We Don’t Need No (Music) Education

College, we’re told, is the gateway to a successful professional career. Statistics (pic) are constantly released showing the discrepancy in earning potential between a person with a high school education and one with a college degree. You can’t dispute numbers. But what the numbers may not show is the success rate of certain degrees versus others. Though the road is long, hard, and expensive, someone working towards becoming a doctor will most likely be a doctor. Receive your teaching certificate or pass the bar, and you can feel relatively secure that a career as a lawyer is within reach. I don’t believe I’ve seen too many lawyers moonlighting as waitresses to make ends meet.

The Arts Degree

But what about arts degrees? What happens when you receive a degree in graphic design, or music, or audio engineering? How assured are you that a successful career awaits you? In my experience and in witnessing experiences of others, a college degree may not always be the best choice.

Not long ago I was working in a music instrument company testing new software. The position was temporary but full time while the bugs were being worked out from the software. Several weeks into the project, my bosses were still receiving applications for the now filled position. One applicant stood out from the crowd and was asked to come in for an interview. Knowing that management felt we already had enough people, I found this odd. At the end of the day, all was revealed. My boss explained that the guy was an audio engineer with many years experience mixing audio for television. He even had an Emmy for working on a very well known show. With so much experience, the decision was made not to just ignore him in case future opportunities opened up. If he had so much experience and credentials, I asked why he was applying for a job well beneath his pay scale.

The answer was that in addition to a weak economy, he found he was being squeezed out of jobs he previously would have been given. It seemed that younger professionals were competing for the same jobs but asking for a much lower wage. In fact, the only jobs he admitted to getting were fixing other, less experienced engineers’ mistakes. The job pool was shrinking as the amount of people vying for those positions was growing rapidly. Where are those new professionals coming from in such large numbers?  From colleges.

Colleges Flood the Market

It’s important to remember that colleges are for-profit businesses. Each year their goal is to maximize the number of enrolled paying students. It may be cynical, but it’s true. If a college were serious about providing the education a student needs, rather than wants, they’d limit the amount of people graduating to meet the needs of the industry. Instead, programs accept more and more applicants each year while new programs are created in new universities. Music schools are flooding a market with already limited career opportunity, and this leads to a lot of unemployed musicians.

They use marketing just like any business to entice new “clients”. There’s a very famous pop musician that “attended” my alma mater a little over ten years ago. He only went there for about three or so semesters. Whenever the school mentions him however, (which they do very often), they list the last year he attended, just as they do with people who actually graduated.

Graduates Dilute the Brand

A friend of mine who gradated a year behind me interviewed at a well-known music publisher in LA. He interviewed with the owner of the company, who told him point-blank, “I promised myself I’d never hire another _________ graduate.”

The business department of schools work very hard to make sure the brand that they are selling looks new and shiny. They want you to believe that because so-and-so attended their program, you can achieve the success by attending as well. They don’t really tell you though how many other graduates are nowhere near the level of success as the rock star/Grammy-winning engineer they always seem to mention. Moreover, the number of unqualified graduates continually apply for, and sometimes get, jobs in the industry. When your business model is to crank out as many engineers and producers per year as possible, it’s doubtful you’ll produce many Quincy Jones’.

School Career Centers Aren’t Helping

When I graduated I spoke with the career development center for help finding a job. The director with whom I spoke to had plenty of ideas for the font and general layout of my resume, but when I asked if he knew any companies that were hiring or any resources he knew of for finding opportunities, he told me that I should talk to my priest or rabbi, “’cause you never know who might have some connections.”  That pretty much confirmed that this guy had no way of helping me. Please don’t think that the college I’m referring to is some unknown school buried out in the woods somewhere. If you’re reading this site, you’ve definitely heard of this school.

Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out

Schools of music do have connections with companies, but not for jobs; only for internships. Why wouldn’t a company sign up to get free labor for a few months in exchange for filling out a few forms so that they student receives college credit?  In the worst case scenario, if the intern doesn’t perform adequately they fire him without having to invest any money or really much time. Even if you prove to be a valuable asset to the company you’re interning for, a job at that same company rarely materializes. In most cases, you leave and they bring in the next batch of interns. Schools don’t have the same network of companies to place recent graduates as they do with interns. One reason is that most companies only require a handful of employees. There are far too many graduates to help even a fraction of them get jobs. The other reason I contend is that schools spend a substantial amount of money on getting kids in the door, but no money on people once they graduate and leave. Graduates simply don’t make them money.

Now What?

