By T. Perry Bowers
I have a lot of friends and colleagues who work in music and production education. I have the greatest respect for folks who dedicate their lives to teaching others about the music industry. Let me say that up front to temper my criticism of the music education institutions that are ubiquitous in the Twin Cites and across the country.
Making a decision about whether to go to music school or not isn’t easy. It’s best to weigh up the pros and cons. Let’s start with the good things. If they resonate with you then you’re a good candidate for a music school education.
If you’re just out of high school and you’re not quite a full functioning adult, then any sort of further education is going to be good for you. School keeps you focused on learning and stimulates the brain which is still developing until age twenty-five or so. Studying might lead you away from drinking and drugging too much. Having to get up for class and take tests is a good reason not to party all the time. School is a great place to get a few more years of simple maturing under your belt, while at the same time learning something.
If you need to learn a specific skill for a specific job, music school could be perfect for you. Maybe you already have a job, but the next pay grade up is learning Avid Pro Tools or Ableton Live. I once had a client ask me if we could teach him Pro Tools because he could get a promotion if he knew how to use it. We were able to show him a few things, but eventually he opted for a Pro Tools certification course at a music school. I don’t know if he ever completed the course or got the promotion, but his reason for going to school was excellent.
If you’re willing to move to New York, Los Angeles or Nashville when you graduate, music school could be the right choice for you. There are no jobs in the Twin Cities. There are no jobs in Duluth, Des Moines, Milwaukee, Fargo, etc. There may be a few in Chicago. Sure, you can be a freelancer, but full-time steady work is a pipe dream anywhere other than the three meccas of music. Even in NY, LA and Nashville you need to be highly skilled, motivated and professional to make it, but at least there you have a chance.
If you’re not worried about money, music school is a perfectly viable educational option. Some people are fortunate when it comes to money. If your educational costs aren’t going to set you back years in student loan payments, then music school could be awesome for you.
Now, let’s talk about the downsides.
Music School is expensive. Depending on the school it can be anywhere from twenty-five to forty thousand dollar per year – or more. You could be one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in debt by the time you graduate from music school. That would be an extreme example, but it’s possible. I’ve been witness to one such case.
To try to pay back this kind of debt working in the music industry in the Twin Cities or any other smaller city outside of NY, LA and Nashville is virtually impossible. Entry level jobs in the business will pay about fifteen dollars per hour. Sales at Guitar Center, cleaning up around a music studio, running live sound for small clubs are your best bets right out of college if you want to work in the music industry.
You don’t need a college degree to work these jobs in the first place.
Let’s talk about the schools themselves. What do they teach?
The technical side of music education is ok, but it’s not great. Most of the interns I hire are music school educated. They want to run sessions. Whenever I put out a call for an intern, I always get way too many resumés. But I go through the process of interviewing and testing their skills and then I hire someone to help me in the studio. They start with jobs like cleaning, resetting rooms and doing what needs to be done around the facility.
While they are doing this, they get a couple of months free studio time, where they can work with my equipment and create a sound reel using our gear and rooms. After they create a decent sound reel, I will consider letting them run sessions for the company.
You would think music school educated people would have no problem doing this. This is what they were trained to do, and they paid big bucks for that training. However, most of them fail miserably. Often, they don’t even know how to get a good sound level while tracking a performance. That would be like if you went to an auto mechanic school and they didn’t teach you how to change the oil on a car. How does that happen?
Sometimes music school graduates will be excellently trained in the technical aspects of studio recording. They focused really hard on how to track, edit and mix music. Once in a while, I’m blown away at how fast they are with music software. Being extremely proficient with recording gear and software is an extremely valuable skill if you know how to leverage it.
To make it in the music business you need to be able to sell yourself to clients. But music school doesn’t teach this. You need to offer your clients a high level of service and professionalism. Music school doesn’t teach this. You need to create a venture for yourself that brings in business on a daily basis. Guess what, music school doesn’t teach this either.
Schools have courses on how to leverage your talents, but they are pretty terrible. I’ve hardly ever seen a music school graduate start a successful business based on the skills and ideas they learned in music school. I have, however, seen high school dropouts learn to run a mixing board and go on to have successful careers with huge artists.
It’s all about the hustle. If you have hustle, you can do wonders with your music school education. But then again if you have hustle, you don’t really need a music school education. There are so many ways to learn audio equipment. When I got my first digital board, I went through the manual step by step, word by word and learned the gear inside and out. I did the same thing with my first synth. I learned basic audio techniques from old school books. Then I paid a great audio engineer a few bucks to teach me what he knew. I hustled.
I’m not saying I’m a great audio engineer. The truth is I would have loved to have had a music school education. I reckon I would have rocked it. But only if I did it in my late twenties, early thirties after I got sobered up and serious about my life. Once I got serious, nothing was going to stop me from achieving my goal of creating a business to serve musicians. For that I didn’t need a hundred-thousand-dollar music education.
In summary: unless you go to NY, LA or Nashville, save your money and learn to hustle. Find your niche in the music realm and push your case every day. Study every day and learn on the job. If you have maturity, you don’t need a professor, you need real world reality to give you a few hard knocks. These will make you stronger and faster. Keep grinding and serve your fellow musicians and industry professionals. Someday, they pay you what you’re worth.