How to make the rate of return on higher education negative

They’re signing up as we speak for a two-year degree course in heavy metal music (believed to be the first of its kind), which begins in September in a college in Nottingham.

…The degree organisers are loftily talking up the course by using terms such as “culture” and “context”. They point out that you can study music at Oxford, Cambridge or any other university, but that this “genre” degree is unique.

“Heavy metal is an extremely technical genre of music and its study is a rising academic theme,” they say. Metal is “seriously studied in conservatoires in Helsinki”, has classical music roots, and leading axe-men such as Joe Satriani incorporate the works of Paganini in their oeuvre.

Wow, Paganini.  Get this:

“It’s a degree, so it will be academically rigorous,” said Mr Maloy [the sequence designer].

And why Nottingham?:

Not only was Earache Records, a heavy metal-focused record label, founded in the city, but additionally, the region’s Download Festival appeals to over 75,000 rock and metal fans on an annual basis.

The course fees are £5,750 a year.  Here is a bit more information.


Sorry, Tyler. Can't agree with the title on this one. Heavy metal musicians are some of the most dedicated (fanatic?) artists around today, and some of the most technically proficient musicians If you're going to make fun of this, you might as well dismiss most all artistry.

Also I hope that if you're going into a career in Metal, you're not expecting to come out with riches. But, gosh forbid somone pursue their passion!

Technical death metal is notoriously difficult to play. If you can get over the harsh vocals, I think the music is pretty interesting.

Necrophagist has some pretty technical songs that still have cool melodies.

Meshuggah does some interesting things, like incorporating odd time signatures and elements of jazz. If you like headbanging to 23/16 time, then they are for you.

I have always found professional musicians who I have known to really respect metal, even if they don't play it or listen to it regularly. It is sort of a musician's genre.

obligatory \m/

It's definitely hard to imagine an *economic* argument that this specifically is negative-return higher ed while, say, "art history" degrees are not. That's just basic tribal elitism--both degrees are probably totally useless in the modern economy, but the powers that be have declared the latter 'sophisticated' and therefore ok.

It may be couched in different terms, but the irrational sentiment here isn't much different than proclaiming it "ok" for an educated adult to enjoy television or movies--a passive, and often mindless, poorly written, and poorly acted form of entertainment--while it's "adolescent" to enjoy (often more imaginative, creative, and certainly more active) video game entertainment.

I'm not inclined to agree with your assertion that art history degrees are totally useless in a modern economy. Is there a town with a population over 25,000 that doesn't have art museums and galleries? They require curators and appraisers. Auction houses need appraisers, too. Museums and the public rely on art historians and critics to tell the story of an exhibition or a particular piece. Globally the art market is a multi-billion dollar industry which employs hundreds of thousands of individuals. We can't all have art history degrees but we should recognize their importance.

That's like saying that because the SPLC, NAACP, ADL and all the other alphabet soup cultural marxist organizations exist, therefore Gay Studies degrees are important.

Consider the economic harm that could come to an auction house selling a painting that is inauthentic, "missing" from legitimate owners, or otherwise not available for legitimate sale. There may not be a need for a lot of art history majors, and I'm sure my uncle cringed when my cousin announced her German Language/Art History double major, but private firms have decided it is in their best interest to pay her serious money for her knowledge and skills.

One (presumable) difference between this degree and another randomly-picked liberal arts degree is that the latter is much more likely to be chosen by an average student going to college for the sake of getting a degree. Maybe I am naive, but I find it hard to believe that a student looking for the path of least resistance would chose this program. OTOH someone who would apply for this program would most likely already be driven towards playing metal as a career, regardless of economic incentives.

Oh come on. Heavy metal musicians may be dedicated. So are bird watchers. Technically proficient? Like who? Compared to whom? How many years does it take to join the Boston Symphony? How many years of practising does it take to make it as a player for Megadeath?

None of which justifies a degree programme. Metal music is simply too limited, musically, technically, and intellectually to justify it.

