The Untapped Doctoral Majority of Potential Public Musicologists

[Presented at:
The Past, Present and Future of Public Musicology
Princeton, New Jersey; 31 January 2015]

Across academia generally, undergraduate courses are now usually taught by people other than tenure-stream faculty, including visiting and fixed-term professors, post-doctoral fellows, adjunct instructors, and graduate students. Music professors, continuing instructors, and post-docs have reasonably-good salaries, but adjuncts teach part-time for only around $4,000 per course, with no benefits and limited resources. The majority of musicology and ethnomusicology PhDs, though, don’t end up doing any of the above. What do they do, then, and/or what could they be doing? Most of them are institutionally-unaffiliated and thus already in the public. So, shouldn’t they be the ones doing “public musicology?” Maybe we should also get rid of the confusing word “musicology.” People know what I mean when I say: “public music history & culture.”

Across all fields of study, 83% of PhDs don’t have continuing, full-time academic positions, and music falls right in line with that. My research shows that two-thirds of music scholars don’t end up in academia, and the one-third that do are evenly split among tenure-stream faculty members and other types of instructors. Musicology and ethnomusicology together produce around 375 PhDs per year, but only about 75 new, posted positions, including temporary, post-doc, and adjunct situations. There is, however, also a backlog of numerous PhDs continuing to look for academic jobs for years. Dozens of additional temporary and adjunct positions are arranged less formally each year, as were all of mine. There aren’t nearly enough sustainable academic and non-academic positions and careers for all of the people coming out of our various programs, though. Lots of things having to do with higher education and the potential subsequent meaningful employment and activities of music PhDs and MAs should be improved. Is getting a job from luck or from networking? Is it from having transferable skills or from having an entrepreneurial personality? I’m getting a little confused!

In science, technology, engineering, and math—the “STEM” fields—there are tenure-stream academic jobs for a similar percentage of PhDs as in the arts and humanities (17%), but there are also lots of post-doctoral fellowships. My astrophysicist friend had three post-docs before landing a academic position at a regional university in Maryland. Music academia, though, generates only a handful of post-docs, and they are also always limited to people with PhDs completed within the past several years. STEM PhDs additionally accomplish a lot of things outside of academia, so there are many industry positions, and conference presenters are thus actually paid both for their work and for their costs. My friends in the sciences, law, and so on can’t understand why I almost always have to pay my own way, get help from others, and/or go into debt to present my work. Similarly, our music societies expect their web content editors and others to do this type of work for free. Meanwhile, our journals exist mainly because of precarious government grants. Yes, society and conference networking is useful, but why can’t we figure out how to pay people for their work?

I’m a reasonably well-known person at local and regional meetings, and most of my fellow participants have assumed that I have a full-time academic job. They see that I’ve developed and taught dozens of university courses, co-edited and contributed three chapters to a book, written another book, signed a contract for and started working on a third book, presented dozens of papers or invited talks, and done additional book chapters, articles, book & media reviews, and so on. In reality, though, I often feel like a second-class musicological citizen or, perhaps, “hobbyist.” Even though some of my work is academic, some of it is public or in IT. Also, despite my dissertation advisor’s advice, I’ve stopped submitting paper proposals to non North-American conferences, because I know I’ll have to bail on them when they’re accepted. Can’t we come up with ways to share our work that don’t involve spending lots of money sending ourselves all over the place? People tell me I should be publishing my academic work instead, but are there really enough spaces out there for everyone? As for public work, aren’t there even fewer contexts available to music scholars for that?

Many additional areas of potential interest are non-starters. Digital musicology research fellowships are given to already-employed scholars, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) about music are also done by existing faculty members. Publication subventions and travel grants for so-called “independent scholars” are mostly limited to traditional areas of research and require budget considerations that simply don’t make sense for people without existing positions. Music institutions occasionally offer paid, short-term research fellowships and public-lecture opportunities, but they are also almost always given to people who already have full-time positions. Some PhDs work on blogs, etc. without actually being able to make a living from it, whether they would want to do so or not. In addition, the contexts for graduate students can be questioned, as they run various conferences just for themselves, but often can’t find enough people to present and thus have to extend their deadlines and re-post their calls for papers—as, in fact, do many other conferences. Also, graduate students don’t realize that most of them won’t be able to attend conferences once they are unaffiliated and doing non-academic jobs.

