Friday, August 21, 2015

The Music School Bubble

A guest post from the Great Matt Baldoni:

My music education began at age 8 in my hometown, when I began taking
guitar lessons. It continued through junior high and high school where I was
participating in public school music programs for jazz and classical music. I
played my first professional gig with a rock band at age 16. Also that year, the
guidance counselors started pressuring all of us to pick a major. So, I decided
I'd better major in music in college. I had already received a small amount of
attention (and even a few bucks) for what I believed was my passion and my
talent. It should be noted that the word “prodigy” was NEVER used in
reference to me. I don't believe I have any natural gifts or talents, I simply
believe that I was able to discover a sort of “natural affinity” and general
interest for playing music and practicing hard when I was a young kid.

My boomer parents and everyone else told me that I absolutely had to go to
college, there was no other option for me. So, I did what I thought I should, I
applied and sent audition cassettes (remember those?) to all of the top
schools I was reading about in the magazines: GIT at Musician's Institute, USC,
University of North Texas, and Boston's Berklee College of Music. I was offered
money by each of these schools to attend, but I did not attend any of them.
They were “too expensive and too far away”, but all located in hot music towns
where there was a lot going on. I was disappointed. So I took a full tuition
scholarship for $2000 per year at a small state college 70 miles from my small
hometown and got a degree in classical guitar performance. You see, I
“absolutely HAD to go to college”, but it had to fit the criteria of what the
boomers were actually willing to pay for, which was next to nothing. That
scholarship, incidentally, was for full tuition. College cost my family nothing. I
gotta hand it to 'em, they tricked me into doing whatever I could to save them
a few bucks.

While in college I tested out of certain curricula like ear training, aced music
theory, was a strong reader of sheet music notation by the standards of my
peers, and was working my way through school washing dishes and playing in
cover bands. By year 2 I could afford to not have another hourly job ever
again. I was also eventually teaching a few college courses TO my peers,
including the classes I tested out of myself. After graduation I was just anxious
to get to work, teaching guitar and playing five nights a week without all the
hassle and horse shit of being in class every day when I could've been sleeping
or making the girl brekfast I had brought home from the bar gig the night

That didn't last long, I accepted a fellowship at USC's prestigious Studio/Jazz
guitar program, getting my tuition paid for by teaching undergrads. I arrived
there and was absolutely SHOCKED at the high level of playing that the
younger guys were exhibiting. But I took a minute to think about it, and
eventually I found out why. They went to the top private arts high schools,
they were from areas like Marin County, Montauk Long Island, and Beverly
Hills,'s the kicker...they never had to have JOBS in high school. They
all came from highly wealthy families, had access to the best resources,
unlimited money for top level equipment and private teachers, and lots of free
time to practice. They also had access from their early teens to the best
musicians and teachers in large major cities full of working entertainers. My 4
years of hauling dirt and scraping plates in high school had me woefully behind
many of these guys. However, I was already making a living.

I dropped out of USC about five minutes after I had some good gig offers. The
fact is, I couldn't fucking stand the place. It was impossible to legitimize things
like rock and blues music at the ivory tower level, and none of my teachers
seemed to be playing that many jobs. None of the commercial styles that were
actually making me my rent money were even discussed in passing at a USC
music class. The teachers who WERE playing jobs of any significance often got
fired for subbing out their teaching hours too much. It was at that point I
decided I didn't belong there. See, I never cared what the fuck I had to play in
order to make a living, I just wanted to be good enough to make good money,
and it was a sad day when I realized that music school can not often give you
what you need to actually pull that off. So, I left. Turned down a full graduate
fellowship. Everyone was parents were pissed because they were
more excited about me attending a famous expensive school than they were
when I later played for the fucking President. The school was pissed because
grad students are free labor. It costs them NOTHING to stick another guy in a
classroom when he's giving them the hours of a full time salaried professor in
exchange. To this day I feel like a fucking idiot for even entertaining the idea.
Let's now look at my music school experiences by the numbers:

This is easy to do these days because we are ALL connected on social media
now. It's very easy to see what everyone else is doing. So, I went to undergrad
college with 15 or 20 other guitar majors. Number of them who are making a
full time living as a live performer? One. Me. These guys play a lot but most
of them have to supplement or replace their gigs with a significant amount of
teaching. I went to grad school with 56 other guitar majors. Number of those
guys making a full time living as a live performer? From what I can tell from
the interwebs, about 6-10. Again, there are many, many guys who are teachers
full time, or at least teach more than they do play.

See, I believe that being a full time musician who plays live (and/or in the
studio) is the greatest badge of honor a musician can bestow upon himself.
Why? Because it's proof you can beat the odds. It shows you have no need for
the “stability” of teaching music. See, we all think we need to be teachers
because that is what MUSIC SCHOOLS tell us. They have a large stock in
keeping interest in becoming a music teacher, for it keeps them employed, and
the cycle continues. As of today, it's spiraled out of control. Our families all
want us to be teachers because they figure it's the closest thing to a “real job”
that a musician can have. It's a lot safer than playing in bars, touring, and all of
those “lifestyle” things that many people think are part of a music career.

