The starving artist is a long living stereotype. But starving artists with degrees? BFAs, even? In a world where even a Bachelor’s Degree can be perceived as bare minimum on a job application, is it worth it to pay for a degree in performance?

Despite the fact that I ended up landing in the Visual and Media Arts Department at Emerson College, and spent lots of time in the Performing Arts department for my music focus, I felt more secure with this career choice than if I had decided to focus on, say, Theater Studies. I don’t think I would have been able to go to school for Theater Studies. I don’t think I would have had the support to go to Emerson College for Theater Studies. Because college was a hefty investment–my sister and I were attending at the same time, my mother is an art teacher, the list goes on–and I read lots of data to see just how stark the job market would be for these degrees. Keep in mind that I began my college degree in 2005, before The Great Recession. I had switched my focus from Broadcast Journalism to Media Production. I kept up my writing. Sometimes I wish I had narrowed my focus, but at others times I am glad that I dappled in as many aspects as I could. The goal was this:

  • Get a degree that matches a decent amount of job postings at the time
  • Get a degree where I can learn new skills that I didn’t already have
  • Still feel inspired and invested by my studies

Of course, by the time I started my internships in 2007, many of the jobs I had seen out there suddenly turned into internships, or multiple jobs put together. Oh, this company was looking for a video editor? Well, now they want a video editor/graphic designer/developer, because they want to save money. You studied post production/graphic design/computer science, right? Tough.

I felt slightly disheartened at seeing friends with accounting internships or computer science, making money from their internships, while most creative fields only offered course credit–if that. One day, as we were waiting for a recording session to start, an engineer told me of how he thought it wasn’t fair that studio interns were unpaid. He lamented that, basically, studios get away with it because it’s a ‘cool job’,so everyone wants in. Supply and demand.

To go a step further, some entry level jobs in the arts are now glorified internships, offering stipends or food compensation instead of pay. With the lopsided supply and demand in the arts field, the lack of funding for arts and arts education, and the insane bridge between pay in the entertainment industry (Glassdoor cites a production assistant at MTV Networks in New York City receiving $13 an hour, while a Senior Producer received $10,000 a month), not to mention the climbing costs of tuition…are these degrees worth it? And if I’m concerned with technical or marketing roles in the arts, what about performing arts themselves?

In 2011, US News & World Report, listed 24% of majors at Berklee College of Music graduating with degrees in Composition, and 17% as performance majors. These were two of the top three majors for that year. The current CollegeProwler rating for jobs and Alumni success for Berklee College has a 61.1% approval. In a few of my interviews with Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan of Karmin, theymentioned their training at Berklee when discussing their success. However, it’s not everyday that one gets famous on the internet. Or is it?

Doe Paoro is an act out of Brooklyn, New York. I first received a press release about her music in the Fall of 2011. I listened to ‘Can’t Leave You’, and wanted to learn more. The song, and accompanying music video, were beautifully done. Turns out Sonia Kreitzer, vocalist, had been performing for a while. She had then gone East, and ended up studying Tibetan Opera in the process. This is an excerpt from my interview with her in January 2012:

“I was just inspired by how much you can accomplish via the web. I posted this song to see if anyone wanted to work on it with me,” she’d said, about ‘Can’t Leave You’. “I called my friend, Uri, to see if he wanted to work on it…We thought we should get someone to mix it.

This led to getting in touch with Lasse Mårtén, producer, and inquiring about rates. Eventually an agent wrote back. The Youtube video of Doe Paoro’s solo performance of “Can’t Leave You”had caught their attention. He wrote back personally, said he loved it and would work on it.”

Doe Paoro was named an ‘Artist to Watch’ by Stereogum shortly after that interview. She is now an associate act with Peter Morén, has new material on the way, and collaborations with Justin Vernon and Mårtén, to name a few.

But she, unlike Karmin, never formally studied music. She studied painting, actually. I recently told her about this article and asked her views on being a performance major.

