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.

Simpsons book bio

Here’s my bio for a forthcoming book about The Simpsons (McFarland, 2018, edit: actually 2019), in which I have a chapter called “Be Sharp: The Simpsons & Music.” [I also have a semi-related journal article coming out in MUSICultures in 2020.]

Durrell Bowman has a Ph.D. in Musicology (UCLA, 2003), a Certificate in Computer Applications Development (2010), and a Master of Library and Information Science (2018). For about a decade, he developed and taught music history courses as an adjunct or visiting instructor at seven institutions all across North America. He has also worked as a semi-professional choral singer, built websites, and presented numerous conference papers, including several on music in The Simpsons. In addition, he has written books, book chapters, journal articles, media and book reviews, reference entries, and program notes. His books are: Experiencing Peter Gabriel: A Listener’s Companion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), and Rush and Philosophy: Heart and Mind United (co-editor and three chapters, Open Court Publishing, 2011). He hails from what Homer refers to as “America Junior” and agrees with Marge that “grad students just made a terrible life choice.”

Rush’s “Cygnus X-1”

Rob Bowman quoted me about Rush’s song “Cygnus X-1” in his liner notes for the 40th anniversary edition of the band’s 1977 album A Farewell to Kings…/rush/albums-afarewelltokings-40th.php. Thanks, Rob!

As Durrell Bowman (no relation) has noted, the piece “features a substantial amount of electronically generated sounds and sound effects, frequent metrical complexities (28% in asymmetrical meters alone), a large number of tonal areas (eight), a high degree of unison playing (35%), and one of the smallest sung proportions on Rush’s first five studio albums (16%).”

It’s nice to know that someone got as far as page 130 of my 318-page dissertation I say pretty much the same thing in Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion, but without such nerdy things as percentages and words like “asymmetrical.”

MP3 vs. AAC, cloud vs. SD

I’m experimenting with re-ripping parts of my 19,000-song iTunes library to test the files with n7player on my Android smart phone. That phone player is great (tag clouds of artist names, album covers shown for navigating, etc.), but it doesn’t like mixed file types and thus doesn’t pull AAC album groupings together properly with MP3s. So, I’m going to go with MP3s, because that format works as more of a standard across various platforms. Naturally, I’m starting with early Genesis, Peter Gabriel, and Rush! I’m tempted to put everything on the cloud with Google Play Music, which allows up to 50,000 songs for free. However, I don’t really like the idea of having to use that much data when not able to use WIFI. A compromise, I suppose, would be to keep selected things also offline on a 64 GB SD card. Yes, I’m a nerd!

“Public Musicologists” Ignore Public Musicology

Institutionally-unaffiliated PhDs in my field are routinely swept under the carpet. Amanda Sewell’s report in the August 2015 newsletter of the American Musicological Society about an early 2015 conference on the Past, Present, and Future of Public Musicology confirms this by not bothering to mention my paper.

My contribution was called: “The Untapped Doctoral Majority of Potential Public Musicologists.” The paper begins by covering such things as:

  • the over-supply of musicology PhDs for the number of academic positions
  • what some musicology PhDs actually end up doing outside of academia

It continues by covering my:

I also then explain that I created music history instructional videos and that I adapted my dissertation on the Canadian rock band Rush for a public book called Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). I end the paper with an example from Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book in the same series: Experiencing Peter Gabriel: A Listener’s Companion.

I have done almost all of that work outside of conventional institutional contexts, so does that mean it doesn’t qualify as “public musicology”?! The Musicology Now (blog) version of the report is only slightly better, with one, highly-misleading sentence about my work: “Durrell Bowman (independent scholar) spoke of the challenges he has faced in the decade-long search for an academic position in musicology.” Both my assigned title of “independent scholar”–which I loathe, in favour of “public music historian”–and the falsely-reported subject matter of my paper–which is actually a whole bunch of things I have done in Public Musicology–may explain why the editor of the AMS newsletter decided to exclude it. Not surprisingly, the newsletter version of the report also excludes the following sentence: “Felicia Miyakawa (academic consultant) explained why she left a tenured position and chose to pursue public musicology.”

I can’t speak for Miyakawa, but “we” are not amused.

Another Excellent Review of “Experiencing Rush”

Here’s another excellent review of Experiencing Rush. I don’t agree with the reviewer that Rush “wanted to play essentially power pop.” However, he usually writes about death metal, so I suppose I can understand why the band’s music might seem that way to him! Otherwise, he really does completely get what I was trying to do.


  • “Unlike most rock writers, he focuses on the output from the band rather than the discussion or buzz surrounding it … .”
  • “… intelligently look[s] into the music as a series of patterns and avoid[s] a deep immersion in music theory. As a result, Bowman compares abstract patterns found in the music to what they symbolize in life … .”
  • “… Bowman stands heads above the other writers on this topic.”
  • “… shows us what rock journalism could be — some of us would say should be — by digging into this band in the only way that honors their efforts, which is to take them seriously as people by investigating their art for what it attempts to express as a communication between artist and fans.”
  • “… avoid[s] academic-ese and also rock journalist ideo-jive, and instead look[s] at this band with an intelligent common-sense approach by picking apart each song to see what makes it work, both as a communications device and as an experience to enjoy. With the force of Rush fans behind him, hopefully Bowman can convince more of the music world to join him in this approach, which like the scientific method for materials should be the de facto standard for music.”

A Review of “Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion”

A positive, substantial review of Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion​ (and my colleague Gregg Akkerman’s Experiencing Led Zeppelin) appeared in the Cleveland Music Examiner on February 11. See:

Excerpts: “While Bowman’s Rush reader need not be versed in theory, it nonetheless helps to keep one’s thinking cap on for his fascinating forage into what is arguably the world’s foremost intellectual rock band. … [T]he real success of the series is in the way the books rekindle readers’ interest in the subject matter by shedding light on the musical minutiae that might’ve escaped one’s attention till now. We knew these artists were good, but perhaps we couldn’t articulate precisely why. These authors effectively take reader / listeners undercover to view the musicians working all those levers behind the curtain. And it’s in their study and scholarly elucidation of all this musical sorcery that we arrive at a more profound understanding of (and appreciation for) the wizards responsible.”