Music + Technology
May 21, 2011 9:46 PM   Subscribe

What career paths fit my interests? Music + Technology

Right now, I'm a Junior in high school (17 years old) and I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do for college. I was thinking mechanical engineering. But honestly, I don't see myself sitting in front of a computer cadding away at a design that I don't give a shit about. :) Besides me lacking the passion to be an engineer, my math skills suck. I took Trig my first semester and came out with a C and I'm in calc now and I'm looking at a D. >.> Engineering majors dive really deep into calculus, I could never keep up. :/

I know what I would love to do with my life, and thats produce music. Dance music specifically. I want to be one of those big names out there, Skrillex, deadmau5, etc. Its a dream that a lot of people share, but only a handful will achieve. I'm really going for it, but it can't be my only option in case things don't work out.

I'm really good with computers, I've been working at a small computer repair shop for almost two years. Its a great way to make a profit as a teen working at the shop and on the side directly. But I would never consider opening my own shop down the road.

What I really want to find is a career that combines my tech savvy self and music. Obviously, making music fits the bill very well, but what else is out there? I've looked into sound engineering, being the person that mixes the sound for a band intrigues me. But the pay scales I've looked at are god awful. $20,000 to start and $65,000 at best? If I love it I shouldn't mind plays into that a little bit, but its too low for me if theirs a better option.

What do you think? What should I do with my life? :D

Thanks!!! :D
posted by NotSoSiniSter to Work & Money (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Hi NotSo. In my experience and those I graduated with in music technology, those that are happiest have found a job they enjoy and can tolerate, which gives them plenty of time for their own projects.

You seem to be thinking along those lines. However, consider jobs which are not to do with music. As you have identified, a lot of them are shit unless you're at the top of the ladder...and even then you have to be the right person to enjoy it.

If you love working on computers, being some kind of self-employed contractor could be a good move as you get good money and the freedom to be your own boss and get some breaks.

I've realised that for a lot of people it's not about having a career that's right from the outset, you might change, try different things and move towards your goal.

I work as a tutor for adults in an unrelated field and it happens to work well as it uses creativity and is a break from technology.

Oh yeh, work very hard on your own projects. You're going to have to do long hours to make it whatever you do, so get in there right away and put the hours in on your own stuff with a businesslike approach. Then you'll have the best chance with it, and feel good about what you're doing.
posted by Not Supplied at 12:19 AM on May 22, 2011

My brother has a degree in sound engineering. He started out wanting to record bands, and he did, for a while. Now he works for a company that designs, installs and maintains all manner of audio-related installations, from conference rooms to CCTV.

His title is (I think) Senior Sound Engineer or some-such. He does the design work, and some of the installation, along with a project team that he manages. He has to know a little about a lot: software, hardware, electronics, acoustics, etc.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:29 AM on May 22, 2011

Musician with some computer background here - unfortunately, the odds of becoming a celebrity musician or even big name in the sound recording field are very low, as you've said. Not to say you shouldn't work at it or do it for enjoyment, but you do need to be realistic and have a back-up plan.

You've ruled out computer repair. Honestly, in my area, people who can work on PCs and especially those with network expertise are in short supply. I think it's something you should consider, especially as it gives you expertise that goes along with the musical field you're interested in.

Are you not doing well at math because you're honestly no good, or could you do better if you applied yourself? Not to sound like your dad, but that is a key difference, and you're right - if you're not doing well at math, you'll sink in engineering.

If it makes you feel better, my cocktail party question is often - what did you major in, and what are you actually doing for a living? It closely lines up less than 50% of the time.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:18 AM on May 22, 2011

What about software programming? You could target an industry that interests you. Computer games, for example. Huge industry, lots more jobs than music production. More creative than mechanical design. Go to community college or study on your own. When you have the skills, participate in open source projects to build up your resume. You'll be much happier if you accept that music will be an avocation rather than a realistic career.
posted by conrad53 at 7:49 AM on May 22, 2011

There is no money in dance music.

I want to emphasize that.

You will almost definitely not make a career in dance music.

Any money you invest in the hopes of attaining such a career will almost surely be wasted. The vast majority of producers make less money from selling music than they spent getting the gear to make it. Almost all of them have 'day jobs'.

But! All hope is not lost.

You don't need to invest a lot of money learning how to make dance music. Almost no one who does it went to school for it.

Here is how you learn how to do it.

1: Download a copy of Cubase or Ableton. (Or Reason, if you're just getting started -- I found it more intuitive, personally). Look at a few tutorials on youtube. Start making music. Even if it sucks, just start making it and never stop making it. You will eventually get better.

2: Buy some books on sound engineering and read them. Learn about subtractive synthesis, especially.

3: Learn how to play an instrument, or at least learn basic music theory. For example, start taking piano lessons. You should at least know how to construct chords, the circle of fifths and basic time signatures. You don't need to know how to 'play' music, but you do need to know the basics of 'how music works'.

4: Listen to lots of dance music. Listen to lots of non-dance music. Pick it apart so you know how all the pieces fit together.

