Let’s say that you’re a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eighteen year old, and you LOVE music. In fact, you love music so much that you have decided that you’d like to be a Professor of Music at an Institute of Higher Learning someday. So, you embark on a journey to gain not only an undergraduate degree in Music Performance, but a Masters and Doctorate, as well.
But let’s say that you are determined, and you know that in order to get one of college teaching jobs, you’re not just going to need a Doctor of Musical Arts degree, you’re going to probably need one from one of the top music schools in America. Why? Well, when you graduate with your third degree, there may be only one or two full-time, tenure-track positions available on your principal instrument in the entire freaking country. Period. You will have to compete with literally hundreds of applicants for every position, all of whom will be fully qualified with doctorates and most of whom will have prior collegiate teaching experience.
So you audition at all of the very top music schools, and you actually get in to one of them—which is tough, because the top music schools only accept about 15-30% percent of all applicants. You decide to double major in performance and education, which is a smart career move, but it means that you’ll need a minimum of five years of college to graduate with both undergraduate degrees. Let’s see how much that’s going to cost you, shall we?
Boston Conservatory: $61,932 per year
Frost School of Music at the University of Miami: $62,342 per year
Manhattan School of Music: $62,550 per year
Mannes School of Music: $61,180 per year
Oberlin Conservatory of Music: $66,065 per year
Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University: $63,060 per year
San Francisco Conservatory of Music: $60,410 per year
Shepherd School of Music at Rice University: $58,283 per year
USC Thornton School of Music: $66,403 per year
WHAT THE HELL, MAN? For a music degree? It’s going to cost $300,000 for an undergraduate degree from a top music school? Well, luckily for you, you’re quite a good musician, so you’ve been offered a 50% music scholarship, but you’re going to have to cover the rest of it yourself. No worries—you’ll just have $150K in student loan debt when you graduate. Oh, wait, you still need an additional five years of graduate work. Damn. Hopefully you’ll get a gig as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, so you’ll maybe only rack up another $50K in student loans by the time you’re finally done.
Whew, okay. You’ve got nearly a quarter of a million dollars in student loans to pay off, but it’s all good—you’re finally ready to go get that coveted college teaching job! Except that there aren’t any. It’s not like teaching Math or Science or Economics or Social Science—Music jobs are incredibly specialized. If you’re a Clarinet player, you can’t get a job teaching Violin.
All that’s available are part-time lecturer/instructor jobs, because the full-time jobs have been taken by people with actual playing and teaching experience (this isn’t hyperbole, by the way—at this moment, there less than ten full-time, tenure-track, applied music teaching jobs available in America), and those people are clinging to those jobs with all their might. So even the part-time positions are being taken by people with doctorates, and those pay less than thirty grand a year with no benefits.
And here comes your first student loan bill. And it’s so big that it makes your head hurt.
But let’s say that you defy all of the odds, and you actually get a full-time job. Do you know how much it’s going to pay? Less than fifty thousand dollars a year. That’s right, you went to school for a decade, acquired more debt than you could ever actually pay, and all so you could get a job that pays you considerably less than you would have made if you had just gone to a state school, gotten a Music Ed degree, and taught middle school band. Of course, you didn’t get a job at an SEC or Big Ten or Big Twelve or Ivy school or top-level conservatory. Those jobs require a dozen years of experience and a resume as an international performer. No, you’re stuck teaching at somewhere like the aforementioned East Tennessee State, in the middle of nowhere, where you have exactly zero opportunity to play music professionally. You also can’t take any private students, because nobody in that part of the country has any budget for taking private lessons. And you’re one of the lucky ones—your immensely talented friends from the conservatory are envious of you, because they are currently waiting tables.
In other words, you would have been better off trying to make the NFL. Your odds would have been much, much better. Every year, over two hundred rookies actually make the NFL. Music schools are graduating far more music performance majors every year, and there is far less opportunity.
Something’s got to change. The system is untenable. There are far too few jobs for far too many graduates. And while music programs continue to face cuts to faculty numbers, the system is still producing high numbers of qualified candidates. The ratios are actually getting worse.
People often ask me if my kids are musical—it makes sense that they would be, what with Mrs. Bark being a music professor and my modest musical abilities. As much as I love music and respect the people who, unlike me, were courageous enough to put everything on the line to pursue their dreams, I plan to actively discourage my own kids from pursuing it as a career. As a hobby? Absolutely. But as bad as the job market is for musicians now, it’s only going to get worse in the next fifteen to twenty years as the opportunities for real music and real musicians diminish.
This is one of these unfortunate situations where Capitalism might not be the best way to go, but it’s the best way that we have. Music, as a profession, is dying.