Long before I became a reasonably successful musician, I attended the New England School of Communications for two years to get an Associate’s Degree in Audio Engineering. I learned about recording bands, voice acting, live recording, mixing, and mastering, with some classes on music business, video production, photoshop, and multiculturalism in media on the side.
It was a great program; I learned a ton about music production and mixing that I use every day as part of my job as a game composer. My video production skills have been useful when I livestream, and the photoshop skills have been useful when building my website, or putting together album covers. I’m glad I went to school.
Why am I telling you this? I get a lot of questions from fans about college, like this one from Ask.fm:
How useful was getting your degree in audio engineering? Would you recommend getting a degree in something more job-friendly and learning music on the side, or learning music primarily?
Let me address this question officially on the blog, because it’s an important one. And if you’re a person considering going to school, understand that this answer is going to be nuanced. Reality always resists simplicity. I will not give you an easy answer, I will only help you refine your own judgement.
First, I’m going to use a generic term for a degree in the music field. Let’s call it a ‘music degree’. This could mean audio engineering, composing, electronic music, performance, whatever. I imagine that most of this advice could apply to visual arts degrees as well.
Second, I’m mostly addressing readers in the United States and other countries where college or university is stupid expensive. In many countries, education is subsidized to a point where hell yes it is totally worth it to go.
Let’s get to the heart of the question
Here are two different things:
- A music degree
- Several years of knowledge, experience and skill in music making.
Do not confuse them. They are not the same thing. Allow me to demonstrate.
A lazy, unmotivated person can barely scrape by through college, juuuust passing tests and assignments and then forgetting the lessons immediately after. They ‘earn’ a degree at the end and still have zero understanding of their chosen craft. Thus they have earned #1 but not #2. You’ve probably met people like this.
On the other hand, a dedicated, self-motivated person can achieve #2 without #1 at all, even though there are some people who will try to imply that this isn’t possible.
So which one do you want? Which one is most important to you?
The best way to look at a music degree is that it is what you happen to end up with at the end of some number of years of formalized practice and study that you paid money for.
So the real questions become
- Is it worth it to spend up to a hundred thousand dollars and/or put myself in debt for 30 years in order to get 2-4 years of formalized education and practice in my chosen field?
- Could I get something similar by myself, without attending school?
- Are people and potential clients/employers going to think less of me if I don’t have a degree, making it more difficult to succeed in my career?
Now we’ve gotten to the heart of the issue fairly quickly. Let’s address each question, one at a time.
Is it worth it to spend up to a hundred thousand dollars and/or put myself in debt for 30 years in order to get 2-4 years of formalized education and practice in my chosen field?
I’m going to take this over to author, educator, philanthropist and pizza-lover John Green, one of my heroes, to talk about the value of college.
The gist of the video is that even though it is ridiculously expensive, mathematically it’s generally still worth it to go to college. Plus, the quality of jobs you can get are usually better, even if they don’t pay more. There’s a lot more he addresses too, and it’s less than 4 minutes long, so you should definitely watch it if you can.
On the other hand, read this article: “Don’t go to art school“. The author, an amazing professional concept artist and illustrator, believes that art school is basically a scam and that you can get just as good an education by doing things yourself, and he even presents a curriculum for the reader to self-teach with.
So is it worth it or not? You may be forming your own personal answer to that already, after seeing those two, very different, ideas. That reminds me…
Digression! Here comes one of the most important life lessons I can give you: two completely opposing viewpoints, both intelligently derived, can coexist simultaneously and both can be valid. The universe will not implode. No “side” has to “win” in order for you to make good decisions and move on with your life.
You will meet many, many people who will tell you that there’s only one specific way to solve certain problems, for everyone. No matter how smart they seem or how convinced they are, they will almost always be wrong about this. Maybe it’s not super polite to point this out to them, but keep it in mind. From career advice to religion to politics to social issues, whenever someone seems REALLY sure about an opinion, there’s a good chance they haven’t actually done their research. Keep in mind that this may include people whom you love and/or admire.
Like I said, reality always resists simplicity.
Okay, back to the issue at hand! Now that we’ve gotten a couple different answers, lets get to the next question.
Could I get something similar by myself, without attending school?
At least this one is a simple answer: yes! Universities probably don’t like to admit that they are no longer the only place to get high-level, detailed information on various subjects. The amount of information you can glean from the internet would have cost you a fortune to have access to 40 years ago, and I’m not just talking about Wikipedia. Guitar lessons, music theory courses, production classes, and lectures on any subject are available to you, for free, right now. This might be why universities are spending more and more on facilities and student services these days.
If you are dedicated and you come up with an educational plan for yourself, you can give yourself a pretty great education. Get a ton of music and production books, buy a musical instrument and pay for some lessons, get a digital audio workstation and start making music. Join in online music writing competitions and get honest feedback on your work. Find composers or musicians that you admire and write to them and ask if you can send them some of your work to get feedback from them. The worst that can happen is they’ll say no. Come up with a year-long plan for educating yourself: finish x number of books, get 200 hours of instrument practice, write 30 songs, you get the idea. Even just a 3-month plan can be a good start if you’re not sure what you want to do.
Consider moving in with friends or family to save money, and working only a part-time job so you’ll actually have time to do this. I know this all sounds like a big commitment, but so is going to college; this will at least be a lot cheaper.
After a year of self-teaching, you can come up with your second year plan, or simply drop it and walk away. You’ll have no serious debt crippling your life, you’ll have learned a lot about yourself, and you will have become a more interesting person in the process.
Here’s what you won’t get from self-education though: you won’t have classmates, world-class facilities, or dedicated teachers. This can be difficult if you have a hard time motivating yourself, like I do. I managed to learn music theory, electronic music production, guitar, piano, and banjo mostly on my own, but it took me a long time. I had and still have trouble getting myself started when usually I just want to read a book or play Titanfall all day.
Working in a group setting, with helpful teachers, can make a huge difference in your learning experience.
Are people and potential clients/employers going to think less of me if I don’t have a degree, making it more difficult to succeed in my career?
Usually, game developers don’t care if you have a degree or not. Indies definitely don’t care. I think that this is even more true for musicians. Really it’s more the quality of your work and how sociable you are that determines whether you’re hired.
That said, having a degree certainly looks good on a resume, and I’m sure it’s a requirement for some game developers, to help them filter out the vast number of resumes they receive. I’ve never worked as an employee at a game company, so take what I say about it with a grain of salt.
Would you recommend getting a degree in something more job-friendly and learning music on the side…?
No. No. No no no. I hate the logic of this. I’ve heard this kind of thing so many times from many different people, all throughout my life. This is terrible advice. Don’t do it. Don’t spend a hundred thousand dollars on something you’re not interested in. If you feel like you need to go to college but no program sounds appealing or you’re just not sure what you want to do, just don’t go to college yet. There’s nothing stopping you from going later.
Going to college for something you don’t care about, when you really want to do music, is like giving up before you’ve even started. Ask yourself what you really want from your life.
Now I’m not saying that financial security as your only motivator is wrong. But if you’re coming to me for advice, I’m guessing that’s not you.
So wait, what did we learn?
I’m sorry that I can’t give you an easy answer. I hope I at least gave you some clarity as you go about making your own decisions. I plan on making a very basic curriculum for self-teaching music production for games, so stick around this blog for updates on that in the future. Let me know on Twitter (@benprunty) how your personal career journey is going. Good luck!