University of Maryland senior Asher Meerovich sat in his religious studies class on a Friday afternoon and thought about his future.
Meerovich has long seen a college education as a foothold to a prosperous life — like many, he believes a degree is a necessary rung on the career ladder. But for Meerovich, college isn’t on a pathway to corporate America: He’s going to be a rock star.
“When you’re in college, you kind of realize that class is not the important thing about college,” said Meerovich, 21, who is the lead guitarist for his band, the Tomato Dodgers. “It’s about meeting people and connecting with people who care about the same things you do.”
For budding musicians, the college experience serves as a proving ground, a place where young artists can hone their skills, develop a unique style and cultivate an audience. The students also earn a bachelor’s degree in case a career in the fickle music business doesn’t pan out.
“The elephant in the room is that it’s very difficult to make a living as a musician,” said Nikki Rowling, a music industry analyst. “The idea that an 18-year-old will be struck by a fairy godmother and become a rock star overnight is antiquated.”
Rowling said that one recent survey found that 79 percent of musicians earned less than $15,000 a year from their musical careers and that 56 percent of respondents said they had a second job to supplement their income.
“It’s a hard-knock life now more than ever,” Rowling said. “From the safety net of a college you get to get your degree and explore being a musician and what this life would be as a profession.”
Meerovich hopes to parlay his band’s success in College Park into a full-time gig and join a number of up-and-coming young musicians who have earned diplomas on their way to entertainment stardom.
Young college graduates now appear in all genres of the music industry, including artists whose works became top hits in recent months. The infectious hip-hop ditty “Classic Man” was the break-out debut for Jidenna Mobisson — who goes by just his first name professionally — a 2008 Stanford University graduate who studied under the eminent psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Vocalist Charlene Kaye received an English degree from the University of Michigan and was heading toward a master’s degree when she became a singer for the Brooklyn indie band San Fermin, which recently toured in Europe. David Burd, known as Lil Dicky, graduated summa cum laude from the University of Richmond in 2010 and saw his debut, “Professional Rapper,” peak at the top of the Billboard rap album charts, powered by cameos from Snoop Dogg, Fetty Wap, Rich Homie Quan and T-Pain.
“There was no question that I was going to school,” said Jidenna, 29, who created his own interdisciplinary course of studies at Stanford with his future as a rapper in mind. College “is the perfect recipe for growth. You’ll get experiences there that will last a lifetime.”
While there are, of course, countless success stories of superstar musicians who never went to college or left before finishing — Kanye West notably titled his 2004 debut album “The College Dropout” — there are numerous recent examples of those who got their start while pursuing a college degree.
Sam Hunt, who played quarterback at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and after graduating in 2007 was invited to training camp by the National Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs, later moved to Nashville and exploded on the country music scene. Before she became known as the emotive pop phenomenon Lana Del Rey, Elizabeth W. Grant earned a bachelor’s from Fordham University in 2008 on her way to selling multiple platinum records.
Ann Powers, music critic for NPR, said many musicians begin their careers in college.
“The music industry has changed so much in the past decade or so that this new generation understands that they are going to have to have many skills besides charisma and the ability to write a good song,” Powers said.
Marc Roberge and his bandmates in the rock group O.A.R. met in high school and enrolled at Ohio State to expose their music to a large college audience.
“Nowadays it’s even more important for young musicians to go to college,” said Roberge, who graduated in 2001 with an English literature degree and the next week played onstage with Kid Rock. Roberge said he regularly advises young talented artists to go to college: “Hone your skills there, man. It’s just the greatest opportunity.”
Many serious young artists are gravitating toward degrees in music, said Glenn Peoples, senior editorial analyst for Billboard magazine, noting that the value of a college degree is much like a high school diploma used to be.
“It’s always really helpful to be around people with the same aspirations as you,” Peoples said.
One recent example is Charlie Puth, Berklee College of Music Class of 2013, who provided the downy vocals for “See You Again,” the Wiz Khalifa hit from the “Furious 7” soundtrack that recently became the first rap video to reach 1 billion views on YouTube.
