A Word of Caution on Unpaid Internships…

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.

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(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.

22 Responses

  1. News Reader

    But working for free/next to nothing is a rite of passage in the music industry… we all know that!

    • rikki

      EXCEPT for mobile DJ’s…..Never in 20+ years did I know of any reputable Wedding/Party DJ company who would ask for a free intern…never…they would always get at least $40-50per gig and get fed and maybe a tip for helping and learning….we Wedding DJ’s still have standards

  2. Jeff Robinson

    Paul, read this and let me know what you think:

    • Paul Resnikoff

      That’s an article about the positive benefits and motives for volunteering, which I think is different. I want to volunteer for something like feeding the poor, helping illiteracy, or helping the elderly. That makes me feel better, and probably helps the recipients as well (though not always).

      But interning at a label? Or news publication? That’s not the same thing.

      • Jeff Robinson

        I think it’s how you characterize it. Potential interns that approach me typically want to learn more about what it is I do- most do it to see if they will like this kind of work and want to learn more about it. Money has nothing to do with it. Some have a romantic ideal about wanting to work in the music industry- to a shallow extent. No intern is going to be able to do my job after the internship is finished, but they may some level of better understanding of what I do. Do students get paid in college when they are learning?

        • txa1265

          In the ‘real world’, i.e. normal corporations, interns get paid. I work for a large company currently most famous for a transparent thing named after a monkey that you might be touching right now if reading on a smartphone 😉 … and the kids we grab from college for the summer are all paid very well – and with some two-way evaluation going on. There are some we hire, and some we most certainly would not. It is a fair and reasonable way of doing things. If you are dealing with a for-profit endeavor, then you should be reasonably compensated.

  3. Lady Carcas

    As a person who has amassed a great amount of debt due to grad school, I do agree with you (Paul) that in this day and age there is no reason to work for free anymore. If, however, the company an intern wants to work with does not have budget to pay for interns, the company can frequently register with the local Universities and grad schools and give class credits in exchange for the interns work hours. Essentially the intern is paying their University for the option to get credits in exchange for real life work experience. I would argue that the number one most powerful factor in any internship is networking – a priceless commodity — making connections in the industry you want to work in is worth way more than the 3-4 credits you paid for with your student loan (even if you’ll be paying for them for 30 years with interest). I now frequently work side by side or negotiate with my prior bosses that, ironically, helped give me a start in the industry and they remember my work ethic as an intern and value me as a business partner. Many of the interns I worked with have stayed in the industry and are also in highly influential positions and are well connected. In addition, as a person that now hires new team members in the industry, as a boss you can learn an incredibly amount about a worker by observing the level of passion, consistency in work ethic and their credibility as a person if they bring it on a day to day basis.

    • Jeff Robinson

      “the company can frequently register with the local Universities and grad schools and give class credits in exchange for the interns work hours.

      Not true. The university will need to have direct coursework related to the exact details (job description) of the internship. This is very important. As one who has taught college course while simultaneously working in the industry, I know what was expected by the college. Some colleges have ‘independent study’ credits and those are typically at a 4-year school. One needs to work closely with the Department Head and Dean to make that happen. A 2-year school typically has no credits to give and the Associates programs are already defined, so it’s not possible.

      • Lady Carcas

        Sorry in my one paragraph commentary I did not specify exactly how this process can be accomplished. To your point, I would imagine that every individual may have a different path to succeeding in gaining credits for an internship and that process will vary depending on the school and how the academic intern/externship programs are run and by whom. In my case I did receive credits for both of the music company internships I did in grad school (one each semester). I did have to pitch the companies to the head of my department and get approval and then I had to have the companies register with my school so that future students could opt to use the same companies for their internships if they so desired. When there is a will, there is a way…and the way does not have to be for free.

  4. Worked For Free, And It Paid O

    I worked for free for three consecutive music industry internships… and it paid off tremendously. I now work full time, am building a company, working with top-level artists, and I couldn’t be happier.

    Working for free demonstrates that you want it badly enough and are willing to pay your dues, just like those who came before me; these same people mentored and guided me.

    I was working three part-time jobs, going to school full-time, commuting ridiculous hours, played in a band, and still interned for free. I was driven not by money, but the need to show my desire and passion.

    I made sure that I was showing – not telling – my superiors, “Hey, I’d do this for free because I love it so much and deserve to be here… with you, among you.” I picked up invaluable skills, made and fostered key relationships, and ultimately proved that I belong in a game that only a select few are worthy of playing.

