Q&A with Max Brzezinski Ph.D. ’07, Author & Former Marketing Director, Carolina Soul Records
In this interview with the Duke Graduate School, Max Brzezinski, who received his Ph.D. in English from Duke in 2007, shares how he landed his position as marketing director at Durham’s Carolina Soul Records.
This interview is republished from the Duke Graduate School’s Alumni Profile Series.
Before coming to Duke, Max Brzezinski completed an undergraduate degree in English from Grinnell College. He received his Ph.D. in English from Duke University in 2007. From 2013 to April 2021, he was the Marketing Director for Carolina Soul Records. In the time since the original publication of this interview in 2018, Brzezinski published Vinyl Age: A Guide To Record Collecting Now (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2020) and left Carolina Soul to write his next book.
What does your job at Carolina Soul entail, and do you enjoy it?
I love my job. It actually gives me a lot of what I was looking for in my Ph.D. I have a book deal now to write about record collecting for Carolina Soul, called Vinyl Age: A Guide to Record Collecting Now. It’s a guide to vinyl, post-internet. We’re sitting on a lot of data, so we’re in a position to do things like show the life cycle of a record, what formats and genres of records are going to which states or countries—a lot of economic insights in addition to the more humanistic or cultural ones you’d expect. My Ph.D allowed me to do that.
Even though I was in no way planning to write a book about record collecting, I’m using a lot of the theory that I learned in school in the book I’m writing now. My chapter on the economics of record collecting is informed by Marxist theory, for example, and in general what I read in grad school still forms a matrix for insight and analysis. But this book will have a larger audience than an academic book would have, and there’s a little more money involved. It’s a subject I haven’t gotten tired of and a passion I can express in a popular format, even while I’m also making use of theoretical models.
Apart from the book, I handle marketing and social media for the store and the online business. I write the emails, including text on the history and context of different musical genres and records. I help plan the parties, I have some control over the way the shop looks, and I host the Carolina Soul radio show on NTS in London. A lot of my job has been to present the human side of our work, which sustains our business.
What I really love is being around likeminded people. I can honestly say I like everyone I work with—about 20 people. We all love music, we’re all united in a sort of guild-like way around the love of a shared object, which harkens back to what I thought the academy was going to be. But we’re not competing for jobs or funding. Instead we focus on thinking about what makes certain records good, others bad, or why one might be popular among a particular niche set of collectors.
What was your dissertation about?
It was about the corporatization of modernist literature in England. The interconnection between business and art within capitalism has always interested me, particularly with regard to artistic experimentation. Where many literary critics have discussed modernism in relation to the state, I contested that modernist authors were more preoccupied with the rise of the modern corporation, and that this is what many of them explored in their experimental writing. So what looks like a liberal attack against the functions of the state is actually a rear guard celebration of capitalism.
How did you decide to leave the academic world?
My first job out of Duke was a visiting professorship at Wake Forest University for four years. That was great except for two things. First, I was commuting from Durham the whole time, and second, while I loved working with my colleagues there as a teacher, I also missed research. Eventually my wife and I decided to have a baby, and since she had a great job in public health we made the decision to stay in Durham. For me this meant figuring out how to do the kind of research I wanted in a new way since I was no longer willing to move for an R1 job.
How did you get your job at Carolina Soul?
Well, I’ve always been a music person, since I was a teenager, and music and books seemed to go hand-in-hand. I went to a liberal arts school where that was encouraged. That was always the joint interest I had. I started radio DJing in college, and then at WXDU at Duke I was the program director for a while during my Ph.D. Even when I was working at Wake University, I was still DJing.
While I was at Duke one of my best friends, Nate, who also has a Ph.D from Duke (in mechanical engineering), put me in touch with someone who worked at WXYC at UNC in Chapel Hill, and so I got to know more and more members of the community of musicians and DJs in the area. That group of friends gave me a way to spend time with people who cared about what I cared about but who didn’t share my school-related stress. Eventually I met Jason Perlmutter at Carolina Soul through Nate, and after completing my Ph.D. I decided to start working part-time at Carolina Soul. The business kept growing and I started creating a more specialized role for myself managing all the communications, media, and outreach for the store.
Do you have any advice for current grad students?
I have two pieces of advice. First, don’t wait for someone to tell you what you’re passionate about or interested in. You don’t need recognition from your department to make something you’re doing with your time worthwhile. The job of your professors is to help you focus specifically on their own areas of expertise, and that’s important, but that means that they can’t be a mirror to help you define who you are. Of course, you should work as hard as you can in your program, but never forget that the version of you that’s produced by your department is a kind of tactical fiction designed for the particular purpose of that work—it’s not the whole of who you are.
Even after all the spare time I spent on music throughout my Ph.D., I recall a conversation with the DGS in which she asked me why grad students “don’t like music anymore.” The fact is that my time in radio simply hadn’t come up because that’s not the part of myself that was directly engaged in the research I was doing for my dissertation. There’s an important disconnect between the institution’s conception of you and who you really are. Maintain a connection with your own reasons for doing academic work, why you’re there in the first place.
Second, try to keep up a healthy social life that includes people who are not academics. Apart from talking to other grad students, lots of us are more comfortable with books and independent research than with making new friends, but you need friendships outside the academy that help you stay in touch with those other parts of yourself. No one cared about my dissertation at the radio station, not even other grad students in other departments, and that gave me the space to take real breaks from worrying about it. The best thing is to do is have a hobby or creative or political practice outside of school, because that will connect you to other people and help keep the stress of graduate school in context.
Phillip Stillman is a Ph.D. candidate in English and an intern in the Office of Graduate Student Affairs and is preparing to defend his dissertation on biology and British fiction in the nineteenth century. He studies the work done by novelists to manage the contraction between Enlightenment notions of personhood and the modern science of human biology, arguing that in the nineteenth century, it fell to fiction to imagine the human being as both autonomous individual and a biological organism at once.