Unpaid Internships: Do They Make Sense Anymore?

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You know the drill: fetch some coffee, answer the phones, kiss some butt, and hope it all goes somewhere.

It’s the unpaid internship, a well-worn rite of passage in the music industry.  But does this make sense anymore, especially with so many established companies struggling and cutting back?  And remember: there’s less guarantee than ever that you’ll get a gig, so can you afford that risk?

That was a huge question over the weekend at a conference held by the Music & Entertainment Industry Educators Association (MEIEA) in Los Angeles, one heavily attended by soon-to-be-graduating college students.

Naturally, the question came up, and most executives supported the free internship as a perfect and often necessary shoe-in.  In fact, most felt it was critical.  Keith Hatschek, currently director of Music Management at University of the Pacific, said internships easily gave candidates a clear edge – and oftentimes made the hands-down difference.  “And if you have a letter of recommendation, then you’re way ahead of the competition,” Hatschek relayed.  “I was an employer for 23 years, and I never hired someone because they had a 4.0 grade point.”

Others successfully climbed from the intern ranks themselves, and strongly backed the idea.  “I took an internship with ASCAP after I graduated, for no credit and no money,” relayed Alisha Davis, currently Associate Membership Representative for Film & TV at the company.  “I was an outstanding intern, and they did everything they could to get me a job and get me hired.  So I moved out [to LA] on Sunday, and started working on Monday.”

Sounds like an easy formula, but it is really that simple anymore?  For example, is your target company hiring when you need them to be hiring?  Will they still be around in a few years?  Or, can you parlay the internship into a real gig somewhere else when it matters, especially in a shrinking industry?

Maybe these questions are easier in California, where employers are required by law to either pay an employee or give college credit.  So there’s less downside, but others face more difficult questions related to their financial situations and opportunity costs.  Yet even in situations where there’s no money, no credit, and difficult prospects, most interns can still walk away with some experience, a recommendation or two, and a better working knowledge of the business.  But remember: this is still a heavy investment of time and money that assumes future rewards, and a decision worth weighing carefully.

Report by Paul Resnikoff, publisher, reporting from Los Angeles.