There has been much talk in the pages of SOS over the last few months on the subject of education for the music industry. Paul White summed up the debate with February's Leader column, pointing out that at any one time there could be as many as ten thousand people looking for jobs in a studio, whatever that term has come to mean. It paints a very bleak picture for the average music-technology student.
I often find myself agreeing with this rather pessimistic view. Just how realistic is it to think that a course will lead to a job in the industry? Surely the tea boy (or girl) route is the proven path to the top? Put all these thoughts together and you might as well tear up your degree now.
I came to the conclusion put forward at the top of the page a few years back. If I remember correctly, it developed during the first year of my degree. Yes, you read correctly, I studied for a degree in Music, Acoustics and Recording. But I didn't enrol on a recording course to be taught, but rather to learn, and I knew already that a degree in one hand would not automatically allow me to use the other to open the door to a job at my nearest studio. I chose to go to University to have access to the knowledge, equipment and experience that I needed to stand any chance of forging a career in the industry. I was in the studio from day one and started to teach myself. Six months in, I left the studio alone and returned to my home setup armed with the knowledge that I had gained.
It was the other people on my course that led me to my perhaps controversial statement. Without blowing my own wind-based synthesizer too much, I was one of a few who actually had some idea of what was going on. I could immediately pick up on why things were being done the way they were, how signals were being routed and so on. If I didn't, then I questioned the life out of the people around me.
It was clear that most of the people around me just weren't cut out for working in a studio. You need initiative and a certain aptitude which can't really be taught. If you have the initiative to get into a studio then chances are you are the kind of person the industry needs — pushy yet polite, with a thirst for knowledge.
So, once armed with six months of studio experience, I expect you think I left to pursue my career. Not quite. I stuck at my degree. I had some experience of working in a studio but I knew it wouldn't be long before my limited technical knowledge started to halt my ascent up the ladder. What University gave me was the theory to back up the practice. I carefully chose my course knowing that I would spend time in a lecture theatre, not learning about studios, but instead learning the additional theory that would back me up in the future. The word 'acoustics' in the title of my degree should give you a clue. This is a valid scientific subject that can lead to many well-paid careers outside the studio as well as in it.
So, where am I now, top-class studio engineer or highly paid acoustic consultant? Well, I'm neither, and this is what makes my initial statement even more odd: now I'm a lecturer in music technology. "Those that can't, teach", I hear you cry. Maybe, but whilst at University I used the initiative that I've spoken so much about and started freelancing as a multimedia operator, sound engineer, cameraman, in fact anything I could get my hands on. This freelancing has continued and I currently run a multimedia production company that employs quite a few of my current and ex-students on a freelance basis.
What we're finding in the industry is that there are so many people out there who are being paid good money to 'blag it'. They have the initiative, and many of them learn well on the job, but still they lack a solid foundation in theory.
So do I offer employment to all? No — I know what I'm looking for. I need people who have that knowledge (which I know they're getting as part of the course) but I'm also looking for those polite yet pushy individuals that have a thirst for experience. They're not all that hard to spot — I was one of them.
So if you're thinking about doing a degree or banging on a studio door looking for a job, think carefully. If you have the aptitude for the work then you can make it whether you do a degree or not. But University provides a seriously good back-up plan, especially if you choose a course that gives you the knowledge to do well in your chosen career, be it in a studio or the much wider range of related industries that a good, balanced degree can lead to.