You’re Running Out of Excuses For Not Getting A Music Degree


“The Logic class is kicking my butt a little bit… in a good way,” – Stefan Lessard, Bassist, Dave Matthews Band

For those of you outside of America, the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) is one of the most successful touring bands of all time (I’ve seen over 20 shows… I’m kind of a fan). What makes them so successful is not their high ticket prices, but their demanding tour schedule. For the past 20 years, the band has toured relentlessly. Spending the majority of your life on the road doesn’t give you much time for traditional education. Lessard, who joined DMB when he was just 16, never went to college. He has the real world experience, but never got the formal music training he craved. “I’ve always wanted to go to school. I’ve always wanted to learn more,” Lessard explains. He signed up for a few Berklee Online classes like Theory 101 and Logic to take while on tour.

The beauty of online classes is that students can take them on their own schedule from anywhere in the world.

Berklee College of Music started its online program in 2002 when the internet was still figuring itself out. This was pre YouTube or Facebook.  Now, over 10,000 students from 140 countries each year enroll in Berklee Online certificate programs including 12 week courses like Pro Tools, Music Video Editing, Commercial Songwriting, Orchestration, Music Theory, Guitar, Afro-Cuban Drums, Music Production, 3D Design, Ear Training For Mixing Engineers, Arranging: Horn Writing, Artist Management, Music Licensing, Music Marketing and over 100 others.

$100,000 is spent on the development of every online course.

I sat down with Berklee Online’s CEO, Debbie Cavalier to understand the online school and new degree program a bit more.

She described Berklee’s online offerings as a wedding cake (the metaphor, she credited, was created by Berklee President Roger Brown):

The bottom layer are the free YouTube lessons Berklee offers on their YouTube page which have over 16 million collective views.

The next layer of the metaphorical cake are the MOOC (classes they offer for free) via which over 1.4 million students have taken. Cavalier explained that many of the MOOC classes are meant to help students prep for the degree programs.

The next layer of the cake are the stand alone courses which Berklee offers for $1,449 a pop (for credit).

The next layer are the certificate programs which can be obtained by completing a combination of courses.

And the top layer of the Berklee Online wedding cake are the new degree programs.


Berklee started the Bachelor of Professional Studies program last year. In its first year, 350 students were admitted. 700 submitted (completed) applications though (although thousands more started applications). If you do the math, I’ll wait till you grab your calculator, that’s a 50% acceptance rate. Unlike other for profit online schools, Berklee is quite picky about who they admit. “We only take people that we feel are going to succeed. It would be irresponsible of us to bring people in who we don’t feel are going to succeed academically,” Cavalier admitted. The Berklee College of Music in Boston admits about 30% of applicants.

“We only take people that we feel are going to succeed. It would be irresponsible of us to bring people in who we don’t feel are going to succeed academically” – Debbie Cavalier, CEO, Berklee Online

As someone who doesn’t have a bachelors degree, but has a successful music career, I asked Cavalier why would musicians spend the time and money to get a degree? She countered, “I’ve personally benefited from getting my degree from Berklee.” She went on to say that a degree is necessary for musicians who may want to get off the road and start teaching. Most Universities require their professors to have degrees. And it can be a stepping stone to getting a Masters degree (Berklee’s Valencia, Spain school offers a Masters program).

Being fully immersed in the LA music scene, I meet, tour and play with many Berklee alumni. The thing that I’ve found most enticing about Berklee is the tight-knit network Berklee provides for their students. It’s an instant ice breaker, instant coffee date, or freelance gig. Berklee’s reputation is known and respected world wide. But the school is expensive. At $155,760, Berklee Boston’s Bachelor’s degree can be quite cost-prohibitive. And this doesn’t include living expenses and other fees. Berklee Online is 62% cheaper at $58,000. I asked Cavalier if the online students can enjoy the same network as the Berklee Boston students and she said that Online students are able to tap into the same resources Berklee Boston students can.

Berklee Online is 62% cheaper than Berklee College of Music Boston

The online program is taught, in part, through WebX, video streaming environments where the professor can meet with all the students at once in an interactive (and quite intimate) way. Students also work through media rich lesson material, upload their assignments (audio, video, orchestration, compositions, etc) and professors grade them typically within 24-48 hours. Many times professors will offer video responses to the assignments (especially for the musical courses where a guitar riff explanation is much easier understood when played than written out). There’s lots of collaboration amongst the students in the class, and each class is limited to 20 students.

“You would think that in the classroom you have the maximum amount of communication with the students,” says Gary Burton, who teaches online courses in improvisation. “But I’ve discovered that the students interact with each other constantly. Everybody sees everyone else’s homework and my comments on it. This offers a tremendous amount of information going back and forth, and in all directions. I don’t recall that sort of thing ever happening in the classroom—except among the most extroverted students.”

Currently Berklee Online offers 5 Degree programs: Music Production, Music Business, Electronic Music Production and Sound Design, Composition for Film, TV and Games, and “Interdisciplinary Music Studies” which is a create your own major program. The next majors to be added are Songwriting and Guitar.

