The Labour Situation of Popular Music Scholarship: A Semi-Autobiographical Case Study

International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM)-Canada,
“Music and Labour” – Hamilton, Ontario; 24 May 2013

It has been widely discussed in the past few years that over 70% of university and college courses—in the US, anyhow—are now taught by non-permanent staff, including adjunct or “sessional” instructors.  In many fields, the majority of such instructors have their doctorates (or will shortly), but they also often teach only part-time.  In music performance, the part-time scenario has been typical for decades, but those instructors usually do not have doctorates, and they almost always generate additional income by performing and/or running private studios.  Sessionals are much less common in music history & culture (and less common than in English, for example), which means that a lot of music Ph.D.s don’t have any kind of academic position.  As for popular music, on most of the occasions when it appears in academic job postings at all, it is listed as a desirable add-on to a specific specialization in classical music, world music, or interdisciplinary areas.  Popular music is thus only sometimes taught by full-time instructors who specialize in it.

I am a musicologist, though, and music academic societies do not track information that can be used to determine career stages and employment outcomes.  However, despite rhetoric concerning privacy, I was able to investigate the websites of the 37 of the world’s 146 music graduate programs in musicology and/or ethnomusicology that include a lot of names.  Extrapolating to all such programs suggests that there are roughly 6,500 people connected (or recently connected) to them:  about 3,200 current graduate students, 1,300 Ph.D.s since 2010, 1,300 faculty members, and 650 adjunct instructors—with some faculty and instructors without Ph.D.s.  At institutions without graduate programs in musicology and/or ethnomusicology, there are probably about another 1,500 active music history & culture instructors—faculty members and adjuncts—some again without Ph.D.s.

In addition to the around 3,000 Ph.D.s working full- or part-time at post-secondary music departments, nearly twice as many are no longer affiliated with them.  From a survey of UCLA’s popular-music-friendly musicology graduate program, the non-academic-employed scholars among its Ph.D.s since the early 1990s include:  performers, private studio instructors, conductors, library employees, university admin workers, an instructional web designer, a music software employee, a freelance political journalist, a visual artist, a dog trainer, a legal secretary, an airport retail manager, and at least one unemployed recipient of social assistance.  In addition, almost as many of them are completely “off the radar.”

In all areas of music history & culture, the Musicology & Ethnomusicology Job Wiki (2006 to the present, and including international postings) includes an average of only 75 positions per year—excluding failed and cancelled searches.  That number includes tenure-track, non-tenure-track, and full- and part-time temporary positions, as well as the handful of postdoctoral fellowships.  It represents one position each year for every five out of 375 newly-minted music Ph.D.s.  That’s exactly the same, recent 20% hiring rate as in the field of history.  It is necessary to use a combination of the American Musicological Society’s database (Doctoral Dissertations in Musicology) and the database of the Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM) to get reasonably complete lists, as the AMS relies on self-reporting, which is mainly just done by some musicologists.

Out of those 375 Ph.D.s per year, there are probably about 22 with dissertations on popular music.  However, there is an average of just two, new, full-time, continuing specialist academic positions in popular music each year—which is an academic hiring rate of only 9%.  Occasionally, there are also relevant jobs in music theory or music performance or in departments of sociology, English, American studies, cultural studies, and communication & media studies.  However, those fields generate specialist popular-music positions even more rarely than music departments.  I checked those job wikis, too, and there just aren’t any such jobs this year—despite many other jobs.

In the 1970s and ’80s, a few departments began to offer a popular music course as an elective, but such courses were rarely taught by full-time faculty members.  Indeed, many early popular music courses were launched by people who did their graduate work only after having already taught, etc. in such areas.  In the 1990s, academic work in the interpretation, analysis, and so on of popular music then emerged as a primary area of work for some of us.  Even today, though with a few notable exceptions, an advanced seminar on popular music for music majors or graduate students—or in other disciplines—has only occasionally become a significant, ongoing part of a program.  In almost all cases, such seminars remain electives—not “core” courses—even for majors.