5: Learn how to DJ -- if you ever want to make a living from this, it's going to be as a touring DJ eventually. Whether you use traktor or ableton or vinyl, you need to learn how to play music live -- whether its yours or someone elses. Even if you don't ever play gigs, knowing how dance records fit together is important.

5: Here is the most important part -- get involved with the scene. Go to clubs a lot. Talk to the DJs, talk to promoters, talk to producers, talk to dancers. Find a club that you love and make that your church. Go there every week -- ask if you can help out behind the scenes.

Make friends with people who are doing small parties and one offs -- volunteer to help with lights and sound or anything else they need help with. Even if it's not directly related to music, getting to know promoters well means that you get to know DJs and producers, too. I used to help out a huge party in my home town and got to meet people like Tiesto, Oakenfold, Pete Tong, and Crystal Method regularly, and I was nobody special, just someone with a lot of a spare time and a willingness to help. When you're trying to break into the industry, those kind of connections are invaluable. And starting with small parties means that you have a reputation when you want to get involved with bigger events.

5: Learn how to live and breathe the dance floor, because ultimately that is what you are making the music for. When you make friends with DJs or producers, make sure you pick their brains about what they do and why. Don't push your stuff on people to listen to unless they ask for it -- just try to learn as much as you can.

6: Be patient. You are going to most likely make garbage for years before you do anything close to ready for the dance floor. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. The good thing is that you're young. A lot of people don't get into this until they're in their 20s, and don't get good until they're in their 30s, or they burn our or settle down before that. You have plenty of time to get really good by the time you're in your early 20s.


Being a dance music producer is something you can do, if you're willing to put in the time to get good at it, and if you don't expect any money out of it. It's a lot of hours alone in your room twiddling knobs and being frustrated, but the pay off -- whether its hearing a song you wrote played in front of a thousand people, or djing in front of a thousand people, is amazing.


If you're going to college anyway, aside from music theory, it can't hurt to take some advanced math and stuff like Digital Signal Processing, but trust me, I know some very successful producers personally who wouldn't know how to add 2+2 without using their fingers. The advantage of learning the sound engineering stuff is basically that you can make your own unique synth sounds easier without depending on presets or randomly twiddling knobs, but it's really not necessary.

As far as a career to prepare for -- the most important one, if you plan on getting into the industry, is one that leaves your nights and weekends free and has a flexible schedule. Anything involving IT is good for this, and I'd say a majority of DJs and producers with day jobs have jobs in IT, whether it's programming or server administration.
posted by empath at 8:32 AM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some of the most exciting stuff happening in music technology right now is live electronics/interaction design. This is mainly using programmes like MAX/MSP, Pure Data, and Supercollider. These require some basic computer programming skills and for more advanced stuff it is well worth your time getting good at Java. There are then options to link these things with electronics (e.g. using Arduinos) and making music in all kinds of strange ways, like by measuring physiological reactions. If you don't end up being an electronic musician, you could end up designing new instruments, doing research into musical experience, providing music for computer games or online services, museums/art gallery installations and of course teaching. Just remember that its the hardcore of computer programming and electronics that is the key transferable skill, and it will be harder to pick up these skills later on. Also, you won't need advanced mathematics, but try to keep it up even if it is a bit painful.

The other thing to note about being an actual musician is that you need to seriously network, like take absolutely every opportunity to work with other musicians in every possible circumstance. Universities are good places to meet people doing stuff, but it's up to you to be proactive. I assume you also play an instrument. If not, then what the fuck are you doing having aspirations to be a musician? If you don't play an instrument, get a fucking bass guitar right now and get out there. Nobody succeeds making shitty dance tracks in their bedroom. You have to be out there playing for people, finding out what works and listening to everything you can get your hands on.
posted by leibniz at 9:05 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I assume you also play an instrument. If not, then what the fuck are you doing having aspirations to be a musician? If you don't play an instrument, get a fucking bass guitar right now and get out there. Nobody succeeds making shitty dance tracks in their bedroom.

Actually, the vast majority of producers I know of can't play an instrument. You really, really, don't need to know how to plan an instrument to be a good dance music producer. I'm not saying it doesn't help, but it's not essential. If anything, you should learn the basics of playing a piano, just because so many synths use the piano as the interface -- at least learn how to play chords, etc..
posted by empath at 9:13 AM on May 22, 2011

Instead of planning a career to "fall back on" (which is an odd phrase used by people who expect you to fail), you want to think about either:
1) A job (not a career) to grow out of and eventually leave to make music full-time
2) A career that you will enjoy full-time and will let you enjoy making music part-time

These two options are sort of diametrically opposed. #1 would be a a job of fairly mindless activity with fairly fixed hours. For example, I have a friend who's a gifted composer and whose day gig is data entry. I think I remember reading that Quantic worked at a bakery or something before becoming a full-time musician. The idea is that you find a job that will not drain the energy that you want to spend making music. Ideally, it would also be a job where you can function reasonably well even after getting home at 4 AM from a gig :)

If you *HAVE* to make music, like breathing, go for #1. If making music seems like fun, go for #2, a career.

