In Defense of Unpaid Internships (from Someone Who Did an Unpaid Internship)

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The following comes from Doug Christman, digital account manager at Ultra Music.  

“I’ve seen a lot of news lately about former interns suing the majors for compensation for their unpaid internships.  My career in music started with an unpaid internship in the summer of 2010 and I’ve worked as a full time employee in the industry since January 2011.  I moved from West Virginia to New York City on 3 weeks notice, postponed my college graduation, interned 40 hours a week, and did every little task I could just to be able to get my foot in the door.

I firmly believe that my internship is the single most important experience that helped me to land a job.

I’ve read the complaint filed against Warner Music Group and put together some of my thoughts under some of the listed “Facts”. I think the lawsuit is a bit ridiculous, but I can only speak based on my own experiences as an unpaid intern for a major label (not at WMG), and also my experience with having my own unpaid interns after becoming a full time employee (again, not at WMG).

Upon information and belief, beginning in or around June 2010, the Defendants employed Plaintiff and members of the putative collective to perform various office tasks, such as answering telephones, making photocopies, making deliveries, creating lists, preparing coffee, getting lunch for paid employees, running personal errands for paid employees, and other similar duties.

A good intern supervisor won’t make you get them coffee or run personal errands. I was very lucky to have one of those good supervisors.  However, if she had asked me to get her coffee, I would have dropped everything to get it.  She would have had coffee ready for her every day going forward without having to ask me.  Need me to run an errand for you?  You got it.  Hungry?  Let me get your lunch so you have it when you’re back from your meeting.  It was all part of building relationships and getting people to know I was reliable.  I would have done anything asked of me as long as it was legal.

Did I answer telephones, make photocopies, make deliveries and create lists?  Absolutely.  You know who else did all of those tasks?  Every single paid employee at the label from the assistants to the department heads. 

Defendants did not provide any compensation to Plaintiff and members of the putative collective for the hours worked.

I’m not sure why there is any confusion on what an “unpaid internship” means.  I applied for what seemed like a hundred internships in the industry and most postings were very clear that compensation wasn’t being offered.  If it wasn’t made clear in the posting, it most certainly would have been pointed out when the label offered the internship.  The compensation here is experience, opportunity, and school credit.  It may not put money in the bank now, but it pays off in the end.

Defendants have benefitted from the work that Plaintiff and members of the putative collective performed.

As an intern, I thought I was doing important work that the label couldn’t live without.  Regardless of how critical the work I was doing at the label actually was, I took that into interviews and said “this is the work I did as an intern. Here is how I helped them and here is how I can apply it to your company.”  That is what an internship is all about.  I got an ego check once I got hired full time and there was much more pressure and much more work.

Defendants would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had Plaintiff and the members of the putative collective not performed work for Defendant.

Labels run lean on staff.  The help interns are providing is nice to have, but we can adjust and live without it if we have to.

Defendants did not provide academic or vocational training to Plaintiff or members of the putative collective.

My internship didn’t have academic or vocational training either.  I had to observe, ask questions and show some interest.  I went into everyone’s office at least twice a day to ask if I could help with anything or ask questions if I was curious about something.  A lot of the times they didn’t have anything for me to do, but when they did I tried to learn why they were asking and how it fit into the big picture.  If I wasn’t working on a project, I was learning about and listening to the artists on the roster, checking out Soundscan and iTunes, and trying to make friends with other interns and employees at the label.  Occasionally, the company I interned for had guest speakers and I would go to as many of them as I could, even if they didn’t apply to my interests.

On the flip side, I’ve had good interns, bad interns and an intern that was escorted out of the building by HR (that’s for another post).  The good interns all asked questions, came in ready to talk about the news of the industry and showed interest in what they were doing.  They asked for more work and I let them be a part of anything I could realistically let them help with.  They knew there were certain things I was going to ask them to do and they started working on them before I asked.  Similarly, the bad interns all shared qualities too.  Many times they would come in without saying “hello,” they put no effort into their work, and they would sit there texting or doing homework.  That’s fine.  If you’re just there to get your school credit, that’s all you’ll get.

Upon information and belief, while working for Defendants, the Plaintiff and members of the putative collective were regularly required to perform work for Defendants without receiving overtime compensation, although they routinely worked in excess of 40 hours a week.

As an unpaid intern, nobody forced me to be there against my will.  Really, the only requirement I had to meet was the requirement set forth by my school in order to receive credit.  Typically it’s a minimum of 100 hours over the course of the semester.  During my internship, I worked 40 hours a week, just like a regular job.  It wasn’t required, but it’s what I did.  If I hadn’t been satisfied with the first 40 hours I was putting in each week, there is no way I would have put in extra hours.

Again, these opinions are only based on my personal experiences as an intern.  Unfortunately, the industry is so small that not all interns can get jobs afterwards.  I realize, and am grateful, that I’m one of the lucky few that was offered employment.  Even if I hadn’t been, the experience offered me skills that could have applied to any industry and gave me realistic expectations of how a company operates.


TL;DR – It sucks that some people didn’t get the experience out of their internship that they expected or hoped for. The music industry is tough and requires a thick skin. A lot of times, we have to do things we don’t want to. That doesn’t change whether you’re an intern, an entry level employee, or a higher position. At least they’ve learned that lesson sooner, rather than later.


If you want to read more of my opinions and thoughts on the music industry and on life, follow me on Twitter.

