What is life like for music graduates seeking to carve out a career in the profession? We’ve already heard from conservatoires around the world on how they prepare students for the realities the big wide world brings, but what of the students themselves? A month ago, Bachtrack asked graduates to complete an online survey to discover how far their music degree equipped them for a professional career in music. We received responses from nearly 200 graduates; the majority were from people in the UK and USA, but answers came in from Germany and France to Australia, Canada to Malaysia. You may have already read Katy Hamilton’s views – she had so many thoughts on the survey that she wrote an entire article for us!

“Taxes, taxes, taxes!”

It was when asked what more could be done to prepare students for a self-employed career that the most passionate responses emerged. The huge lesson graduates need to learn is what life as a freelancer means, in terms of the practical considerations. Over a third of the respondents wished that they had been taught how to deal with the financial aspect of self-employment, especially accounting and dealing with submitting tax returns. “Many people have absolutely no idea” about tax, one respondent claimed. However, our French editor – trained in London – said her conservatoire was very helpful when she emailed them for advice on tax recently. Many conservatoires tell us that they do provide sessions on such financial issues – perhaps they should be compulsory rather than optional?

“You will be a freelancer.  Learn what that means.”

A fifth of those replying also felt that they would have benefited from advice on how to promote themselves – from finding an agent to maintaining a website – in order to find more work. “How not to be duped by unscrupulous fixers!” was also suggested. “Good agents can be powerful.” How to build a career abroad would also be desirable. “We were only ever told about UK companies, as if the UK were the most important country in the world for opera. Ridiculous.”

There was also frustration expressed on behalf of freelance musicians who have to make a living and secure things such as a mortgage: “Prepare for extreme discrimination [from banks] because having a music degree is like having bubonic plague”!

“Stop prepping us for the next degree, start getting us ready for the industry”

Others felt that conservatoire courses should present wider possibilities for a career path than just performance. As Katy Hamilton wrote in her article, “Being a successful musician does not necessarily mean leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, or singing at the Met.”

Many people felt that options outside performing and teaching weren’t considered, yet a music degree can open up other areas, such as “music staff in opera houses, arrangers and publishers”. Producing was also cited as an option. “Universities and conservatoires tend to be a bit of a bubble,” so bringing in experts from other fields who can ‘tell it like it is’ would have been appreciated.

Get Real!

Conservatoires and universities should be far more selective about which students they take on. A career as a performer is not a realistic expectation for many entrants. Should these students have been accepted in the first place? “They should be much much more selective at the entrance stage so as not to give the false hopes to the less capable and the less determined” echoed a common theme.

Being realistic about who could make it as a full-time professional performer would be useful. As one participant pithily put it: “Stop pretending like everybody's going to make it at Wigmore Hall - even if you do, the wages aren't enough to live on.”

The sample size of our survey isn't large enough to be scientific, but an analysis of the responses offer saddening reading, especially where they contradict some of the answers provided by the conservatoires questioned. When embarking on their degree, only half the [respondents] had a firm intention to pursue music as a full-time career. Only 13% of them earn all their income from performing/ composing, while another 11% made more than 50% of their income this way. Of the conservatoires we spoke to, only Sydney Conservatorium offered a similarly realistic response when asked how many of their graduates took up jobs within the industry, with 47% of their graduates in permanent musical employment one year after graduation. In our survey, 66% made less than a fifth (or none) of their income from performance. 71% stated that they weren’t made aware of the range of career possibilities available to them after graduation.

“Don't put all your eggs in one basket”

When asked what one piece of advice they wished they had been given before graduating, responses were predictably varied. Accepting that you may not end up working full-time in the music business was a common thread.

Being more collegiate and eschewing competition also cropped up. “Competition is the thief of joy. It is NOT about being better than everyone else, it's about being better than you were yesterday. I wish we had been encouraged to be supportive of our colleagues, rather than in competition with them.” Learning to work collaboratively (“unless you are graduating as a superstar”) is key to survival.

Be proactive!

Networking and making your own luck are key to success these days. “Don't hang about waiting for that golden opportunity to come along: opportunity makes itself.” One composer wrote that “you must make your own work. There are other valid things to do than write abysmally depressing jingles!”

Self confidence has huge importance, especially considering that “being surrounded by so many talented musicians can be damaging for self-esteem”.

Patience, perseverance and making compromises were common pieces of advice. So was the warning to be realistic and quit to study law or medicine where you could “work half as much for more money”. Being prepared to make sacrifices and having the competitive instinct to get to the top isn’t for everyone.

“Success can be just as hard as failure” was another intriguing answer. Coping with Triumph as well as Disaster is a lesson worth learning in all walks of life.

Conservatoires and universities and students attending them can learn from these words of experience. Prospective students need to go into these courses with their eyes open and take up every opportunity offered them. Being realistic about how many people will genuinely make a living from performance/ composing is key, as is having second (and third) strings to your bow. The institutions themselves need to make sure that these wider career options are presented and that students are equipped with the financial and marketing skills to embark on professional life as a freelancer.

Questions aux conservatoires : le CNSMD de Paris

Questions to Conservatoires: Oberlin Conservatory

Questions to Conservatoires: Royal Academy of Music

Questions to Conservatoires: Sydney Conservatorium

Questions to Conservatoires: Juilliard