In-depth Issues

Music business

Should You Get A Degree in Music?

The lights shine and an eerily quiet breath creeps over the backstage; talk of nerves and nausea quietly erupt among performers. The backstage hand waits for a call to go out as two different sides of the same world foresee what’s about to happen. The nervous young guitar player foresees utter failure; her friends are already advertising their own show in their Twitter feed. She feels knots in her stomach and talks about every soul crushing mistake she could possibly make. The backstage hand simply remembers a quote from one of his supervisors on his first day. Robert Byer said to him, “to a performer every show is the most important show of their life, to us it’s just another show.” The call for showtime goes out on radio as the stagehand quickly rushes the performers out on stage and sits back in his booth. As the first chord is struck, the stagehand wonders why they want a career in this industry so badly.

There are stable job markets and unstable ones. There are some industries that you know will have a job waiting for you when you graduate, but the music industry is not one of those. The chances of becoming the next superstar are slim to none as it has always been. From the 50s and onward becoming the next musical sensation was never guaranteed, but why do so many students go to college for musical performance? Is there some big mass secret that no one is aware of yet? Or does the bias hold true that students who go to college for art are wasting their time and money?  There are thousands upon thousands of students who go directly into these music education classes at Metro State University of Denver as well as many other colleges around the country. Yet, how is their success rate?

Sitting in on these classes, at first glance it seems like many of these students are being coddled. Even teachers backstage seemed to want to avoid talking about the music industry as a business. Sean Hedgecock, one of the King Center’s [MSU Denver] stage managers, is one such man who has seen the music industry from both sides. “The inexperienced musicians can often be hard to deal with from a technical stand point, because they have the impression that this show is going to ‘change the world as we know it'”.  Sean’s band has been playing since 1984 and when he realized the possibility of making it was further than he had originally imagined, he started his college education in the music industry.  After graduating with a degree in scoring and arranging he originally dreamed of going into a field of commercial music for television, movies, and more but he had little to no prospects. He returned to a job of making cabinets. According to Sean [at the end of 1994], “I was offered a job at the Arvada Center Theater as a stage technician. I was promised that if I built sets and worked stage crew for some theater performances I might get a chance to run sound on a show or two. This eventually happened in addition to continuing the everyday grind of building, painting, setting up and “striking” shows. I ran sound and sound effects for several theater performances including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Born Yesterday, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Picnic and so on”. Sean now is one of the head stage managers of the King Center, running sound and set for nearly every show as well as teaching work study students how to run shows down to the very last detail. While he still plays in his band, his dream of becoming a star has become secondary in his life. According to him, he has found his niche in helping others shine beforehand. “People do not realize that there is more to music then just performance”, Sean says before the shift begins and we both have to start working on the next show. While performance success is not reached by everyone, the performance industry is bigger than it seems. Yet, what about the ones who want nothing more than to perform on stage and live happily with it?

“Are we sure we have enough chairs out there?”, is one of the first regular questions Natalie Thompson asks as another show is set up for her choir. She is a Metro senior who sees herself as a leader in the music community. Growing up around music all her life, it only seemed natural that she go to college for music. She had different thoughts to share on why so many students go for music. “A lot of people don’t even have a choice, the music classroom is a safe place for them”.  Even when people who cared about her worried about her future, it did not stop her from pursuing her passion in life, “I am not worried about money in my life and I would rather be spiritually satisfied. I am prepared to be the girl who lives in the one bedroom small apartment”. Natalie was not worried about getting a job at all, she states that its not hard to get the job, but hard to keep it. No one should expect to be a rockstar while music stands are shelved away. It should also be noted that there is a one hundred percent job placement for music education majors.

