3 Myths about Careers in Music

Are music majors determined to have successful careers in music deluding themselves? Here are 3 myths about careers in music with some facts to help dispel them.

by Dr. Michelle Stanley

Myth #1: Music majors are destined for a life of struggle and financial instability.

A musician’s career is one of diverse and multiple income streams. Rarely do musicians earn their income from a single source. From performance to teaching, composing to recording, a successful musician’s financial stability is the result of seeking and creating options for generating income.

Looking beyond traditional jobs gives a bigger picture of viable career options for musicians. Many businesses, for instance, are discovering that musicians make incredible employees due to their communication skills, organizational ideas, discipline, and focus. Music can also be a contributor to the success of a business. Witness, for instance, Chipotle and the DJ who puts playlists together for all 1400 of their restaurants.

The music industry simply isn’t the same as it used to be. It is now driven by technology, innovation, value, and entrepreneurship. Musicians who adapt and change easily, and who are creative and entrepreneurial, are more likely to be successful.

Myth #2: The only jobs in music are in music education

Music educators are essential for training the next generation of musicians. They also ensure that there will continue to be successful engineers, doctors, project managers, software designers, and others who learned how to work as part of a team as a result of playing in school orchestras and bands and by singing in school choirs.

But teaching is only one of many career options for music majors. From composing to performing to arts management to music therapy, the possibilities for music majors continue to expand. Though the landscape for earning a living as a musician is constantly changing, jobs for those with a musical background are not going away, especially in the technology sphere where Silicon Valley giants like Apple, with their acquisition of Beats, and Google, are trying to fundamentally change the way we consume music.

See “What Can You Do with a Music Degree?” to get a sense of the breadth of available careers. Notice from this career list that many career options are tied to technological fields where music is a valued asset.

Myth #3: The American orchestra is dead (and so are orchestra jobs)

American orchestras are learning to shift their business models in order to survive. They’re discovering new performance venues and exploring collaborative opportunities to broaden their appeal, especially to younger audiences. For instance, the Utah Symphony is presenting concerts in the National Parks while the Metropolitan Opera is offering wildly popular, sold-out simulcasts of their productions in movie theatres across the country. Small chamber groups are growing into the symphony model (eg., Alarm Will Sound, Eighth Blackbird), with concert tours and subscription concerts. Even the New York Philharmonic is teaming with music ensembles like Bang on a Can to create a new sound for the new millennium.

Though it may be unreasonable to count on a job as principal chair in an orchestra, it is not unreasonable to consider teaming with an orchestra in a way that is fresh and unusual.

Dr. Michelle Stanley is Assistant Professor of Music (flute) at Colorado State University. She is an active recitalist nationally and abroad and is a regular performer in orchestral and chamber settings. Her teaching at CSU includes flute, chamber music and the nationally recognized LEAP Institute, an arts leadership and entrepreneurship program for CSU arts students.


  1. Geoffrey A

    This is great to read. I am an ESL teacher and guitarist and singer. I have a background in communications and linguistics and spent a year at Berklee. Looking to change from teaching ESL into music. It’s really good to read about career ops; it’s not just playing in a a club anymore for sure!

  2. Keith

    Some of my undergrads found this, and they find hope in its message. The overall message is spot on.

    I would quibble a bit with #3, particularly with the idea that “chamber groups are growing into the symphony model.” I would say that the reverse is true (symphonies are moving into the chamber model), and use some of the same examples you give (alternative concert spaces and media), and also note that small chamber ensembles are using the models of rock bands to achieve success, through constant touring and performing. The type of touring that 8bb and Alarm do is unlike any symphony that I know. And the type of residencies that they do are very different from those of symphonies.

    Some symphonies are learning how to diversify. Salonen did this with the LA Phil, promoting new music concerts with a smaller ensemble, and encouraging the musicians to pursue side projects of interest. The Seattle Symphony had a smaller subset perform at Le Poisson Rouge the night before its big Carnegie Hall Concert. I think the success of chamber groups points to how it is easier to survive as a small ensemble with lower costs given the current economic climate. Orchestras aren’t dead, but we (universities) need to do more to promote chamber music instruction as part of our overall emphasis on entrepreneurialism.

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