A couple of weeks ago, someone on Facebook raised the question of whether, as an early career researcher with no permanent position, you should accept an invitation to speak somewhere that wasn’t going to pay your travel expenses. The majority of responses were horror-struck that any academic department would even suggest such a thing, with a certain amount of O tempora, o mores lamentation as a counterpoint; yes, we academics do regularly give our time without compensation, as part of our normal activities (reviewing proposals, writing references and tenure reports and so forth), but incurring actual expenditure is something else – especially for those who don’t have a regular income or access to travel funds. However, there was one dissenter: of course you should, the response ran; you’re being given a chance to develop your skills, hone your arguments and raise your profile, just like The Who got good only as a result of playing every gig they could in the early years, paid or unpaid. Actually you should probably pay *them* for providing you with an audience who have to endure your amateurish strummings.
This exchange brought to mind various thoughts I had a while back, when the phrase ‘gig economy’ really started to become common currency, about the current state of academic life and its parallels with the music industry. The phrase ‘gig economy’ itself is deeply suspect and sneaky in the way that it seeks to normalise and even romanticise insecurity and exploitation; it’s a close cousin of the manipulative ‘do what you love, love what you do’ mantra (see Miya Tokumitsu’s article, if you missed it the last time I recommended it, or even better buy her book). We are encouraged, whatever our actual occupations, to think of ourselves as the lead in The Buddy Holly Story or similar uplifting tales, dedicating ourselves to our craft and seizing every opportunity with enthusiasm until success finally comes knocking. We’re not actively discouraged from watching Inside Llewyn Davies instead, but that’s definitely not the idea…
Now, there’s a real risk here of ‘special little snowflake’ syndrome: the changes in working conditions of recent years are scarcely unique to either music or academia, except insofar as now they’re affecting people with a strong sense of entitlement and the ability to articulate their discontent. But my point here is less about casualisation in general than the specific pressures on people working in ‘creative industries’ – who don’t need to be persuaded to interpret their lives in terms of Boston’s Rock’n’Roll Band because we’re already doing that. Academia has the same deeply embedded myths as popular music of talent and hard work eventually reaping their rewards, of genius and originality gaining recognition – even if we set our sights rather lower when it comes to the hoped-for rewards. We drive ourselves on for the benefit of others because it can actually be fun and rewarding in itself to perform, and because failure to do that risks missing out on the big break, the media opportunity, or the chance meeting with the Dean who’s looking for the Next Big Thing in classical philology.
And we now face the same fear that actually it’s all a trick, that it was always a bit of a long shot but now changes in the industry make it ever less likely that new artists will succeed in establishing a long career. Hype them up, knock them down, bring on the next fresh-faced New Thing. Have a cigar, dear boy. Meanwhile, what we produce seems to be valued ever less; it’s not just that publishers no longer pay out advances to academic authors, increasingly we’re expected to pay – if not necessarily from our own resources – to make our work available free to everyone, because that’s what’s expected.* Of course there are still rewards for the chosen few – which serve to keep everyone else striving for success, by showing that success is possible, disguising how far things have actually changed for almost everyone. The continued career of Taylor Swift doesn’t mean that the music industry is in rude health, and nor does the success of Mary Beard reassure us about academia – indeed, further reflection reveals how far both of them are actually enjoying radically different careers from what would have been the norm a few decades ago. It’s about money, connections and marketing as well as talent- and if the talent is as great as it was with the stars of the past, the structures within which this talent is developed and sold have changed dramatically.
How do we respond? If you spend any time on music blogs, you’ll be familiar with the complaints of would-be musicians that crop up regularly about the basic unfairness of the whole thing, the brilliance of their music (or that of their friends) that isn’t being properly rewarded. There’s a clear wish to turn the clock back to a better time, defined according to their age and stylistic preferences; a return to before Home Taping Killed Music, maybe, or back to the days when making mix tapes was the sign of someone who really cared about music but before all that horrid sampling came along. Yeah, Keep Music Live. That’ll work. In a similar manner, laments over how things were in universities in the 60s or 70s, or even the halcyon days of the 90s, aren’t terribly constructive, beyond the possibility of shaming a few established academics into greater solidarity with current early career people – and even then there are strict limits to what they can do, even if they want to, as employment conditions are set by HR departments and the ever present arguments about finance. The digital music genii isn’t going back into the bottle any time soon; ditto the ‘university as business’ model.
At the risk of appearing to condone or justify these new conditions, I’d like to use the rest of this post to think instead about ways of trying to live with them. The idea is to draw inspiration from music, especially as it’s practised by those who’ve grown up under these new conditions; instead of the ‘gig economy’ mantra of, implicitly, “work yourself into the ground and don’t expect to get paid much if at all, for the chance to get lucky and enjoy a traditional sort of career”, a hard-headed and opportunistic approach to building new sorts of careers. I should stress that my experience of this is all second-hand, and I’m especially grateful to Owain Gwilym, formerly of Trwbador, for the origins of a lot of these ideas; also that this is very much a sketchy work in progress, to distract myself from the ghastliness of Bloody Brexit and various other current developments, so ideas and suggestions welcome…
(1) You’re the product, so you have to make yourself the complete package. Once upon a time, in certain very specific contexts, ‘raw’ talent could find success, but mostly the hits and money (or the permanent positions) went to those with a whole machine behind them, however artfully disguised (hello, Oxbridge!). Today, the machine is reserved for the chosen few (Oxbridge again, the Brit School of classical studies), but – except when it’s a carefully developed act – untutored rawness doesn’t get you very far. You need to take control and realise that having some great ideas isn’t enough, they need to be fully developed and presented. Mastering, graphic design, social media, marketing; you don’t necessarily have to do it all yourself – see below at (5) – but you need to make sure it gets done, and done well.