But for some background. Britain has some serious universities. Well, semi-serious these days. Not 100% Clown Colleges. Oxford and Cambridge for instance. Then it has a small number of older universities and some of the better newer ones - like Edinburgh and the University of London. Then it has some of the older new ones. Like Nottingham University. On a good day. A long long way back comes the former nurses' and teachers' colleges that got made into universities, or rather had their names changed, in the 1990s. The city of Nottingham has one of those too - Nottingham Trent University. Which used to be called Trent Polytechnic and trained draftsmen for the engine industry.

The "college" offering this course feeds its students into Nottingham Trent. They can do two years there and if they do really well, they can get to go to Nottingham Trent.

So basically it is a remedial high school. Doesn't really matter what it teaches I would guess.

>Metal music is simply too limited, musically, technically, and intellectually to justify it.

Uh huh.

"How many years does it take to join the Boston Symphony? How many years of practising does it take to make it as a player for Megadeath?"

Probably about the same number of years, and also a shit-ton of talent, for either position.

That's spelled "Megadeth", smart guy.

Maybe we could start assigning arguments alphanumeric designations so they can just be referenced.

C'mon people. It can be smart and profound, etc., but Magnus Carlsen doesn't have or need a Master's degree in chess.


While there may be depth and technical proficiency required, you have to ask yourself, does it require its own degree program? Better yet, ask yourself what percentage of successful heavy metal musicians have a degree in 'heavy metal'.

Pretty sure the answer approaches zero.

Does nobody in the world have a master's degree in chess, or does everyone whose masters degree concerns chess represent a net negative to our economy (whatever on earth that means)?

What would you call what the Soviets used to do? Apart from building players' understanding, what impact did their programmes have on chess in the country?

Totally this, and I don't understand the arguments for the degree.

Here's your counterargument: Would bragging about a Heavy Metal Degree help or hurt you when you went to audition for a Metal band?

Take the common internet advice about learning an instrument: "shut up and play." Don't turn to page 666 and read about Aleister Crowley and Boleskine House.

Lol, Brian Boyd @ Irish Times does not understand path dependency one little bit! "And before someone says “but Adele went to the Brit school”, Adele would have happened anyway, and what about all of her classmates who never made it?"

I'm not a fan of heavy metal but Boyd's article is just a bunch of arrogant rubbish.

So it has the same return as a degree in any other art field?

I'm not a huge metal fan myself (listen to a little every now and then), but this mockery seems a bit uncharacteristically ignorant of Tyler. (Although I guess you could argue this is one of many degrees of dubious value).

Of course the return is negative on (most) liberal arts degrees. They're more of a consumption good than any sort of investment. Here's a guy quoting Alex on this same topic a couple of years ago, and taking him to task for over-thinking the signalling aspect.

Well, you see, there is this MOOC called Guitar Hero, which will revolutionize the teaching of music, and at a cost which is affordable for a wide market, thus avoiding the dreaded cost disease which afflicts so much of music education.

Sometimes, people just don't understand satire. Prof. Cowen is looking forward to a world where millions of guitars scream in heavy metal ecstacy, instead of being involved with this course, which is undoubtedly fated to have the same fate as a lead zeppelin.

Check out Rocksmith and (soon) Bandfuse... you can actually play the guitar hiding in your closet. (Or the infamous 'Dad Guitar' of Flight of the Conchords fame).

Hey, was Tyler maybe being a little bit sarcastic in this post? I couldn't really tell.

I guess Tyler was happy with the first shitty text and didn't dig enough to find: "performance, recording and promotion will also feature heavily, with students having career options with recording companies, teaching and performance"

Read more:

Performance: as heavy metal player or in a wedding band you pay your bills as an adult. Recording: don't forget tiny British Islands are really influental for global music. Music is a valuable exports as cars. It is cheaper than other universities, Birmingham, Aberdeen and other public universities are 9000 pounds a year.

If you consider this as last chance for dropouts from other areas, its positive. If a talented student bound for mechanical engineering decides to change to heavy metal, that's another story. But, where's the metric or survey that shows that engineering students quit and change to heavy metal?