What kinds of work can music scholars reasonably expect to find outside of academia? Our societies don’t track hiring statistics, and universities are often very misleading about the employment of their graduates. UCLA (my doctoral alma mater) claims that 99% of its PhDs across all fields are employed. So, I guess I’m in the 1%, for once! From my survey of its musicology graduate program, the non-academic-employed scholars among its PhDs 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 an airport-based courier employee. Almost as many, though, seem to be completely “off the radar.” From other programs, I also know of music PhDs who work as symphony orchestra library workers, university research-funding administrators, government civil servants, school bus drivers, yoga experts, and real estate agents. Obviously, people can be happy without landing the tenure-track academic contexts that lots of people said was just a matter of time.

The American Musicological Society is not very useful for unaffiliated scholars who do the types of jobs I just outlined. In its 195-page career guide from 2011, the AMS buries a handful of pages about what it somehow considers to be not only “non-academic,” but also the sum total of what that could be—meaning, mostly, research projects. On top of that highly-dubious supposition, the section includes no examples of music-related job areas, no profiles of music scholars, and no sample documents from musicology or ethnomusicology—just from psycholinguistics, macroeconomics, psychological anthropology, and art history. Other fields do much better than music at fostering relatively-public, alternative-academic work areas. For example, since at least 2002 the American Historical Association has acknowledged seven main areas for “Careers in History.” Those are: classroom work (at all levels); museums; editing & publishing; archives; historic preservation; federal, state & local history; and consulting & contracting. Among many other resources, the AHA and its website offer profiles of eighteen, representative history scholars from across all of those areas. Similar options are starting to emerge for music scholars, including people here today. However, the options are still too few and far between, and music academia should try to do much better than it currently does.

From 2001 to ’08, I cobbled together an average gross annual income of about $24,000 by part-time and temporary university teaching, choral singing, music festival library & computer support, writing and editing music festival program notes and bios, and writing music encyclopedia reference articles. At the end of that “run,” I had a temporary, full-time position at UCLA, mostly teaching in areas of popular music, film music, and other 20th century music. In the spring of 2008, I had several promising short-list/fly-out interviews and one preliminary interview for permanent academic positions elsewhere, but I did not land one. I’ve also occasionally had similar interest before and since then, out of about 200 academic applications since 2003. For one of the jobs for which I was interviewed in 2008, the person they hired bailed after a year for a position at a more prestigious institution. Scholars commonly do that sort of “jockeying for position,” but for me to do that nine-month position at UCLA and try to jump-start my career, I had to move more than 2500 miles (with no reimbursement of my moving expenses) and give up: my only adjunct course, all of my choral singing, and all of my other part-time work. I’ve moved numerous times before and since then, too. After my 2007-08 position, I moved back to the area where I spent the first 24 years of my life and now do a lot more choral singing and other music-making for free than for money. The actual non-academic world—not the AMS’s fantasy of one—can’t really make sense of over-educated, over-qualified, under-experienced PhDs.

In 2009-10, I went back to school to study software development in a one-year certificate program at my local community college. I did extremely well in it, had a GPA of 3.97, graduated with high distinction, and in the summer of 2010 had a three-month, $6000 internship that counted as a work-term towards it. In that position, I initially used XHTML and CSS to create media-enriched, web-based program notes for the Bowdoin International Music Festival. They included my text (which also appeared in the printed programs), but also image-links to other discussions, recordings, timelines, and so on. I then used PHP and MySQL to develop and program the popular new version of the AMS’s Doctoral Dissertations in Musicology web database. Discussions that might have seen me creating the new, enhanced AMS directory website amounted to nothing, mostly because there was very little money available. Excellent work does not mean much when there is no subsequent work for reasonable pay in a related capacity in the same context and when almost no-one else can make sense of you or your previous work. My numerous applications and several interviews for IT positions didn’t get me anywhere; universities have not considered me a viable candidate for administrative, IT, and library jobs; and although I’ve worked in library contexts at UCLA and for a well-known music festival, public libraries aren’t even interested in letting me volunteer. Getting non-academic experience is not an easy thing for an aspiring scholar to accomplish. So, do it early and do it often—even for free! I wonder if that’s actually compatible with having a full-ride fellowship, though.

