Can You Land a Successful Career with a Performing Arts Degree?

In an economy that rewards improvisation and entrepreneurship, well-trained artists and musicians are equipped to thrive.

January 31, 2020

As the story goes, Ray Charles, with 12 minutes left in a four-hour show near Pittsburgh in 1958, had run out of material. He took a breath, placed his fingers on his Wurlitzer piano, and started playing a riff. “Y’all just follow me,” he called out to his band, and then he did what years of work and study had prepared him for: He improvised a new song, “What’d I Say,” right there on the spot.

Improvisation doesn’t only happen on a stage, and it rarely comes about as effortlessly as it seems. It’s a learnable skill that takes years of practice to fully master. It requires listening, preparation, communication, problem solving, and, most of all, vision for where you want to take an idea, musical or otherwise. And if you can learn to improvise in a musical setting, you can learn to do the same—to think on your feet, to respond swiftly and creatively to new challenges and information—in any setting.

A recent study found that at least 65 percent of employers listed listening and communication in the top three of the most coveted qualities they seek among new hires.

Case in point: Will Cady B.M. ’09 worked as a touring bassist, songwriter, and music teacher after graduating from Berklee. Fast forward to today and he’s found himself in a surprising new role as the leader of brand strategy for Reddit. How did he use his music skills to recast himself as a creative, rather than “just” a musician? As Will climbed the ranks at Reddit, he came to understand the advantage his artistic skills gave him in this new context: “I knew how to practice and redeploy those parts of my brain that were trained through music,” he explained. “It’s the same thing, just different material.”

Will Cady B.M. ’09 believes if you can lead a band, you can build a brand.

A 2019 study by Morning Consult found that at least 65 percent of employers listed “soft skills” as the most coveted qualities they seek among new hires—listening and communication were in the top three. These are also skills that are critical whether you’re leading a band, booking a tour, running a dance company, or launching a startup. Which is all to say: they’re exactly the skills students acquire at Berklee.

Situated as we are in an ever-changing industry, we’re committed to helping students stretch their passions and diversify their career goals, to think entrepreneurially, to be nimble and willing and able to pivot, and to course-correct when necessary.

A Changing Industry

Looking back over the last two decades, it’s clear the entertainment industry has undergone a series of massive disruptions, each presenting a new set of opportunities.

Our consumption model has been recast in surprising ways. We saw the compact disc virtually go extinct and digital downloads eclipsed by music streaming services, even while vinyl sales have ticked up again.

Enter new technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality, and their hybrid: mixed reality. VR has offered dancers a new stage and musicians new platforms to design, compose, and produce immersive videos and live performance experiences.

Regardless of the medium, people around the world consume music and the performing arts in some way, every day.

Those sound effects, voice-overs, and background scores you hear in cars, video games, apps, and operating systems? That’s the work of sound designers, who compile or create audio assets for games and other technology.

Though not a completely new format, podcasting has exploded in the last few years—and with podcasts come the demand for mix engineers, composers, and music editors.

Social media marketing and advertising have emerged as the way to target and engage with fans. Grammy Award–winning bassist Esperanza Spalding B.M. ’05, for instance, harnessed these platforms for her most recent album, 12 Little Spells, strategically releasing one song per day on her website, Facebook, and Instagram, and performing 12 pop-up shows, each inspired by a “spell.”

Through all the change and evolution, one thing has remained constant: the relevancy of music and performing arts. As much as part of the industry might have declined, other parts of the industry, including live entertainment, remain vital. Regardless of the medium, people around the world consume music and the performing arts in some way, every day.


Berklee alumni Jake Voulgarides and Anahita Bahri at the Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, California.

The Right Skills for the Job

We’ve found that Berklee talent is in high demand, especially among some of the fastest-growing fields in music and the performing arts, such as data analytics. Artists, labels, managers, distributors, and producers are learning more and more about music consumption, including influences and sharing habits. Notably, streaming services such as Spotify, Amazon, Netflix, and Apple Music are looking to our graduates to leverage this data, broadening fan awareness of new artists, and in so doing, helping musicians grow their audiences and create new revenue streams.

Anahita Bahri B.M. ’15 is among the many Berklee alumni who’ve found their way into this field. Bahri works at Netflix as a music data and insights manager. “Berklee gave me a great understanding of the music industry. At Netflix, we touch so many aspects of the industry: composers, labels, producers, performance rights organizations,” she says. “Even my conducting minor has given me a different perspective on the other people we’re working with at Netflix."

Meanwhile, students in Professor Alexandre Perrin’s Data Analytics in the Music Industry—a course in the Master of Arts in Global Entertainment and Music Business program at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain—are learning how analytics affect management decisions, firms’ strategies, and artist success. And thanks to partnerships with Sony Music Germany and the Orchard, they’re crunching real data to identify touring opportunities for artists based on where their fans are concentrated.

On the writing and production side, the path from a Berklee degree into the job market is clear. Consider film and TV streaming: with a deluge of new programming, songwriters, sound designers, and composers are sought after to create the sounds behind the shows. Our graduates have scored hit Netflix programs such as Narcos (Pedro Bromfman B.M. ’97, Juan Carlos Enriquez B.M. ’13), Klaus (Pedro Osuna ’19), and The Boss Baby: Back in Business (Ben Broomfield B.M. ’10).

Virtual reality and 360-degree environments present another new area of exploration for sound designers and composers. We’ve added several new classes to take advantage of these opportunities, including Composing Music for VR/AR/XR and Immersive Audio for Virtual Reality and 360 Environments.