Finally, before mocking Nottingham, look at Berklee first

Career options? What does that mean? I assume it is marketing guff to disguise the fact that no one on this course has a hope in hell of getting a job in the industry.

Britain may be influential musically, but its musicians are more famous for being expelled from high school than going to university.

I agree. Actually, as manufacturing becomes more and more automated, we are going to increasingly see (beyond even today) that creative arts are where the new jobs will be. An arts degree of any kind will become a more important qualification than STEM degrees.

"An arts degree of any kind will become a more important qualification than STEM degrees."

That's a claim, and it goes against the grain of what most people think these days. But you might have thought it out, and I'd be interested to hear your justification...

@Hoover - we can see that people are getting richer as manufacturing of material goods becomes more and automated. Just by simple extrapolation of trends, eventually material goods manufacturing will employ very few people. We saw a similar shift from agriculture to manufacturing. Manufacturing (in which I include things like mining, electronics, computing etc) employs people with STEM degrees, so if the number of jobs in manufacturing falls, then there will be less demand for people with STEM degrees. There will still be some STEM people employed of course, as the most abstract areas even in manufacturing will resist automation. However at the end (and I speak as an engineer) anything that is based on numbers can be automated. This is bad for STEM people unless they are real geniuses and can invent new fields. On the other hand increased automation makes us all richer. Richer people consume more artistic goods (both volume and in value terms). Artistic goods, such as books, music, plays, theater, TV shows, films, fine food etc, are already big business and likely to get bigger. This area is probably where the future jobs will come from. It is not so easily automated and most people prefer the personal touch (are you going to buy a rock album created by a software program? Will you flock to a restaurant with a new robot chef?). So your children will probably be employed in the arts, either producing artistic goods, or facilitating the production of them, or maybe teaching them. Now the interesting thing is whether the entry to this field is going to be like STEM areas, where you need a degree. Artistic goods production is more like a craft industry, perhaps better learned, as Tyler suggests below, through something like the apprentice system. I don't know, but the teaching industry needs to experiment in this way.

Interesting and useful comment, thanks.

One niggle: rock albums are increasingly produced by software. Pop bands have started becoming virtual (see eg Hatsune Miku

But that doesn't damage your general argument, which I'll think about.

You're not thinking at the margin. How many people who wouldn't have become heavy metal musicians will do so due to this degree, and is the marginal gain for those people greater than the cost of the education?

People want to say that education is an end in and of itself rather than a means to an end.
People want to say that education is an investment rather than a consumption good.

Therein lies the contradiction.


If we are going to say that Heavy Metal is not a subject worthy of study - which is the assumption - then clearly, you have no idea what science is, or at least show no care for its purpose. This is an economics blog, so that is not a surprising observation. Just sad to see from what is typically a high-minded blog.

No, not at all... pretty blatant scarecrow you set up there. Metal is obviously worthy of studying, and plenty of people have studied it.

His argument is no person in history, until now, has done so in a formal degree program. Not only do people with the motivation to learn about metal (and learn an instrument to play said metal) find a way to do so without the rigorous framework of a college degree, it seems (to me) that college conflicts a bit with the Metal 'Ethos'. However, that last part is just an opinion. The degree thing? A fact. Go ask members of a metal band to see their degrees.

I think the word is extrema, which would be a pretty cool name for a metal band, the 80s lame version could X-tremor.

I agree that these degrees are not likely to have a huge ROI. And yes, some metal is unsophisticated. But plenty of metal is extremely complicated and technical.

Tyler praises Hendrix, even though Hendrix's music is easy to play.

You obviously don't play guitar. Hendrix is incredibly difficult to play if you want to sound anything like he did. That's why 40 years later he consistently tops the polls of guitar players who consider him the greatest guitarist who ever lived.

I do play guitar. Every guitarist is hard to emulate exactly--it's hard to sound exactly like Kurt Cobain, even though Kurt Cobain was no virtuoso.

Hendrix was good for his time, but his most complicated pieces are of only moderate difficulty.

