One of the questions that pops up on the forum is simply the title above. The responses, as you can imagine – are mixed. Some say ‘yes’ and some say ‘no’. The problem with answering this question is that it’s so subjective to experience.
Jeremy Clarkson is famous for popping up on A-Level results day – claiming that A-Levels aren’t the be-all and end-all and reminding us that his lack of A-Levels didn’t hamper his journalistic and meteoric Tv career! But this ignores two very key factors: the skills and gumption of the individual and how the world works at particular points in history.
Rather than explain further right now, let’s delve into to the pros and cons of a Music based degree in 2021 where these points will be expanded upon, and you can make up your own mind – which is most important here.
We’ll deal with the Pros in this Article, and the cons in another – the subject is too big for one post!
The Pros of a Degree
- Focused and managed Skill development
This might be the most important aspect of taking a skills course. You’ll be taught – usually by professional practitioners – how to be an Audio Engineer. This is such a vital Pro because Audio Engineering is an incredibly complex subject. Depending on where you study, it’ll either be a Bachelor of Art or a Batchelor of Science – but so much of audio engineering is based in Science and Maths as much as it is Music.
Using a mixer, compressor and reverb unit is a very small part of the everyday knowledge a professional taps into – you’ll be taken through the fundamentals of digital audio, acoustics and psycho acoustics, the science of sound among other subjects before getting onto how this applies to beat making. These are natural subjects that you’d teach yourself – at least, unless you’re an incredibly smart and astute individual.
Beyond this, the lessons and the learning curve will be managed to help students take in, practice and develop their skills over the full term of the course with plenty of opportunity to apply it.
2. You’ll study business and music as much as production
The ability to record and mix a record, I’ve always said, are the skills that just qualify you to be invited to the party – but it’s your understanding of the business that will actually get you invited in.
First and foremost – the music industry is a business, and an incredibly complex business at that. And understanding how it works and how to interact with it and the people working within it is essential to making it work to your advantage.
Business lessons might include, but won’t be limited to: developing opportunities; marketing; licencing; contracts; distribution; and so on and so on. It’s not much good possessing these skills and not being able to use them so understanding the business will enable you to understand it and muscle your way into it.
Music will also likely be a part of your course. There are a few big name engineers who have been able to make a very good name for themselves as engineers without any musical knowledge at all, but they are in an extreme minority. Furthermore, they entered into the industry when few were doing it, studios were scarce, and they will have built up a skillset that allows them to understand what’s going on without being able to speak the language.
Furthermore, in the golden days – the Producer, Engineer, Mixer, Session musicians, etc were largely separate people. Almost every practitioner in the industry today considers themselves a “Producer” – of which the modern adoption of the term encompasses all of the above terms. And this helps them earn because the breadth of opportunities increases along with the skill set.
So, in conclusion of this point – you need to know much more about the business than just how to mix a vocal. Some of the most skilled are the busiest.
3. You’ll be required to develop more life skills
Think back to when you were at school and asking “when am I ever going to use English / Maths / Geography….?”
Well, as an experienced professional adult – I can tell you that you’re going to use English and Maths on a daily basis, and a formal course helps to develop these futher.
Your enthusiasm and ability to research new skills is literally a skill in itself. After 10+ years lecturing Degree students and 5 years as an adult student, believe me when I regail that students who believe they know everything and don’t need to learn anything new ‘never’ get anywhere in the study. They rarely produce good work and they also rarely develop positive relationships (which is essential in the musix biz).
A degree course will require you to develop skills in researching, reading and learning – from proper sources rather than a have-a-go-hack Youtube channel. And the result will be learning good quality information that you can apply to produce good quality work.
Moreover, as a professional person for 15+ years in the industry, I find myself applying my researching skills more often than you’d expect and my skills allow me to determine good quality information from bad, and how to form correct conclusions from the breadth of my research. Not sexy at all – but still important.
Similar to researching – I’m using the written word multiple times a day for many important business purposes. It might be communicating with venues, artists and colleagues via email; writing marketing; blogging; responding to potential clients; developing contracts; etc etc etc.
Ultimately I want people to give me work – and here’s how it works – they aren’t going to entertain a business relationship with an illiterate who uses “Ur”, smiley emoji and puts ‘xxxx’ at the end of their communiques asking for work. Regardless of a popular narrative that ‘not evryone is gud at speeling’ – how you present yourself in text is usually going to be the ‘first impression’ that you’re always being told is the most important.