From the late spring of 2011 to the late winter of 2013, I spent around 1500 hours developing a pair of independent, collaborative community websites for music history & culture, including related web content and business plans. I learned how to use several, sophisticated, web development technologies and also took a pair of small business courses. I built the initial website, the Music Discussion Network, with Drupal and arranged it according to a modest, annual-membership, alternative-society subscription model. I intended it primarily as a forum for scholars to share and discuss their work. Subsequently, I developed the Music Scholars Network—later calling it OurMus.Net—with the digital humanities platform Omeka. The website’s content could be made available for anyone (such as the music-interested public) to explore items, share them, and follow other people’s relevant discussions. Anyone (such as students in music courses) could open an account for free and then also be able to connect items as topics, take individually-saved notes, and assign proprietary tags to organize the material for their own purposes. Members (such as music scholars) could pay a modest, annual fee in order to be able to contribute and discuss content, request that their content be made public, and optionally receive tutorials & feedback from me as to how to use the system effectively. I also incorporated subtle, music-targeted advertising, but the ads did not appear for paid members. Unfortunately, I had to disable and archive both websites, because without an institutional context and with insufficient self-employment income, I couldn’t afford the annual $150 for the necessary self-hosting. Fortunately, though, some of my own, related web content is still online.

In late 2011 and early 2012, I spent about 200 hours developing eleven, public music history & culture instructional videos. I made them, using MovieMaker and various other tools, in order to seed my websites with some useful, initial content. I also incorporated the videos into OurMus.Net, and they still exist together on a YouTube channel. They cover, in the order I completed them: Bob Dylan, Handel, Rush, Josquin, Laurie Anderson, Chopin, music in The Simpsons, Australian aboriginal music, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holiday, and film composer Bernard Herrmann. They are meant for the music-interested public and have been used by some colleagues for non-music-major courses, so perhaps they qualify as “public music history & culture.” Around the same time, I did a two-part video podcast about classical adaptations of rock music and then later considered doing music-topic e-books independently. Unfortunately, from the spring of 2013 to early 2014, I was forced to change the business plan for my web-oriented self-employment program to one in which I did websites for other people, for which I used a combination of self-hosted WordPress and free accounts on In that period, I earned a total of about $2000 working part-time for others, such as developing the new website of a choir in which I sing and others for some non-music small businesses. From the fall of 2012 to the end of 2014, I also made a total of about $1500 for choral singing and contributing to Christmas carolling quartets.

In 2009-10, I went through bankruptcy, mostly from debt incurred after grad school. Since May of 2011, I’ve been receiving social assistance. Nearly three-fifths of my monthly support payment goes to cover my rent in a rooming house, and most of the rest of it goes for groceries and other food. I live in Canada, so basic health coverage is already in place, and I also have basic public and university library access. On the other hand, I live on considerably less than what I averaged coming out of my doctoral studies, and my total income is now at about half of the poverty line. I continue to do my work, though, usually presenting two conference papers per year. More importantly, within the period of the past twenty months I received contracts for two general-interest listener’s guides for Rowman & Littlefield. Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion was published in October 2014, and Experiencing Peter Gabriel will be published in the same series in the spring of 2016. With a $500 advance and a $500 payment-upon-completion for the new book, my income will increase by a substantial percentage this year. I suppose I’m getting that amount mostly because I do my own book indexing, but I haven’t actually gotten any income from the Rush book, so far.

As an example of the disconnect between academic and public writing, I’ll give you a sense of my 2003 dissertation. It was called “Permanent Change: Rush, Musicians’ Rock, and the Progressive Post-Counterculture.” Chapter 4 was entitled “All This Machinery: Music Technology and Stylistic Ambivalence, 1980-87.” That chapter alone was 67 pages, with 113 footnotes, 18 block quotes, 9 musical examples, 5 images, and 1 table. Most of my musician, music-fan, and even Rush-fan friends found it virtually impossible to make much sense of my dissertation. On the whole, it was far too academic insider-y for anyone who isn’t a scholar completely used to that type of writing. By comparison, in public work about music your goal is to generate interest for a combination of existing fans of your topic and people in the general public who might want to learn about it despite not having been previously interested in the subject. Your chapters need to average fewer than twenty pages (not sixty to seventy), and you will probably need to exclude all footnotes, block quotes, musical examples, images, tables, overly-technical discussions, and academic jargon. You will be asked to focus on songs, etc. that mattered to the “culture at large,” and your editor will want you to avoid the use of parentheses, parenthetical commas, and dashes; to avoid most dates; and to put reference timings at the ends of clauses or, preferably, at the ends of sentences—or left out entirely. Your book will not resemble a dissertation, but your non-academic friends and family members will actually be able to read it!