My own journey in music academia has involved co-editing a book, publishing book chapters and journal articles, presenting dozens of conference papers and invited talks, and developing and teaching dozens of university courses and seminars at seven institutions.  However, I only had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to include more than a tiny fragment of either of my two primary research areas.  The first of those areas is the post-countercultural, progressive, and post-progressive hard rock music of the Canadian band Rush—“white boys,” yes but hardly canonic and unproblematic, especially regarding genre, technology, and ideology.  Rush’s music was the subject of my dissertation, four book chapters, two journal articles, five conference papers, two invited talks, radio interviews, a forthcoming listener’s guide, and so on.  The second area is film & television music, especially the rock, pop, film, jazz, classical, and other “no-brow” music on The Simpsons.  That work includes a journal article, seven conference papers, two invited talks, and a book project.

I had full-time academic employment in three temporary positions for a total of about two years, plus a similar amount of teaching in part-time, sessional positions over five additional years.  Often concurrent with that teaching, I worked part-time as a classical music choral singer, in music-related administrative and technical support, and/or as a writer for reference articles (many on popular music or film music) and classical music programme notes.  I also returned to school to study software development full-time for one year.  My various temporary and part-time work experiences, though, have been spread far too thin for “real world” contexts in executive or administrative assistance, web content, information technology, and so on.  I realize this is quite negative, but graduate students and the rest of us should recognize the strong possibilities of not landing full-time academic positions, of moving frequently, and even of bankruptcy and welfare.

I have kept complete records of all of my academic job applications (and the original postings) from the fall of 2001 to the present.  The Job Wiki started in the fall of 2006 (for positions starting in 2007), and from then until now I applied for 168 full- and part-time academic positions, including a handful of fellowships.  In 2006-07, of the 24, full-time, tenure-track and temporary positions to which I applied, fairly generic postings in 20th-century music made up 18 of the postings (75%), of which 13 were tenure-track and 5 adjunct, with 15 in the US and 3 in Canada.  They usually included secondary coverage of world music and/or some other non-popular music area.  Of those, the only tenure-track position in Canada was at the Université d’Ottawa.

In 2006-07, full-time positions that mentioned popular music as a secondary area (often along with jazz and/or the blues) made up 5 positions (21%), of which 2 were tenure-track and 3 were not, with 4 in the US and 1 in Canada.  The one in Canada was a tenure-track position at the University of Victoria.  I had a preliminary, informal interview about it with Michelle Fillion at the AMS meeting in Los Angeles in the fall of 2006.  The position went to Jonathan Goldman (Université de Montréal, 2006), an expert on Pierre Boulez.  He has not taught courses in any of the secondary areas mentioned in the posting:  world music, popular/rock music, and Canadian music—although he presumably covered at least some post-1945 Canadian art music in one of his upper-level seminars.  One of their part-time instructors teaches popular music & songwriting and another teaches African hand drumming, but neither of them has a degree beyond an undergraduate one.

Of the two-dozen, full-time positions to which I applied in 2006-07, only one of them (4%) mentioned popular music as a primary area.  It was not included on the Musicology & Ethnomusicology Job Wiki.  The position was for a full-time lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, but I did not have an interview.  The position went to one of their Ph.D. alumni, Sarah Hill (Cardiff, 2002), an American-born expert on Welsh-language popular music & culture.  She had also already been working in the UK from 2002-07, as a lecturer at the University of Southampton.

In 2007-08, I had a nine-month, multi-leave-covering, assembled position at UCLA.  I taught popular music or film music about two-thirds of the time.  For a team-taught, interdisciplinary freshman Cluster on America in the Sixties (1954-74, really), I taught music lectures on R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Civil Rights Music and the Folk Revival & New Folk Music, American Pop and the British Invasion, Motown & Soul, and Glam & Progressive Rock.  I also taught a Cluster seminar on the origins of rock criticism in the late 1960s, another Cluster seminar on American film music from 1954-74, and a music history seminar on popular music cover songs.  That was my last academic job.

In the spring of 2008, I had an in-person finalist interview at Kutztown University (where their percussion professor knows about Rush) and another at the University of Southampton.  The Kutztown position went to Todd Rober (North Texas, 2003), an expert on the early symphony who is also a world music percussionist.  Kutztown has a number of classical performance professors who teach music appreciation, and two of their three committee members did not take my ideas about music history & culture at all seriously and were actually fairly antagonistic about my work in popular music.  The Southampton position went to Ben Piekut (Columbia, 2008), an expert on experimental music.  After only one year, he left Southampton for Cornell.  Southampton in 2009-10 then hosted a postdoctoral fellow, Valeria De Lucca (Princeton, 2009), an Italian-born expert on early and early-modern music, musical theatre, and opera.  She ended up continuing there as a full-time lecturer.

