Music Career Advice From Tom Hess

My father was thrilled when I announced that I had changed my mind about college, and that I planned on enrolling in the upcoming Spring semester. But he was less than thrilled when I told him I wanted to major in Piano Performance.

“That’s well and good,” he replied, “but don’t you think you should get a degree in something you can fall back on?”

I can’t blame Dad for thinking this way. He grew up during the Great Depression and had to drop out of school so that he could work to help support the family, so practicality and security were his watchwords. The problem is that a lot of musicians today hear that same advice, and not necessarily from parents who have the same background as mine.  “It’s 100 percent backwards,” says Tom Hess in an interview with Ryan Buckner on Music Think Tank. Below is a brief discussion of the “college-first” myth, plus a couple of others musicians often hear.

  1. You need to get a degree in something so you’ll have something to fall back on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most people offer this advice on the assumption that the music business is full of risk and uncertainty. In fact, the opposite is true. Most working musicians have stable incomes because they’re able to work in different contexts almost simultaneously, such as lessons, production, recording, touring, and film. Besides, how good of a life can it be if you live it doing what other people want you to do?
  2. You need to write pop music in order to get radio airplay. It’s understandable that most people would think this way, given that their exposure to the music business is often limited to what they hear on the radio or the internet. But the fact is that airplay alone will not make most professional musicians a lot of money. Again, successful professionals know that the key to financial security is having income from multiple streams, of which royalties are just one.
  3. You have to be in the right place at the right time. If this was always the case, there wouldn’t be too many professional musicians out there. Those who are at the top got there by spending years cultivating good relationships with other music professionals. Moreover, they spent that time working on their craft, learning new skill sets, and developing some business chops as well. Good careers in anything don’t just happen. They take work.

Of course, you could make it to the top by getting a degree in something safe and being in the right place at the right time with the one pop song you’ve written, but the point here is that you don’t have to do it that way, nor should you feel like you have to do it that way. A career in music – or anything else you want to do – will always have some risk, but if the passion is there, nothing can stop you.


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