The Second Great Lie Of Academia

At the beginning of April, we conducted a poll asking readers what they thought about the numbers of students graduating with music performance degrees. With more than 500 responses, the vast majority of readers, 73 percent, indicated that conservatories and schools of music produce too many classical music performance graduates.

Adaptistration People 15018 percent indicated the numbers of graduates are reasonable and only two percent indicated there should be even more graduates.

Seven percent selected “other” and among those, the majority of respondents took the time to mention something along the lines of the elective entrepreneurial courses some institutions have been weaving into traditional course work.

Most of those respondents indicated this was a reasonable counterbalance to overproduction and although that direction contains genuine potential, actual implementation can do more harm than good.

The First Great Lie Of Academia

“Work hard, and you’ll win a job.”

At one point in time, this was an entirely justifiable academic mantra. During it’s heyday, it provided a solid foundation for justifying curricula and methods but once production surpassed capacity, it made the uncomfortable transition from mantra to lie.

And like most fabrications of this nature, it eventually collapsed under the weight of empirical evidence. Just ask any of the thousands of music performance majors that graduated from conservatories and schools of music during the 1980s and 1990s who worked hard but never managed to secure living wage employment thanks to unsustainable competition and plateauing employment opportunities.

The Second Great Lie Of Academia

“Entrepreneurship will provide career security.”

Over the course of the last decade, an increasing number of conservatories and schools of music began introducing elective entrepreneurship courses alongside traditional curriculum. And much like the original great lie, which never started off life as anything but earnest realism, early efforts were pioneered by academics with genuine concern over student wellbeing and responsibly justifying the numbers of students matriculating through their programs.

But over the course of the last decade, I’ve observed the vast majority of these programs morph into the sort of panacea that looks great on recruitment material, is attractive to potential funders, but falls far short of delivering skill sets students need to have a reasonable shot at building a career outside of the traditional employer workplace.

Toward the end of the First Great Lie era, it was difficult to miss how much academic institutions failed to quantify success rates among graduates. The reasons were obvious: the numbers were horrible.

Nonetheless, if you take some time to peruse conservatory and schools of music websites, you’ll see a very similar approach; there’s plenty of ballyhoo over entrepreneurship, but little to no data measuring impact compared to traditional methods. Consequently, it comes across as a tool to justify ever increasing enrollments without the hassle of accountability.

This is the part that should make you upset.

In order for these programs to make good on original intentions, academia needs to demonstrate success rates. As of now, I have yet to encounter an institution that can quantifiably demonstrate a student has any better chance of developing a sustainable career than they did after the collapse of the First Great Lie.

It is precisely this sort of accountability that will help academic institutions develop meaningful entrepreneurship programs (a path I fear too many are straying from). The best way for that to transpire is if people are talking about it and asking questions.

For now, I’ll readily admit that it is premature to label entrepreneurship programs as the Second Great Lie Of Academia.

To be more precise, it’s at a fork in the road where it will either take the high road and realize its potential or heading south toward Liarville.

What Do You Think?

By and large, I refrain from pure commentary articles but this topic deserves to be an exception to the rule.

My recent conversation with Andrew Hitz for his Entrepreneurial Musician podcast helped me realize the need for addressing this topic in a public forum (thanks to Andrew for that spark). To that end, I’m going to reach out to some of the major conservatories and schools of music to see which ones are willing to have frank conversation about this topic then publish the results here.

In the meantime, I’m very curious to know what you think so take a moment to leave a comment in order to share your thoughts and observations.

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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17 thoughts on “The Second Great Lie Of Academia”

  1. There are quite a few jobs that are music related, but not necessarily the focus of music schools. So it’s possible to have a great career from a music school without going say, the music teacher or orchestral musician routes. In music schools there is a certain pressure to follow these paths, and it’s not a failure to consider the numbers and look at the other possibilities. Maybe get a graduate degree in another field and then have an edge by having the combination. The number of music graduates who end up employed is an important figure.
    Having said that, if the determination is strong enough to do the orchestral musician thing, or music teacher thing, etc., do it – I would say the effort to get into those positions is equal to the effort to remain competent in those positions. If one doesn’t have the determination in the beginning, I think it’s probably wrong to assume everything is smooth sailing once in that job. Once in the job it helps to look back at the efforts to get there in order to endure those challenges.

