Education vs Experience: What’s Best If You Want to Break Into The Music Industry?

August 29, 2011 by Amber Wade

Education vs Experience: What’s Best If You Want to Break Into The Music Industry?

(Pictured above: Steve Cole)

Between the shaky job market and the equally uneasy state of the music industry, it would seem that pursuing a career in the music business isn’t the most lucrative path. Yet thanks to changing technology and a growing awareness of opportunities in the business, more and more students are opting to pursue degrees in the music industry. Still, many students forego an education—and the mountains of student loans associated with it—to dive head-first into the music industry and learn as they go. This all begs the question: Which is more important, education or experience?

According to Justin Sinkovich, assistant professor and media management supervisor in the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management department at Chicago’s Columbia College, the answer is a little bit of both. “The first thing I say on the first day of every class is to make sure to become friends with every single person in that class,” he says. While networking is obviously possible without an education, programs like the one offered at Columbia College work to help students network with those already in the industry. The school’s staff of part-time faculty consists of industry professionals who teach classes in addition to working their regular jobs. In addition, the program offers students the opportunity to gain actual work experience while still in school: Besides offering more traditional classes—for instance, Sinkovich teaches courses in music business as well as online marketing—students also work running AEMMP, the school’s not-for-profit record label.

Beyond access to easier networking, though, an education in the right program can offer other advantages over those who opt not to pursue a formal education. Sinkovich says that a lot of additional information like copyright law, publishing and general business education is useful to have in any job in the music industry—and despite being something that can be self-taught, a classroom setting can assist in gaining this knowledge.

A formal education provides more than just basic skills that can be used in the music business, however. Steve Cole, chair of the music business management program at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota, says that by receiving an education, students can learn how to put all those skills together and make use of them to start a career. “You finish an class in finance, and you get a yellow Lego that designates your completion of this finance class,” he says. “Then you do a strategic management class and you get a blue Lego. Then you do an accounting class and you get a red Lego, and at the end of your degree you’ve got a box full of Legos—but no one has ever told you how to put it together to make it anything. You have to figure it out on your own.” According to Cole, the program at McNally Smith—and similar programs at other schools—works to help students figure out exactly how to put all those blocks together in order to make something useful out of it—and how to apply these experiences in a real-world setting.

But for those who do opt to pursue an education in the music business, the concern is what kind of jobs will actually be available to them after graduation. There are many facets of the music business, and a wide variety of specializations students can pursue while attaining a degree. These can range from live and studio production, management, marketing, public relations, merchandising and, of course, the ever-growing new media- and technology-related positions. While more traditional positions in the music industry are hard to come by—such as jobs in A&R, i.e., the department containing the people who discover and sign bands—Sinkovich says plenty of students are creating jobs of their own: “You see a lot of students collaborating on new companies and new projects and that sort of thing.”

Columbia College junior Will Miner is doing just that. “I now produce for a large amount of local Chicago and St. Louis-based artists under my own production company, Streetsrose Music Group, and am currently trying to sign on with multiple publishing and licensing companies,” he says. Miner’s company works with artists on songwriting and record production—and while he is happy with his current level of success, he says choosing between sticking with school or heading to New York or Los Angeles to jump right into the industry is a tough and constantly bothersome choice.

(Will Miner)

Miner admits, however, that by sticking with school, he feels his opportunities are continually increasing—something that might not have happened had he opted to skip out on an education. “The longer I have spent at Columbia, the more frequent my job offers and internship offers have been,” he says. “By the end of my senior year, I will have plenty of opportunities and the connections needed to get a job in the industry, which I can not say I would have if I had just hopped on a plane to L.A and tried my luck out there.” Still, he cautions that the degree itself isn’t the most advantageous thing. “Let's be honest: A degree in music means nothing,” he says. “When you try to get a job as a lawyer, a doctor, etc., they want to know where you graduated from and what your class rank was. When you apply for a position in the music industry they want to know your contacts and they want to see your portfolio/body of work.”

While Miner feels his situation has improved as a result of his educational experience, this isn’t always the case for students. Former McNally Smith student Kyle Frenette felt that the best decision he made while in school was starting his record label, Amble Down, which has put out releases from artists such as the Gentle Guest, Meridene and We Are The Willows. In fact, he wasn’t entirely happy with his decision to focus on education. “I just felt—and still feel—that this industry calls for first-hand experience over anything else, and that can't be taught in a classroom,” he says. “If I could do it all over again, I would have ventured into a more sustainable, more focused degree.”

So how do students accrue experience? And what’s the best way to go about getting a job in the music industry? There is no definite answer as to the best way to go. A degree in music business isn’t a magical piece of paper that guarantees its recipient plentiful job opportunities. If anything, it’s about the education and experiences that earned that piece of paper. Networking, a general business knowledge and a familiarity with technology are all also a necessity today. In fact, although graduates are creating their own jobs through entrepreneurship, Sinkovich notes they’re also creating jobs within existing companies because of technological progress. Having grown up immersed in digital culture, those students who are just now working their way in are easily able to adapt to whatever technological curveballs are thrown at them. “If you can find a way to infuse technology with the music industry, I think you have a very strong chance to get a job,” says Sinkovich.

At the end of the day, while a degree may give someone a leg up in some situations, passion is really the key. For those eager for a future in the music business—whether self-taught or university educated—Cole has this advice. “You must live, sleep, eat and breathe the music industry, because there‘s no other way to succeed.”

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