Boston Conservatory at Berklee is also bringing students cutting-edge curriculum that addresses the intersection of dance and technology. The course Introduction to Dance on Film and Video, for instance, not only consists of creating non-proscenium dance specifically for the camera, it also explores how technology can be used to help dance, grow, and evolve. With virtual reality upending the traditional “here is the audience, here is the stage” construct, dancers need to think in terms of 360 degrees, how to choreograph with the audience in the center.

Unlocking Entrepreneurship

Of course, a career in the arts is not just about landing one job. This is a generation for which a dozen jobs over the course of a career will be the norm. To keep pace, we’re teaching students to identify their skills and goals early on, and then providing them with the tools they need to promote themselves and develop their brands.

We know that a spirit of entrepreneurship is key to success in the industry, so we embrace that fully, both through specific programs such as our Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (BerkleeICE), which offers a creative entrepreneurship minor, and as a fundamental principle at Berklee.

As a key approach to fostering entrepreneurial thinking, we’re challenging students to think differently by providing paths for interdisciplinary collaboration. Students in the Conservatory’s Dance and Physics Creative Lab, for example, study space, time, gravity, light, waves, and chaos to inspire new movement and choreography. The Berklee Global Jazz Institute, led by Grammy-winning pianist and composer Danilo Pérez, works to push students out of their comfort zones by teaching them to leverage their creativity to advance the social power of music. Or consider the Berklee Popular Music Institute, which pairs music business students with emerging student artists for a direct immersion into the music industry, from contract negotiation and branding to festival performances and recording.

We’re also preparing students for global careers. The incredibly rich mix of cultures and points of view represented by our undergraduate and graduate students present numerous opportunities to work cross-culturally. Navigating different cultural mindsets is an invaluable tool for career success. In addition to the opportunities presented through our campus in Valencia, Spain, and our various globally-minded institutes, our annual Berklee China-U.S. Music Summit brings senior executives from China’s leading entertainment companies to Boston, introducing students to career opportunities in one of the world’s fastest growing markets.

Building Strong Networks

A strong network is critical in any industry, and music and the performing arts are no exception. At Berklee, students are presented with opportunities to intersect with industry professionals and also receive structured guidance on how to network and plan for life after graduation.

Career planning—a key pillar of Thrive, Berklee's new strategy to advance student success—is integrated early in the Berklee experience in an approach that includes mandatory career sessions at orientation and presentations in the first-year seminar. Berklee's Career Communities platform also allows students to explore career roles by community, industry, program, or location. This focus continues throughout students’ time here and ultimately brings in a critical element: access to a robust network of alumni and other professionals working in the industry.

The Berklee Career Center offers a host of services tailored to students looking to jump-start their careers. Its signature event, Career Jam, brings more than 80 artists and industry leaders to campus for workshops, mentoring sessions, and more, while the Internship Expo connects students with a broad range of employers, including industry heavyweights Apple Music, Live Nation, and Ableton. Many students make connections at Career Jam that lead—whether directly or indirectly—to future jobs, gigs, and collaborations.

Redefining Success

Success does not play out along a predetermined path. Rather, it takes many directions and lands in unexpected places. We’re giving students the artistic and entrepreneurial skills to succeed in spaces that challenge traditional notions of “making it” in the industry, and we’re empowering students and alumni to think beyond their chosen discipline, beyond themselves.

Here’s just a sampling of students whose Berklee training has taken them in unexpected yet gratifying directions:

  • Kate Bilinksi B.M. ’10, who studied electronic production and design at Berklee, is a New York-based sound designer, editor, and rerecording engineer with a client list that has included Google, Chase, Disney, and Sesame Street. Through her audio experience, she found a foothold in the podcast industry, and has mixed and edited Serial, Homecoming, Reply All, and Heavyweight, Mike Birbiglia’s The Old Ones, New Yorker Radio Hour, and 36 Questions, among other high-profile shows.
  • Spencer Selmon ’12 studied film scoring at Berklee. After stints as a composer and note tracker at Ubisoft, he’s now working as a sound designer at Facebook.
  • Andre Cerullo (B.M. ’13, piano) came to Boston Conservatory at Berklee to study classical piano, became involved with the musical theater program, and ended up as the music director and conductor for the Hamilton national tour.
  • La’i Dowsett B.M. ’14 studied music business/management and parlayed her love of music and multimedia to a career in marketing and communications, working at companies such as Apple and Tesla.
  • Nicole Schoen B.P.S. ’16, who studied music business through Berklee Online, turned her love of live music into a career in tour marketing at United Talent Agency. 

Our alumni are out in the world exemplifying how you don’t need to be a pop or Broadway star, or even aspire to be one, to be successful. Of course, we celebrate the many legendary performers who are also members of our community, but we are pleased to see how multifaceted and multilayered our alumni career paths are and can be, how they are evolving with a dynamic industry. Not only does this broad spectrum of opportunity bode well for our graduates, but it also is a good indicator of the health of the industry itself. From our perspective, it’s vibrant and full of possibility for those with their ears to the ground and their eyes on the future.

Stefanie Henning is Berklee's associate vice president of career and digital strategy, which includes oversight of the Career Center, Student Employment, and Digital Strategy teams. She began her career as a talent agent at International Creative Management (ICM) and later served in executive roles at Fox Television Studios, Universal Music Group, and Macromedia (now Adobe).

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