What's holding you back from making the music you want to make? Do you need education to learn the skills you need? Is it worth going to school to learn the production or engineering you want to do professionally? These are questions a lot of us have. What's the magic key to getting to where you want to be?
I went to school for audio engineering. It was a longer program than most - a full four-year degree. I was so hyped to begin the program. I thought it would change my life.
All the way through school, my professors and advisors and of course the other students all told me that getting hired by a studio afterward would be easy. It's just the way of things.
But here's what nobody ever told me when I was in school: the audio engineering industry is saturated. And since the advent of cheap recording gear and the concept of the 99 cent song, there have been fewer customers willing to pay professionals, remaining customers have less money to spend as record labels take fewer risks supporting new artists, and high craftsmanship isn't valued liked it used to be.
Sadly, music production isn't any better. Want to be a producer-for-hire? Congratulations, so do millions of other people all over the world, and the price for production is in a race to the bottom. Want to be your own artist? Nobody is going to make it easy for you: not record labels, not band members, not music bloggers or taste-makers.
It killed me when I couldn't find work in music. I quit entirely for five years, believing it wasn't possible for me. Those were soul-crushing years because I knew what I loved, but I wasn't pursuing it even a little. It wasn't until years after I graduated that an engineer leveled with me: I was waiting for someone to make it happen for me. But nobody does that anymore. Nobody was going to be my angel, making my career become reality for me. People make it happen for themselves or it doesn't happen at all. I needed to find a way to DIY my way into the music industry, pursuing what I really love doing even if it meant I was doing it for free. Do that long enough and you become good enough for money and acclaim to find their way to you.
What Didn't Happen for Me in School
Back to the topic of school. I didn't learn much at all in my classes. I found most all of the content dumbed down to the level anyone could understand, just trying to bring laymen up to half of my working knowledge, having spent my formative years drooling over gear I couldn't afford in every category of the Musician's Friend catalog. I wasn't a prodigy. But I already knew what a DI box was and what the various knobs on a mixing console do, which put my knowledge beyond the scope of the program, it seemed.
My internships and sucking up to potential bosses never panned out into jobs. Partly because I had the wrong expectations, that I was desirable enough to be a paid employee instead of an entrepreneur paving his own way. And partly because, again, the music industry is saturated. People with 20 years of experience were also looking for work, and still are, so why would anybody hire a kid fresh out of school? What are a few classes compared to years of hands-on work and practical experience delivering results?
And I didn't connect with other students either. I was branded as an ultra-nerd because I loved the stuff too much, and my self-accumulated knowledge extended far past the basics. My passion scared away potential collaborations and friendships. I felt disappointed in other students because none seemed as hungry as I was. And they avoided me because they probably felt I had a superiority complex. Maybe I did.
Where I Did My Learning
That isn't to say I didn't learn or grow during school. It's just that the learning and growing didn't come from the directions I expected. These are the five ways I learned the most, from least to most helpful:
5) Asking questions to professors after or outside of class. Some of them had remarkable stories and could answer questions far more involved than the curriculum prepared for.
4) Forums and websites that fueled my curiosity. Sites like GearSlutz are terrible and wonderful. Swim, but don't dive too deep.
3) Recording other students outside of class. This made for better hands-on experience than my curriculum did, and helped stretch me outside of what I thought I could do into different genres and different roles.
2) Reading textbooks that weren't assigned. Do you realize you can buy textbooks on any subject that you want to learn? You can, and you don't need to take a class to learn! Make your own education.
1) Making my own music outside of the school studios in my dorm room, alone, unrelated to my assignments. This is where I learned my way around a DAW better than my classes prepping me for Pro Tools certification could, where I began to understand the core of composing and producing with virtual instruments, and where I discovered my mixing style. Time spent alone, late at night, freely creating was the best teacher I've ever had. And you don't need great gear or expensive tools for that. I certainly didn't have any. You just need passion, creativity, and time.
How School Might Be Different for You
Maybe you'll attend a better school with a stronger program than I did. Maybe the classes will contain significantly more content, and the faculty will be more in-tune with the students and the program. Be careful as you read about schools. In their own advertising, every school has the best program, the best professors, the best classes, and the best studios. Be skeptical as you choose a school.
Maybe the school you find will have structures in place to help you find work in your chosen field after you graduate. Perhaps even better, maybe the school you find will set realistic expectations about what the industry looks like, and how each member of the industry needs to think and act like an entrepreneur in order to be successful. The sooner you start thinking of your career as "Me Incorporated", the more likely you are to survive and find your way through it.
Maybe you'll connect better with the other students than I did and start to make things happen, like forming a band that can make it, or starting a company that offers real value. People view college dropouts as failures. But if you drop out because you thought of the company you want to start and you found the business partners that you need, you're better prepared for the real world than the rest of the students that finish school without developing those plans and connections. A degree doesn't mean much anymore, but a career plan is everything.
I'm writing this in part to warn you: attending a school probably won't open a lot of doors for you, despite what the school's marketing material says. And there's a fair chance it won't even teach you that much.
I'm writing this to let you know that how much you learn is in your control, in or out of school. You can find educational tools anywhere, from textbooks ordered through Amazon to YouTube channels (perhaps like mine). And the best teacher of all will be experience - the kind earned through hundreds to thousands of hours of hands-on, brain-engaged activity, pursued passionately around the requirements of living.
Maybe school will help you. If so, dive in and make the most of it, in and out of the classroom. Or maybe you don't need school. You just need time to incubate your skills, and time to discover where you want to be in the industry in five years so you can DIY your way there.
If you've been to production or engineering school, are attending now, or are thinking about going, I'd love to hear about it. My story isn't the only one. Whether you've had good or bad experiences, please share in the comments below.