At my part-time job, I am lucky enough to be working with several other people who are striving towards a degree and career in music--however, I am often met with furrowed brows and dubious looks by my non-musician coworkers when I explain that I'm a classical singer. It's certainly not news to me that getting a degree in music is distasteful to some. "What are you going to do with that?" they inevitably ask, which has always been puzzling to me. You don't wonder what a law student is going to do with their law degree, do you? Recently, though, my mouth runs off with explanations for them, but my mind is often left wondering the same. What am I going to do with that?
It's all up in the air, as degrees in music don't often lead to direct career paths. There are many options available, of course: I could teach, I could audition, I could perform, I could collaborate, I could work behind-the-scenes. "Through it all, I will sing, and I will be a musician!" I often think determinedly. Harder to ignore at times is the little voice creeping up that responds, "will you?"
What seems to be the issue with my career choice that bothers most of my coworkers is that I'm not necessarily on the road to a 9-to-5 job and a steady increase of income (a fact I have, admittedly, lamented while looking at my bank account). I can't count the number of times I've been advised by older and wiser musicians to practice around a work schedule--or to find work that will pay and not require a lot of responsibility--so that I can focus on music. It leaves me with a sense of optimism for being able to leave my mark in the music world, but not with much optimism for getting paid for my hard work in music.
There's a perception that tends to slide through people's heads, insinuating that the the very idea that musicians should be paid for their work is absurd. It's seen as an afterthought, something you should do in your downtime (while at the same time celebrity or master artists are worshiped). It's a trend in perception that has come and gone throughout history. This can be seen in the wider art world, as well--"I can't pay you for [your performance/your design work/your composition/your writing], but I can buy you dinner as thanks", is an unfortunate proposition heard by many. It often goes hand-in-hand with the wonderful, "You should just be happy people like you", implying that I should be happy to work for free in order to please an audience.
It's a tricky situation, because certainly, as performers, we do want to please an audience. It is how we can find success. I'm personally invested in pleasing an audience as well as honing my craft, but the audience doesn't always want to pay me, and I also happen to be personally invested in making money.
Whether or not this is a perception we as musicians can change is unclear to me. The general public very obviously values art and entertainment, but devalues those that wish to be paid for producing it--this cultural idea is made quite clear in the discussion on musical authenticity in Cook's Music: A Very Short Introduction. I have a Bachelor's degree in music and I am pursuing a Master's; I know that I've worked very hard to get here, and that talent and love alone could not have propelled me forward. This is not seen as authentic musicianship by much of the population.
No career is certain, however. Perhaps next time I'm asked, "What are you going to do with that?", I'll respond in kind.