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Music degrees change to reflect rise of live music

Of all the pleasures in life, music must be one of the cheapest. You can turn on the radio, download a track for less than a pound or buy a CD. Even live gigs often cost less than a restaurant meal or trip to the theatre.

Maybe that's why the industry has weathered the recession better than most and why universities are launching extra courses to meet this demand.

Though CD sales are down, paid-for album downloads were up by 65 per cent in the last quarter of 2008 and UK royalties for song writers rose by 8 per cent. The explosion of video gaming and the internet has increased the market for soundtracks, while live music is growing as bands come out of recording studios and return to the stage.

Few people go through a day without listening to music of some sort, but it remains a small industry. It is still possible to start at the bottom as a "runner" and work your way up, but the fast-moving technology behind sound design and production means employers usually expect to see relevant qualifications, especially those from universities and colleges that liaise closely with the industry.

A talent for music is essential, but that doesn't necessarily mean a musical background, according to Dr Michael Searby, a principal music lecturer at Kingston University London, which offers a range of postgraduate courses, including composing for film and television, music performance and the production of popular music.

"It is interesting how many applications we get from people who have not done a music degree but have always made music. You have to have a first degree in something but it doesn't need to be in music. Sometimes it's better if it is not when you are looking for something different," he said.

Tutors look for potential and natural spark in portfolios. "It's not much use having the qualification if you haven't got much to say creatively," he says. Some of the best applications have come from graphic designers in the Far East.

To meet student demand, Kingston is this month launching a new Masters degree in electroacoustic composition for electronic music.

The oldest sound recording degree in the country began at the University of Surrey in 1970, taking its name, Tonmeister, from the German degree in classical music production. The four-year Tonmeister Bachelors degree, which includes a year's industry placement, takes an approach unique in the UK by combining music, audio engineering and sound recording, says Dr Russell Mason, the admissions tutor. It equips students for a range of jobs as audio engineers or sound recorders, composing for television and film, research and development for companies that make sound systems and even audio forensics, as used by the police.

Demand for professional courses from people either entering the industry or wanting to update their skills has led the University of Salford to introduce two new titles to its postgraduate music courses this month. Both the Masters degree in professional sound and video technology and the Masters degree in audio production will move with the department to Manchester's new Media City at Salford Quays in 2011.

The School of Sound Recording in Manchester, founded 25 years ago, offers its own "industry" diplomas and Bachelors degrees validated by a range of universities. Diploma students can study flexibly over 18 months or two years and do not need formal qualifications. "They just need a passion for sound," says Wendy Breakell, director of education at the college. A new diploma in live sound has been added, which students can take on its own or as an extension to the most popular course – the diploma in audio engineering techniques and technology.

Live sound now accounts for 46 per cent of full-time jobs in the music industry, says Breakell. Audio engineers and recordists in live sound are more likely to be employed, because of the long hours and unpredictable travel, while the rest of the industry is heavily reliant on freelancers.

"Live sound is huge at the moment. Around 90 per cent of our students progress to work in it. Bands don't make much from CDs because of the download culture, so they are out on the road. If you want to learn studio techniques then fine, but there are not nearly as many jobs out there as there used to be," she says.

Sonic sound production for video games is another expanding area. The University of Abertay in Dundee offers a two year top-up Bachelors degree in creative sound production to those who have completed a HND or its equivalent. Skillset, the sector skills council for the audio visual industries, says there is no set route to becoming an audio engineer in the games industry, but a musical background is essential, along with experience of sound recording, editing and mixing.

The council has formed a network of Skillset Academies; colleges and universities across the UK deemed centres of excellence in training for television, the interactive media and film.

Music graduates hunt out a wide range of different jobs: former chorister William Morris, who graduated with distinction from Kingston University's Masters course in composition for film and television, has just become director of music for the British Humanist Association, writing music for non-religious occasions, such as weddings and funerals. Recent graduate Ben Hobbs is working as a technician in the new performing arts suite at Esher Church of England High School in Surrey while composing music and playing in a band in his spare time.

Singer and guitarist Joe Donaldson, 19, in the second year of a Bachelors degree in popular music at Goldsmiths, University of London, dreams of fame and fortune with his band, The Achilles, but this year he will take a module in sound production to give him a back-up plan. "Taking a degree in popular music rather than something like history is a risk, but when you really love the subject, it's hard to do anything else," he says.

'You don't see what the industry is like until you look for work'

Life could have gone in one of two directions for Emma Connelly when she left the University of Huddersfield with an honours degree in music.

Having made the decision to embark on further study she then had to choose which course she should take – a Masters degree in composing music at the Royal Northern Music College or a diploma that would prepare her for a career in sound production and recording.

Composing was her true love, but she decided it would be better to forge a career in the audio industry. That way she could enjoy writing music without the pressure of making a living out of it.

Three years after completing an advanced industry diploma in audio engineering at the School of Sound Recording in Manchester she has helped record live gigs by big names such as Girls Aloud and is now a senior manager with Wigwam Acoustics, the sound system provider.

Looking back she admits she was surprised by how difficult it was to get a job in sound recording. "When you are in education you are in a bubble and don't really get to see what the industry is like until you try and get work," she says.

To begin with she worked for Digidesign, the music software company, demonstrating their recording packages in music shops.

Through getting to know people in the industry she realised there were more opportunities in live sound than studio recording and contacted Wigwam. After eight months of unpaid work experience one day a week, she was offered a job.