The Future of Music Careers

October 1, 2009

In November 2007, at the Fiftieth Annual Conference of The College Music Society in Salt Lake City, members of the CMS Committee for Career Development and Entrepreneurship (CCDE) presented a discussion session on the future of music careers. The presenters were Derek Mithaug, Director of the Office of Career Development at the Julliard School; Michael Drapkin, Executive Director of the Brevard Conference on Music Entrepreneurship; and Michael Millar, California State Polytechnic University—Pomona. The presentation proposal, written by Kelland Thomas of the University of Arizona, who was unable to attend the conference, described the session as follows:

This open discussion session will be devoted to the following questions: How are developments in technology, culture, and market dynamics affecting the way music is made, distributed, learned, and taught? What are the consequences of these trends for music students as they embark on music careers? How can schools of music better prepare students for a musical life in the 21st Century?

Laptops, digital recording software, and lower costs of hard drive space and computer memory have made recording projects more cost effective than at any time in history, while the massive social networking capabilities of the World Wide Web allow musicians to market and distribute media on a scale previously only possible within the music and media industry apparatus. Bypassing the music industry entirely is now possible for musicians seeking to make their music heard, constituting a paradigm shift toward the democratization of media and what has been dubbed the Era of Participatory Culture. This shift signals new challenges and opportunities for those who intend to make a career in music. How can music institutions incorporate the necessary skills and entrepreneurial focus to navigate the challenges presented by our present situation and to take advantage of the opportunities to make a livelihood in music? This session will explore some possibilities for future careers in music.

Clearly, a thirty-minute session on such a substantial and wide ranging topic could only scratch the surface of the issues that will have an impact on university music educators and their students for years to come. This brief paper will summarize the areas of discussion, including: the music marketplace; entrepreneurship; the role of technology; and preparing our students for the future.

The session began with Derek Mithaug’s provocative question, “Is this a bull or a bear market in music?” Although audience response to the question was mixed, all three presenters raised their hands along with those favoring the “bull” market. This answer did, and does, require clarification. For those who prepare a narrowly focused set of skills for areas of employment that may have changed or evaporated over time, a “bear” market may indeed loom before them. Wishing for a return of “the good old days” is not an effective career strategy. For those who have the energy, talent, flexibility, love of continuous learning, and persistence to create their own career path, the future has many options.

In discussing career paths, it is not necessary to direct an individual to a particular line of endeavor. Choosing the latest thing, the “flavor of the month,” can create more problems than it solves. Go with your passion. But do it right. Be smart. Be a professional and an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is a key skill, a vital mindset, for our students to acquire in our changing world. My late teacher and mentor Peter F. Drucker stated that “The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”1 Drucker said that entrepreneurs must be systematic innovators,2 and he defined innovation as “change that creates a new dimension of performance.”3

In speaking to musicians about entrepreneurship, I suggest the following steps: (1) Know your strengths. This involves assessing your skills, identifying potential skills, and focusing your passion in order to find your uniqueness and your niche. (2) Look for opportunity. Observe trends. Study successful people. Know the musical marketplace. Identify possible avenues of livelihood that match your talents. Listen. Read. Learn. (3) Tell your story. Be prepared to communicate effectively at a moment’s notice, both verbally and in writing, about yourself and your endeavors.

A recurring theme in our Salt Lake City discussion was the opportunity represented by niche markets, and indeed, niche musical organizations and niche music careers. In the economy of the new millennium, niche markets are crucial, and the long-time dominance of large media organizations, e.g., the major record companies, is eroding. In the introduction to his WIRED Magazine article “The Long Tail” (expanded to a 2006 best-selling book), Chris Anderson states “Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.”4

Recent advances in musical technology and the Internet have made a significant impact on the economy of the music world. Areas of major change include, but are clearly not limited to:

(1) Music Creation. Recording technology; notation software (Finale, Sibelius); electronic instruments.

(2) Marketing. Helping us to connect our music to those who will enjoy it. Interactive websites; e-mail communication; search engines; databases; job searches; publishing; arts advocacy; connecting niche products with targeted, diverse communities.

(3) Distribution. iTunes and other electronic-format music sales; iPods; iPhones and other cell phones; YouTube; web-based merchants (Amazon, CDBaby); MP3 files; cable; satellite radio; Internet streaming of performances; Internet2; etc., etc., etc.

(4) Networking. MySpace; Facebook; LinkedIn; Skype; listservs; blogs; professional association websites; basic e-mail; etc.

(5) Education. Numerous tools for teachers, students, and web-based course work.

(6) Research and access to Information. Ever-increasingly significant pos- sibilities on the Web.

What do these six areas have in common? They were the vital basics of the music profession BEFORE the existence of recently invented musical technology. As amazing as new developments in technology have been, they have been created as tools to better enable us to deliver the basics. We would be wise to always differentiate between technology for music’s sake and technology for technology’s sake.