You’ll be required to write reports and analyse your work and decisions at part of a Degree. These skills, only a dullard would argue against, are essential.
I made a reference to analysis in my previous point. A huge part of written projects on a degree programme is analysing your decisions. You’ll see these words often on your grading criteria: “Analysis” and “Critical Commentary”.
These mean that, in writing your reports, you’re asked to justify your decisions and consider alternatives – which requires you to analyse how you approach a task. And, again, this is an essential skill for an audio engineer. “Why am I using Beat Detective over Elastic Audio for time correcting this bass guitar?”. “Why should I use a Variable-Mu Compressor on this particular vocal over a FET?” etc. These projects make you think about the best approaches, and your marks will live and die on those decisions, and how well you’ve considered alternative approaches.
Again – audio engineers are doing this on a hourly basis! It won’t be for every decision – experience will draw us into working in a specifc way without needed to spend time thinking but we often find ourselves needing to consider how best to approach a task to do with our production work.
4. You’ll be guided into studying what matters to the industry.
Certain skills will be important in the industry. Pro Tools is actually a prime example. At Point Blank, I can meet 100+ students each year who join the course expecting to learn all of their skills on Logic and Ableton but – and here’s a key fact it’s hard to get away from – if you’re expecting to be given work in a facility of size or notoriety, you’ll need to understand Pro Tools. I’d wager than an engineer ‘self teaching’ themselves would consider looking at a DAW they don’t care about.
Whether you accept Pro Tools as the ‘industry standard’ or not is really not important. Currently, smaller independent studios and engineers will base their product around the DAW that they like. And that’s fine. Ultimately, you’ll do better on a DAW you love working in so it makes sense to.
But if you want to work in a facility of stature for a wage (or even on a contractual basis), you’re more likely than not going to find that their system is built around Pro Tools. And studio owners won’t entertain the notion of installing “FL Studio” because that’s the DAW you know and you think it’s better anyway – they’re just going to trash your email and move on to the next candidate with Pro Tools experience.
This doesn’t mean you have to change to using Pro Tools if you don’t want to. Not at all. But being able to say that you have experience in it will stand you in good stead for opportunities and if your institution will furnish you with formal Pro Tools qualifications, then all the better.
5. Employers DO look for candidates with formal training as well as experience.
The music industry holds a very unique place in the professional industries. It’s a highly skilled industry that is essentially open to anyone to make a living in. Compare this to Medicine, Law or Engineering for example – also highly skilled industries – you’ll never get a job without a relevant degree.
A popular narrative for a long time in music is that “Employers don’t look for Degrees in the Music Industry”. But this will be a narrative pushed by people who have either managed to make it work themselves without it, entered the industry when it wasn’t such a ‘thing’, or were given their opportunity by someone why already knew.
Remember our Jeremy Clarkson analagy?
In 2021, think of how many students are leaving professional training and seeking paid employment in the small number of employing facilities. If you’re applying for work with a high level of natural skills and no formal qualification, why would you be more valuable than someone of equal skill and evidence of formal training (ie a qualification)?
Employers in Music have the pick of the bunch. They are more likely to pick someone with evidence of formal training than someone with none.
6. The number of opportunities will increase
If you want to make music your living, the smartest musicians I know have mastered the ability to develop multiple income streams. Not all of these require a Degree (although I will bet that the non-musical and non-production skills they’ve developed during their training will play a big part in their ability to generate work) but there’s a key job that musicians seek because of the guaranteed income : Teaching.
If you studied at a Pro School (SSR, Point Blank, Full Sail etc), it’s highly likely that you were taught by a working Engineer – not a full time teacher. These guys are paid really well (and don’t forget that both Anders and I are employed to lead Degree courses so we know!) and the monthly income, alongside the less stable incomes such as studio work and live work, is hugely appreciated.
Without a Degree, this income stream will be closed to you. (And may also likely will continue to do so until you obtain a Masters Degree, although this isn’t neccessarily true for every teaching opening.)
Pros – Conclusion
There’s a lot of information to consider here. Not all of the pros are sexy – there’s no doubt. We all go into recording wanting to record and produce, but there’s so much more to the profession and the working life than just being the mix engineer.
In our next blog – we’ll deal with the Cons of a Degree. The two together should help you make up your own mind whether this route is right for you.