“I never studied music professionally,” she said. “While I’m sure I could ‘have better technique’, I’ve always been content with coming to music from a completely intuitive point of view. I know a few musicians who have come out of the conservatory system and their approach to music is too heady for me to feel anything.”

She continued by adding, “I was once in a co-writing session with a guy who had studied music at school. We were writing a pre chorus and I suggested we move the song towards a certain chord and he said we couldn’t do that because it didn’t make sense for the song to go there. I sort of pressed him on it and asked him why that wouldn’t make sense…he started freaking out that my idea was totally counter-intuitive to how songs are supposed to go. I almost fell out my chair laughing. I didn’t realize there were rules to writing songs.”

Even at a school as prestigious as NYU, the largest percentage of majors, according to CollegeBoard, is Visual and Performing Arts, at 22%. Of course, the Tisch School of Arts is highly competitive, and has Alumni such as Debra Messing, Raúl Esparza, and Alec Baldwin.

Yet the US Department of Labor lists the outlook for performance oriented jobs between 2010 and 2020 to be between 4 and 18 percent (less for actors, more for dancers). Most of these were listed as ‘about as fast as average’. Yet a quick search for jobs with the keyword ‘musician’ on indeed yields about 1,200 jobs, most in the salary range of $20,000+, while a job search for keywords such as ‘science’, ‘food’, and ‘health’ yield between 300,000 to 800,000 hits. Of course, more low paying jobs than not. Yet I am sure, for most reading this, these statistics were expected.

Are we to say, then, that our culture is throwing in the towel of feeding the arts? Just last week I went to see the Boston Pops and was elated at how wonderful the performance was. I was shocked to see some of the generous donations in the program, especially at some of the anonymous donations at the top of the list. It’s a strange loop, or so it seems. Make more money by not being an artist. Therefore are a huge portion of donations given to the arts not by artists?

I set up a poll on my blog. What I wanted to know was this: How has your training fortified your experience as a performer? The majority, 33.33%, listed themselves as ‘I studied while in college or university and perform professionally. It helped me with my career.’ Then, 16.67% listed themselves as one of the following: ‘I took private lessons or trained on my own time and perform professionally. It helped me with my career’; ‘I learned on my own and perform professionally or as part of my career’; or ‘other’. Last, 8.33% listed themselves as either ‘I studied while in college or university and wish I had studied something else as a backup’, or ‘I took private lessons or trained on my own time and have kept it as a hobby’.

Steph Barrak of Boston, who is a musician and an Analyst at Bain & Company, replied. She said, “I have zero professional training. For the most part, I’ve gotten by just fine, but there are times in my music career where that knowledge would be helpful. For example, I could write sheet music myself instead of paying someone else to do it. Or I could land gigs as a session guitarist or a cover artist if I only knew how to read music or understand chord structure and variation. But all of that stuff is secondary to my main goal – writing songs. I’ve been writing and performing my own songs for years without any problems– in fact, I sometimes wonder if any formal training would’ve changed my writing style, and I’m not sure that it would’ve been for the better.” She explained that music has a highly technical factor to it. “An A chord is an A chord and there’s no way you’d know that unless you learned it…music education is definitely necessary.”

I, too, wish I had studied music theory in high school. I wish I had joined the jazz band. By the time I was in college, I joined Mike Mangini’s drum lab at Berklee, knowing that I would be the most challenged student in the class. When I spoke to professors in the department, though, they were more than understanding. They knew that most students in that class had been playing since they were children, and had private lessons. Me? I didn’t get to play formally until I was fifteen. I played my first show six months later, barely ready. I joined the pep band, and other bands, having lost whatever sight reading skill I had garnered playing the piano as a kid. I had started to teach myself before a friend had really shown me how to drum, and picked up some poor technique along the way.

An interesting interaction occurred one day while I sat in the percussion department at Berklee. A student told a professor that he wasn’t sure if he should study performance or business. The professor then said, “do you know how to play the drums?”. The student answered “yes”. The conclusion was then for him to study business, or something that he didn’t already know how to do.