In 2008, I also had a first-round, in-person interview for a position at Pasadena City College that listed all of the following:  a two-semester sequence in Music History and Literature for music majors, plus such courses as Music Appreciation, Music in the Contemporary World, Music Cultures of the World, History of Jazz, History of Rock, Afro-American Music, Latin American Music, Asian Music, and History of Opera—plus the idea of additional courses in other areas of the instructor’s expertise.  I had earlier taught several music history core courses (Medieval & Renaissance, 1888 to 1945, and Since 1945), plus music appreciation, the history of jazz, and popular music; and I had also been a TA for the history of opera.  However, given such a formidable list, there was no way of knowing which courses they really wanted covered by a full-time faculty member, and they also unpromisingly asked for a basic, 18th-century classical topic to be covered in the lecture sample.  Not surprisingly, the college’s music department presently lists 11 full-time faculty members (including just one musicologist, covering only Western classical music) and 56 adjunct instructors.  That’s 84% adjunct.

In 2008, I also had a preliminary phone interview with Texas Christian University for a one-year position that involved teaching a music history survey, early music, and world music.  It went to Katherine Turner (Texas, 2008), an expert on early and early-modern music and women, especially in Italy.  For specializations in popular music that started in 2008, there were four continuing positions, including one at Western Ontario, where one of my own former University of Alberta graduate students, Jay Hodgson, is a professor.  There were then three popular music positions for 2009 and two for 2010, one of which was a senior appointment for my own UCLA dissertation advisor, Rob Walser, at Case Western Reserve University.

It was in 2009-10 that I went back to school full-time to study Computer Applications Development.  As a part of the program, in the summer of 2010 I had a 12-week co-op work term (paid internship) in Brunswick, Maine for the AMS and the Bowdoin International Music Festival.  The position was a strange, obviously-unsustainable combination of musicology and IT.  My new, modernized, web-based version of Doctoral Dissertations in Musicology (developed using PHP and MySQL, etc.) quickly became the most popular part of the AMS website.  On the other hand, the music festival’s idea of having media-enriched, web-based programme notes (I used XHTML and CSS, etc.) was abandoned after that one season.

While back in school, I applied for half my usual number of academic jobs, but still had a preliminary phone interview in winter 2010 for a position at Ramapo College.  It went to Marc Gidal (Harvard, 2010), an ethnomusicologist with expertise on Afro-Brazilian religious music.  In winter 2011, I had a phone interview with Vermont’s St. Michael’s College for an American music position involving jazz & rock, plus possible work in:  music technology, songwriting & recording; the blues, pop, musical theatre, Latino music, and gender & music.  It went to William Ellis (Memphis, 2011), an expert on the music of the American South.  Those were my last two academic interviews.  The Wiki stopped listing position specializations in 2011, but there was one tenure-track popular music position per year from 2011-13, at Carleton College, Bowdoin College, and Alberta’s MacEwan University.

Between the fall of 2010 and the winter of 2013, I also applied for about one hundred IT positions and had a total of eight preliminary interviews.  My software development program GPA was 3.97, and I won a pair of project awards along with my two team-mates.  However, I was not considered a suitable candidate for any of those IT jobs, mostly because my three months’  experience was not deemed substantial enough even for entry-level positions.  To put this situation in context, a university co-op computer science or engineering student already has two years of real-world, full-time work experience upon graduating.  Meanwhile, in some bizarre way, my having a Ph.D. (even in musicology) made me “overqualified” for those exact same entry-level IT positions.

From April 2011 to January 2013, I independently learned and used the content management and web development frameworks Drupal and Omeka.  I enrolled in a pair of small-business courses and developed three different versions of a business plan and collaborative community website for music history & culture that would allow people to engage not only with a wide variety of music (including popular music), but also with one another’s ideas.  The most recent version was called OurMus.Net.  Also, since February, I have transitioned my personal website and blog over to a self-hosted WordPress solution and worked voluntarily for a choir (one in which I also sing) for a similar website transition to WordPress.  I also continued with book projects, conference papers, web content, and so on.  However, none of these recent activities has generated any income for me, and I will now have to consider doing office work through temp agencies.  It’s a way to get some reasonably-normal work experience on my resume.