When the recession began in 2007/8, things got interesting. All of the music
schools, even the most prestigious ones, lost a lot of revenue and interest
from young musicians. They were (are) far too expensive. So, young players
began checking out smaller, cheaper, less prestigious state colleges like the
one I went to. Well, the A-league schools said “We can't have that!”, so they
began slowly lowering their audition and testing standards while their tuition
prices have continued to skyrocket, just like their skyrocketing endowments
and assistance from state and federal governments. Today, they have more
money coming in than ever, and lower audition standards than ever. They are
now at their most expensive in history and are turning out the least talented
and equipped musicians they ever have. And I am laughing my ASS off,
because this whole thing is hilarious. They have literally dug their own grave,
and they are a ticking bomb.

The music business itself has also changed drastically in the last 20 years. No
one makes money selling records anymore, so everyone has to play live and
stay out on the road more than they used to. The steady stream of studio
work is gone, it's no longer a requirement to have good musicians on your
recording. The computer can fix everything, and the digital world turns
talentless hacks into international stars. The ProTools engineer is now at the
top of the music business food chain. Every two-bit asshole with a macbook
and garage band software can call himself an “artist” or “musician” or
“songwriter” or “producer”. The DJ, the karaoke bar, and the football game on
large plasma screens now stand where the live band once stood.

Is there still room for highly skilled musicians? Absolutely. There is great
demand for a good live band in thousands of places all over the world. Artists
need sidemen to play behind them for their concert dates, churches need
musicians, people need a band for their wedding or Christmas party, and the
list goes on and on. These types of gigs are the bread and butter for a
musician's work throughout the year. Does music school teach you what you
need to know to get these jobs? Absolutely not. I make a very good living at
what I do, and I got 100% of my abilities from the street. I did have a few good
teachers, yes, but even they aren't making what I make or playing as much as
me. Are there musicians better than me? Faster? Richer? More able to raise a
family? Of course there are. But none of them are turning down as much work
as I am simply because they're always booked.

The charlatans in the halls of music schools are taking your money and telling
you if you do what they say and ace the test, you'll make a living and get a gig.
That's a lie. If someone deceives you for their own financial gain, that's
committing fraud. If I pay money for a specific service, and that service is not
rendered, I should be able to get my fucking money back. Worse yet, the
charlatans KNOW they're lying, and they keep right on going. I don't know
how they sleep at night. I've been hired and fired a million times over for all
sorts of reasons, many of which were actually my fault, just as many were not.
It's a tough and shitty business with really great perks and rewards, but you
need very, very thick skin to survive it. You need to be able to take rejection
WELL a million times over, and then a million more. This makes most of us
pretty tough, and many of us skeptical, jaded and cynical. These attributes are
bare bones requirement for making it in my business.

That thick skin and the ability to take rejection is another thing music schools
will never be able to teach. Why? Because the vast majority of people
teaching in music schools never actually had to go through it. They went right
from being a student to being a teacher, having spent no significant amount of
time in the actual workforce they're claiming to supply with employable

I just spent last week in Boston. One of America's great cities and a great
music town too. While there I was guesting with the renowned Boston Pops,
one of America's most beloved groups of musicians. It was a wonderful
experience. While there, I ha the opportunity to make a few observations.
The first was seeing that a guitar degree from Berklee now costs a quarter of a
million dollars. It didn't surprise me when I heard that, but it struck me again
what a bad investment it is. If I invest $250,000 in anything, even just put it in
the bank, I should expect a return on that investment very soon if not
immediately. They'll give any 18 year old punk with a pulse and a guitar case
the loans to get the degree, and most of them will never pay it back in their
lifetime, no matter how hard they work or how great the gig is they get, if they
even get a gig at all.

I also spoke with an old friend who is a professional drummer in the Boston
area. He spoke very happily about how busy he was, not in a boastful way, but
proud of himself for being able to raise his son and daughter by playing the
drums. I know the guy's a phenomenal musician, he's a dear friend and I've
worked with him a great deal, but I wanted to hear from HIM why he thinks
he's working so much.

He told me that the Boston area is inundated with Berklee grads, everybody's
out of work, and they all “play too much”. See, now I'm gonna tell you the
other area where music schools fuck up. They're gigantic locker rooms with a
bunch of young jocks in them who are constantly measuring their dicks to see
how fast and complicated they can play their instruments. My drummer buddy
has the ability to do all that too, he has incredible technique and can play
anything. However, he just goes in to the job and “bangs out the time”. He
just plays his instrument as simply and effectively as he can for the song and
the occasion. He's got nothing to prove with his chops. Consequently he's the
busiest guy around, while the other cats are playing in ways that don't get
them the call back even though they desperately need the money (to pay back
that quarter million). But as they were spending the quarter million, the
institution somehow forgot to mention to them that they need to shut the
fuck up with all the scales and stick control exercises and just simply play the
minimum part that's required for each song with the maximum of authenticity
and effectiveness. In a way I don't blame these kids for going out and fucking
up potential accounts by playing too much, they were not properly prepared.
But once again, at some point you gotta blame them for spending that much
money on such a stupid investment in the first place.

