My Student Has Chosen To Pursue Music As A Career. ARE WE SCREWED?

We want to thank Dwight Heckelman for his guest blog. Dwight D. Heckelman has over 20 years experience in nearly every facet of the music industry. In 2005, he left the corporate world for academia. He served as the Career Development and Job Recruitment Coordinator at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. From 2009 to July 2022, Dwight performed as the Founder and Director of GROOVE U. Sadly, GROOVE U did not survive COVID’s impact and closed in July 2022.

My Student Has Chosen To Pursue Music As A Career. ARE WE SCREWED?

Bottom line? No. The music industry contributes roughly $143 billion to the state GDP each year with over 1.9 million jobs supported in the United States alone. It’s a big industry and it’s growing on a global level. Pursuing music as a career doesn’t have to be a gamble!

But what kind of jobs are available to my student?

There are three branches of the music industry in which revenue is generated:

  1. Live Concerts + Touring
  2. Record Labels
  3. Publishing + Licensing

Within each of these branches are hundreds of creatives, technical and business professionals working behind the scenes to bring the digital world of multi-media to consumers on a daily basis. Instead of thinking about where you purchase music, think of it in terms of where and how you consume music. What would Stranger Things be without the eerie soundtrack and sound effects? Only half of us would continue to watch the Super Bowl without the half-time show, and commercials – both which have music as a key component.

But what if my student just isn’t a guitar prodigy?

The music industry is not a talent-driven industry.

You probably determined that for yourself if you turned on your radio this week. That’s not to state that everyone you hear on the radio doesn’t possess talent, but rather that talent is not the determining factor in success.

So if it’s not talent driven….it must be degree driven?

No. The music industry is a relationship-driven industry.

You may have already heard the tired axiom, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Certainly, as it pertains to the music industry that statement holds true. The factor driving the decision making process in the music industry is the number and quality of the relationships between those individuals involved in making that decision.

So…uh…how does my student make relationships? What if they’re an introvert?

The number one question of any potential college enrollee in a music industry program should be, “What is this program doing to help me make relationships with music industry professionals?”

When a student chooses to enroll in a college music industry program, s/he is doing so from outside the music industry seeking a pathway to inside the music industry. A student will never transition from an “outside” hobbyist to an “inside” professional unless the college actively facilitates the student in creating numerous, quality relationships.

What should the college be doing?

The college should be thinking globally and acting locally on behalf of the student. Which is to say under the guidance of instructors, students need to conduct class projects with local businesses and organizations on a regular basis. The college should also create events that attract music community participation.

The college should take students to events where the global music industry community comes together — events such as South-by-Southwest (SXSW) music, film, and interactive festival. There is nothing like an immersive experience with 15,000+ other music industry professionals and 2,500+ emerging artists to compel a student to successfully network. The college should vet quality events, integrate them fully into the curriculum for all students enrolled in the program, required attendance as part of the curriculum and include it with tuition.

Additionally, the college must bring in industry professionals in small settings to meet and speak with its students. A small-by-design program is necessary if students are to have meaningful interactions with music industry professionals.

Last but not least, the college should help students craft relationships with future music industry professionals. Which is to say, the college needs to help its students interact not just with fellow students in a professional environment but also with their peers at other colleges in similar music industry programs. The sooner they begin to work together not just within the institution, not just between grade levels, and not just between classes and outside class but with their outside peers and alumni the faster their network grows.

College degree…check


Debt up to our eyeballs…check (sigh)

My student is all set to land their dream job, right?

Not quite. Every first job in the music industry is an entry level job, and a degree isn’t even a foot in the door.

I recently had some electrical wiring work completed. When it came time to locate a contractor, I got some referrals from people I trusted and contacted a certified master electrician for a quote; I didn’t ask him where he went to trade school nor did I ask to see his diploma.

Had I quizzed this electrician, it would not surprise me to learn his career path involved attending a trade school and upon graduation applying as an apprentice to a master electrician. After three years of working and learning from a master electrician, he would be eligible to take a licensing exam and become a journeyman electrician. Another year of on-the-job training and he could take another licensing test and become a master electrician. But the final step — becoming a certified master electrician — would have involved opening his own business and getting quality referrals from customers. Counting the first initial year or so of schooling wherein at least 1,000 hours are logged on-the-job, becoming “upper-middle” management could easily take him a decade to complete.

The music industry journey…

Although the process is much less formalized, the journey to “upper-middle” management in a music industry career has more parity with an electrician than it does with an investment banker. I worked at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, so I can say with full confidence I never witnessed a Bachelor of Music in Music Production and Engineering graduate walk out the door as the ink dries on his/her degree to find Jay-Z parked on the curb asking him/her to join the crew on his next record.

Most music industry programs are offered through private, four year colleges — the average cost of which is almost $35,000 annually just in tuition. Multiply that by six years and add in living expenses, and it’s not hard to come up with a $200,000+ figure. For an industry that offers recent graduates only entry-level jobs (and the accompanying pay that inevitably comes with any entry-level job), that’s a not-very-appealing value proposition.

Few things illustrate the disconnect between traditional college education for the music industry and this irrefutable fact: the music industry isn’t a formally credentialed industry, it’s an apprenticeship based industry.

Education must center around students repeating guided processes through hands-on projects — projects which ultimately result in students developing the substantial professional portfolios required to secure that first entry-level job. Just like the skilled trades, a career in the music industry requires a broad knowledge of the entire trade as well as a niche, specialized skill set.

Multiple internships spanning hundreds of hours must be sine qua non, not ancillary or optional. Securing quality internships requires the student craft quality relationships….(remember what we discussed about relationships!?)

Ok, I feel completely overwhelmed. Where do I start?

As mentioned above, GROOVE U closed in July 2022 due to COVID. We recommend a Google search of the variety of programs in Ohio that offer music business/music tech training if your student is considering music as a career. Alumni go on to work in concert booking and promotion, festival management, audio production, live event production, video production…just to name a few. Schedule a tour of the facility. Ask about the experiences and job placement students will receive. Music is one of those fields where networking and experience is key to finding a job after graduation.


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