You Can Make a Living With a Music or Theater Degree. These 8 People Do

A man energetically plays a piano.
Emiliano Messiez, an internationally acclaimed tango pianist who currently plays venues like Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has also toured the world playing on cruise ships for more than 10 years. Photo by John C. Molina

If you pursue a career in music or acting, you can either expect to make millions or live paycheck to paycheck. At least, that’s what we’re often led to believe.

There are so many people, however, who pursued music or theater in college and have gone on to find success without landing a huge film role or touring the world after dropping an album.

We spoke with eight such music and theater majors to learn more about how they were applying their degrees in unique careers.

Stand-Up Comedian/Motivational Speaker

A woman in a black dress, opera-length gloves and pearls talks into a microphone.
Photo Courtesy of Stacy Pederson

Stacy Pederson admits that her pursuit of a theater degree seemed impractical at first, but after getting a full ride to college, she couldn’t let go of her dream to study the art. After college, she worked fast-food jobs before eventually opening her own acting school.

But Pederson’s true success came when she stumbled into stand-up. After honing the art of performance comedy, she began specializing in speaking at conferences and banquets as what she calls a “funny motivational speaker” — and it pays more than most theater majors ever dream of making. “I’m still somewhat new in the corporate speaking field, but I performed my first $10K gig in October. Not bad.”

That $10K gig didn’t come overnight, however. Pederson has worked hard to get where she is. “My biggest career advice is don’t quit,” she tells me. “It’s really difficult, especially in the beginning, to find your uniqueness in the marketplace, find your voice as an artist and train your brain to be business-minded all at the same time. You have to develop a healthy mindset around failure, rejection and plain old hard work.”

But that hard work is work she’s happy to do. Like most theater majors, Pederson cannot imagine herself spending 40-plus hours a week doing anything else. “When something is your passion, your gift, but also your purpose, you are more apt to deal with the bumps and bruises you’ll experience along the way.”

Cruise Ship Pianist

Emiliano Messiez studied music in Spain, Brazil and his home country of Argentina before becoming an internationally acclaimed tango pianist. Currently, Messiez plays in New York City at venues like Trinity Church, Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but he has also toured the world playing the piano on cruise ships for more than 10 years.

“It is my way of expression and a wonderful way to connect with people,” Messiez says. “Audiences always change, and that is something that I really like — to see how people from different nationalities and backgrounds react to my music.”

Inbound Marketing Manager

A woman poses for a portrait.
Photo Courtesy of Diana Polansky

Diana Polansky’s career in marketing with SaferVPN is one that is common for graduates of theater and fine arts programs. That’s because theater training gives students the confidence to speak with clients and the ability to understand what makes people tick — valuable skills also in the fields of customer service and sales.

“I don’t have a degree in marketing specifically,” Polansky says, “but my education in fine arts and theater helps me a lot in my day-to-day job. Working in marketing, especially in B2C [business-to-consumer], requires a lot of creativity and the ability to think outside the box and come up with new angles and ideas. I love that my job is creative, dynamic and a job where I can use my degrees.”

Polansky’s favorite part of her job? It’s in Israel, even though she was born and raised in the United States. She explains, “While new media has infinitely expanded the American job market for artists, filmmakers and writers in the last decade, I still encourage people with these degrees to consider working abroad. Moving to a new country and starting a life from scratch is, of course, challenging and sometimes tough, but it’s always exciting.”

Director of Music

A woman poses for a portrait.
Photo courtesy of Chloe Raynes

After getting her Bachelor of Arts in music composition and master’s degree in music business, Chloe Raynes carved out a career as a successful freelance music supervisor, which she balanced with talent booking for live events and videos. She has even worked on indie films and plays guitar in a band.

Most recently, however, Raynes earned the role of director of music for Aaptiv, where she uses her unique ability to identify the right song for the right opportunity, to help 15 personal trainers design playlists for fitness programs.

“My job is multifaceted, which keeps it exciting,” Raynes says. “In a given day, I’ll be planning a campaign with an artist, negotiating a music license or working with the music-curation team on playlisting strategies. The combination of my education in music composition and music business has provided the foundation for a diverse skill set.

“My favorite part of my career is when I get to be creative,” she continues. “I love scouting new artists for partnerships and collaborating with the trainers and our marketing team to produce great content.”

CEO/Founder of a Women’s Health Advocacy Company

A woman in jeans, a T-shirt and pink high heels sits on a couch.
Photo Courtesy of Kaitlin Christine Nordby

Kaitlin Christine Nordby spent the early part of her career in medical sales, despite earning a theater degree. During her time in the field, however, she was exposed to myriad flaws in our health care system. The biggest problem she saw? Patients and women were not getting the information they needed — and deserved — from their health care providers.

