Should I Do A Contemporary Music Degree?


Here’s how I think you should make this decision.

#1 See the degree for what it probably is.

This is a question I think about too, in reverse: ‘What are my students really getting out of a three year contemporary music degree?’

The music degree is an opportunity to focus. That’s all it really is.

There will be very few times in your professional / creative life in which you will have the opportunity to focus on anything like you will at university. At university, you will find a small sense of shelter. You can apply for funding, get your parents off your back, live cheaply in a share-house and spend your semesters thinking about and playing music and receiving training or some such. At the other end, you come out with a degree that says, ‘This person can complete an arts degree.’ This is a privilege. This is the sort of privilege other people don’t get.

Additionally, this opportunity can be extremely valuable. If you’re going into this with your eyes open, know this: this opportunity is what you’re paying for.

(And to be even clearer, even if your parents / government are footing the bill, you ARE paying for this. This is three years of your life, on top of HECS. There’s no do-over. The dress rehearsal is over. Welcome to quasi-adulthood.)

#2 See vocationalism for what it is.

Contemporary music programs are – rightly – becoming more vocational. If you want to play contemporary music for a living and you’re about to enrol in a program that doesn’t acknowledge the diverse nature of the diverse role of the musician, back away now.

The thing is though, with music ‘vocation’ isn’t really the right word. It’s better than ‘calling’ (in my mind) or ‘profession’ but music degrees are largely for people who want to take a run at making a life-long, full-time practise out of music, which also involves – for the most part – some sort of regular income. It’s an extremely difficult and elusive thing to achieve. You have to want it super bad. I didn’t want it that much, for example.

While this ambition can’t really be taught, it can be shaped and refined. That’s what these courses, at their very best, actually do. People ask me all the time, ‘What do you actually teach musicians?’ and I usually give a polite answer but the implication is always: you don’t need to go to university to become a musician. No shit. I had never thought of that. What do you think people actually learn in business school that you can’t learn from on-the-job experience or a textbook? Do you really need three years of university training to become a marketer or a writer or an office worker? You don’t. You learn how to learn and then you’re given the time, resources and space to learn. That’s it.

(On a side note, of my six semesters of business training that made up my undergrad, I think I probably needed about two of them to actually perform my job day-to-day in the business world. The rest was context, ideology and knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake, even in business. )

Academic learning is about breadth of knowledge and competitive advantage. You get your chance to learn a lot and then focus in on the stuff that interests you and that puts you years ahead if you don’t waste the opportunity. Contrary to common belief, the right music courses immediately situate students in ‘the real world’, they bring them in and say, ‘Well if you really want this, the work starts right now, the forty hour weeks of training start right now, because look at all these challenges that lie ahead.’ Some of the students I teach, at 21 or 22 they already have bands they’re managing, hundreds of hours of internship experiences, contacts made, tours completed, grants written and a metric tonne of book knowledge. They’re the ones likely to do something with all this training. If they paid attention, they also have a pathway into further study, the world of teaching and research and academia.

#3 It’s usually not about the facilities.

Great architecture programs and terrible architecture programs have the same infrastructure: desks, a workspace and teaching staff. No one gets a terrible start in architecture because the plotter is five years old. You can learn how to use a high-end piece of equipment in a matter of weeks, by reading the manual, and it can be a new high-end piece of gear the following year anyhow.

The same goes for music programs. Some universities have amazing technology: high-end professional recording spaces, near high-end mastering facilities, antique amplifiers and synths, spec’d out performance spaces and so on. And too much is made of all this. NO ONE knows what the future of music as a technologically mediated art is going to be. Getting experience on a fancy console or an industry standard amplifier or in a professional performance space is valuable but it’s also not incredibly difficult to come by. You can hire all those things for a lot less than the cost of university tuition.

Should the facilities be as good as possible? Yes! You’re paying for them. But at the same time, ask yourself what’s better: Learning the inside and out of something you could feasibly own one day or learning how to use something valuable, out of reach and exclusive I.e. something you may never see again? Nevermind that some of history’s most successful musicians have made an art form out of producing more with less. The technology is not the all-prevailing core of the learning experience.

University music programs are about teaching staff and results. Goldsmiths produced Blur, here is a picture of their current day rehearsal space:


(Yeah, it’s a practice room.)

It’s not about the stuff. It’s about the quality of the teaching and the ideas.

Instead of looking at the gear list, use this list:

What has your university program done? Who have they produced?

How’d they do it?

Who encouraged whom to do what?

Those are the answers you should be looking for, going in.

If you’re not ready to evaluate those answers, you’re not ready for a contemporary music degree. You have to have a vision going in or else you’ll just be wasting time as this whole new world rushes by.

PS: That’s how it is everywhere.


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