The sinking feeling?: Living with a music degree

By Ross Wittenham

“What’s that, you’re a music graduate and you would like a job in the music business? Very funny; I have a lovely catering job that’s probably more your size. It’s a fast-food business, you might know it actually.”

Ho, ho, ho. Those with a secure future can sit back and see the lighter side, but for thousands of recent and soon-to-be music graduates, that joke isn’t funny any more.

On November 4, Arts Council England announced a brand new plan for grant distribution. Grants will now be divided between a minority of “strategic” and a majority of “programme” organisations. The former are those organisations that provide an essential function within the arts community, while the latter are those which provide an exceptional cultural contribution.

Whilst this strategy is necessary in order to deal with their massive budget reductions, it also glosses over the real issue by waving the flag of “a fairer scheme” in our faces.

Arts Council England will potentially lose more than 100 organisations from their portfolio by 2015. However, in the context of the 850 organisations that they currently fund, and the cross-department cuts this seems pretty reasonable.

Applications will close in January, but the selection will not be announced until March 2011, and will not be active until April 2012. Organisations which currently receive grants from Arts Council England will continue to do so until the new system comes into force in 2011/2012.

This all sounds very healthy; it is a de-tox which could save the government money whilst simultaneously prompting new groups to appeal, and encouraging continuous improvement. In reality though, weeding out the weaker organisations is likely to stifle growth amongst emerging groups that need the financial support. Julie Leather, Communications Officer for Arts Council England said: “It is likely that there will be good applications that we are unable to fund.”

Ms Leather also said that organisations such as the National Theatre and Brighton’s Hofesh Shechter Company were perfect examples “strategic” and “programme” organisations respectively.

This leads us to question whether some organisations have already been singled out months before the application window closes. If they have, then it calls into question the principle that every group will have an equal chance.

“Salami slicing our portfolio of organisations would never have been an appropriate long-term response, regardless of our settlement,” said Liz Forgan, Chair of Arts Council England. “That is why a vision for the future is so important to us.”

Another critical thing that will hit graduates hard is something that many of their own peers have lauded; the rise of file-sharing and free music. As Gabriel Prokofiev, the driving force behind NonClassical record label and club said: “The golden era of the record industry is over.” A music graduate himself, Prokofiev has struggled to carve out a niche he can call his own. With the downfall of the record industry many musicians have found themselves without a steady income.

However, Prokofiev was not completely negative about the cuts. “There are certainly some organisations that have abused huge grants, and they take it for granted. They don’t try as hard as they might because they just know that the money is there.”

To a certain extent he is right, whether or not you want to call them “efficiency savings”; they will tackle complacency amongst beneficiaries. The new system will kill off those who cannot compete. “In some ways it can be a positive thing,” said Prokofiev.”It forces people to be more resourceful and do things at a grass-roots level more. Music is going to have to go back to being more underground.”

Then, of course, there is the issue of student debt which many are already saddled with, and many more will suffer from horrifically. Referring to clinical drug trials, one 20-year-old Royal Northern College of Music student said: “I have resorted to selling my body to science.” Medical trials are a viable way to fund a degree, but they are hardly a stable job.

“Strictly speaking, full time students are supposed to concentrate on their studies, rather than earn money. However, many are finding that this approach is not only compatible, but utterly necessary. Students with more experience of the world are now looking dubiously into the future.

Another music student, Jenny Dyson, 21, is currently auditioning for her post-grad, but she is not confident about the future. Jenny, who plays flute, said: “After this I will have to be performing or teaching; I can’t afford to say no.” It might sound like arrogance to avoid a career path you have chosen for yourself, but should someone be dissuaded from learning more about their subject?

One question that rarely seems to come up is exactly why these people chose to take on such a risky course.  Manchester University’s Undergraduate of the Year 2009 David Tagg-Oram, 21, simply said: “I am doing music because I enjoy it. I like making creative ideas happen.” This, ladies and gentlemen, is what a music degree is surely about.

However, musicians are unfortunate in the fact that the service they provide is a cultural ornament rather than a functioning commodity. Most musicians cannot afford to command impressive salaries. In 2004 a survey by the Musicians’ union suggested that professional orchestral musicians were paid significantly less than the national average wage, at just £22,500.

With inflation and expenses taken into account, this is a poor sum for a graduate professional at the top of their game. For some, it could take a lifetime to shake off their student debt, even without other budgetary constraints. Put simply, and in terms a businessman could understand, a music degree is no longer worth the money.

Related Articles