Charla Bevans is the head of Metro’s music department. She started as a western swing singer opening for much more famous performers such as Willie Nelson. She now helps each and every music student become the shining star they want to be, “we give the encouragement students need at this level because in all likelihood they will never get this kind of encouragement in the real world. They have to deal with every cutthroat thief and business tycoon imaginable while the creative process gets pushed aside for the almighty dollar”. The secret seems to be just how open these niche industries are. The students that can become self-sufficient, knowing what they need when they need it will have better chance at making it in a dog-eat-dog world. The fear is not there like the layman would think. They don’t worry about making money at all, instead they worry about day to day work like the rest of us. There are no music business classes offered on campus at some colleges. Colleges that do offer music business related curriculum do not have it as required coursework. Ross Birdsall is a student that feels extremely strongly on how negative a impact this has, “There is so much more students need to be aware of and only those who know where to look get this knowledge”. He feels that Metro needs these classes; it should not even be a choice. According to Ross, those that don’t bother to learn the business side of the music industry are wasting their time and money in college.

Leeann Weller is the head of University of Denver’s stage management and she also makes sure the jazz students have the proper sound equipment they need in every show. She traveled the world for over ten years as a freelancer, managing opera performances. Once again Leeann disproves the stereotype of music having no career viability whatsoever. “Music is a constant in our life. It is everywhere: in commercials, on the phone, in church, all over the internet. There are so many opportunities to make music and more outlets are becoming available to make money at it”.  The problem once again seems to come from what the students learn and what they don’t learn. Patience, being what Leeann sees as the biggest problem, “It may be a societal issue for wanting it immediately and with TV shows like The Voice or American Idol it makes fame and success look too easy.  Becoming a professional working musician is not like winning the lottery with a scratch ticket, it takes work, lots of work”.  Unlike Metro, UCD has a class dedicated to teaching good backstage and onstage etiquette and behavior as a required prerequisite class. Leeann feels it is necessary for all students to learn how to treat colleagues while they are in school. They learn things such as how to treat the stagehands and the sound crew that make their show happen, to not talking about the bad shows or bad experiences and leaving them behind. Before Leeann goes to the next meeting of the day she leaves with, “All students should take advantage of every opportunity while they have the family safety net, meaning, they are not earning their way (yet). Students should absorb as much from teachers and other performers as they can.  Music students should see as many shows and learn different styles and practice, practice, practice!”. Everyone I talked to is living their dream one way or another, whether it is teaching music or trying to become a performer. So are they wasting their time?

Sadly in today’s society, success is judged by how much money you have in life while other things are put secondary. It is not our hopes and dreams that are important in this day and age but supporting ourselves with cash is what people look for first. Are people like Leeann and Charla sending their students to slaughter? Are people like Natalie and Ross wasting time and college resources? Is the only hope to go to alternate jobs such as sound tech like Sean did to make other “lucky” stars shine? No, because after talking with each of these wonderful individuals the true secret of this career was shown. People are happy, and that’s why so many people go into college with music as their career choice. Sean is happy with what he does, with his life and he has not abandoned performance either. Charla and Leeann both can proudly boast that each student they have helped to graduation has found a career somewhere in this industry, even if it is just in education. Natalie not only gives the best performance’s, but more often than not she’s right backstage with me, making sure students shine at their best. Ross’s voice is filled with joy as he talks about what he does and wants to do for a living. These people are not fools or dreamers. They are people with goals and the means to achieve them.

So are music degrees worth it? This is the question that no one seems to have a direct answer to. Getting a music degree at any college is not the easiest task in the world – you have to take prerequisites like music theory, and that’s just the beginning of a long list of challenges to obtain it. Then it hit me, throughout everyone I talked to, it was more than about money to them. Though they are faced with many biases, it is more than just proving a point to everyone.

Of course, there are people who will always want to be the bearer of bad news in any job market, from those music students who are just big dreamers, to the prospective journalist going into a “useless” career. Thankfully there are people who still seek more out of life than just financial gain. This is the answer that once seemed so hard for me to find; as to why people still choose this as a career. As long as you’re doing what you love in life; is that not enough? Students have nothing but the best waiting for them and the dream seems ever so closer with people like Leeann and Charla making sure they have the best they need. They do what people should be doing all along in college. You should not go to college with dreams of making fast cash. You should go, because you want to get into a career you love.



Music Programs in Colorado:

Colorado State University

University of Colorado

Metro State University of Denver

University of Colorado Denver

University of Denver


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