Every decision I make as a professional musician is an economic one. I remain
single and childless and living as a bachelor because I can only have the life,
freedoms, and luxuries I want if I am by myself. I only take a gig if it makes
economic sense to me, and if it does not, I say no. I buy guitars used or get
them on endorsements because I refuse to pay full price for them. And I do
NOT recommend going to music school because it's a BAD economic decision.
It's an investment in thin air. You might as well burn your money. You'd have a
better ROI if you bought a home or just put it in the fucking bank. Even Wells
Fargo can guarantee you more return on your money than music schools can.

Here's what I do recommend for young musicians: Get ONE good private
teacher who tells you the truth. Find a musician you admire who's making a
living you want to make for yourself and begin following him around. I say
him, ladies, because most of us are men. It's not sexism, it's a fact. There is
not one woman on my list of subs. When people wanna see a rock guitar
player bangin' out some notes and screaming some lyrics, they wanna see a
dude. And not a fat or ugly one either. Oops, I almost forgot, that's another
thing music schools don't tell you: Fat, ugly motherfuckers don't work as much
and lean and handsome guys do.

Anyway, find that guy and follow him around. Get on youtube and scan
through the billions of guitar lessons on there, or lessons on whatever
instrument you choose. Practice your ass off and learn how to play, you don't
need to spend money to do that anymore, you just need to work hard. The
music teacher I DO know say that's the biggest problems with their students,
by the way, they all say they're all too lazy.

If you're gonna pick an instrument, pick the guitar or the keyboard. Why? It
gives you the most options. You can play gigs solo, duo, trio, on up to playing
with orchestras like I just did. Drummers can't do that. Singers can't do that
(unless they also play guitar or piano). Horn players can't do that. If you pick
one of those two instruments, learn how to sing, and learn how to read and
interpret sheet music, you'll always work. The last thing is most important:
KNOWING SONGS. You have to know a lot of fucking tunes to work steady. At
this point it's about five decades worth of songs in about 8-10 styles. I'd say I
probably know how to play and/or sing a thousand or more.

Choose the minimalist lifestyle, drive the cheapest car and live in the cheapest
apartment you can afford. Don't knock anybody up. Don't move your
girlfriend in. Don't get married, and don't accrue any significant debt. Above
all else, do NOT fall prey to the fraud sold to you by the charlatans that hide
behind the banner of the music school or conservatory. It's a dead end road.
Get out now instead and just start working.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Berklee now has an online school with degrees that is much cheaper than being on campus. The instructors and content are pretty much the same.

Tal Hartsfeld said...

The 4th paragraph: Where he states that the reason those undergrads were so advanced was on account of their being subsidized by their high economic status along with having others take care of their basic responsibilities.

How much of the success of certain individuals are the results of their being able to focus on their trade/profession/hobbies without the superficial and mundane interferences incurred by most of the rest of us?

Expat in Germany said...

If some of these Berkley grads want to experience music making in the raw, they should come to Europe. I live in Cologne, and there are a lot of buskers, some good, a lot (most) of them mediocre and the rest are just terrible. Occasionally we see young American kids over here playing guitar and singing on street corners. I wonder if their parents know what they're up to?

German audiences are appreciative of good talent and will reward the best street musicians quite handsomely. The mediocre, who are in the majority by the way, are not even glanced at.

The young Berkely grads should be aware that the competition for handouts is quite fierce. You are either very good and make a fair bit of coin or you starve. There is no in between. Sing out of tune and people will walk by as if you're not even there. Play very well, and I emphasize the word "very", then you will have an audience who will cheer, clap, throw money and take selfies with you.

A final tip is to offer the street audience something unique. A few years ago there was a banjo player who played superbly and his hat was overflowing with Euro coins. A couple of blocks away another American, drugged out and unkempt, was playing guitar badly and singing off key. His hat was empty, save for a few pfennig.

Adam said...

Great guest post. My own anecdote - I attended a private New England engineering college (electrical engineering) that required a "sufficiency" project. This meant you basically had to minor in some kind of social science or humanities topic. The ridiculousness of this requirement aside, I had been a classically trained guitarist since 12 so when given options I chose to minor in music theory with a concentration on jazz theory. I had a professor who actively gigged outside of school and pretty much taught to support his playing. I learned more from this one professor jamming out at his apartment then I did taking 6 years of music classes and the minor I earned.

After I was "good enough" he put me in touch with some of his friends in that scene, and I ended up with very minor backup roles and the occasional request for improvisation/leads. This started out as barely covering gas money but eventually I started making some real coin, all under the table. His comment about finding that one teacher is 100% true in my mind. Again, this was a great read and great advice.

Also being able to have pretty girls attend shows where you are playing is a dynamite way to get laid.

BigFire said...

Rule #1 of any profession, getting paid. Beit writer, musician, juggler, comedian, get paid. If you are not getting paid, you're not a working profession.