Berklee professor Prince Charles Alexander knows firsthand how unpredictable the music business can be. In the 1980s, he was the lead performer with a funk band competing with the likes of Rick James and Kool and the Gang. But Alexander’s turn in the spotlight ended quickly as funk music faded in popularity while hip-hop rose. Alexander said he was fortunate that he had a degree in political science from Brandeis University when he decided to embark on a new music career in mixing and as an engineer.
“The fact that I had a college degree shows you have some wits about you,” said Alexander, whose recording clients have included Mary J. Blige, the Notorious B.I.G. and Luther Vandross.
Alexander said his former student Puth — whose tune “Marvin Gaye” has had durable success on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart — is an example of how college can shape the career of a young musician with talent.
“Those that don’t go to college come to a wall where their own natural ability cannot solve the problem in front of them because they’ve been studying in many places the wrong habits,” Alexander said. “So I think that college informs the creative person what their potential is.”
Blues guitarist Marshall Ruffin said that although he studied music intensely at Berklee, the greatest lesson he learned in college was perseverance.
“If I cut my hand off driving my car right now and I can’t play guitar, I’ll find something else to do, because I’ve gotten good at one thing and I know I could get good at something else,” Ruffin said. “College builds that kind of confidence in you.”
Jidenna said education always played a central role in his family; he and his brothers and sisters knew to finish their homework before venturing outside to play. It paid off. A brother went to MIT and then to Harvard for a master’s in business. A sister went to Wellesley and then medical school at Duke.
Jidenna said that at first he studied engineering at Stanford to appease his father, “but I knew I wanted to be an artist.” He soon started taking a mix of classes involving race and ethnicity, sociology, music theory, and neuroscience, all in an effort, he said, to shape his future in hip-hop. He also fostered a haberdasher’s sartorial sense, donning tailored suits and strutting with a cane.
“That point in your life is crucial just in terms of your development,” Jidenna said.
Zimbardo said that in his Stanford courses, he often spoke about the psychology of group behavior and encouraged his students not to conform, a concept he said Jidenna embraced. Zimbardo said that among the thousands of students he sees on campus, Jidenna “stood out from the rest.”
“I told him he was a class act as a student,” Zimbardo said.
For Burd, breaking into rap came after a promising career in advertising, where he worked as a copywriter on television commercials promoting the National Basketball Association Finals. But Burd said he felt unfulfilled and turned to rap, his first obsession. (In sixth grade, Burd said, he earned an A on a history project for which he wrote a rap about 19th-century Russian literary giant Alexander Pushkin.) Burd, 27, attributed his burgeoning fame in rap to the long hours he spent in the library at the University of Richmond.
“It did give me this perspective on life that is so important,” he said. “In college, I worked really hard to get good grades. . . . I apply that same work ethic to rapping. College showed me that this work ethic can bring proven results. I treat it like I’m studying for finals. I write my raps at 7 a.m. That’s where I thrive.”
In College Park, Meerovich takes study breaks to jam with his bandmates, tickling the pearly inlay on the neck of his Les Paul. Meerovich said he started out studying computer science before switching to a double major in philosophy and religious studies, disciplines that he believes help make him a better songwriter. It’s an aspect of his college curriculum that has grown more important as his days on campus wane.
“I’m trying to be invested and end on a strong note,” Meerovich said.
Only a few years ago, Kaye’s prospects at the University of Michigan mirrored Meerovich’s current hopes. Now she is a lead singer for a rock band that travels the world.
“There’s an immeasurable amount that I got out of college that was not related to music,” said Kaye, an English major. “I wanted the experience of going to college. Celebrities and musicians who make it really young always say, ‘I wish I had that experience.’ I figured there was something to learn along the way.”
Kaye met a circle of like-
minded musicians in Ann Arbor, including Darren Criss, the a cappella-singing “Glee” star, and learned that in order to succeed she would have to take risks. So she dropped her plans to attend graduate school and moved to New York.
“The atmosphere of a college campus encourages curiosity,” Kaye said. “College was able to give me confidence, to say yes to experiences that you might have been afraid of before.”