I'm really surprised that MR, usually an exceptional source of news, actually takes time to link to and quote from a prejudiced, insulting piece of low-grade journalism.

Heavy metal can be as simple as punk and as complex as classical music or jazz (eg. UneXpect, Animals as Leaders or Cynic) - point being, it's an exceedingly vast and complex genre and Mr. Cowen is inviting us to take our information about it from someone who is clearly ignorant of it, and whose mission is evidently not to inform, but to offend.

Anyhoo, wouldn't education with a negative rate of return be evidence in favour of signaling? ;)

Offending the wrong kind of white people is the purpose of approximately 50% of pseudo-elite journalism these days.

Heavy metal is at best a hobby if not a vice. It would be just as ludicrous to attend a university for metal as it would to attend a unversity for Marginal Revolution! Wait... ah d'oh!!!

C'mon people, wake up! Getting such a degree is a signal that you are not very successful in heavy metal (among other things). No one from Metallica or Black Sabbath has a Master's Degree in heavy metal, and yet somehow they came up with the complexity.

THIS! The argument becomes "is metal socially useful" and "is it intellectual". Those questions are almost irrelevant when we're discussing the rate of return on education.

That's because the degree didn't exist yet! Pioneers of a field come first. Have you heard all the *bad* metal bands out there? Technology has reduced barriers to entry and greatly increased the supply, but consumers are in danger of being ripped off. Clearly this degree is a necessary gateway for entrenched players to protect their market share with licensing requirements that raise the barriers to entry and ensure a quality product.

Was going to say similar on the Jazz post, although with Jazz it might be more of a signal of a hedging approach- not burning your boat.

Getting an economics degree is a signal that you are not very successful at running a business. Shall we close all those faculties, Tyler?

I think the signal you mention is actually a sign you're considering the wrong counterfactual. The program doesn't seem to be targeting the future Ozzys and Lars Ulriches. The questions are a) whether the program properly targets and enrolls people for whom it could make a difference (it's not hard to imagine ways it could potentially make a positive difference for people in the right circumstances), and b) whether its teachers are any good. (Not to say I have high hopes it actually will.)

Actually, it would seem to me that a one-of-a-kind-in-the-world program serving 20 people has a pretty big potential leg up on its potential of positively impacting ROI for its participants, if it targets them properly - both because it could have its pick of the litter, and because there are no other existing alternatives quite like it (c.f. your recent post on early childhood education).

Music industry in not so different to other industries. You need reliable people that shows at the job on time, can take some decisions and don't has a princess attitude to the job. Of course, going to "half-college" in heay metal is not going to make a successful composer or artist. However, sound technicians, sound producers, logistics people for events are needed in bigger quantities than artists for a successful music industry.

When I was in college i earned a few bucks working a few hours as road crew. Just for curiosity and why not....street cred. You find that most people in live music industry is there just for "experience" or because they don't have other options. My manager never has a single day with all people showing up for work on time or at least no half intoxicated. This was the road crew case, but people higher in the ladder such as sound producers, ticket people or bar/venue managers are not that different. The industry can get more profitable if people involved were not such "free-spirit" minded. Geeks with useless education can help rise profits.

The heavy metal label can be just a "trap" for young geeks that pay attention to details. Not exactly to their personal image, but they can argue for hours about the perfect sound equalization for a live venue or while recording an album. Those skills are easily exportable to other kinds of music and marketable for sure.

Ps. performance, management and recording: it's closer to this than to Black Sabbath member, ok?

"C’mon people, wake up! Getting such a degree is a signal that you are not very successful in heavy metal (among other things). No one from Metallica or Black Sabbath has a Master’s Degree in heavy metal, and yet somehow they came up with the complexity."

Very few people in investment banking have PhDs in economics or finance. Having such a PhD would not be a major career advantage going for a typical front office job.

Adam Smith did not have a degree in economics...