Nordby passionately offers up an example: “Prevention is the cure for cancer. There is so much that can be done before a woman gets cancer to significantly decrease her risk of getting cancer, and it is not being addressed. Women need to know about it.”

That’s why Nordby has started her company, called HERstory, which “will not only put this knowledge in the hands of women to empower them, but aid in patient navigation and engagement so they can take control of their health.”

So what role has her education in theater played in all this?

“What theater allowed me to do was apply my passions to a cause,” Nordby says. Theater, according to Nordby, forces audiences to think differently, just as she is doing with her company. It was theater that taught her, “We can’t just accept things because that is how they have always been. We need to ask why. Theater makes you do that. I would not be doing what I am today without the holistic education and questioning I was forced to do as a theater major.”

Publicist/Marketer for Musical Artists

A woman poses for a portrait.
Photo by Kenneth Perry

Stephanie Janes studied vocal performance at the University of Delaware before getting her master’s degree in arts administration from Drexel University. She now uses her education to run her own PR firm for nonprofit performing arts organizations and musical artists, such as opera singers and composers.

In her role, Janes writes press releases, does marketing and crafts budgets. She also pitches upcoming client concerts to members of the media. “Making videos and taking photos for social media is becoming a bigger part of today’s PR landscape for getting audiences excited about the performing arts, so I also arrange media shoots to make sure we have compelling imagery and videos available,” she says.

As a classically trained singer, Janes finds this line of work incredibly fulfilling. “It is so rewarding to turn the hard work of performers into an interesting pitch for a journalist to run with. I also love seeing the audiences as they leave a show. They are so happy and inspired by the performing artists.”


A woman poses for a portrait.
Photo Courtesy of Rae Buchanan

Another thing you can become with a degree in acting? An actor — go figure. And you don’t have to move to Los Angeles or New York to do so. Regional theaters in cities like Chicago, Austin, Texas, and Toronto are common destinations for those pursuing a career in theater or film, but Rae Buchanan has found success as an actor and teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio.

To pay her mortgage and other bills, Buchanan balances roles in several professional theaters like Know and The Playground, teaches acting classes, does voice work and recently signed on to a gig as a hospital clown. She and her husband also rent out the other half of their duplex for extra cash because, as Buchanan points out, working as an actor can be financially challenging.

“Being a working actor is not a stable career, so it is important to have a budget, save and work those side hustles,” Buchanan tells me.

It’s also not an easy career, but according to Buchanan, it’s worth it. “I am constantly putting myself out there — looking for auditions, connecting with theater companies, offering my services as a teaching artist or creating my own workshops. Imagine if you were constantly on a job search, even when you have work. That’s my life. It’s both stressful and exciting.”

Mix Engineer

A man sits at a sound mixing board in a music recording studio.
Photo by Diane Eiseman

A music engineering and technology graduate of the University of Miami, Blake Eiseman runs his own business as a mix engineer, Binksound. Eiseman mixes hit records for internationally acclaimed artists and undiscovered musicians on independent labels.

His work with Usher on the 2004 “Confessions” album earned Eiseman a Grammy nomination. Eiseman also worked with TLC, Boyz II Men, Justin Bieber and James Brown. A career highlight was working on the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1996 Olympics, for which he recorded and mixed with Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Al Green, Little Richard, The Pointer Sisters and Gloria Estefan.

“When an artist hands their project over to me, that is actually quite an honor — to know that they are entrusting me with something they have put a lot of effort into, from writing, recording, producing and performing this piece of work,” Eiseman says. “Now they are handing it over to me and trusting me to take it over the finish line. That’s actually a big responsibility, and I don’t take it lightly.”

Follow Your Passion

These eight roles are just the start of it. In addition, music majors often go on to work in radio and broadcasting, teach music to children and adults or sign musicians as an agent for a record label (if they don’t become musicians themselves).

Theater majors can fill a wide range of roles as well, including vocal coaches and speech therapists; tour guides; lighting, costume, set or sound designers and even models.

Studying music or theater at the college level may not lead to the most lucrative future, but if you are passionate about either subject, it can certainly bring you success and happiness. And as an English major who spends his days actually doing what he loves, I can vouch for how important that is.

Timothy Moore is an editor and freelance writer who fancies himself as an actor in his spare time. He lives in Germantown, Ohio, with his partner and two dogs.