    And I never asked for a dime…

    • Jeff Robinson

      You sound every one of the guys I’ve met in the Music Industry. Kudos to you for sticking it out, it sounds like your hard work is paying off!

  5. b

    #4 seems really critical. I would be interested in more writing on this. Any recommendations?

  6. Caroline from Radar

    We always pay for work done for our company. It’s ethical and a contribution to making the world into a place I like.

    But just as important, I don’t want to be beholden to someone who is working for me. I expect high quality, thoughtful, reliable work and want to feel free to insist upon that.

    In my mind, paying someone for their work means we have entered into a fair contract and I am free to end the contract if they don’t deliver.

  7. beckster

    with unpaid internships you have to weigh out the time invested and the anticipated return. It depends on the arrangement. I interned at a recording studio and recieved not only a lot of training but also I was able to use the studio when they weren’t busy to work on my own projects for free. So you have to weigh out the benefit / investment.

    • Sarah

      I’m glad someone brought this up. The reality is that regardless of whether or not unpaid internships are “fair,” most of them are completely illegal based on the type of work interns are doing. I did one unpaid internship with an artist management company during my undergrad. I received credit through my university, which got them around the legality issue but several other interns were not receiving credit. And don’t get me started on the idea of PAYING to do an internship. Never again.

      It was a small company with little plan for growth and it was evident after the first week that we were there so they didn’t have to pay a full-time employee. I don’t know of a single intern that ultimately benefitted from working there and they rarely, if ever, gave us opportunities to network. This was a perfectly reputable company and they were capable of at least paying us minimum wage but chose not to. I will never take an unpaid internship again unless I know upfront that I will be doing meaningful work that will help me get a job. Maybe I’ve missed out on some better internships but being able to live without debt is more important to me, and if I don’t value my time why should I expect someone else to?

  8. Sister of labor lawyer

    despite it being common pracitce, its illegal to hire unpaid interns in ca.

  9. Caroline from Radar

    By the way, back when I started my career, at a music venue, I worked for free. Then I started a union with the DJ and negotiated for 5 of us to get a weekly wage…

    I stayed there for a long time and ended up running the programme.

    Don’t know whether that’s a salutory tale or a warning to never employ me 🙂

  10. Caroline from Radar

    By the way, back when I started my career, at a music venue, I worked for free. Then I started a union with the DJ and negotiated for 5 of us to get a weekly wage…

    I stayed there for a long time and ended up running the programme.

    Don’t know whether that’s a salutory tale or a warning to never employ me 🙂

  11. Shachar Oren

    Paul,Back when I was a college intern in the mid-90s, I learned a lot in the course of four un-paid internships. Short, un-paid, I knew the value I got out of them in industry knowledge, expertise, and networking.Today, at Neurotic Media, we have a very proactive FREE internship program – every semester we have 3-6 interns that spend a couple of days a week here each, not even full days necessarily. Being an intern (and especially a free intern) is a choice they make, first and foremost.Our challange and responsibility is to drive value for our interns. We try to do so via careful planning and communication, understanding and managing expectations and driving towards the goals that each intern articulates for us in the begining of their internship as knowldge-base and experience objectives. We have hired out of our program multiple times over the years. As a matter of fact, our VP of Operations started with us as an intern several years back. And we’ve employed over half a dozen interns over the years i.e. provided part or full time paid positions after their internship was over because we appreciated their seriousness and skills and had a need at the time. In Q4, we hired one of our 2012 interns as a full time employee. And while we’re not a label, and while I believe you’re mainly trying to convery in your article that interns should have second thoughts about sectors of the industry that may be on the decline, I would encourage interns to consider each opportunity for its merit, because there are still solid record companies out there that can offer them a lot too – depending, of course, on what they’re driving towards. The first thing an intern must do is define what it is they are attempting to get out of their internship. Each situation is different and unique. And internships, even free ones, do still offer strong value to both parties as long as the right expectations are aligned on both sides.

  12. Maddie

    As recent grad (2010), who has an incrediable amount of debt, and interned unpaid in the music business in and out of college, I believe that it’s the best way to get in to the industry. Yeah it sucked, and yeah I got myself into more debt while I was interning, however I now have a steady gig at a label and I learned a heck of a lot more during my internship than I did while attending school. If it’s something someone really wants, they’ll do whatever the have to, to get their foot in the door.

    All of my coworkers, we were all interns. We all struggled at the beginning but it was worth it.