Ok, so you think I’m cynical, and I just crushed all your hopes and dreams. Well, maybe a few. But why are these schools still so successful despite not producing a high percentage of working professionals? It’s the American Idol view of success: all you have to do is win this contest, or attend this school, and everything is set up for the rest of your life. Neither is true. Those who are successful after having attended school put in years more work into learning their craft and paying their dues. Many would argue how much their education contributed to their success.

So what do you do if school isn’t your first choice? Well, everything you would have done anyway if you had gone to school for music. Read all the books you can. Read interviews, watch tutorials with engineers and learn from what they have to say. Read and post on relevant message boards. Most importantly: Do It. Start recording, start writing, start producing. Experiment with as much gear as you can beg, borrow, and steal. If you’re just starting, you’ll probably be awful, but you’d be awful anyway. Find internships on your own and offer as much time as you can. Learn all that you can, explore every possibility and every opportunity. You’d be doing that anyway. Ironically, you might find that foregoing formal education puts you well ahead of the curve.

If you’re not too bummed out, check out Choosing an Audio Education for some great advice!

  • Michael Pinson

    Hey Barak, enjoyed reading this article (even though I’m a post Graduate as well). Definitely agree with what you say. My year at university started with 80 students and ended with 50. I know the year behind me though had 120 Students!! They were capping it this year as I think they’d realised some of the issues you’ve highlighted.

  • http://www.theproaudiofiles.com Dan Comerchero

    I agree Barak, GREAT article!

    @michael pinson: my school had the same occurrence of the overall class size shrinking down over time. Maybe people realize they either don’t have what it takes, or can’t afford the risk of an arts degree.

    @ Barak: It was interesting for me to post this article, as I’m in my last semester at music school, wondering/planning what’s next..

    I’ve always felt that instead of just expanding, Music schools should advertise harder, but have harder, or more selective auditions, thus weeding out many of the potential drop-outs, and individuals that flood the market at a very low skill level.

  • http://www.wrdstudios.com/index.htm Charles Szczepanek

    I think you might be leaving out a few very important college career paths outside of the engineering degrees or what some schools call ‘music degrees’: you are missing the BM, MM, and DMA paths. Usually these are extremely intense programs focusing on music performance or other similiar areas. Time Magazine a few years back ranked getting a BM in Music Performance as just as difficult as being Pre-law or Pre-med during your undergraduate.

    I bring this up because these programs actually don’t promise their students anything at all. You might get a degree with a cool school name on it (like The Juilliard School, or The New England Conservatory of Music… the list could go on and on), but like you’ve mentioned, a piece of paper doesn’t do a whole lot for you.

    BUT… I’ve found that students of the BM, MM, and DMA paths are most often better engineers and producers than those without the intense MUSIC education, hence why the names of the degrees are Bachelor of Music, Master of Music, and Doctor of Musical Arts. The schooling that these programs provide is invaluable to any musician, recording or performing. Audition requirements are incredibly high, and individual semester requirements are equally high.

    Having been a product of these programs, I can say that they most definitely had an enormous impact on my understanding of engineer/producer/artist relations, how audiences respond to different performances, and of course, music in general. My schooling (of which I never took a single engineering or production class… I took performance, theory, and history classes) has very dramatically changed the way I approach engineering and producing, in a very positive way.

    I guess I could sum this up quickly by saying: getting a BM, MM, or DMA isn’t actually like getting a degree, but it’s like spending 4, 2, or 3 years respectively in the real world, with real professionals, playing professional concerts, and experiencing music on a much different level then a BA (Bachelor of Arts) or BS (Bachelor of Science). While in school, you are already considered a professional and expected to act, perform, and live like one. Your reputation is already at stake… so you don’t screw around.

    I’d highly encourage engineers and producers to get one of these degrees. The paper doesn’t mean much, but the experience can’t be had anywhere else.

  • http://www.audio-issues.com Björgvin Benediktsson

    It’s funny that you mention law school as a profession that’s supposedly solid as a career, seeing as currently studying law students in their second year are really considering why they are in law school in the first place since nobody is going to have any jobs for them when they graduate.

    I agree with what you said, and I definitely know a few of the “engineers” in my graduating class that I would never even hire to put up a microphone for me. It’s really in the extra curricular “read everything you can” mentality and your brain unconsciously goes through all the million tips you’ve absorbed with reading that actually make it into your engineering. Some people just go through the school and think that’s enough.