I admit I was perplexed when I would see students at Emerson who were studying acting, but already had agent representation, been on television, or in a steady stream of commercials. I also knew a student at Berklee who began playing with musicians from bands such as The Doors and U2, having not yet graduated. I wondered if he really needed a degree to tell him that he could do this for a living, since he already had such great gigs.

Of course everyone has a different path and, regardless, we all should learn valuable information from our college experience. However, upon wondering about the usefulness of a performance degree in the age of terrible student loans and Youtube fame, I also thought about the many avenues one could go down in the arts, professionally, aside from performance.

I was offered a job at a studio in my last few weeks of college. I would have had to work another job on top of it, due to the low pay, but wanted to make it work. The catch? I still had two weeks of school, and was certainly not going to drop everything when I was that close to completing my degree. The studio couldn’t wait, and the opportunity was lost. It took me six more months to get my first full time role. In the meantime, I wrote and worked as a substitute teacher. One day, as I filled in for a music class, I was asked about music careers. Specifically, what if you’d like to work with music professionally? Are there options, aside from performance?

I was laid off twice in the past year, having barely even started the job the second time this occurred, so I’ve been trying to network a whole lot. And then I started to receive questions from college students. These questions were similar to the one that had been asked in the music class I had filled in for. What can I study, aside from performance?

I hadn’t been aware of some of the music career options out there when I graduated high school. Music technology, licensing, marketing, administration, the list continues. Of course there is music education, which my sister followed through with, and those roles are becoming few and far between, too.

I started a blog over a year ago, to keep up with my writing and work with musicians. After the question of music careers was before me again, I mixed things up. Being in such a career heavy mode (trying to get a new job), and seeing so many people around me struggle, young and old, I decided to change my blog to one that focuses on music careers. Essentially, how many people can I profile, who work in music (and sound, seeing as these tend to overlap)? Not only to see how many different types of career paths there are, but to see how each person got there. For instance, I recently interviewed Brandon Gilliard, a talented bassist who has been a session musician since graduating from Anderson University with a BA in Music in 2005, and now tours with Janelle Monáe. His performance studies undoubtedly came in handy for his career. At the same time, I had interviewed Creed Bratton, who you may know as the actor from The Office. His musical background and career path was vastly different. Go down another path, and I spoke to my friend, an opera singer at New England Conservatory, about her job prospects and training. Each individual has their own take on it, and their own approach. And so, with this question of music careers and the value of a performance degree, I hope to put faces and stories to the many job titles out there.

Yes, I do think it’s tough out there for jobs in the arts. I can’t speak for performance majors, because I wasn’t one, but I like to think that the arts community is evolving with technology and skill just as every other field. I certainly hope this opens more doors for those who feel their heart belongs there. There’s the saying (and Onion article) of “follow your passion…on nights and weekends for the rest of your life”, basically because it won’t get you a day job. Isn’t it odd that we are such a celebrity and entertainment obsessed culture, yet the arts slip by? Do you think it will ever change?

Farah Joan Fard is a writer, media producer, and drummer. She started her blog,LaParadiddle, to  continue writing about musicians, but changed its focus after experiencing layoffs and receiving questions about careers in the arts. She now profiles different professions in the music industry, including sound, in hopes of bringing these stories to others for discussion. She has written for various sites and online magazines, focusing on music, and her non-writing work has mainly been in audio and media production. She enjoys sci-fi, dinosaurs, baked goods, hiking, performing, and naming that tune.

You can follow her other work, or say hello, via Twitter.

About The Author

Farah is a writer and producer who works mainly with music and educational media. When she is not at work or writing about music, she plays the drums in an indie jazz band. She enjoys sci-fi, prefers to sing show tunes while she cleans, and consumes an obscene amount of seltzer water. You can follow more of her writing and music on Twitter at @LaParadiddle.

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