A Digital End-Run around Musicology

I’ve been struggling for quite some time as to how to proceed with a combination of music scholarship and information technology. I have a Ph.D. and work experience in musicology (including research and courses taught on popular music and film & TV music), but I also have a Certificate and work experience in software development (including a web database project for the American Musicological Society).

My first attempt at a Digital Public Music History & Culture, the Music Discussion Network (MDN), would have resulted in a member-based community open to the public to post links to pieces of music, fill in relevant information fields, and participate in discussions about that music. It would have been paid for through annual fees of $40 per member (a cart mechanism was incorporated into the site), and I also experimented with on-site ad placements (i.e., about music, but it never worked very well). The first incarnation of MDN, however, never made it past its beta-testing stage in the summer of 2011.

My second attempt, the Music Discussion Network mark II (MDN2, now at http://music-scholars.net/mdn), was inspired by the Khan Academy (instructional materials for high-school students in math, science, etc., at http://khanacademy.org) and its humanities sub-site Smarthistory (an art history web-book mostly used by university students, at http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org). The Khan Academy is free, public, and funded by multi-million-dollar educational-foundation support from the Gates Foundation, Google, and so on. It has delivered 225 million lessons to people all over the world (including discussions, etc.), and even Smarthistory (which was originally developed at other institutions) has had 5 million visits. For MDN2, in late 2011 and early 2012 I made eleven music instructional videos of about 10-15 minutes, but each of those took about 20-25 hours create. Without institutional affiliation (i.e., unemployed), it seemed extremely unlikely that I would be able to (1) build a full system without getting other scholars to collaborate on it with me or (2) monetize my efforts, such as by making its materials available for purchase by students enrolled in specific courses at colleges and universities.

My third attempt, the Music Scholars Network (MuSNet, http://music-scholars.net), tried to combine MDN and MDN2, but according to a member-contributed subscription model geared specifically towards music academics, including adjunct instructors and graduate students. The site thus included job postings, calls for papers, teaching materials (such as my instructional videos from MDN2), conference information, research activities, and so on, and discussions possible for all posted items. MuSNet had a substantial portion of its materials available to the public, but only its members would be allowed to add or discuss things. It offered a 1-2 month free trial, then a modest membership fee of $30 per year (incorporated via PayPal). A web survey suggested that some music scholars would be willing to pay a small amount for such a thing, but it was never clear that this could become a viable business that would grow beyond more than a few hundred members. Very few music scholars have the time or energy to participate in such a thing and it is also not how they expect to do things, so it actually makes much more sense to focus instead on building something useful for interested members from within the vastly larger public of music aficionados.

MuSNet2 will focus once again on instructional materials, but it will be free, public, and with discussion capabilities available to any registered member. It will retain the name “Music Scholars Network,” but with the significant change in emphasis that anyone who studies music is a “music scholar.” The site will initially be built by me, including at least a few new instructional videos each month, but it will also be “collaborative” in the sense of including links to many existing music instructional videos already made publicly available by others but also fully researched and tested by me. I will thus endeavour to have the site become similar in scope to the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory web-book within about six months and with a large-scale, public, promotional undertaking through YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. This renewed focus would potentially reach hundred of thousands (or even millions) of people, as opposed to a few hundred music academics. The site would then become part of—and paid for through—an existing system of educational materials, such as the Khan Academy (free and public) or a college or university that offers online arts and humanities courses for money (increasingly the case in the UK) or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, which are free and typically have thousands of students for each course). Once MuSNet2 is part of a larger system, it could then also begin to include contributions by specialists covering additional areas of music history & culture. That is what Smarthistory was able to do to expand its art-history offerings once it became part of the Khan Academy.

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The Music Scholars Network, the Public, etc.

