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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.


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