#2 pays the bills, is your career, and lets you buy all sorts of nice music-making toys (in addition to a car and health insurance if you're in the US). It would also be your first priority; making music would be a serious hobby. It can still be fulfilling and validating and fun.

For college, take whatever music electives you can - DEFINITELY music technology. You're 17 years old - explore everything. Check out Max/PSD, as leibniz said. Try coding your own VST's. There's aspects of music-making that you love and that you don't even know about yet. Go find them!!!

(As a music teacher I feel obligated to encourage you to take music theory, but honestly a lot of college-level music theory is focused on classical music from the mid 1600's to the 1800's. You won't get a lot out of that. DO learn "garage band" music theory, meaning scales, chords, and key signatures. Learn it by USING THEM in your productions.)

Empath is 100% dead on. I would emphasize his recommendation that you "put in the time to get good at it." Get in the habit of making music every day - If your creative spirit can rely on you to be in front of your studio making music at 5pm every day, it will arrive and inspire you promptly at 5 pm (or 5 am) every day.

Also, find your own sound - by the time you launch your career, cats like deadmau5 will be considered old fashioned. Learn as many different approaches and styles as you can.
posted by audiodidactic at 9:55 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think I can emphasize enough how important it is to start making music right now. Download rebirth, it's free. It gives you all the tools that the guys who invented acid house had, and none of those guys even read the manual, let alone took a class in it. Just start doing it.
posted by empath at 10:14 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow great answers!!! :D

Idk if empath remembers, but I had the post several months back about inspiring to be a music producer, he gave an extensive answer that I really took to heart. :D

My plan for my 3 months off of school is to make music as much as I can. :D I do play an instrument, I took piano lessons for 8 years and I took composition lessons for 1. I'm taking AP music theory next year. I've also have a Traktor/Ableton setup for DJing that I've been working on as well. My goal is to DJ my schools dances next year. I've been heavily applying myself to Ableton for months. Its frustrating at times but the little spurts of goodness that come out of it keep me going. :D The one thing I'm really lacking is connections. I have nothing to show in my productions and my DJing is still sub-par. I had a post about where to go to college based on the EDM scene surrounding the school. :D Hopefully if I don't make connections now, I'll make connections there. :)

The MAX/MSP stuff looks really interesting. Something I will definitely check out. :D I've thought about diving into programming but this really makes me want to actually start learning. :D

I'm liking the idea of finding something that I can do during the day that gives me a lot of time to hammer out beats at night. Maybe going into IT would be perfect.

Thanks!!! :D
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 11:29 AM on May 22, 2011

By the way, have people seen this ableton reconstruction of a prodigy track? It's pretty awesome.
posted by leibniz at 6:11 AM on May 23, 2011

hey, just wanted to throw out a minority opinion here! i'm a professional musician, and have been making a decent living off of it for for 10 years now. audiodidactic gives excellent advice, and breaks down the way it works 95% of the time. in fact, option 1 *is* just about inevitable for at least some length of time.

that said: i wasted the best 5 years of my music career (19-24) taking college classes that i didn't ever really use. if i could go back and do it all over again, i'd dive right into doing music. if i hadn't gotten anywhere in "the industry" by, say, 25, 27... *then* i'd go to college - older, wiser, and fully committed to making a career outside of music.

as for making money as a dj, people are right - producing tracks will probably never net you much money, even if you get to a level where you're on a label, clubs fly you to different cities to headline etc. what making tracks does, if you get on a label and people buy them and play them, is make you a desirable name people recognize, so that clubs may choose to fly you in and pay you pretty good money to headline.

but that will take years to happen. if you're very very VERY lucky. and work like an obsessed demon from hell. and have oodles of natural talent. and great networking skills. in the meantime though, you may well get to the point where you're paying rent off the $100-200+ a night you can get being the resident dj at a biggish club In Your Local Area - such things have been known to happen to guys who really make a go of it. sometimes. helps if you take a very practical approach to djing, ie. playing what the crowds want to hear

however, as far as "day jobs" - i have two words for you: djing weddings. pays like +500/gig, more if you're sought after. you have to know all genres inside and out, oldies especially, play cheesy stuff till you're sick to death of it, smile and take it when stupid drunk people make stupid drunk requests and comments, etc etc.... but, the pay is mad decent - 8 gigs in a month and you can fly out to the sonar festival. save up the $$$ from all 8 gigs each month for half a year and you can buy a new van for cash, another 2 months and you have a decent soundsystem to put in it. and, it's a real no-bullshit look at how the average joe's mind works wrt music - my tunes never started getting radio plays till i had a few years of experience djing weddings. it's an education. +, in my neck of the woods the events usually wind up at midnight and you can go play a club afterwards if you don't mind 15 hour days (and you'd better not if you want to be a professional musician)

if not a single word of what i just said puts you off (playing what the crowd wants to hear! cheesy requests! 15 hour days! living off $100/night x 3 times a week for a year and a half! networking skills!) i say go for it. make *going to college in the first place* your fallback plan.
posted by messiahwannabe at 2:17 AM on May 1, 2012

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