As today’s students consider a career in the music business, and as expensive universities and colleges “sell the dream” of a career in the music business, I think it’s incumbent upon these schools to provide a realistic picture of the actual employment opportunities that their graduates face in this very challenging business, and to do so not during their senior year after the school has raked in tens of thousands of dollars of tuition, but before they spend a nickel at that school. Unlike buying a guitar or computer where at worst it can be replaced with another instrument or something else altogether, most students and their families can afford one shot at college. That comes at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars for tuition and expenses, and ought to provide the graduate with usable skills and a realistic preparation for their chosen career. But far too many composer graduates are shocked when they find that it will likely be years before they can even make a minimal living ghostwriting or working as an office assistant for a composer while completing a few student films each year for little or no pay. This is an indication that these students were not properly prepared or informed of the real-world employment outlook, and much of that blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the university or college they attended.
I read today how a graduate from Thomas Jefferson School of Law has sued the college, saying she was misled into attending by employment statistics provided by the school for a national survey. While many film scoring programs may not publish statistics on the employment their graduates achieve, by not disclosing before accepting a student how tough the current work environment is for composers, the end result is the same and the school is no less guilty.
As we watch the composing world undergo huge changes in how composers work and what skills are required for what employment there is, it is incumbent upon schools to provide absolutely up-to-date skills to their students. That’s why it’s concerning to see some programs featuring instructors who haven’t scored a commercial film in many years preparing students for a career that, in essence, doesn’t exist any more. What it took to be a film composer 20 years ago is vastly different than what it takes to be a working composer today. Obviously the technology is different, but the ways composers work are different too.
What can these schools do as they turn out hundreds of composer graduates each year into a completely saturated marketplace where only a few stand a reasonable chance of making a living after graduation doing what they were trained to do?
* Invite current working composers into the classroom and encourage them to speak candidly about the state of the art, craft and business
* Disclose to prospective students the realities of the workplace, and emphasize how the school prepares the students to succeed in the challenging environment
* A composing education should be as much about the art and craft as it is about the business. Film composing programs need to stop treating business courses as an optional subject and mainstream these courses as a significant part of a student’s education. It’s great to be able to write music well, but without the business chops to create and build a career, those talents can easily go to waste.
Finally, I hope more mentorship programs are created so graduates and new composers can learn from existing composers. Given the mercenary attitude of so many in this business, this may be a long shot, but at least one of our leaders has the right idea – Composers Guild of America president Alan Elliott is working to create broad coalition across colleges and universities that reaches into the professional ranks. That’s the kind of thing we need a lot more of in our industry, both with composer organizations and educational institutions.