A long time ago in a music industry far, far away, there existed the ‘unpaid internship’. And it mostly made sense for the participants involved. But it doesn’t make much sense anymore, for either side, at least in the music industry. And that’s coming from someone who’s been an unpaid intern, and hired unpaid interns as recently as last year.
But last year, I also shifted exclusively towards paid, and I don’t think the successful outcome was an accident. Now, I’m reviewing resumes for a new, paid intern, and trying to figure out the pay scale that makes sense.
Why the change of heart?
(1) There’s something called slavery.
Unfortunately, I realized this in retrospect. But any unpaid internship runs the risk of being highly exploitative in the current industry and economic environment. Because the fact is this: the employer knows far more than the intern about the industry and prospects for future employment, and in most cases, there isn’t a clear path towards paid employment for the unpaid intern. More often than not, the unpaid internship won’t lead to something concrete, at least directly.
(2) This isn’t your father’s music industry.
The implicit relationship of the unpaid internship was once obvious. Working for free in a sector (like recordings, publishing, law, etc.) opened endless opportunities to (a) learn the craft and, perhaps more importantly, (b) network with anyone and everyone involved in the business.
It also made it ten times more likely that you’d get hired into one of these companies, simply because everyone knew one another. The potential employer could pick up the phone, and ask about that intern now applying for a gig.
(3) This isn’t your father’s economy.
Like I said, I was an unpaid intern, and I paid for it. I drained the goodwill of family friends by taking residence in their attic, staying well beyond my welcome. I dined on executive buffet leftovers, but most importantly, I wasn’t working a good, paying gig back home as a bike messenger.
These are all substantial costs for a teenager, but I also got a job at a label right out of school. I had more than one internship on my resume, and those guys vouched for me. Which was exactly the plan.
When I started at the label that hired me (Sony Music Entertainment), I had a bullpen of my own interns, all unpaid. In fact, the HR department fed them to me. These people were taking long train rides, paying for their own parking, and giving up menial jobs that paid money.
But we were all working with the same implicit understandings. Many of them actually got gigs at either that label, or another one. This time, I vouched for them (again, exactly as they had planned).
That was the late 90s.
(4) The work suffers.
How engaged, vibrant, and diligent can a free worker be these days?
Back in the day, we smoked pot in our dorms, lollygagged on declaring a major, and generally delayed reality as long as possible. But the college students I meet today are stressed with huge loan commitments, an extremely uncertain and punishing job environment, and frankly, the prospect of ‘going straight to the NBA’ (ie, skipping out on school to get a paid gig).
Yes, students in America drop out of school because they can’t afford it anymore.
All of which means the sacrifice for an unpaid internship is far, far greater these days. And, not only are unpaid interns spending every spare minute looking for something paid, the minute a paid opportunity comes up, the smart intern is out of there.
And you can’t blame them.