Academia as Music Industry

It occurs to me that academia is being ‘disrupted’ (as the digerati like to say) in the same way that the music industry once was. As open access, the Internet, and DIY publishing opportunities proliferate, the old system of prestige and recognition is breaking down. How today can we judge that our assistant professors are deserving of tenure? The traditional answer is that they have been signed to a major label: they have published with big-name journals and big-name presses. With the brand of these labels established and the business model of publishing clear, one can see why people would evaluate in these terms.

But what happens when mp3 proliferate, multiple indie labels spring up, and the center falls out of genres like, for instance, hip hop, as they fragment into multiple different audiences and communities? Revenues drop, for one thing, and the publishing industry attempts to litigate or legislate away the new-found freedom that these communities have, attempting to make sharing illegal so that they can continue to profit from the scarcity they are architecting into what was formerly an open system.

For music listeners, rather than publishers, an issue of ‘importance’ arises — how can you tell that the assistant musician in your department is ‘important’ and deserves tenure in an era when platinum hits are getting rarer and rarer? What counts as importance is itself shifting. I can see a number of ways out of this dilemma but whatever route departments chose will require a choice. And standing up and deciding for yourself how to handle something as important as the professional credentialing of the professoriate is a big challenge which requires a lot of confidence in one’s own academic judgement. Which means, of course, that it is the sort of decision that the vast majority of us will hope is made by someone else! But at the end of the day, that is the sort of decision will have to be made.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

5 thoughts on “Academia as Music Industry

  1. I don’t believe your music industry history. Surely if academia follows the music industry path then the overall size of the market might shrink but there will be one big multinational company that handles more of the distribution than any of its more geographically limited predecessors.

  2. I like this post and the analogy with the music industry, which is spot on! The question remains: how to keep standards and credentials system alive (no doubt it’s necessary in order to maintain academic credibility) without making it so difficult for emerging scholars to establish themselves in the academe, both online and offline? As a graduate student I often have to cite ‘prominent intellectuals’ to ‘validate’ my essays (research) but the truth is, I find so much inspiration outside of the ridged academic criteria and I’d like to be able to incorporate that without undermining the value of my work. An idea, perhaps a bit naïve in its raw form, just came to my mind. Why not make a distinction between offline and online/independent publishing and give it some academic credit through yearly audits by more experienced sources etc.? I’m not saying that online journals or blogs would have to acquiesce and report to major academic journals but that their only be revised and supported. In this way such sites would have enough esteem for the newcomers to care to build up something important on their own.

  3. Rex:

    “For music listeners, rather than publishers, an issue of ‘importance’ arises — how can you tell that the assistant musician in your department is ‘important’ and deserves tenure in an era when platinum hits are getting rarer and rarer? What counts as importance is itself shifting.”

    It will be interesting to see who finds ways to rethink and deal with these changes, and who sticks with the old model of measuring importance, success, etc. Seems to me that some of the basic metrics are going to have to change. Maybe tenure committees will start looking at other things–like service, teaching, different kinds of outreach and publications–and find renewed value in them.

    There are many of ways thinking about and measuring what matters for the discipline, and what we want to build our programs around. The heavy focus on *publishing in certain places* as THE measure has never really made much sense to me. Anthropology is (or should be) about more than just talking to ourselves in our own journals (opinion, of course). And that’s basically what we are doing when we focus all of our energies on publishing in certain select journals that nobody but anthropologists read. The way things work right now (at least as I understand it), the whole system effectively makes everyone concentrate on these internal conversations, because other activities don’t really “count” in tenure evaluation and all of that. So it’s a big, endless loop that everyone gets trapped in.

    And the view of this whole system from the graduate student perspective isn’t exactly pretty. Especially considering Kerim’s point above. That’s why I think it’s important not to simply accept the “way things are” as some unchangeable hegemonic reality. That’s also why I like the comparison with music. Things change. Innovation happens. Despite “powerful players,” and serious structural problems, people are able to rethink things and come up with creative solutions. Sometimes this kind of innovation takes place in very but productive ways. I see no reason why anthropology can’t change and find creative ways out of the current impasse. Some (like the folks at Hau) are already leading the way.

  4. The impact on musicians’ career trajectories has been a move away from stardom, signing to a major label etc, and towards touring and direct sales – basically a good thing for most musicians. What’s the analogy for academics’ careers? Because I fear it might have something to do with the increasing rate of adjunctification at the moment… What are the other options?

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