Should You Go to College For Music?
In May, I graduated from the University of Southern California. My decision to attend school for music was one of the best I’ve made. But my positive experience balances against dozens of music students who’ve found college a waste of time and money.
My decision to attend school didn’t come lightly. I spent my first year in university conflicted about whether I should even be there. After all, American universities are notoriously expensive, and four years is a long time. Would I have been better off saving my money and just doing music for four years instead? Were the relationships I built worth tens of thousands of dollars? Could I even pay back my student loans?
If you want to be in music, you’ll face this choice. For some prospective students, going to music school makes little sense. For others, it can be the iron foundation of your career. How can you decide which group you belong to?
There are widely accepted benefits and widely recognized risks to attending music school. I’ve collected the main concerns I had before school, together with my actual experiences, to form a short list of things to consider before you decide to attend or not to attend music school. Take these considerations with a grain of salt, because your goals and motivations for school will be different from my own.
Why You *Should* Go to Music School
1. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
The relationships I built are far and away the most important thing I received from school. In my mind, the primary purpose of your time in school is to meet dedicated, smart people who share your interests and aspirations. In music, these people will become your future band mates, business partners, colleagues, and clients. They’ll be your mentors, advisors, and friends. If you’re willing to put in the time, there is nothing that compares to a good university for building your network.
Where else can you meet a dense group of high caliber musicians who want to meet you also? Or have access to dozens of professionals with decades of music industry experience?
Music is an industry of connections. Those with a strong network receive opportunities before anyone else. Those with no network get the scraps. A good music school can be the perfect shortcut to a strong network.
It’s not just about meeting other students in class, or talking with professors. A good school, like USC, will provide plenty of access to mixers, industry events, ensembles, and clubs. They’ll help you meet people outside the university as well as within it.
One of my favorite examples comes from USC’s weekly Popular Music Forum. Famous musicians and industry professionals from Adam Blackstone to Chaka Khan to Randy Jackson come to campus and share their knowledge with students. But more importantly, these otherwise inaccessible music industry giants will listen to student performances, hang around to talk after class, and will provide unique gigs and opportunities for students. Outside of a major university, opportunities like these rarely exist.
2. Learn the music business in a safe environment.
The first time you face down a complex contract shouldn’t be when you’re expected to sign it.
Thousands of musicians have signed the dotted line only to find financial ruin at the other end of their career. Managers have worked dozens of grueling hours for free with no reward but a ratty term sheet. Producers have accepted free lunch instead of real pay or points on a record. Bands have lost thousands of dollars to bad accounting or manipulative publishing agreements without suspecting a thing. The music business is complicated and messy, and the unwary are easily taken advantage of.
Music schools provide a way to learn the business in a low-risk environment. That way, when you do find yourself in one of the situations above, you’ll know how to deal with it. Musicians should be prepared before entering the real music business.
3. Improve your knowledge and skills.
Let’s not forget the main reason most people attend music school — to improve your ability! The truth is, to achieve mastery of your instrument, you need an expert teacher. Those teachers are often found at the top music schools.
For some students, this factor will matter much more than for others. A classical musician may find that mastery of her instrument is the only consideration that matters when selecting a school. But an aspiring session musician may be better off building relationships at Musician’s Institute or USC instead of working hard in a practice room at Julliard.
If your career depends on being one of the top performers in the world, then you may be best served at an elite conservatory.
4. You’ll learn skills and grow as a person beyond music.
I didn’t go to college just to kick start a career in music. I met almost all of my best friends in college. I learned financial skills, grew as a writer and independent thinker, and matured. The overall college experience challenges you to grow as a person far beyond the narrow sphere of your musical career.
Personal growth is an admirable consequence of attending college. But there’s another reason to learn skills outside of music.
The truth is that financial success in music is rare. Most likely, you’ll spend your early career working a job in addition to doing music. And for many musicians, you’ll always need a career outside music to support your career in music. There’s a real difference in income between workers who didn’t go to college and those who graduated. By going to school, you’re ensuring you have your college education to help support you if the going gets tough.
I know it’s often frowned upon to suggest a backup plan for your career as an artist or musician. I’m not suggesting you try less, or give up. But the reality of the industry is that most people will not be able to fully support themselves with their music — so it can be smart to have the skills to build a career that will pay the bills.
Why You *Shouldn’t Go to Music School
1. Not all musicians benefit from training.
Many of the musicians I met my freshman and sophomore year did not graduate. Some gave up on music entirely because of the pressures of music school. Their style and individuality were stamped out by teachers pursuing proper technique; learning too much music theory caused them to question their musical intuition. Over time, they simply lost their love for the art.
This is a real risk. If you’re a musician driven by feel and emotion and intuition above all else, then you may want to be careful before committing to four years of intense musical study.
Others dropped out early to start on their careers early. The relationships and training simply weren’t worth four years of delay. The music industry flows from trend to trend; if you’re too late, you’re left behind. If you’re already having success, it can be in your best interests to push forward as hard as possible instead of languishing in the classroom.
Music school isn’t for everyone.
2. Only the best schools are worth the investment.
The cost of attending school can be staggering. Not just financially — there’s the opportunity cost of giving up four years of your life. If the teachers at your university are subpar, or you’re not a good cultural fit, then that school can actually hurt your career.
It’s one reason why it’s so important to visit the schools you’re considering, and to try to take lessons with your future teachers.
But there’s not just the question of your teachers. For most students, the primary benefit of your school will be the relationships you build. It’s one reason to choose a school with the highest quality students possible. But you should also vet the school to see what opportunities they provide. The reason I chose USC is because it’s exceptionally focused on building relationships. The Popular Music Forum is just one of dozens of ways they make a powerful effort to get you in the right rooms with the right people. If your school won’t help you meet people outside the classroom, you might want to consider another school.
And yes – the financial cost can be overwhelming. It’s worth projecting the cost of your student loans over your four years against how much you can reasonably expect to make as a musician. Does it seem impossible to repay your loans? Then you may need to take a step back and consider carefully whether it’s worth going to your chosen school.
These points won’t all apply to your unique situation. A student who wants to work as a music supervisor will not use the same criteria as a classical violinist. But my hope is that you’ll find from my experience some knowledge that can help you in your own decision.
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