicians and venues (I hear good things about twelve foot ladders). My direction at that point was still both focused on bass and also on technique development (I should note at this point, that technique was not the only thing I valued, it was just the most expedient means to the end of musical expressiveness within the idioms that I worked).

In 2013 bout was primarily around alienation from the labour of playing bass, and the recognition of a shift in direction to knowledge acquisition as the primary driving force (again, this was teleological rather than its own telos, just like technique, in service to musical expressiveness within the idiom(s) I was working). The most recent, and by far the longest, however, combines all three in an interesting way. The remove of both financial and general institutional support, coupled with increasing work in academia served to alienate from my labour due to both economic pressures and alienation, and I also began to lose the sense of direction and energy that knowledge acquisition had provided. The combination of this and the economic pressures are, I think, the primary causes of the duration of the burnout, because without the drive and direction, the economic alternatives diminished. The alienation expanded to a general sense that Australia is an antagonistic place in which to make music (or at least, for me to make music). This is true, I think, because of the economic structure the country operates within and a general lack of artistic and cultural leadership both politically and institutionally, which is something I wish to write about as a separate topic. In this context though, this article about arts funding describes these feelings of economics and alienation quite well. The lack of direction, the lack of a why meant, I think, that I couldn’t get past the other two. This was okay, because both the pandemic and this time has provided in its own way a time for reflection, whilst still doing some activities. I have absolutely felt my technique slip, but thankfully my knowledge continues to grow.

Moving Through

I’ve been thinking about these things for a couple of years now, as I work through the burnout. In the first instance, identifying the problem and finding practical solutions to it has been helpful, for example, committing to music-making full-time in 2007, leaving bass behind (temporarily, it turns out) in 2013 helped me orient towards what I was interested in, so that was not too bad. These were obvious and relatively easy solutions, but the direction loss was much harder. I tried many things, all of which have massively expanded my practice: I started using hardware synthesizers and tape, I began more seriously pursuing live coding (and programming more broadly), and of course I focused a lot of energy on teaching which I viewed as a kind of giving back after I had such a good time in academic as a student. Working on the combination of alienation (from labour) and direction (these are two highly interconnected things) has involved seeking some lessons, late 2023 and early 2024, which were more like peer support/mentoring than direct lessons, and was astoundingly helpful. It was in that context that I first started to really articulate the economic pressures out loud, and their impact on art-making. But I went into those with a question around material and form, but the discussions ended up talking more about the why, about community and support. There was no direct answer, because of course, this is entirely personal, but after thinking about this in various ways since around 2020 (and doing professional development, artist workshops, and all kinds of things to help) I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that I need to focus more strongly on aesthetics, on consolidating all the knowledge and technique I’ve accumulated to consolidate the aesthetic directions I was playing with from around 2012 onwards. I also need to work on finding people.

Despite the aesthetic focus, I’ve also gone back to playing a bit, and using it in conjunction with much of what I’ve learned along the way, and also looking at areas I want to get into (such as screen composition – something I really did not want to do for a very long time). A kind of connecting the past with the present. The immediacy of playing has had a big impact I think on helping to shift the burnout. In a way that immediacy of synthesizers did not because I am not a keyboard player and while I’m not particularly interested in tonal music, being able to fall back on all of those patterns has been strangely rewarding.

I’ve also been working on sharing my work, process, and thinking more. This is primarily on Instagram and this blog, but I’ve found it quite helpful. I think of it as creating in public as a means of connecting with people, and it seems to be having a small impact. And that brings me to the final direction that I think may be part of “phase four”, which is connection. Seeking and maintaining meaningful relationships. This is something that economic pressure makes both harder and easier in that I have a degree of disposable income, but not as much time as I would like, considering challenges that I have with spontaneity and non-music obligations and such.

This ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated, but it’s been useful to ramble through my thoughts and try to get them in some kind of order.


  1. Brixel, Pascal. “The Unity of Marx’s Concept of Alienated Labor.” ↩︎