Not saying higher education returns are tricky - but the numbers are mind boggling. For example, Student Loans In The U.S Is More Than China’s Total External Debt:

In recent years Heavy Metal has had a disconnect from its original core audience the way Blues broke from its. Where now Blues is mostly listened to by whites, Heavy Metal is mostly listened to by "nerdy" music geeks. The original working class white youth has moved on to Rap

With the exceptions of two or three acts, heavy metal never was a mainstream genre of music. In the 1980's Iron Maiden managed to sell nearly 60 million records but they were the exception. Less complex forms of hard rock were mainstream in the 1980's, metal never was as popular as hip hop and pop music are today.

But I agree that metal has become partly disconnected from its original core audience in the UK but in continental Europe the genre still has broader appeal. In Germany, the last two Accept albums managed to rank at the top 5-6 positions on the chart. In the United States heavy metal was always relatively underdeveloped.

I think there were about five metal bands that commanded sufficient mainstream popularity during the 1980s to sell-out sports arenas in the US, specifically Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, The Scorpions, Judas Priest, and Metallica. On top of that, there were a number of hard rock bands with metal qualities that could do the same, namely AC/DC, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Guns n' Roses, Van Halen and Kiss, as well as at least one hair metal band, namely Mötley Crüe. I do find it interesting that none of these bands have any recent equivalents that appeal to mainstream tastes, at least as far as the US is concerned. The market for both rock and metal seems to have become extremely fragmented, appealing only to people who have the initiative to put in the effort to seek out a specific sound. Hip hop and dance pop alone now draw mainstream attention.

Those who enjoy the melodic qualities of Iron Maiden often appreciate power metal and progressive metal, and two of the most successful representatives of these two genres are respectively Blind Guardian and Dream Theater. Both plans play large arenas in Brazil, Japan and Europe, and yet when they play North America, they play relatively small venues, clubs, etc. There were probably not more than 150-200 people in the audience at the Blind Guardian show that I attended.

I couldn't really speculate as to why more specialized sub-genres of metal ended up appealing to mainstream tastes in Europe, Japan and South America to a greater degree than North America. While I'm not sure that it's exactly mainstream there either, the tours are obviously draw more revenue from there compared to here.

Indeed. The only form of metal that the white underclass -- formerly, the white working class -- listens to these days is "nu-metal", or as I like to call it, "juggalo metal", which incorporates rap influences. Slipknot is probably the best example of this genre.

During the 1980s, metal shows were notoriously dangerous places to be, where one ran the risk of being beaten or stabbed. Slayer shows in particularly were known to be quite violent. The fans back then looked like this: They were a bunch of rowdy, drunken, working class roughnecks, and they'd kick your ass if they felt so inclined. Nowadays, I feel absolutely no sense of threat whatsoever when I attending a metal show, as the audience now are largely geeks. Many still rock the look, but they have a passive disposition. I suspect that the metalheads of old probably got laid a lot more back then too. While chick metal fans do exist, the ratio is probably 20:1, men. As a male, your likelihood of getting laid in that that scene is akin to that of getting laid at a sci-fi or comic convention. One might as well go gay.

How about a course in video game music? From Wikipedia:

"Video game music has become part of the curriculum of traditional schools and universities.[52] Berklee College of Music, Yale University, New York University and the New England Conservatory all feature or are adding game music to their curricula. Game sound & music design has also been part of the curriculum since 2003 at the Utrecht School of the Arts (Faculty of Art, Media and Technology). Training seminars such as GameSoundCon also feature classes in how to compose video game music.[53]

Extracurricular organizations devoted to the performance of video game music are being established in tandem to these additions to the curriculum. The University of Maryland Gamer Symphony Orchestra performs self-arranged video game music and the Video Game Orchestra is a semiprofessional outgrowth of students from the Berklee College of Music and other Boston-area schools. The establishment of these groups is also occurring at the secondary level.[54]"

I love metal music but I guess that having a whole course dedicated to it is a bit too much. Many metal musicians have BS degree in music.

There's one simple reason it's in Nottingham: it's also the home of the Games Workshop:

(And yes, I agree that a degree in HM is ridiculous.)

