Are my Music Degrees Worth It?

I am a film composer. I am a sound engineer, producer, and performer. I am a foley artist and a music supervisor when I need to be. I have managed to snag gigs both passion and paid in all of these fields in the last couple years... and no one has asked for my resume. It was my understanding that my academic history coupled with my people-driven experiences would take me to worlds far and wide. Upon landing in Southern California, I’ve learned a greater lesson: no one gives a damn about your college degree. Well... some people do, but they aren't interested in your thesis, or how many traditional harmony classes you took. When it comes to the entertainment industry, most people only care that you can do what you say you can do, and that someone can vouch for your character and professionalism. Seeing as I was a college professor for six years, I often wondered if I was part of a problematic system where kids pay their way to be exposed to learning opportunities they would have never been able to access before, only to face the consequences of not getting a shot at their career because they had to meet the requirements of program directors and deans instead of hiring professionals. I was doing my graduate degree while teaching at a local Florida community college and the experiences were jaw-dropping. In my final years as a teacher, I had a better handle on what we needed to do to make the learning experience more efficient for the students, but I grew increasingly disenfranchised by the way the academic community conditioned their musicians as a whole. One university churned out magnificent composers and performers, while another would lure instrumentalists with great promises to fill their bands, as opposed to providing opportunity for their students; neither would have recording as curriculum. One institution had upgraded their gear to provide a state-of-the-art recording studio experience, but had no composers, and they underutilized performers. Upon deaf ears, I would voice that we needed a sort of consortium between the colleges to inspire a real world experience for musicians. It was my only disappointing aspect as a teacher, and a Floridian musician who loved and still loves his hometown. 

I would get the same excuses: “We tried to talk to those guys, but they didn’t play well,” or, “There is no amount of budget that could support this.” The interesting thing is: there was a private college that still called upon performers from two other colleges to fill out their orchestra. My understanding is if that college could pull this off, then there has to be a cooperative means of exploiting the strengths of all the other entertainment-based departments around town to achieve projects. If the University I obtained my graduate degree from has a strong composition program, the composition students could write their goodies, then find musicians from any of the other colleges to play it, then assign their recordings to other students in a production-based program of another college. Keeping this within academia would also protect the workers outside of it. I cannot tell you how many “job offers” pop up from bigger studios that offer internships but only to college students, establishing that the work they offer must be paid in college credits. There are two ways to look at that: A college student gets the opportunity to gain real world experience and networking in their field, or a post graduate with all the established knowledge needed to get the work done efficiently being denied a job opportunity in favor of free/deductible child labor that can be easily exploited to do other jobs for the “experience” as opposed to a paycheck. If we keep the collaborative efforts within the college scheme of things, with paid internships available post graduation, I think it would build a better art community, maintain job statuses for the post grads, and at the same time still demand the right kind of work ethic needed to make a student become a professional. 

To this day, I always found that there was this disconnect between opportunity versus curriculum, and for a long time I just felt like I didn’t achieve enough to proudly seek the work I had been ready to do for all my life. It wasn’t a confidence thing, because I have no trouble talking about how wonderful I am at any point in time. I think it has to do with the communities I’ve belonged to who boast (with minimal experience in my field) quality experiences, while dictating what new students should learn because they themselves could not afford the gear nor get the work they thought they desired. The expectations were skewed at best, and marketed in a way that generalized opportunity when it should have been more focused. So how do we fix this disconnect? Curriculum makers need to be approached much like playlist curators. Their application is more eco-sociological than music-knowledge-based. Deans and department chairs need to be re-evaluated in where they actually stand in the industry and either placed appropriately or demoted in favor for the greater learning experience. If you have a Dean that is only known for playing symphonic kazoo in charge of an entire department of music, with branches focused in composition, technology, performance, business, etc. Then he would most likely be useful as a chair in the Kazoo department. Actually, I would go so far as to encourage vetting on the experiences some chairs actually claim to have. They may have only mastered the "it's who you know" aspect of the industry and nothing else. It is not to say that a professional musician, with a strong educational background, and professional experience in many facets of the same industry (that is also savvy with academic structure and budgeting) are a dime a dozen, but maybe if the presidents of these colleges really paid attention to who they have now and why they are not getting the results they usually fluff about on review sites, they could save that next grant for more tech that they don’t have qualified people to operate or teach, and invite the right kind of person to get the job done, with a logical and (dare I say) fulfilling paycheck. 

But what do I know... I graduated from these places. 

Don't get me wrong. I cannot be more proud of the people I’ve met and the faculty AND students I’ve learned from. I just think the entertainment sector in academia is broken. I think the teachers are paid too small and the students pay too much to be anything more than disenfranchised with an industry they really haven’t experienced at all. Ask a composition student about writing techniques, or something as absurd as Schenkerian analysis and they could hold a conversation between grunts of annoyance. Ask them how much they think their services are worth and you might as well stamp “Tacet” on their foreheads. It is one thing to know how to write, but if you are a college student (undergrad or grad) you should know the answers to these questions: 

Do I know where to find any musician or band, and do I know how to correctly pay them for their work? 

