Is Music Still a Viable Major and Career Plan?

by Barbra Weidlein

Wondering if music is still a viable major and career plan? If so, you’re not alone. The pandemic hit the music world hard. While some found innovative new ways to make and share music, others found themselves second-guessing the wisdom of pursuing music as a career. “Worldwide, we’ve seen some incredibly talented musicians find creative ways of continuing to get music into the world…and we’ve seen others who have given up, just waiting for it all to blow over,” says Ryan Brown, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM).

“Questioning is essential,” reminds Ashley Hall, Manager of Career Coaching at Longy School of Music. “Students always need to be evaluating and gut-checking their answers to questions about their music career plans.” Jonathan Kuuskoski, chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship and Leadership at University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, adds, “It is actually essential that our students understand how the ‘real world’ is going to be challenging, at times unfair, and sometimes downright depressing. Our students demand this kind of transparency, and for good reason – having a realistic view of the professional world is the requisite starting point for developing a capacity to navigate it successfully.”

Due to the pandemic, looking closely at what it will likely take to have a viable music-oriented career post-Covid is more essential than ever. Not to discourage you from pursuing music – but to help you understand early in your musical journey what you need to be doing besides becoming a more proficient musician.

Pandemic upshot

We spoke with numerous career development and entrepreneurship faculty at music schools across the U.S. to learn how they’re guiding music-driven students toward sustainable post-pandemic careers. Many of these folks continue to enjoy active music careers outside of academia.

According to Blaire Koerner, Assistant Director of the Institute for Music Leadership at The Eastman School of Music, the pandemic “magnified any gaps we had in incorporating technology, removing barriers, being flexible, connecting virtually, and sustaining partnerships…It’s undoubtable that COVID-19 will have permanently impacted the music field and the world moving forward.”

“A successful career in music has always been a long game,” says Joanie Spain, Career Advisor at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. “There will always be more talented graduates than open auditions for orchestra seats.” This is also true in other performance and non-performance areas of music. So it’s vitally important to develop and hone the skills, strategies and mindset required for growing your career.

“The pandemic brought certain things into sharp focus,” Spain adds. “It underscored the need for students to build an entrepreneurial toolkit and familiarity with relevant technology, especially media. It highlighted the importance of coaching students in the development of their own musical ideas, innovative projects, and music business basics in order to build skills and confidence leading to long-term career success. It confirmed the importance of building a professional network and connecting with alumni as an integral part of their education.”

What should you expect from your music degree(s)?

Most schools would agree with the assessment that an undergraduate degree in any field is meant to be what Spain calls “broad and exploratory.” 

As an undergrad, it’s a good time to investigate your areas of interest but also explore non-music directions as well. “We remind students that they can use their bachelor’s degree to navigate in any direction after college,” says Spain. “They may have earned their degree through the primary lens of music, but it doesn’t in any way limit their career options. In fact, employers in every sector value candidates trained in music because of the remarkable qualities they develop through their studies.” 

Ryan Brown at SFCM strongly encourages prospective and current music majors to “Define ‘career in music’ for yourselves. If you mean earning a full-time income making just the music you want to make, that is a long shot and you may have to make quality-of-life sacrifices to get there. But there are many, many gradations between that goal and doing nothing with music whatsoever. Finding your own part of that gradation should be your goal, and, as a music conservatory, it’s our responsibility to support you in that process.”  

Entrepreneurship and business skills

If you have little to no experience in entrepreneurship training, find classes, a minor or a certificate program to help you learn how to create your own opportunities and fill needs in the community through a music-related response. “Entrepreneurship goes beyond ‘business skills,’ it rests on a foundation of understanding the needs and sensibilities of the people you are trying to reach with your art,” says Jeffrey Nytch, composer and Director of the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at the University of Colorado-Boulder College of Music. “It requires the ability to recognize unmet opportunities and then to devise sustainable methods to capitalize on those opportunities.” Jonathan Kuuskoski at Michigan adds: “It is precisely in times of disruption that we need artists to find new solutions to old problems.”

Find ways to improve your networking and business skills that will help you broaden your income streams down the road. Seek internships for hands-on experience. Look for these far in advance of graduating so you can use the resources at your school to your advantage.

When should you pivot re: your music career plans? 

The pandemic has prompted many people in every career field to rethink their current path. Pivoting is the well-thought-out process of purposefully shifting into a new related direction. 

Several of the career development folks we spoke with cautioned against looking at pivoting as a sign of failure. “We must embrace a narrative around music career viability that gives permission for students to say yes to additional paths and pursuits outside of music without feeling like a failure,” says Ashley Hall at Longy. “We need to encourage students to have multiple interests and to find ways to be creative with how they integrate music in their careers.”

