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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.

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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!

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Barak Shpiez

Barak Shpiez

Barak Shpiez has earned several degrees in composition, audio engineering, and electrical engineering. His music can be found on programming on MTV, The History Channel, and more. Barak has also worked for several concert venues running live sound and as an engineer for Line 6 and DTS.

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