Do Pipers Actually Get Paid?

Dear Mr. Dad: Help! Our son is a high school junior, but instead of planning for college, he says he wants to make a career out of playing drums in a band! He’s a talented musician, and he and his buddies play gigs at community events, but he can’t understand that he won’t make a living out of it. How do we persuade him to give college a chance?

A: There are really two issues here: First, can your son succeed as a musician? Second, should he skip going to college? Keep in mind that, at 16, he’s quite literally trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up and his desire to forgo college and play in a band may be just a flash in the pan.

Who says he won’t make a living playing music? Some people, either through hard work, sheer luck (or a combination of both), actually do make it, and some colleges do offer music scholarships. But in general, you’re right: most musicians—or artists in general—don’t. Far more creative people are unemployed or working as waiters or scooping gelato than those who are making a good living at it.

One of the biggest problems is that the media makes show business sound so attractive and glamorous—and with YouTube, you can get your music up on the web in five minutes. What we don’t hear about, though, is the years and years of work that successful (and not-so-successful) people put in before they ever cash their first check.

The reality is that while your son has a better chance of getting a recording contract than his peers who want to play professional sports, the odds succeeding are minimal—a little lower than winning the lottery. As a parent, you naturally worry that your son is choosing a career path that won’t allow him to be financially secure or to have a stable life. I’m not saying that you should dash his hopes and dreams of becoming a musician. But you need to bring a little reality into the discussion—without criticizing or being disparaging.

How does he envision his future without a college degree? Don’t let him get away with one-liners, like “I’ll manage” or “Money isn’t everything.” The point is to make him think, crunch numbers, and come up with a realistic assessment of his earning potential. How much is rent, car insurance, utilities, and all the other bills? He may be interested to know that according to the College Board (collegboard.com), someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn about 60 percent more per year than a high-school grad. People with master’s degrees earn twice as much as high-school graduates, and having a professional degree triples earnings. People with college degrees are also much more likely than high-school grads to work at jobs where they get employer-paid health insurance and access to retirement plans.

Then, talk about how he might be able to integrate his love of drums into a life that includes college and a job. After all, work and music aren’t mutually exclusive and it’s possible to have both: a daytime job (or a business) that will give him some financial stability, and music on nights and weekends.

Your son is certainly old enough to understand that life often demands sacrifices and compromises, and, while we don’t have to (and shouldn’t) give up our passions, not having a contingency plan is irresponsible. But with careful planning, your son may end up being able to march to the beat of his own drums.