Jonathan Kuuskoski at Michigan says, “Pivoting can mean many things. It can mean supplementing an existing career, adding a new prong to one’s portfolio, or it can mean giving something up to pursue something new.”

He adds: “Just about every artist pivots in their career at some point, in some way. No matter the circumstance, it is rarely a strong move to pivot in a reactionary state, such as in response to a moment of crisis. One is almost always better off starting with a visioning process that lays out some ‘north star’ goals, a longer term vision for your future. 

“We focus on helping students develop tools to plan for uncertainty and develop the habit of critically analyzing their goals over time; that kind of planning gives them more authority to take chances and try new things when exciting (but unproven) opportunities emerge. The good news is that there is more than one pathway to achieving your vision, and once you have claimed your longer-term goals it becomes easier to identify the right moment to ‘pivot’ in whatever way makes sense to you.”

Since Covid hit in 2020 and venues started shutting down, musicians have been forced to take a hard look at their finances, the job market, and more. According to Natasha Jones, Life and Work Advisor at CalArts, “This does not mean that they have to pivot away from music, but consider some additional career options.” She suggests that students look at “their past work/volunteer/extracurricular experiences and what they liked about them.” They can then learn about “jobs that relate to their experiences and interests” and then “figure out what they need in order to pursue these jobs.”

Rebecca Nussbaum, Director of Career Development at University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), encourages students to think of their future in terms of a “portfolio career,” i.e., developing skills that will allow you to have multiple income sources. She’s confident that “A career in music is absolutely viable if the student musician is prepared to maintain a portfolio career that includes developing skills in performance, pedagogy, communication, technology, and professionalism. Being adaptable and willing to continue to develop is paramount to success for all musicians.”

Correlating Careers vs. Plan B

Dana Lynne Varga is a classical vocalist, voice teacher, and career coach who teaches in the Vocal Studies Department at Longy. An advocate for singers and positive change in the classical vocal world, Varga has written extensively about career concerns. She counters the idea of a “Plan B” for performers in particular (i.e., a fall-back plan in case music doesn’t prove to meet your needs) with the what she calls a “correlating career.” 

In a nutshell, she describes this with a twist on something musicians have heard countless times: “If you can see yourself doing anything else, do that too.”

Varga says a correlating career is one that “runs alongside” your area of musical focus. It may be musical but it may not be. Most of all, it’s something that you are also interested in and hopefully passionate about. And it provides income that contributes to your financial stability.

“Being robust in your career planning is important for musicians,” says Nick Ross, who chairs the Department of Music at Otterbein University. Use the career resources available to you when you’re in college to plan for additional income streams. This can lessen the chances of having to scramble later on. For some, this may mean getting a double or dual degree, adding one or more minors, or flipping their major and minor (music becomes the minor).

The importance of self care

Everyone we spoke with emphasizes the importance of self care, especially as you move forward from the pandemic. Joanie Spain at the Jacobs School of Music sums it up well when she says: “We’ve long acknowledged that injury prevention is important to a career in professional music. We realize now more than ever that not all injuries are visible.”

Career development faculty are including wellbeing check-ins and programs specifically designed to support the “whole human artist,” says Richard Kessler, Dean of Mannes School of Music at The New School. “What we mean by this is that we explicitly support a healthy physical, emotional, and yes spiritual practice, including the development of coping skills, stage fright management, meditation, healthy eating, good practice habits, and an overall healthy attitude towards your development as a human being and artist,” he elaborates. 

“Artists should approach self care in the same way we treat other obligations (e.g. practicing, rehearsing, studying!) – that is to say, it should be habitualized and prioritized into one’s weekly schedule as much as possible,” urges Jonathan Kuuskoski. “Find a small way to connect and integrate some easy-to-adapt practices into your daily life, check in regularly with them, and connect with others who are engaged with that work to support you along the way.”

3 Key Takeaways

1. Ongoing career planning is essential.

The music industry is fluid. Ever-changing technology drives many of the shifts in the way music is consumed. Therefore, any serious future in music requires staying current with all of it. Continuing education is a “must” in music.

“To understand and prep for this new world that we live in,” says Blaire Koerner at Eastman, “incoming musicians should have an open mind and remember change isn’t a bad thing. Be proactive in your pursuit of music. Get curious about what opportunities now exist and current trends, talk to people active in the field to get their advice and insight, and try stuff out to gain valuable experiences and transferable skills.”

2. Transferable skills can be used in other fields.

As a music student, you learn skills that are needed in most career fields. Knowing how to translate these “transferable skills” to other contexts will be extremely useful for pursuing any career.

3. Prepare early for a career in music. 

Start using the career services offered at your college as soon as possible. Develop a broad skillset that will help you adapt to ongoing changes in the world of music.

Barbra Weidlein is Director of
Photo credit:  © The New School


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