Academic Work for Free: It’s Indefensible and Exploitative, but We Continue to Do It

A professor at a major university wants me to contribute a chapter on critical theory to a new, academic-press book about progressive rock. That sounds great, right?! However, are you aware that I would be paid absolutely nothing for what would probably end up being several hundred hours of research and writing? [Update, March 16: The editor of a scholarly journal, who is a professor at another university, similarly wants me to do numerous hours of additional research work and writing to update my article about parody and intertextuality in the music of The Simpsons. I already researched and wrote that article and did numerous hours of revisions to satisfy the relevant journal issue’s editor and peer reviewers. That journal article would also pay me absolutely nothing.] You read that correctly: academia frequently does not pay anything for substantial work that is done.

My progressive rock colleague says it’s “somewhat defensible” that people with academic positions write for free. However, that work is actually considered essential to their full-time positions and to their salaries that are around three to five times more than mine as a full-time, computer technology, e-commerce, order support specialist. I earn $15 Canadian per hour, which works out to about $11 U.S. per hour. If I had my Ph.D. in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math), there’d be other places to use my knowledge and abilities in a well-paying, full-time job–other than just in universities. I don’t, and there aren’t.

Scholars with academic jobs seem to think it’s reasonable for scholars without them to do the exact same level of work for free, because it might increase interest in their earlier work–such as my published books on the music of Rush and of Peter Gabriel. If it’s already merely “somewhat defensible” for full-time academics to do work for “free,” it seems indefensible–possibly even exploitative–to expect scholars without academic positions to do the same. In fact, in the sciences it is now usually the case that for-profit, largely-paywalled publishers expect scholars to pay hundreds–sometimes even thousands–of dollars upfront for each and every article they publish. However, doing hundreds of hours of work for free is arguably at least as bad as that, especially if you have no income related to it.

Book publishers, as well as the organizations and societies that run conferences and publish scholarly journals, should find ways to pay those authors who don’t have academic positions. It doesn’t make any difference if I would enjoy writing a new book chapter or journal article, or another conference paper or book or two, for that matter. I would, but I shouldn’t have to do it for free, just like musicians, artists, and student interns shouldn’t have to do work for free just to get their names out there. No-one went to graduate school for up to a decade to end up not getting paid for the work they do.

[Update, March 18: I have agreed to research and write the book chapter and to revise the journal article further. I have most of a year to do the former and about a month to do the latter. I still think it’s indefensible and exploitative to expect anyone without an academic job to do this type of work for free.]

Neil Peart, RIP

I always sort of hoped that Rush’s drummer-lyricist Neil Peart and I would cross paths at some point and have an interesting conversation. We both first lived on family farms in Ontario, our fathers both worked at International Harvester dealerships, we both wrote multiple books (much of my work being about Rush’s music), we are both Canadians who lived in Los Angeles for a time, he was nicknamed “The Professor,” and I actually once was a Visiting Assistant Professor. Rush’s music is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the complexity (definitely present in the drumming), the constant stream of influences (lyrical and musical), and the work ethic were remarkable. Please consider giving a monetary gift in his memory to a cancer charity of your choice. RIP, Neil.

“Be Sharp: ‘The Simpsons’ and Music”

My book chapter, “Be Sharp: ‘The Simpsons’ and Music,” appears in: The Simpsons’ Beloved Springfield: Essays on the TV Series and Town That Are Part of Us All (McFarland, 2019)

The White Album

TheWhiteAlbumOn the 50th anniversary of The Beatles (a.k.a., The White Album, 1968), I’ve just listened to the whole album for the first time in years. My first thought is that it’s inconsistent and far too eclectic. It sometimes tries to one-up earlier Beatles’ songs but never really succeeds at that. For example, “Glass Onion” and “Honey Pie” both try way too hard. Similarly, the album is so long and sprawling that it even quotes itself several times, but never in a good, thematically-unifying way. The album also wants to help establish the potential of the individual Beatles’ solo careers, and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Don’t Pass Me By” do that pretty well for George Harrison and Ringo Starr. However, even with “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Blackbird,” “Julia,” and “Helter Skelter,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney both still arguably have better material elsewhere. Half of the double album could have been (and probably should have been) B-sides. However, they decided not to release any singles from the album (let alone B-sides), in favour of releasing a single of the same period’s “Hey Jude” and the faster, more pop-oriented version of “Revolution”–neither or which is on the more than 93-minute album. It’s hard to imagine that the 50th Anniversary, “Super Deluxe,” special edition of the album comprises up to seven discs of material. Very few people are going to need to hear a “bright new mix,” obscure demos, abandoned versions, and an eventual guitar solo hummed by Paul McCartney. Besides, Revolver (1966) and Abbey Road (1969) are much better albums.

Help Me Get Better LinkedIn!

LinkedIn seems to be mainly useful for people who have had fairly straightforward job experiences within limited industries. It also helps if one has easily highlighted skills, with useful endorsements and recent recommendations by people who know what you’re trying to do.
Numerically to date, my top endorsements are: Music, Singing, Writing, and WordPress, followed by other IT/Computer things (but Software Development?!) and Music things (but Music Theory?!). There’s almost nothing else about my academic work in musicology (just Editing) and absolutely nothing about my work in Library & Information Science.
I’ve added some categories, deleted others, and am trying to get some more recent, relevant people to help me update my skills endorsements and recommendations. I find that very few academics and librarians actually use LinkedIn, but please help me out if you are able to. Thanks!

 

Music Sales

The Eagles’ 1976 album Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 (with 38 million copies sold) has once again supplanted Michael Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller (with 33 million copies sold) as the top-selling album of all time, at least in the US. Who cares?

Amanda Petrusich, in her New Yorker article about the situation, accomplishes very little other than to reveal she finds that the Jackson album “provokes” (without once specifying how or why), whereas the Eagles’ greatest hits collection “placates” (though also somehow imbuing “dread” and/or a “swirling beige inertia”).

Given the existence of Hardcore Punk, Death Metal, New Age, Smooth Jazz, and various other musical genres not explored by Michael Jackson or by the Eagles, I find it extremely difficult to consider either of those artists to be particularly provocative or placating. Also, none of this takes into account the fact that both artists uniquely arrived at their mainstream pop successes by merging other styles. The Eagles combined singer-songwriter and country-rock approaches into a kind of rock super-group aesthetic (and certainly with rather less “major chord ubiquity” after 1975), whereas Jackson combined R&B, urban/dance pop, and rock elements into a compelling amalgam.

Do any of the details about music sales actually matter, though, when tens of millions of people now listen to most of the music they encounter–and frequently without buying anything–on such streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube? Probably not. Could music writers please get around to discussing music in more useful ways? Same answer, unfortunately.