Music academia needs to make a concerted effort to address what other types of work could be done by its many colleagues who do not end up in academic positions.  Towards the end of its 195-page career guide from 2011, the AMS buried a handful of out-of-date, largely-irrelevant pages about the non-academic world.  The already-negligible section not only includes no profiles of music scholars, but also not a single example document from one.  In 2012-13, the society considered—for the first time—listing scholarly-related teaching as being among the activities of music scholars.  The AMS has done eight video interviews with musicologists, but they are all with faculty members.  So are fifteen of IASPM-US’s seventeen video interviews, the other two being with music critics.  By comparison, the American Historical Association has a career guide that covers the following seven “alternative-academic” work areas:  classroom work (at all levels); museums; editing & publishing; archives; historic preservation; federal, state, and local history; and consulting & contracting.  The publication includes profiles of eighteen Ph.D.s in history from across those seven areas, and the society’s website also includes the field’s job postings.  In addition, history has long been at the centre of the digital humanities.  Music academia needs to do much better.

One of the main problems of alternative-academic career paths is that the pace of music academia does not make any kind of sense outside of it.  For example, in 2001 I gave an IASPM-Canada paper about Rush fan demographics, etc., and the society’s papers from then and 2000 were going to be collected into a journal issue of dual-year conference proceedings.  The journal issue finally arrived—after more than eleven years!—in the spring of 2012.  The editors claimed that most of us who presented back then have since gotten positions in the field, but that is simply not true.  Of the eleven presenters in that proceedings journal, three already had academic positions by 2000-01 (two full-time and one part-time).  Of the remaining eight—all of whom completed their Ph.D.s after 2001—two (25%) later got tenure-track positions, two (25%) later got temporary or part-time positions, and four (50%) presently do not work in academia.  In a related matter, in 2000-01, IASPM-Canada had two-day conferences with 17-21 papers held in university classrooms.  Now, we have a four-day conference, with about 80 papers and held at a hotel conference centre.  That’s fine, as long as we also recognize that there haven’t actually been any more academic positions posted in popular music studies in the past few years than there were 12-13 years ago.  Maybe there are more jobs out there—in academia or not—but I honestly don’t know where those might be.

How can we proceed?  If so many music scholars don’t end up in continuing, full-time academic positions, how will we be able to find new, creative ways to continue working—such as for the public, or in other ways outside of academia?  Why are we all expected to submit to the highly-inefficient—not to mention increasingly permissions-mandating—context of peer review, when it’s perfectly obvious that it mainly exists for tenure accruement by the minority of scholars who do end up in academic positions?  If the Canadian University Music Society wants a new website, and I express concern that my similar paid IT work for the AMS has not gotten me anywhere in the “real world,” shouldn’t that society care at least a little bit about my having to come up with something reasonably sustainable out of it?  Why would I even consider applying for IASPM-US’s similar—but unpaid, voluntary—web editor position?  Hasn’t economic uncertainty had an impact on music academia just as much as it has on the music industry?  Shouldn’t more of us be willing to talk about it?

In the realm of public writing, why should I write or update any more music encyclopedia reference entries (at 8-20 cents per word), when I could make more money—such as in “passive income”—from writing and then directly selling that content to interested readers by myself?  In the realm of public institutions, given that it hasn’t so far, will the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum ever accept a guest lecture by a Ph.D. who doesn’t have an academic position?  Moreover, will the Rock Hall ever produce another job opening to add to our small assortment of alternative-academic positions?

Should most people who want to specialize in popular music studies primarily and/or initially focus on something else?  Is it a good idea for conference sessions involving scholars who need to find non-academic work (like this one) to be held on weekdays?  Given the costs otherwise incurred and/or the funding needing to be solicited, why don’t we use efficient, free technology to enable collaborative community websites and/or the possibility of remote conference participation?  Finally, a question about questions:  Do we ask ourselves nearly enough questions about how we do things?!

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One thought on “The Labour Situation of Popular Music Scholarship: A Semi-Autobiographical Case Study

  1. Pingback: An Article about Adjunct Instructors | Durrell Bowman

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