New census data on Australia’s cultural and creative industries allows us to peer inside a dynamic sector for the first time in five years. And the news is generally good.

Australia’s creative and cultural employment is growing faster than employment in the rest of the economy. In some particularly fast-growing sectors — creative services like design, photography and digital content — employment growth is three times faster than the broader workforce.

And there’s no prizes for guessing the industry which has suffered most: print publishing.

The new data has been crunched from the 2011 census by Queensland University of Technology researchers Stuart Cunningham and Peter Higgs, and shows the “culturalisation” of the Australian economy is continuing. Their work draws on the Australian Bureau of Statistics census, recently published in its “employment in culture” data series.

“Our main story is that the creative economy, as we define it, continues to grow strongly,” Cunningham told Crikey. “Obviously there are real pressure points which we in no way wish to diminish the significance of.”

Publishing shrank by 2% over the census period, a loss Higgs and Cunningham reckon adds up to at least 4000 jobs. Interestingly, they argue job losses in the publishing industry to August 2011 were largely in areas like print workers and pre-press operators. “The losses are mostly in non-core journalism,” Cunningham said. “What you’d say about that is that the newspaper industry has tried to minimise the losses in core journalism, but let’s remember that it’s now 18 months ago that we’re reporting on, so a lot has happened since then.”

Cunningham cautions the data won’t pick up the fine-grained picture, and excludes recent job losses at Fairfax and News Limited, but says “even at the census level” the decline of publishing is apparent.

In contrast, the data shows creative services employment is growing quickly. “There’s very strong growth in digital content and creative software. Our key point there is that it’s in what we call the creative services areas, these are the business-to-business activities like architecture, advertising, marketing, digital content; areas where creative people are dealing on a business-to-business basis rather than a business-to-consumer basis.”

Cunningham says this trend is being driven by the digital creative economy. “By and large this is sustainable employment growth. You’re seeing creative firms, from sole-traders through to medium-sized firms, are finding more and more that their services are wanted by others in the creative sector and others in the wider economy.”

In contrast, employment in what might be called the core areas of cultural employment — people working to produce cultural artefacts for the consumer — grew much more slowly, at only half the rate of the general workforce. In other words, the real action is in business-to-business creative activity such as design and photography, rather than in traditional cultural industries selling books, music or newspapers to consumers.

Drilling down into the sub-categories, Higgs says there has also been particularly strong employment growth in the digital publishing category, which grew at a cumulative annual rate of 14% between 2006 and 2011.

Software and IT — the so-called “computer system design and related services” category — is also a strong performer, growing at 5.6% annually. According to Higgs: “Specialised design — your graphic arts consulting services, product designers, fashion designers — that grew at 3.8%, so double the workforce rate.” Curiously, given the advent of Flickr and cheap digital cameras, professional photography has actually grown strongly at 5.5%.

Film and television has also been a good performer, particularly in the film production and post-production sectors. Cunningham and Higgs point to the democratisation of post-production tools, which has enabled many smaller players to enter an industry which previously required heavy capital investment. (Crikey covered the creative destruction in the post-production sector last year.)

How are independent artists faring? “There’s one ABS industry category here that’s the general catch-call one, called 9002, ‘creative artists, musicians, writers and performers’,” Higgs explained. “Wherever you say ‘I’m an artist, I work for myself’, your industry gets lumped into that.”

And indeed this category has seen the second-highest growth of any category in the employment data — jumping 7.4% between 2006 and 2011. Higgs cautions this trend may not necessarily mean all these people are enjoying full-time jobs with benefits. In fact, it might mean workers are going freelance after leaving a big organisation. “So if you get a big shift in that it’s because people are moving out of specific areas and into this freelance category,” he said. Even so, it’s clear the numbers of Australia’s independent artists are growing — there were nearly half as many again in 2011 as in 2006, according to the data.

The big picture trend, according to Cunningham, is that the creative services growth in occupations like design and marketing is being driven by the digitalisation of the broader economy. Cunningham argues “basically, the quite embedded nature of needs for services into the digital economy” are driving the need for creative workers.

It’s a good news story, even if there are black spots in the newspapers and traditional arts.

Peter Fray

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