    Hell no, I’ve gone through the expensive school, graduated at the top of my class and I still don’t think I was challenged all that much. I got my confidence from the hard work of live sound and all the billion books I’ve read and “facts(read:tips)” that professionals have divulged throughout the years.

    Great article. Something I’ve thought about occasionally for sure.

  • http://www.theproaudiofiles.com Dan Comerchero

    I have experience with both performance and production degrees, and I’ll say, in the A.A.S. world, a performance degree is even a little more “you’re on your own” feeling than a recording degree. I feel like the channels in which to succeed and make money are even more ambiguous to many music performance majors.

    With a recording degree, there are at least studio internships to be had. A chance to prove yourself and work your way up into a steady role at a recording studio.

    @charles – I agree with your thoughts on the type of students who are studying towards a BA or MA. Two year (a.a.s.) degrees can attract many students looking for a “quick degree,” and that think the paper might be worth more than it is, and before they know it, they’re graduated and on their own…

    @Björgvin – you’re so right about doing the work outside of school and immersing yourself hands on when you’re not in class. Too many students simply rely on the course work and think that it is a complete path because a given institution put it together.

    Success with a music degree very much depends on how much you’re willing to put into your studies outside of class, it’s certainly not job placement on a platter, that’s for sure.

  • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matthew Weiss

    Here’s a perspective from someone who has attended school for music compositions (not engineering), and hires on engineers and interns in the studio I manage.

    First, sonic fidelity is only part of the mission when engineering. As Charles has pointed out – musicians often make the best engineers. And it comes down to the other part of the mission – understanding music. There’s only a certain point to which we can prescribe sonic characteristics as being better or worse. After that we can only say that something sounds more or less appropriate for the project and desires of the artist(s). Having an intimate understanding of music is key.

    On a related note – having an intimate understanding of the instrument you are recording is also very important. Any guitar player knows that how you hold the pick and how deep you “dig” will change the sound. An engineer who understands the way an acoustic guitar functions can quickly see the advantage of this – after all, a compressor can get more sustain out of an acoustic – but “digging” deeper will get a fuller, richer sustain. It’s like the best compressor in the world. But if you don’t play guitar, you may not know what I’m talking about.

    I also think that the establishment of teaching music dominates the teaching of audio. Music has been taught and learned for hundreds, arguably thousands, of years. Audio hasn’t even existed as it’s own unique field for seventy years, and that’s stretching it. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be too surprising that music students seem to have much more going for them than audio students.

    However, it still surprises and disheartens me when I interview students from audio schools. Students from music schools who studied audio for one or two courses seem to be far more knowledgeable than students who attended dedicated audio schools.

  • http://theofficerecording.com Mike Moschetto

    As a recent graduate of Emerson College with a B.A. in audio post-production/sound design, I’m so poor I don’t have a fuck to give. Thanks, student loans!

  • http://corbinhand@gmail.com Corbin Hand

    As an student at the University of Alabama, and also a nearly full time Audio Engineer, I really enjoyed this article.
    I am currently on the brink of either continuing through school or dropping out and taking off on tour with a band. Its a very tough decision, especially based on the points that you put forward. Should I continue spending money on a degree that may or may not benefit me in the long run? Or should I take the risk and hope my work ethic/experience keeps me afloat financially? I believe that is the question many students of the arts are having to consider these days.

  • http://arkarsenal.com Mark

    What an interesting read, comments and all.

    I graduated with a BS in Civil Engineering and a BA in German, so I’ve never had any arts education (except for some art lessons in grade school). Strangely enough, I am intrigued to no end by composition, mixing and general audio engineering. Perhaps it’s the background in engineering and language that sparked this obsession, but I feel that all the education I need on the topic is out there on the Internet.

    Of course, I’m not trying to speak against the worth of a music degree, as I don’t have much experience with other engineers or musicians with degrees. I’d love to get more involved with the profession, but I’m apprehensive about going back to school AGAIN, especially if the education system panders to the absurd notion that you’ll become a superstar overnight. I guess that’s how any university wants enrolling students of any profession to feel, though.

    Thanks for the insightful perspective, Barak.

    • Ronan

      Very interesting article.

      @Mark.

      I am in very similar situation. I graduated with a BEng in Computer Engineering a few years back and worked a few related jobs before getting a job with an upcoming software company which is considered a “good” job. However, my passion has always been music and music production. I continuously find myself researching different techniques and tutorials even when I’m supposed to be doing “proper” work and it’s gotten to the stage where I feel work is sucking the life out of my soul and now is the time to do something about it.