What are all the available avenues for me to generate income for my compositions? 

How much am I worth? What should my invoices be like? 

Am I willing or able to work out of my scope in order to get to the music part? In other words, am I able to sound design, record (broadcast quality), and work well within a pre/post production team? 

Do I need a union? 

How do I get the most out of my Performing Rights Organization? Do I know what a PRO does? 

Do I know how to properly secure my copyrights, and do I know how to legally work with other people’s copyrights? 

Do I know how a cue sheet works? Do I know how to create my own contracts or understand other contracts? 

How do I promote my music for consumption, what are the benefits and drawbacks to social media usage, online aggregators, and streaming playlist curators? 

Do I know what medium my music is to be played with (Streaming, live, CD’s, Television, Big Screen) and do I know how my music should be mastered for each medium? 

If someone approaches me to license my work, how do I train my nose to smell bullshit? 

How do I talk to clients, peers, band mates, managers, directors, music supervisors, and people who don’t know music but want to give you money? 

What is a 1099 form? How do musicians do taxes? 

To LLC or not? 

Do I start a tutorial class when I finally give up on my dreams or when my dreams give up on me? 

Oh there are more questions, but how many of your composition program classes even remotely talk about this? If you give a damn about your career, or you made the crazy choice of making your music your primary source of income, then these things creep up on you and you have to remember you are a business owner. If you are lucky, then you can hire someone to take care of the details, but realistically, You could wake up with minor low-paying favor-based gigs, a bunch of bills, in tax season, with an e-mail from Ukraine asking to license one of your songs on Soundcloud that you forgot to register with a PRO, and not know what to do. The smartest thing I did was join a bunch of groups that bring people going through these same things together in one boat. Social and professional clubs are meant to do that. You know what else should do it? College. But college doesn't fulfill its true potential when it's treating entertainers the same as other focuses.

Do I think college is a waste of money? Yes and No. Please understand that I am speaking solely to the entertainment folks. I can’t make the same case for other departments like Medical or Law. I’d like to think that those areas give you a more traditional perspective of college, and it works. But music is different. There are scores of people who made a successful life of music without a lick of formal education. So why should music schools and departments be held in the same regard as our traditional brethren? The answer is: it shouldn’t. We are very different breeds of people. I don't rant about my undergrad school the way I do about these other schools, because it is a music school; and even if my tenure there lacked in some places, it made up in a fundamental part of my evolution as a musician. Even if it fell into the economic tropes of other establishments, it at least knew its people. It was a school by musicians, for musicians. Other institutions tend to be spread too thin to care unless a particular avenue generates income. But, I do look at being a professional musician much like being the character Billy Quizboy from The Venture Brothers. He is a brilliant mind, and gets called in (many times) to perform secret surgery on big figures in the show's vast and rich world. The only problem is: he never finished school, nor does he have a license to practice medicine. But, he is regarded as one of the best surgeons in the world, though criticized for adhering to codes and ethics of being a doctor while no one believes he is, until they need him. Musicians are like that. They will be called in for their tone, skill, work ethic, and efficiency, but they still get jabbed for either having just an art degree or not having one at all, and that is ludicrous. It exploits our dedication to a particular craft that everyone loves, has access to do, yet not everyone has the patience or dedication to make a lifestyle and/or career. It is an uphill battle trying to convince clientele to even pay for our work, let alone pay for it fairly. The point is: we need to relieve ourselves of traditional thought when mixing musicianship with formal education. 

College has a specific point: to learn things. It has a wonderfully unique way of giving a person access to concentrated information pertaining to their career interests. It provides mentors that have been around that kind of world a few times, and provide that information in a digestible way. In that process, it exposes you to a wide variety of people with different visions, backgrounds, and lifestyles. That is phenomenal. But... it does not guarantee you a job. The institutions by themselves can and have spun statistical information to make it seem like the collegiate journey cleanly hits all the spawn points in a person’s life. It doesn't. Even institutions that started out with best intentions get wrapped up in the influence of special interest funding on curricular necessities. When it can't achieve its mission statement, they use the hook of talking points to get kids and their parents' wallets in.

"78% of students that graduate from this Clown College get a job right after college."

They don't tell you that job isn't in their field, or its in teaching intro level classes of the same degree program.

"Super important person graduated from here!" 

Yeah, but some schools consider you an alumni if you do one semester there and drop out. *cough* John Mayer *cough*

Learn the skills you need to face the businesses of tomorrow!