The piano lessons of my youth haven't paid off either. At least, not for me. Someone else made money, as is also the case here. This is a voluntary transaction. Someone wanted to learn something. Someone else wanted to teach something. One gave the other money in exchange for that education. Big whoop.

What's the overlap of people defending degree qua degree also giving Occupy Wall Street type critiques?

And what is the fundamental difference between Metal and everything else. If the ROI isn't negative then more power to ya'. The test of the ROI is the ROI. But some things are more predictable than others.

Course Syllabus:
Hair Products Explored
Get yours to go to 11
Riders on The Storm - the role of Brown M&Ms in the Green Room
Groupie management
Tour BUSTED! - Creative herb storage techniques
The Essential Spandex
Payola - the fundamentals of music finance
Legal issues around hotel fires

Heavy metal music degrees. Video game music degrees. I would like to hear an argument about how any of these are better than a simple, general music degree. Surely an artist is going to be better served by having an educational background that is not genre-specific?

Tyler's unstated damnation has never been in finer form. For the record I'm a huge metal fan. Debating the merits of metal as a genre in response to this post misses the point entirely.

Make fun all you want but this degree is going to get me into a killer band when I graduate.

As an OK guitarist, I can confirm that much metal is extremely difficult to play. Guitarists in the more classical vein of Yngwie Malmsteen more come to mind when "metal" is discussed than Satriani who is mentioned in the article (who inspired me when I was younger but whose sound is more based in rock styles). But make no mistake that in addition to being technically demanding, when dissected it's often complicated structurally.

As to whether you need a degree for it - I don't know. It's tough to study much of this on your own. There are publications that cater to guitar students (I was a subscriber to Guitar for the Practicing Musician when growing up) but I can see the appeal of going to one place and being surrounded by others studying the same thing.

But again - I don't know about a degree program. To draw a comparison w/ artists - I don't think Van Gogh had a degree.

You people need to learn to recognize when you're being baited for a lawsuit. TC's just taking a page from the Westboro Baptist Church book:

Imagine the reaction here had it been a degree in pop music or hip-hop, two genres that are more commercially successful than heavy metal.

Now I know why music is so lame these days. Even the heavy metal rockers want to stay in school.

Roll over Bon Scott and tell Jimi Hendrix the news.

"How to make the rate of return on higher education negative"

I was disappointed when the title was not followed by the suggestion that the return on higher education needs to take into account default rate (college drop outs) and opportunity costs (foregone wages).

Almost no doubt that heavy metal is one of the most technical types of music commonly consumed among some folks in many, many parts of the world.

However, I have a hard time seeing how they'll make back their five thousand quid. Hope they have a good time!

Education as consumption. It could be fun.

We need to distinguish between mocking the music and mocking the degree. Metal music isn't my favorite kind of music but it requires instrumental virtuosity (Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson are good examples although not quite within the metal mainstream). People who study it practice fanatically and often do little else.

But I wouldn't recommend getting a degree in it! It's like football - lots of people try it, a few get good, and only a few hundred in the world are truly great. Those last few get paid well and create a lot of enjoyment for the spectators. But the academic study of it is almost completely worthless.

I think that Tyler's smug condescension is exactly the right attitude.

What's up to every , since I am truly keen of reading this blog's post to be updated daily. It includes good material.

I will immediately grab your rss feed as I can't find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service. Do you've any? Please permit me know in order that I could subscribe. Thanks.

What i don't realize is in reality how you're no longer actually a lot more neatly-liked than you may be right now. You are so intelligent. You recognize therefore considerably in terms of this matter, produced me in my view imagine it from so many various angles. Its like men and women don't seem to be fascinated unless it's something to do with Lady gaga! Your individual stuffs nice. At all times care for it up!

We stumbled over here from a different website and thought I should check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to checking out your web page for a second time.

Magnificent beat ! I wish to apprentice while you amend your site, how
can i subscribe for a blog website? The account aided me
a acceptable deal. I had been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided bright clear concept

Comments for this post are closed