I often get asked about my time at Berklee College Of Music and whether or not I think going to Berklee is a good idea for aspiring musicians. In today's post, I answer that question.
A few months ago I made a video called “What It’s Like Going To Berklee College of Music”. In that video I talked about what my experience of attending Berklee was like. In today’s post I’m going to explore whether or not going to a school like Berklee is a good idea, financially. I share my perspective, having attended Berklee as a songwriting major.
[Also check out my recent podcast with Berklee’s former VP, Dave Kusek, here]
I attended Berklee College of Music as a songwriting major from 1993 – 1995. I took a year off in 96 and then headed to Eastern Illinois University to complete a degree in liberal arts with an emphasis in music. I financed my education with some help from my parents and a considerable amount of student loans that I took out myself. In this post I’m going to address whether or not, in my opinion, it’s necessary to attend a music school, like Berklee, to pursue a career in music, and the pros and cons of going to Berklee specifically.
Let’s start with the upside of attending a university like Berklee College Of Music. I progressed immensely during my time at Berklee. For the two years that I was there, I lived and breathed music. It’s impossible to not get better when you immerse yourself in that sort of environment. A typical day would involve attending classes during the day, practicing for a couple hours throughout the day and at night there would usually be some sort of jam session in my dorm room, or in someone else’s room on my floor. I clearly remember getting much, much better at guitar, very quickly. All of my friends and family made the same observation. I got a LOT better as a direct result of attending Berklee. The results were tangible.
Of course, you don’t need to attend a university to get these type of results. You could, at least hypothetically, find a group of like-minded people, and practice with them several hours a day, take private lessons with multiple instructors every day, and practice alone each day on your instrument. It’s of course possible, but it’s much harder to do without the sort of structured environment that a school like Berklee provides.
There’s a sort of enthusiasm that’s contagious when you get that many like-minded, motivated musicians together in the same environment. One of the great benefits of being at Berklee is simply being surrounded by so many like-minded musicians.
Berklee creates the perfect environment for networking with professional musicians, IF you’re willing to take advantage of it. Despite being very young and not the most socially savvy person at the time, I still managed to make several really good connections at Berklee that benefit me to this day. But if there’s one thing I wish I could have done differently during my time at Berklee, it’s taking more advantage of the wealth of networking potential that Berklee provides. The cool thing about Berklee is that the entire staff consists of professional, working musicians. Almost everyone is connected to the business in different ways.
For example, when I was there one of my songwriting teachers ran a successful publishing company. My lyric writing teacher, Pat Pattison, who is still there, is a very connected and influential teacher and author. My guitar teacher, Jon Finn, was an amazing, working guitarist and good friends with guitarist Steve Morse. Every teacher I interacted with, was working in the music business.
I can remember one year Pat Pattison took the songwriting department on a trip to Nashville for spring break where we attended seminars and conferences throughout the week with songwriters and publishers in Nashville. I had to stay in Nashville an extra day to fly from there to see my parents in Florida. Pat offered to put me up with the legendary Gillian Welch for the night. I declined out of what at the time I thought was politeness, “I don’t want to trouble her”, I told Pat. In hindsight I was probably just too shy and afraid. I simply wasn’t ready to seize all of the incredible opportunities being presented to me.
Berklee was an expensive school when I attended, and it's an even more expensive school now. The cost of tuition when I was there was about 30k a year. It's currently over 50k a year. If you were to attend now, and get a four year degree, without any scholarships, it would cost you about $217,00.00. That's an enormous amount of money to invest in a field with less than certain job prospects.
It's one thing to take on a large amount of debt to study something like medicine where there is a more predictable outcome in terms of job prospects and salary. If you take on $200,000 in debt but are fairly certain you'll be making six figures upon graduation and will be able to repay your loan in a timely manner, then it's a logical and rational thing to do. But, if you're taking on this much debt to study something that you may or may not be able to earn a good living from upon graduation, it's a much more risky proposition, financially.
Student loan debt can never be discharged. Like taxes, it’s a form of debt that you can’t get rid of. Not even bankruptcy will allow you to discharge your student loan debt. Even tax debts can be settled for less than the original amount, under certain circumstances. This isn’t the case with student loans. One way or another, it has to be repaid, unless you are willing to face unrepairable damage to your credit and possibly face legal actions.
If I Could Do It Over
If there's one thing I would differently if I could go back and re-do my time at Berklee, it's that I would have been much more pro-active in terms of networking with the staff and my peers. I wasn't 100 percent sure of what I wanted to do, career wise, when I was at Berklee and this held me back in terms of making connections that could have furthered my career. I wasn’t quite sure what direction to go in and so I wasn't quite sure what connections to make. Had I waited a few years to go to Berklee I probably would have been more clear about the direction I wanted to go in and what my career options really were. Of course, I can't go back, and hindsight is always 20/20, but I caution musicians who attend Berklee, or other contemporary music schools, to not take for granted the unique environment that music schools create for networking and relationship building. Have a good idea of what it is you want to get out of Berklee before you go there and meet the people who can help you reach those goals. Don't spend close to 60k a year to try and figure out what you want to do when you graduate.
Taking on debt to study something like music is a business decision and shouldn’t be taken lightly. When you're young, it's easy to just sort of assume that everything will magically work out. In my own case, things have worked out, more or less, in the sense that I'm making enough money from my chosen profession to live comfortably and pay off my loans. But it's taken me a long time to get here and I've had to be tremendously creative and work extremely hard over the years to get to this point.
Studying music or getting a degree in music isn't a pre-requisite for working in the music business. No one has ever asked to see my degree at any point in the last twenty years that I've worked in the business as a guitarist, songwriter, teacher, etc. If the fact that I attended Berklee comes up, it normally gets a positive reaction, but it's certainly not a requirement for working in the industry. The most successful musician that I know personally, who has been on Letterman, played arenas and so on, is a high school drop out. Going to Berklee will certainly help you get your chops up, no doubt about it, but it's not a pre-requisite for success in the music business.
I'm glad I went to Berklee and it's benefited me in a variety of ways in my career over the years. It's opened some doors for sure. But if I could go back in time I would have done things differently and would have been more pro-active in coming up with a solid career plan the minute I stepped foot on Berklee's campus. Or perhaps I would have attended a less expensive school and with the money I saved bought things like gear and recording equipment. Either way, I would make sure I had more of a solid plan for what I wanted to get out of my music education. Of course, I can't go back, but I can share what I've learned with others who are thinking about taking a similar path.
The bottom line
If you’re drawn to going to a school like Berklee, and you have a game plan for paying off your loans when you get out, it might just be the perfect decision for you. I would never discourage someone from following their dreams. There’s no doubt you will grow immensely as a musician if you go there. But don’t take the decision lightly, because if you’re borrowing a considerable amount of money to go, as most are, it’s a decision that will no doubt affect the rest of your life.