      So, the question I’ve been contemplating is whether to take time out from “work” and additionally, if I do, should I do a Music Production Course or get an internship with a local studio with some producers/engineers that I have worked with previously (which will likely be unpaid). I too believe that a lot of useful information can be found on the Internet which is critical to learning your craft but nothing quite compares to the experience of actually doing it or working with someone who’s done it before.

      I guess by reading my own comments I’ve already made up my mind about which path I want to follow but I’d love to discuss further with someone in the same predicament. Drop me a reply on here if you’re interested in discussing further.

      On a related note, I’ve just remembered that Trent Reznor took a job in a recording studio making tea and sweeping the floors before convincing the owner to let him use unused studio time (at night) to record the Pretty Hate Machine demo’s. I guess we all have to start somewhere!!

    • http://www.theproaudiofiles.com Dan Comerchero

      Ronan -

      Thanks for commenting. You are absolutely correct, you can definitely learn many ‘concepts’ about recording/production online, but nothing compares to a hands on experience, whether that be school or, preferably, an internship.

      The question I had from your comment was more about your future intentions. Are you looking at schooling/internship in hopes of making a living doing this in the future? Or do you just want to take it to the next level as a hobby? Could you be satisfied with it as merely a hobby?

      It truly is a scary field to make a living in. Many larger studios aren’t flourishing and hiring compared to 10 years ago, as home studios become more and more accessible to anyone with a computer and a few thousand (or even hundred) dollars.

      Getting in at a more established studio is usually under the pre-tense that you are doing, or have done an internship of some sort in the past.

      My point is, it all depends on your goals. Would love to hear back.

      Take care,
      Dan

    • Ronan

      Dan –

      Thanks for the reply. Yes, I am interested in making a living in this business in the future. I’m not content just to do music as a hobby. I do not yet know what path this will take me on but I have faith in the fact that if I put in the time and professionalism into what I do opportunities will arise.

      I have decided to return to school to undertake a Masters in Music Technology. I am lucky that one of my local colleges happens to be one of the most equipped and respected music colleges in Europe. I feel this will encourage me to be more focused on music projects as well as allowing me to meet more like-minded people. I also plan on putting in some free hours with 2 local studios to learn further in a hands on approach.

      I do realise that there are not as many studio jobs available these days but I see myself in the future doing more then just working in a studio as an engineer and instead focusing on production. This could lead to opportunities in the media or other related areas. I also want to continue producing my own electronic music.

      I’d love to hear how your path in music has progressed up to this point and what you’re currently working on.

      Regards,
      Ronan

      P.S. Just found your soundcloud page. Some really nice stuff up there. :o)

  • http://etsomusic.org Richard Hickam

    Barak,

    Some well made points and some loose conclusions. Receiving a quality education goes beyond simply getting into a “good” school, do some homework about teachers that you would like to study with. There are a plethora of craft masters who teach. What you do beyond receiving your education is often up to you, the education you received will help you up to a point. Successful people have drive and intuition.

    It was also interesting to see at the end of your article how your bio specifically highlighted your education.

    Cheers!

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/quemusiq QueMusiQ

    Ha! Law. Don’t get me started. I happen to hold a JD from a top tier school, and am licensed in CA, and I’d be better off trying to pursue emceeing as my career with Law as my back up. I’d easily be better off and increase my chances at success. (Doesn’t hurt that I can rap my ass off, but still. The best schools from birth got me almost nowhere in the white collar world…)

    Now, AS a rapper who in part pursued my hobby very seriously as sort of a social experiment to see if I can best understand the music industry from the inside out, I’ve had to hire and fire many an engineer. I’ve been in huge pro studios, and project studios that were literally in the projects, and I have to say: I can’t figure out what some of these more known engineering schools are good for. I became a studio rat and sat in on many a session. First of all, I was able to procure the services of many a graduate for next to nothing because they were usually unemployed and would work for crumbs to record and mix my album. Usually, they were interns at some VoiceOver studio, and we’d sneak in after hours when their boss didn’t know. The only thing I can say they knew was all the protools keyboard shortcuts. Aside from that, their mixes were no better than the engineers I ended up using who had a high school diploma and made beats in their bedroom. One even recorded and mixed platinum artists in their bedroom using a cheap mike and pre amp, a 40 dollar sound card and AcidPro.

    Now, to practice law, you need two degrees, to pass a bar exam, a moral character exam, a background check, and to be sworn in. To be an engineer, you just…need to be an engineer. Your rep is your only requirement. A friend of mine just spent 30k+ and she raps and make beats. Her mixes are atrocious, but she has her associates from one of the top schools.