85% of Berklee Online professors are also Berklee College of Music Boston faculty and the other 15% currently work in the music industry.


Most of the assignments are focused to bring real world experience.

In the jingle writing course, students are challenged to get real (paid) placements within 12 weeks. And many of them do. I’d be very curious to see if any enrolled students have ever made enough off of licensing to pay for their full tuition. One major movie, trailer or commercial placement could do it and then some.

Student (and working music supervisor), RC Cates, placed his professor, Brad Hatfield, for the show he was working on and they got an Emmy nomination for it.

Many of the students of the online school are working in the industry. Fraser T Smith who co-wrote “Set Fire To The Rain” with Adele, is a student. As is Rolling Stone Magazines “Artist To Watch of 2014,” Lindsay Ell. And, as mentioned before, Stefan Lessard of the Dave Matthews Band takes classes on his tour bus.

Berklee Online is currently accepting applications for the Fall semester. You can read more about the degree programs and apply here.

You can sample some of the courses for free here.

Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and creator of the music biz advice blog, Ari’s Take. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake


Photo is by Rodrigo Simas and pulled from the Dave Matthews Band website.

10 Responses

  1. King Shlomo

    Hey Dad I just granduated from Berklee College of Music
    Great son, let me see your diploma
    Whipes ASS with it.

    Berklee Selling Dreams School of Music
    I was once an advocate on interning in the music biz. No more. I don’t recommend anyone to work for free in this piece of shit industry let alone get a useless degree in it.
    Graduating students Make less than Walmart part time employees.
    Only winner is the school

  2. Farley G

    Unlike some other commenters I’ve actually taken 2 of the free Berklee courses on Coursera, one in jazz music theory and the other in standard theory. Don’t knock the on-line idea until you’ve tried it. You’ll probably like it and learn to be a better musician, which is why they give free samples. With online you get to go back and review the parts you don’t get. What is hard for on-line to provide is musicians to work with as you learn. I recruited some musical friends and worked with them. Berklee also allows you to upload your playing after lessons so you get feedback from other musicians online. Listening to uploads from others I discovered that some very accomplished musicians see the point in learning more theory. You’ll play smarter and better, whatever your style.
    PS: I get it that DMN and Berklee have a commercial relationship — more power to them both, because encouraging musicians to learn and play better is a good thing.

  3. Troglite

    I am all for life long learning. But given the context this is presented in (DMN), it seems irresponsible not to discuss the financial value of these degrees and certificates as well as the student debt loads they often incur. Without those topics, this feels like a thinly veiled advertisement.

  4. DavidB

    I’m sure the name Berklee isn’t intended in any way to confuse people into thinking this college has anything to do with the University of California at Berkeley. It is pure coincidence, as the founder’s name was Berk, and his son’s name was Lee. I will refrain from explaining the origin and meaning of the word ‘berk’ in Cockney rhyming slang.

  5. Boston

    How can this be billed as an article when it has a click through so that the writer gets a sign up fee from Berklee?
    Who remembers that hilarious time Ari tried to organise his own show as a DMN meet up in LA and no one came.
    These articles wont make anyone listen to your awful self absorbed music Ari. Stop trying to scam people

  6. Versus

    I know and work with many Berklee graduates, all fine musicians, engineers, producers. However, I also know and have met plenty of Berklee graduates – also fine musicians – who never recouped their tuition investment, and eventually had to give up the dream of making a living in music.

    Education is worthy for its own sake, but as a strictly financial investment, be careful. You may never “recoup”.

  7. Roy

    This is just a plain advertisement in disguise. I guess you can’t blame them for trying, though. I’m all for getting educated, but there are much cheaper ways of achieving that.

  8. RPRM

    I graduated 11 years ago with a degree from Berklee. I spent about $120,000 to earn my degree and have purchased about $30,00 in gear since graduating. My total music income since graduating has been less than $5000
    Obviously I have worked a ‘day job’ every year since graduating and never found any financial success in music. I have maintained a deep love for music and my passion continues to thrive. But my bank account does not. Still paying my student loan.
    I’m not complaining – it was my choice and a privilege. But if you are reading this and considering investing money in music education be forewarned that you may never earn any additional money as a result of your fancy new music skills.
    I never get bored and find my time spent on music deeply rewarding and satisfying on a personal level. But since I work a full time job and have multiple music projects that consume at minimum 20 hours/week, my family and girlfriend occupy the slivers of time that remain. I work twice as much as my non music friends but earn half as much.
    But those of you reading this snickering that I must suck or my music sucks or believing that you are a special snowflake that will rise above the thousands upon thousands of struggling musicians – I wish you the best of luck. Hopefully this industry will repair itself and begin to thrive again financially (for the record I think this is an amazingly fruitful and exciting time to be a musician in just about every way beside financially)
    For the rest of you who can relate – keep making music you love!


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