    • The thing to do as a music student is to do the coursework, but whenever someone gives a compliment like “wow you really love cars” or “you really know computers”, etc. – file that away. Because that means there are other music students without that particular set of skills, which means in a job requiring say, good ears and something else – that person will have an advantage. Music graduates probably have better ears than those in the general population – or at least someone without a music degree would have more difficulty proving they had better ears. There are plenty of jobs which require some skill anyone can obtain, plus good ears – and many of the people in that profession don’t quite have the good ears. What a wonderful thing to be that person who has both.
      This doesn’t mean music schools should change their curriculum – every student is a little different – so you can’t predict where those set of skills will prove useful. But some teachers are grading students on how well they can recite dominant chords around the circle of 5ths. In other words, things that are easy to grade, but not as beneficial musically or artistically. Some teachers shy away from concepts that are less concrete – and it doesn’t mean they’re less important. The teachers that work in the more abstract concepts should be commended.

  2. I studied music at Indiana and they had an extracurricular entrepreneurship program. It was heavily marketed to current and prospective students. It consisted of presentations and seminars, mostly given by faculty members. Useful information was presented, but most of it only emphasized the importance of entrepreneurship without giving students specific tools to make it part of their careers. I thought the program as it existed in 2011 was doing some good, and had a lot of potential, but it seemed to lack a coherent plan for delivering business skills to musicians. It was heavily marketed, however, and sometimes in ways that seemed questionable. At one point the school created a full-time job administering the program, hired one of the students who had been volunteering on it to do that job, and then ran news releases talking this up as a program success story.

  3. Interesting thread and ideas but I disagree with the premise that music schools lie about job odds and then that the entrepreneurial route is one to salvation should one not land an orchestral position. I think anyone with that has done any kind of research will understand the odds of winning a job and should, early on in their studies, know where they stack vis a vis the competition. After two years of study, there is still time to change the major if employment is the end game of the college study and degree.

    That said, I do think that there are some things that need to be addressed by the recent attention to “entrepreneurialism” in music especially classical music. Entrepreneurialism has always been around in music – most rock bands start as independents and figure out a way to monetize their product through concerts and in the past recordings. This still happens and will most likely continue. That is how Kronos Quartet started as well.

    What I see going on in most universities is that someone on the faculty who has no real experience with starting a group and growing an audience is running an entrepreneurial program. The kids may know more than the prof when it comes to newer ideas such as social media, word of mouth marketing, and what younger generation listeners want to hear.

    The same phenomena happened in business schools. After the two recessions (2001 and 2008), b-schools started emphasizing their “entrepreneurial” programs since corporate positions (think orchestras) were unreliable and the career track they were in the past. Yet most b school profs have never run a company, do not understand how hard it is to raise cash, and then to figure out the market once a product is launched. In fact, most great ideas do not incubate in business schools (witness AIRBNB, Uber, Facebook, and even MSFT). The b-degrees are needed to run the operation once it matures.

    What bothers me the most about the new trend in music schools with regards to entrepreneurial studies is that it is creating solutions to a problem that may not exist. Sure, students gain skills beyond their instrument, but is there a true and growing market for what they do and is their musical idea truly creative? Is there a need for their product in the market place and how long can the idea be sustained? Who are the competitors?

    I think that music schools would do a greater service combining musical training with avocational skills that are truly needed in the market place. As one writer above mentioned, suppose a very good clarinet player also has an interest in cars. That could translate to part time work in both music performance and auto repair (with the auto repair component paying the bills!).

    I look forward to reading other posts on this subject.

  4. I avoided commenting until today’s post, Drew, because 21stC academia makes me angry and I am almost over wasting my time and energy dealing with it. I cannot stand the focus of the academic Establishment anymore – life does not stand still yet what is taught to those who choose to specialize in music (or any subject, for that matter) at a higher level does not prepare them for coping with/ living life. In my experience (higher ed institutions in four diverse States and three Countries), as much of that is due to the faculty’s limited experience in the real non-academic/ non-orchestra-job/ freelance performer worlds as it is institutions’ unwillingness to reconsider purpose (i.e. perhaps not idolizing the money?). It is such a shame, because a lot of good and societal progress used to come from academia, and in the USA particularly the facilities are incredible – second to none. Pity.

    I laughed when I read this post (I laughed at first lie, but got just as angry) which regurgitated dreams of my own higher ed school in which students learn about all aspects of living, including healthy eating, staying organized (filing systems, diaries, etc.), and accounting, along with practice in finding and hosting gigs (yes, as classical musicians), and working with/ booking other performers and admin/stage crews. For the past 10+ years I have maintained a limited number of coaching students for two to five years each, who constantly express frustration that what I teach and help them discover was not even mentioned in college, despite it being so essential to existence as a musician. Argh!

    Institutions like the New World Symphony seem to be taking the lead in “doing what’s needed” rather than following an outdated model, although again – their focus is on training students to get a job with an orchestra, not live life (Corporate USA’s anti-mantra “Live to work, or work to live?” comes to mind).