...With the inventory of yesterday, the books of decades ago, and the school of thought from fifty years ago. 

Meanwhile, they are soaking in all those student loans that kids can't erase with bankruptcy, that will follow them more than even a mortgage. That is another broken system. My argument is: if college is meant to teach you your trade, while exposing you to other thoughts, then it should expend its efforts to giving the students the most accurate and beneficial experience that prepares them to not only think for themselves but make what they have work in a competitive world. 

I looked at college differently through the years. When I was in community college, I didn't know if I even wanted to be in school anymore. But it was good to work towards something while I figured things out. It was exponentially cheaper to do than state and I am grateful to all the connections and lessons I learned there. When I decided to go to Berklee, I knew that it would be a big investment, and I also knew how useful a Bachelor's in Music was going to be in "the real world." But, at that point in my life, I realized that music was my real world. It was my vocation. I also knew that there was only so much I was going to understand and learn in my hometown, and I needed to gamble the financial well-being of my adult life to think outside of the elaborate bubble I created for myself and the people around me. I didn't expect a job afterwards, but I did hope for it while immersed. I did have a touch of cynicism, laced with entitlement at first, but I remembered why I decided to go to Boston. I just wanted an experience I would have never got if I stayed home. I got it. Was it worth +100K in student loans? If you have a more conventional job... then you'd probably think not. But, as a musician who would have invested that money in newer gear to hide any musical inconsistencies while barely learning anything new in the process, it was the best investment I've ever made. Because gear will come and go, along with youthful tropes, but I have a solid foundation on where I stand in the musical world. Berklee didn't owe me a job, it sold me the fresh perspective I desperately needed and all transactions were final. Graduate school was weird, too. When I decided to do it, I wanted to see what was going on outside the Berklee Bubble I now had. Ironically, the best way to pop that bubble was to come back home. I had to relearn a different highlight of my musicianship while being in a program that focused more on traditional performance composition. It was smaller, and pretty much the opposite of what I was conditioned to do and think while in Berklee. I remember when I interviewed to get in, the dean told me I would never fit in. I laughed in his face and said, "I don't fit in anywhere, so I adapt for everywhere. I wasn't scholarly when I went to community college. I wasn't a jazz kid when I went to Berklee and I certainly am not a traditional type for this program, but I've never been afraid of getting my proverbial hands dirty."

I don't blame my failures on my schools, but I don't attribute my successes to them, also. We got what we needed out of each other and moved on to other things, like two ships passing in the night. Being a Berklee alumni has different reactions from different people depending on where you end up in the world. Back home, it is met with prestige and honor. In LA, it plays out more like an AA meeting. Hi, I'm Jehad, I graduated CWP in 2011, and it's been this many years since I've worked in my intended field. There's a lot more of us here than we realize adapting to the skills we've built in the most fascinating places. A PA here, a make-up artist there, a financial advisor around the block, and kindergarten teacher two towns down; we seek the work that we can do efficiently enough to have time to do what we want to do. Some of us lucked out and got a mechanical license of a beat they churned out to appear on a PBS show. Others kept true to the performance life, sometimes hitting two clubs a night, worn down by working twice as hard for half as much. The fascinating thing about any of us is that when called to be the musicians we know we are, it's easy to grab the nearest instrument and flex like we were back on the beach in front of the 150 building. More often then not, people don't ask us to play our degrees, they want to know what we are capable of doing at that moment. That's the key: we became so professional, we react musically. So we always need to be ready to flex. 

Now I am involved in a world where if I don't take the opportunity to flex everywhere I go, then it becomes a difference between making rent and not. Some displays are better than others, but I have to stay present. Some would find that to be the counter-intuitive idea of working after graduation, but I appreciate it more with every crumb I get. True, a lot of us got into music with the idea that we would take solace in the instruments we use to express our feelings, and not look at them as one of those little red notification stickers you get from unopened e-mails. Practicing for juries and auditions put strain on us. The rejection of being just straight up ignored hurts our pride. It's stressful, nerve-wrecking, and my sleep habits are as bad as my nutrition, but I still have faith that I will find balance in all of this. All of my degrees have never been pieces of paper that get reduced to a solitary line at the bottom of my CV. No, they are living, breathing documents that are constantly put into practice, and always mark a paradigm shift in my maturity as an artist. They do not make me better or more qualified than the next composer... I do. I found the opportunities baked into the experiences, the evaluations, and the people I crossed paths, but college gave me the space to look. No one has the same experiences in their educational journey, just like in life in general. We define our values, and some times we share those values with other people, most times... it's just for you. Even the ranting I had earlier about needing more connectivity and attention between institutions is just me airing out my concerns dredged up by the values I've placed on my interpretation of music education. I would have never had these thoughts, if I didn't experience them or a lack of them. So, ask me again if it was worth it.

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