(2) Know your audience, and target them. It’s difficult if not impossible to appeal to everyone – yes, the big stars manage it, but that’s at least partly if not mostly a consequence rather than a cause of their high media profile – but if you’re too niche, your only hope is to make your limited target audience completely besotted, to the point where they will trample over everyone else to ensure your success. For most of us, it’s necessary to reach out to other constituencies – to become the ancient historian who’s comfortable with the literature crowd, the researcher who can relate to students – but it’s important to keep in mind that too broad an appeal can turn into too bland an appeal, liked by everyone but not enough that they buy your product, and loved by no one. The rise of social media creates the possibility that a niche audience may nevertheless be global and even substantial – but work is still needed on how to make that pay in specific, local terms.
(3) This leads to the issue of Image and how to cultivate it – and the particular problem that academia is as narrow-minded as hard-line punks, Trad Jazz enthusiasts or the early 90s Sub Pop scene in its obsession with ‘authenticity’ and its suspicion of anything that appears to be contrived. Of course anyone with any sense will tailor their self-presentation to the particular situation – but getting ‘caught’, exposing any apparent discrepancy between the cv/interview answer/presentation and the real individual, can be fatal. If you are, for example, a specialist in classical historiography who’s ended up doing a lot more language and literature teaching, you don’t get credit for recognising that you need to present yourself as more of a ‘proper historian’, you get marked down for trying to pretend that you’re something you’re not. Worse, the default setting in academia appears to be landfill indie and the willful suppression of personality: even if the research is the sort of glittery moonstomp 70s glam that sounds as if it was recorded by impossibly beautiful alien cyborgs, interview panels seem to prefer to be told that actually the whole thing is the work of two bearded blokes from Chelmsford called Dave. Anything else is too easily dismissed as pop music, coded as feminine, frivolous and lightweight.
I don’t have a good answer to this one. Insofar as you’re still trying to get onto a traditional career pathway, perhaps the only thing to do is to recognise that it’s all a contrivance, and make it a damned good contrivance; to ‘be yourself’, the last thing you want is actually to be yourself. Outside the interview room, there’s more scope to develop a distinctive image; to become fascinating and various and unpredictable, to be more ourselves and less Ed Sheeran. But it’s still an image, that demands careful cultivation, and most of us don’t get to be Bowie; picking fights about Labour Party politics on Twitter works less well if you’re trying to be the Lana Del Ray of Roman cultural history.
(4) What’s your business model? This may be an uncomfortable question; if not the traditional academic career, then what? Still, let’s try to think through the comparison. For many acts today, selling records is not a major source of income; rather, records become a means of marketing the music, that’s then sold via concert tickets or licensed to advertisers and the media, and/or of marketing the musician, for future opportunities in composition, producing, collaboration etc. Maybe we academics are ahead of the game here, at least insofar as most of us have no expectation of making much or any money from our academic publications, which serve different purposes – but this might suggest ways of being more strategic: integrating our releases with tours and other public appearances, trying to be responsive to changes in the market rather than just ploughing on with our own thing, maybe making a splash with a gimmick like the Wedding Present’s famous 1992 ’12 7″ singles in a year’ campaign. At the least, we could think a bit more about open access, blogs and the like; we should be less afraid of of our ideas escaping onto the internet – look, none of us is Kanye West – and more afraid that hardly anyone will read them. Finally, if we think about diversification – or ‘selling out’, as the purists would call it – we tend to have a very limited set of possibilities in mind: the best-selling ‘trade book’ model and the tv series. But that’s a market which is crowded and very quickly saturated, and involves handing over an awful lot of creative control to reach a mass market. There must be some other possibilities; I wonder about merchandising…
(5) Collaboration! I think this may be the most important point of all. Humanities academics have a tendency, I would suggest, to fetishise the lone genius in the library, doing his own thing quietly until it’s ready for the world – the Nick Drake model. (There’s less focus on the idea of the band, 3-5 people coming together to create something bigger than themselves; more of a science or social science approach, focused on the research group?). This can work for some, but is rather too often associated with isolation, depression and narcissism – and ignores what may be a large number of put-upon session musicians and other supporters. The development of digital music has arguably led to more lone geniuses working away in their bedrooms – but they are also constantly exchanging ideas and working with others thousands of miles away, seizing every opportunity to collaborate with other musicians, video artists, graphic designers etc. In many ways the advent of records credited to Big Star and Trendy Producer with Up’n’Coming Act feat. Several Others, Bloke in Bedroom Remix is reminiscent of jazz in the 50s and 60s, with innumerable groups put together for specific projects: it doesn’t work if everyone gets precious about their own ideas, but it can produce something amazing in the moment. We can do this! The networks of mutual support for ECRs on Twitter can be a model for mutual research activity, so long as we stop thinking of everyone else as The Competition and instead imagine the ways we can work together.
Me, I just write stuff that I enjoy, and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus…
*Yes, in the case of making academic work freely available there is a justification of sorts, namely that public money has already paid for it to be produced, whereas the musicians have to face a general lack of inclination to pay for music simply because everyone now expects it to be free. But this justification doesn’t work for self-funded researchers, who also are excluded from the institutional resources that established academics can draw upon to pay for Open Access fees.