    It’s a hot topic indeed. Thanks for taking the plunge again.

  5. Drew:
    I believe the problem is not with teaching entrepreneurship per se, but rather with viewing entrepreneurship as the responsibility of the “career services” office rather than an integral part of an arts education. When entrepreneurship is viewed as a modality – a way of making work that connects that artistic work with its audience – it will achieve more diverse career opportunities as a byproduct. Let the goal of entrepreneurship education in the arts be to teach our students to make impactful and meaningful work rather than to make money and the sustainable multi-faceted career may result.

    • Hi Linda, thanks for weighing in. I’m curious to know then what you think about how these courses are promoted. For example, here is a list of existing promotional copy from a handful of conservatories and schools of music:

      “Roberts’ mandate at NEC will be to supplement the outstanding musical training of elite musicians with ‘the skills, knowledge, and awareness needed to create their own opportunities for musical success,’“
      “Calling Roberts a ‘major star,’ President Woodcock said, ‘We at NEC are looking to create a program of national and international stature that will give our terrific young musicians the tools they need.’”
      “Affirming her goal of empowering NEC’s young musicians so that they can create gratifying lives in music, Roberts emphasizes that Entrepreneurial Musicianship at NEC will not be a discreet curricular program. Rather, it will be part of a holistic approach to music education that integrates development of essential skills—such as creative and critical thinking, flexibility, intellectual accomplishment, self-reliance, and communication proficiency—with the musical training that musicians need to be successful today and in the future.”
      ~ source

      “Founded in 2010, NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship (EM) program aims to equip students with the extra-musical skills needed for success after NEC.”
      ~ source

      “Is there a place for musicians in the 21st century? YES. NEC is one of the preeminent conservatories in the world and the oldest independent music school in the United States. We know something of music’s place in a changing world. To that end, we’ve reinvented how we equip young musicians to thrive amidst the challenges they find after graduation.”
      ~ source

      “The Alan D. Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship at Juilliard provides a comprehensive integration of career services programs and entrepreneurial strategies into the ecosystem of the Juilliard community, preparing graduates across all disciplines to be confident professionals at the intersection of creativity, technology, and business.”
      ~ source

      “The mission of the Alan D. Marks Center is to provide a comprehensive integration of entrepreneurial strategies and career services programs into the ecosystem of the Juilliard community, preparing graduates from all three Juilliard divisions (music, dance, and drama) to thrive professionally at the intersection of creativity, technology, and business.”
      “Part of Juilliard’s mission is to provide our students with the skills they need to realize their fullest potential not only as artists, but also as leaders and global citizens. Michael and Carole’s gift will reinforce and expand our current programs, allowing us to better equip our students to succeed as young professionals in a rapidly changing world.”
      ~ source

      “The establishment of the Institute for Music Leadership has allowed the Eastman School to create a unique atmosphere among music schools, where ideas can flourish and students are empowered to shape their own destiny by developing the skills and networks they need to adapt to the changing and challenging arts world.”
      ~ source

      “The IML’s focus in ‘entrepreneurship in music,’ is helping students learn how to turn promising ideas into enterprises that create value”
      ~ source

      “Our goal is to enable all our students to forge a viable career in the performing arts by exploring, developing and leveraging their talents, training, skills, and ambitions.”
      “Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Career Empowerment & Leadership (EXCEL) catalyzes success for U-M SMTD students and alumni through curricular and co-curricular offerings, ongoing mentoring, and an arts venture incubator.”
      ~ source

      • Drew: I think that in these descriptions you’re seeing the tension that I describe between a conception of entrepreneurship that is vocational (hard skills in marketing, finance, etc) and one that is part of a holistic conception of arts training (creativity leading to value creation). I’m happy to discuss the issue with you offline.

      • PS> We do keep data on the success of enterprises launched through the Pave Arts Venture Incubator but this is a cross-college initiative and not specific to the School of Music.

      • Hi Linda, I’m happy to continue the discussion directly if you prefer (I believe you have my email) but I do see a great deal of value in conducting these conversations in a public format as well. I was especially happy to see your initial reply here along with seeing Jim Undercoffler add his voice on Facebook.

        I’m especially interested in what you wrote about the “goal of entrepreneurship education in the arts be to teach our students to make impactful and meaningful work rather than to make money and the sustainable multi-faceted career may result.”

        If conservatories and schools of music were seminaries, I’d say that is a wonderful goal but I’m not entirely certain it carries an equal amount of applicability vis-a-vis a university degree.

        Why a separation exists between what you’ve described as hard skills and holistic conception of arts training is curious.

        On the surface, it looks very much like an effort to resist accountability rather than embracing it. Having said that, I also get the sense that I may not be fully understanding your point.

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