That being said, technology is opening up many exciting opportunities for entrepreneurial musicians and musical groups to create their own niches and their own futures. Geographical considerations have changed greatly, as musicians are building worldwide audiences using the Web. High-quality recordings can be made virtually anywhere, not just in major entertainment centers. Universities and individual educators can make potential students aware of their programs using the Web rather than catalogs. Job search processes have been streamlined. The examples are too numerous to list here, but it is clear that the musical entrepreneur must make use of all available technology to further his or her goals.

We must always be discerning in an age of an overwhelming volume of musical and written material. The influence of editors, record executives, and other traditional distribution gatekeepers has declined in the age of democratic media, so now, audiences and consumers are assuming more responsibility for their own cultural decisions. Having a substantially increased amount of available recorded music does not necessarily mean that the volume of excellent music has grown at the same rate. Information does not automatically lead to knowledge. Acquiring data does not equate to gaining insight. (This is where education comes in!)

A question of great interest to those attending the workshop in Salt Lake City was how to best address the subject of career development in university music programs. To begin, let us briefly look at the end result of a music degree program: a music alumna/alumnus who has embarked upon a career. This person might fit into one of the following categories:

(1) Music professionals whose career path matches their degree major, e.g., performers, composers, educators, conductors, industry professionals, arts administrators.

(2) Music professionals whose careers do not precisely match their major, but who consider their education to be vital to their success.

(3) Professionals whose careers do not primarily involve music, but who value the education they received and consider it to be important in their personal growth and success.

(4) People who do not see any connection between their music studies and their eventual careers, and therefore do not place much value on their de- gree program.

Clearly, Category 1 is desirable and Category 4 is to be avoided. I believe that Categories 2 and 3 are also excellent outcomes that merit careful consideration and study by university music educators. We can then fully understand the value of a college education leading to a music degree. We can ethically recruit for degree programs in a field with job prospects that many potential students, and especially their parents, find to be a bit scary. We can move towards the goal of having Category 4 represent only a tiny percentage of our alumni.

So, how do we describe the value of a music education? To me, higher education is not simply a trade school teaching a narrow set of skills. In a degree program, we learn how to learn. And, a music education provides unique pathways to that learning. In learning instrumental or vocal music, we develop a diverse, multifaceted set of individual skills. We learn our strengths, eliminate our weaknesses, and develop the ability to set short-, medium-, and long-term goals. We can observe our goals being met and our knowledge growing week by week. We systematically learn the tangibles and the intangibles of our field of endeavor—easily understood by musicians as technique and musicality. We take our individual skills and put them into a variety of organizational contexts (ensembles) every day, so that the concept of team building becomes ingrained in us. We have an hour of our primary professor’s time, one-on-one, every week—what an opportunity! We have a rich and vibrant intellectual history to study. We learn how to be achievers in a creative, meaningful, and sophisticated way, and this knowledge is absolutely transferable to success in other fields of endeavor – not only music. What other degree programs, besides those in music, can do all this for their students, especially at the undergraduate level?

In short, we have a lot to offer. We just need to recognize that fact and act upon it. In his recent book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink states that “The future belongs to a different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”5

Enhancing our music education with career development programming will create a powerful combination that will benefit our students, alumni, faculty, institutions, and, in the end, our art and its audiences. How these programs take shape will vary at different universities and conservatories according to degree requirements, student interest, faculty, administration, surrounding communities, budgets, and many other variables. Options provided for students can include courses, workshops, career resources, and internships (in nonprofit and/or for-profit organizations). One-on-one career advising is extremely valuable. Many institutions are now offering career development programming to their students, and, in some cases, alumni.

Following three presentations at the conference in Salt Lake City, the CCDE will present a half-day Preconference Seminar on Careers and Entrepreneurship in September 2008 at the Atlanta National Conference. The seminar presentations will include:

Arts in the Twenty-First Century: Aligning Curriculum with Society

The Future of Music

How to Organize Your Projects

Words Without Song: Speaking in Public

Career Advancement for Music Faculty

Who Are You and Why Should I Care?: Defining Yourself Through Self-Assessment

Education, Engagement, and Entrepreneurship

Creating the Future Through Entrepreneurship Programs

In the November 2007 presentation The Future of Music Careers, we sought to open up a dialogue on career development by briefly discussing a few important topics: entrepreneurship; technology; and the value of music degree programs. The Committee for Career Development and Entrepreneurship welcomes the input of all interested CMS members as we continue to explore these important issues together. Please join us as we seek to ask the right questions and to serve the art of music through creative solutions.



Anderson, Chris. “The Long Tail.” WIRED 12.10. (October 2004).

Anderson Chris. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Drucker, Peter F. Innovation and Entrepreneurship. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Hesselbein, Frances. Hesselbein on Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.



1Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 28.

2Ibid, 34.

3Hesselbein, Hesselbein on Leadership, 20.

4Anderson, “The Long Tail.”

5Pink, A Whole New Mind, 1.

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