Music: The 4th Worst-Paying Degree You Can Earn

Not exactly prime material for college recruiting material, is it? Nonetheless, this is precisely the news delivered by Charles Purdy, Yahoo! HotJobs senior editor, in an article that presents the ten worst-paying college degrees. Although the report doesn’t acknowledge precisely which music careers are encompassed in the categorization, it’s a strong bet that “instrumental performance” is a part of it…

A Music degree: that and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee.

According to Purdy’s source, Music degrees have a starting annual salary of $34,000 which rises to a mid-career annual salary of $52,000. If you drilled down into those numbers, the starting figure for most orchestral musicians is likely in the high teens or low twenties. Of course, that assumes graduates get a performance job in the first place (or can even cobble together a gig career).

Interestingly enough, 3/10 of the degrees on this list are arts related and out of those, Music is at the bottom. Coming in at #9 on the list is Fine Arts and right behind at #10 is Drama. Arts Management was nowhere on the list.

The three college degrees that rank lower than Music are Theology (#3), Elementary Ed (#2), and Social Work (#1); which means there’s some wiggle room for college recruiters to put a positive spin on the degree.

  • Get a career in music; it pays more than serving a higher power.
  • Music: at least you’re not teaching little kids.
  • As a musician, you’ll make more than those trained to help others.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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2 thoughts on “Music: The 4th Worst-Paying Degree You Can Earn”

  1. I think that music schools really lack in teaching their students what the life of a musician truly is like. They make people think that if their the absolute best at their instrument they will succeed for sure, when often times, the person who is the most sociable and well connected will do better (as long as they have a decent level). A lot of musicians focus on practicing and think that that is the key to making it later in life, but I find that it actually make them even more nervous in real-life situation, when they’re not given much time to prepare before a gig. I wrote about this topic on my blog, at
    I hope that music schools will look at rankings like the one you posted, and will take some responsibility for it too.

    • We’ve had long discussions about the inadequacies of conservatory eduction as it relates to preparing students for the realities of a career as a performance major and although some schools are making improvements, most efforts are too slow and don’t have the focus they need.

      I’ve given dozens of workshops and lectures at colleges and conservatories on this very topic and frankly, too many senior administrators end up upset over the fact that daylight is spreading across the surface of the otherwise clouded minds of their students. It all comes down to money and control so until parents and prospective students get wise to the fact that schools are only providing part of what they need to maximize their likelihood of success, not much will change. Unfortunately, I think things will have to get much worse before they’ll get better.

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