Chapter 1 of Experiencing Peter Gabriel: A Listener’s Companion is called “Tell Me My Life is about to Begin: Genesis, 1968-71.” It will be about 18 pages, with 0 footnotes, 0 block quotes, 0 musical examples, 0 images, and 0 tables. Here are some excerpts, excluding the reference timings:

The ten-and-a-half minute, 1971 Genesis song “The Musical Box” begins with a simple, slow, folk-like, major-key accompanied melody heard on Mike Rutherford’s 12-string guitar. The song’s opening thus somewhat evokes the object of the song’s title. Shortly thereafter, lead singer Peter Gabriel begins to sing an expanded context for the British nursery rhyme “Old King Cole.” Among other things, the protagonist warns that “the nurse will tell you lies of a kingdom beyond the skies.”

The album title transforms “Nursery Rhyme” to “Nursery Cryme,” and the album cover uses Paul Whitehead’s disturbing, related image of severed heads being batted about. The album’s liner notes provide a bizarre, pseudo-Victorian back story of a nine-year-old girl named Cynthia decapitating her eight-year-old friend Henry with a croquet mallet. Two weeks later she comes across his Old King Cole musical box in the nursery of his family’s home. As she open the box, Henry emerges from it as a spirit. He begins to age rapidly, grows a beard, and develops sexual desires for his former playmate, while still remaining mentally a child. His nursemaid hears the noise of his attempted sexual congress, enters the room, and destroys both him and the musical box.

In the song’s first third, Henry keeps asking for someone to open the object so he can emerge from his ghostly “half-world” and try to live out at least some part of his adult life. In its opening phrase, he asks for it to: “Play me Old King Cole.” However, it also sounds like: “Play me, Old King Cole,” and Henry indeed becomes a disturbing variation of that character. In addition, for live performances of this song, Gabriel often wore an “old man” mask during its final verse, and costume and lighting effects were also used to make him look depraved and unnatural.

The last two-thirds of the song parallels Henry’s transformation, sometimes in a loud, active, progressive rock style. Guitarist Steve Hackett starts playing heavier and distorted chords, and keyboardist Tony Banks concurrently switches to a prominent organ sound. The chords change from the earlier major and modal areas to the work’s parallel-minor tonal area. The section eventually includes Hackett’s “three in the time of two” triplets that float above Banks’ rhythmically-insistent keyboards and Phil Collins’ busy, flailing drums and percussion.

Later, to approach the song’s ending, the music builds again. Henry gets angry, as Cynthia stands there with a “fixed expression” and “casting doubt” about his intentions. He gets very insistent, asking: “Why don’t you touch me … now, now, now …?” The guitar and drumming elements also become increasingly active. The closing instrumental music remains in the song’s reprised, tonal, major-key idiom, with especially-crisp chord changes. The entire song gives the sense that contexts such as religion and nursery rhymes are often used by people to distract themselves and their children from the realities of such things as anger, violence, sexual awareness, and desire.

There are live-performance videos of this song and other early Genesis songs on YouTube, in case you’d like to experience such things for yourself.

From the point of view of your doctoral field, in public music history & culture you will become something more like a journalist, topic expert, or public intellectual. I’ve found, however, that non-music academics and others will recognize your work as coming from a scholar. You might get interviews with radio stations; endorsements from relevant, well-connected individuals and websites; and reviews in such mainstream venues as Publishers Weekly—as I did for my work on Rush. The academic freedom to explore obscure topics and cutting-edge methodologies won’t be there anymore, and engaging with the work of other scholars will also now be off the table. You’re unaffiliated and not accruing tenure, though, so why should you or anyone else care? Shouldn’t this sort of public work be central to non-academic activities in musicology? Wouldn’t it also be good if some of us could actually make a living at it?

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