    Spend that money building a decent set up, buying books, and just TEACH YOURSELF. People keep asking me “who did your keys? Who mastered that? Who mixed it?” or “where’d you get that soul sample?” and it’s all me, no sample. A nerdy damn near middle aged struggling lawyer who because of the economy had large bouts of too much time on his hands, and I taught myself. Why go to school for this if the graduates I see coming from them aren’t guaranteed to know ANYTHING once they’re done, and I managed to teach myself at least some of it for free?

    Go to my page, hear for yourself. All the beats are uploaded in the reverse order that I made them over the past year. Hear the progress from beat to beat. As average that I sound, these degree mills are graduating broke engineers who come to ME for mixing advice, because their mixes are frighteningly bad.

    But they can sure work a mouse and a protools keyboard!

    • http://profiles.google.com/cmarnold11 Charlie Arnold

      page?

  • dctrtuba

    Society has no concept of what a musician is. People graduating with music degrees actually know how to speak the language of music.
    It’s pretty darn hard to learn the ins and outs of being a musician outside of music schools. Buying a “my first guitar” book and learning some very easy chord progression doesn’t count. The problem is that most of these grammy winners are VERY far from being musicians.
    Most of them SUCK, but it’s fun….so they win grammys. Sorry to burst your bubble….but society has basically swept the true musicians under the rug. We don’t exist anymore. Society has no appreciation for the arts. Winning a grammy says nothing about whether someone knows anything about music. So no, you don’t have to be a musician to succeed in what today’s society calls music.

  • http://twitter.com/CreativelyFwrd Creatively Forward

    This article outlines some useful points for what a school doesn’t provide. Here are a few things a school does provide that will directly help you with your studio career:

    1. The alumni network – other people who attended your school are your best contacts for job opportunities. Case in point: I went to Berklee College of Music, and the manager of the studio went to Berklee. Thus he had some sense of who he was hiring. Eleven years later, I’m still working in the business.

    How do you find alumni connections? Ask your alumni department, Google “your school alumni,” join alumni groups on LinkedIn, or promote and host your own alumni event. You’re only limited by your creativity, but you really need to get to know people.

    2. Skills to grab fleeting opportunities – yes, you do have to start at the bottom after getting your degree, but does that mean your education is useless? No, and here’s why. Suppose you’re an assistant at a studio and the engineer calls in sick. They need you to fill in. Have you developed your audio engineering skills well enough in school, as well as in the studio job? I hope so, because these opportunities are rare, and determine whether or not your career moves forward.

    The key is to not create entitlements for yourself based on receiving a piece of paper. Keep you expectations very low in the beginning. Unlike many “normal” industries, you have to earn people’s trust before you can become a paid employee.

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  • mcveighp

    My random predicament:

    Hi guys, just to lean in on this.

    I’m a lecturer in college; I’ve been a musician for around 15 years. I actively
    tour and release music as well as work as a producer and songwriter for labels.

    I’ve attended colleges, and Universities specifically studying in music performance
    and then, music technology.

    I’ve seen and continue to see the argument from both sides and here’s my 2c:

    NOTHING will make you better at your craft more than real
    world experience, within my educational facility I base my assignments round
    real world activities, for example setting up a tour or setting up a label
    etc…

    Education is turning into a corporate business more and more over the past 5
    years in my opinion. As a tutor that
    actually cares about the education of students I try to just ignore the fact
    that, all the college care about is the amount of people attending and how much
    they cost per seat and do my job.

    I’m also from the point of view that education is useful for putting you in a
    position of like-minded people that inspire you. There’s more value in the per
    to per learning from college and Uni than there ever will be from the lecturer.
    Most of the work I do, revolves around working with past students I studied
    with.

    You will not get a job in this industry unless you have a good portfolio, and that’s
    basically the bottom line. Weather you get that through education or self-endeavours
    doesn’t really matter.

    Some people do not need education & some people do.

    Personally I found my college years as a waste of time, and just did it to
    ensure i had some qualification within music, so that if all else failed I’d be
    able to work in the industry in some format. I later found out I was always
    hired more for my experience. Though sometimes I only got the interviews due to
    the fact I had the qualifications. Here in Europe is have both type of place.

    The biggest problem with education that
    i’ve noticed are that colleges hire people to lecture that have no real world
    experience and don’t really know how to teach the subject. This creates a load
    of students coming out into an already saturated sector with no real clue about
    what they’re doing.

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