I created and developed the Music Scholars Network (MuSNet) to enable a professional, interdisciplinary, member-contributed community.  Of the respondents to my October 2012 Music Scholars Web Survey, 69% felt that the conferences, journals, and websites of music academic societies are not always efficient enough.  In fact, 62% of them said they would be willing to pay between $10 and $50 per year for a membership in a network that allowed them to post, tag, find, share, and discuss such things as conference information, calls for papers, teaching materials, job postings, and research.

Most music academic societies, however, have ignored or refused my requests to distribute an email announcement inviting people to join MuSNet.  Getting the word out and encouraging people to add things to the website (even through free trial memberships) are thus turning out to be much more difficult than I had imagined.  Tenure-track academics (even people I consider to be friends and/or close colleagues) and academic societies (even ones to which I belong and/or for which I have worked) are not used to being second-guessed by so-called “independent scholars.”  I suppose it is also possible, though, that they are all just too busy.

Amazingly, members cannot directly add things to the websites of music academic societies.  Everything is channelled through executive directors, webmasters, moderators, and various sub-committees on specific topics, issues, etc.  The American Musicological Society’s (AMS’s) plan for “public musicology” (a vague and far too patronizing plan) is likely to take years to unfold, and it will undoubtedly prove to be highly unsatisfactory.  Another difficulty is that music academia is plagued by the problem of “silos” that consistently separate musicologists from ethnomusicologists and music theorists, academics from composers and performers, classical “snobs” from jazz and popular music “believers,” and so on.  It is not at all a healthy situation!

Over the next several decades, the various MBAs who now run most universities (and have been hired at a rate ten times that of tenured academics) will find ways to shut down or otherwise mess with numerous music departments.  They will reasonably ask:  Is music a part of the humanities, or is it a part of the fine and performing arts?  It will make no difference that music is obviously both of those things.  Many more music scholars than currently do so will end up having to do their work in places other than university music departments, but, in fact, a lot of us already do.

With MuSNet, I am developing an “alternative academic” venue for music scholars of various sorts to accomplish things efficiently, quickly, and affordably.  However, I am also very keen on the idea that the majority of materials posted and discussed by the site’s members should be made available to the public, used directly by students, consulted by journalists and music enthusiasts, and so on.  I hope to administer and maintain the network on a part-time basis, I’ve been enrolled in a self-employment (small business) program since September, and part of the goal of the business is to get myself off of social assistance.

The people who would probably be able to make the best use of MuSNet are current Ph.D. students and adjunct (a.k.a. sessional) instructors, including the many who work only part-time, as I often did from 2001 to 2008.  In 2012, more than 70% of US university courses are being taught by non-permanent faculty.  However, the American Musicological Society, for example, will not release the names and email addresses of its graduate student members, even to me: a long-time AMS member who worked at its office in 2010 to redevelop the successful new version of its Doctoral Dissertations in Musicology web index (which is, in fact, the AMS website’s most popular function).  Even worse, the AMS does not know how many of its members have non-permanent teaching positions.  It does not track its members’ “career stages” (as it calls such information), because it wants to believe that every Ph.D. eventually lands in a tenure-track position.  In what I take to be a related issue, there was some discussion at the AMS in 2010 about having a member-portfolio system, but the society wasn’t willing to commit to the cost of the 200 hours (e.g. $5000) I felt that it would take to develop it.

My research (more to come later) shows that two-thirds of music academic Ph.D.s since the early 1990s have NOT landed in tenure-track positions.  Even those among the fortunate one-third have referred to the past two or three decades as having produced a “lost generation,” but some of us still manage (despite being “lost” and even with the odds stacked against us) to publish books and articles, present conferences papers, teach part-time, and so on.  Music academia (unlike history, English, and other larger fields) has not prepared the majority of its members for the reality of needing to establish other types of career pathsFor example, the American Musicological Society’s official “alternative academic” career advice comprises only a few scant pages, which are lifted almost entirely from publications addressing non-music fields and are, quite frankly, almost completely useless.  MuSNet, on the other hand, provides an innovative, dynamic, networking context precisely so we can (among other things) help ourselves navigate some of these difficulties.