Ted Lehman, a writer for the roots music column No Depression, has released an essay about the viability of a music degree in bluegrass, and his argument can be made for music degrees and other niche degrees in general.
In the post, Lehman discusses the rise of courses and majors dedicated to the music of bluegrass across the country. Schools like East Tennessee State University, Bethel University, and the Berklee College of Music all have programs dedicated to roots music and have produced notable professionals in the genre. The greater question Lehman proposes is if the investment in a degree is worth it to those coming out of high school looking to make it into the music world. Lehman asks,
“Do the available opportunities represent real choices for students, or are they more effective marketing as colleges seek to recruit adolescents burning with a fever to succeed in music? Does a college degree function to offer more choices or narrow opportunities? Are young people interested in becoming touring musicians better served by going on the road after high school rather than investing huge amounts of capital and/or assuming massive debt for a highly competitive profession with relatively few high earners?”
As someone who studied the music business myself, I sympathize with Lehman’s discussion. My studies focused on the business of music rather than the creation of music itself, and I am trying to leverage that knowledge into positions within the industry. Still, sometimes I wonder if I should have studied something more viable for this world and economy rather than something so niche and complicated, then used that degree for the same goal.
Lehman makes a great point about the marketing of these types of “cool” degrees to prospective students. For example, though not related to music, my alma mater Middle Tennessee State University will soon be offering a Fermentation Sciences program dedicated to the industry of craft brewing and food preservation. Though craft beer and microbreweries are economically on the rise, some fear that this major is too specific and only a small part of a much larger knowledge of chemistry needed in such an industry. The thought here is that MTSU is appealing to a younger generation of students by offering a “cool” major focused on beer, rather than focusing on something practical that could then be leveraged into the same line of work.
I am glad I studied what I studied, but Lehman’s argument is one that should be discussed by all prospective students looking to enter a music program. Maybe a working knowledge of the industry backed by the accreditation of a four-year institution can help one’s chances of landing a dream job, but the amount of money invested in such a degree that could instead be used to jump into the industry from the get-go is something that should be considered. Art is beautiful and should be pursued, but maybe a starving artist should not starve with debt.