46 Responses

  1. just some nut

    Agreed. My first experience in the music biz was a nine month unpaid internship. I’ve been working and earning a living in the music biz for over a decade now.

  2. Oscar

    Well written Doug. Couldn’t agree more. I did an unpaid internship for 6 months that landed me a job that i did for the next 2 and a half years which then lead to a big US label offering me a job and paying for my visa and move from the UK… Without the unpaid internship, i wouldn’t have learned so much of the bottom work that helps you become a better manager when you get there.

    It takes a good work ethic and common sense to make the most of an internship. Those who complain, tend to be the lazy and idiotic.

  3. Aye

    Completely and emphatically agree (from experience).

  4. Anonymous

    Paul, I see your point of view – it is great opportunity for many, however mainly for kids from well to do homes.

    My daughter just finished very productive internship at Armani, earlier another one with one of the top designers at NY Fashion Week.
    Very nice, but for great kid pushing thru school without parental support it is impractical impossibility.

    So, my opinion is that employers should look for the best on merit bases and pay at least minimum wage.
    Simple federal law which should also apply to 4 weeks of vacations to all – no matter where and for who they work.

    It is standard across most of Europe (exclude UK and South EU) and was standard in communist Eastern Europe. Engineering student could have party for 3 months from on month of mandatory, summer internship.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      I’m actually not the author, but my name did accidentally get placed in the by: field. Anyway, good points.

  5. Anonymous

    I agree with you in the sense that I worked my ass off at a few internships and eventually landed a job. Luckily my parents were fully supporting me financially, so I was able to work full work weeks. I have zero friends, however, that have parents who are able to do that. Because of that, they can’t work 40 hr unpaid work weeks without starving.

    The main fact that you’re ignoring is that unpaid internships are illegal. While they’re culturally accepted (in most fields, although in law and medicine “interns” do typically get paid), they are illegal under law. That’s it. Therre are certain guidelines that define a legal unpaid internship, and it sounds like Warner Music Group was not adhering to them. The company I work for also does not adhere to them. Basically, I (and the law) think that unpaid internships are a prettier form of slave labor, but clearly as long as their universally accepted, that’s the way it’ll be.

    • Doug Christman

      Comparing an unpaid internship to slave labor is really extreme. Nobody is doing an internship against their will and they are free to stop at any time.

      Most colleges and universities have career development departments that are in charge overseeing the internships their students are participating in. They available as a resource for the students. If at any time any of these interns felt they weren’t getting the experience they were supposed to, or felt that they were being used as free employees, it was their job to go to their schools and talk to them. Their school would have reached out to the company to talk to whoever was overseeing the internships. If things still didn’t get better, the school would have helped them find an alternative internship to relocate to.

      • Deb

        You still haven’t touched on the fact that unpaid internships cut off access to these jobs for those who are not supported by their parents. I have done unpaid internships too, and while I did learn things and added an impressive internship to my CV, I was only able to because of my socio economic background. The entry level jobs that depend on unpaid internships are totally out of reach for someone who isn’t middle class.

        • Doug Christman

          I haven’t touched on the access of unpaid internships based on income because it’s a case by case basis. In my case, I didn’t have access to financial support from my parents, but I was able to take out a student loan. I was able to take out enough in student loans to cover $1k/month rent (living with 3 other guys in a 1 bedroom apartment) plus living expenses for my time in NYC. Financially, it didn’t make sense on paper, but it made the world of a difference afterwards.

  6. The Ghost+Of+Jerry+Garcia

    I did an unpaid internship at a major record company 27 years, and I’ve worked in the music industry ever since … with pay and benefits. My unpaid internship was the BEST move in my life, and that was after a 2 year stint on Wall Street making VERY GOOD $$$, but I was miserable there.

    • The GhostOfJerryGarcia

      Ooops, forgot to proof read, I did an unpaid internship 27 YEARS AGO, phew !

  7. Kevin

    I did an unpaid internship for 9 months putting in over 20 hours a week, while working a full time job to support myself. If you want to make it in this industry, an unpaid internship is is just something you need to do. Luckily it worked out for me and I got a job out of it, but if I hadn’t I would have happily moved on and interned somewhere else because I loved just being around others in the industry. You have to want to work in this industry because sometimes you work for free…

    • Doug Christman

      9 months is a really long internship. I agree. You have to work hard if you want to be in this industry, but it’s worth it. I’ve never heard anyone say they entered the industry because they wanted to make a lot of money. We do it because we love music and want to be a part of it.

  8. George

    I agree with this, I think interns should 100% be paid going forward but I wasn’t. I did 4 unpaid (only food and travel) internships in the music industry before I landed a full-time job. I worked part-time in a restaurant and worked my ass off but I got there in the end. I failed two degrees and had no real qualifications and this was my only way into an industry I loved. It’s tough but if you really want it you will get there somehow whether your paid or not.

  9. Tired of the middle class being eradicated.

    Except that the idea of internship has changed in the last 10 years. It has become a way for companies to ‘inshore’ cheap (meaning free) labor with no expectation of future hiring. There are many companies where executive pay has increased dramatically, etc., many companies are sitting on large reserves of cash, but are firing to further increase the bottom line… they are using contract workers (to avoid having to pay health insurance) or making sure that work the maximum, but no more, to be still considered part-time. There is a mentality now — enabled by a poor economy, with people desparate to work, and the mentality of only profit (not community) matters — that allows or encourages businesses to exploit the intern / unpaid worker… it’s in all industries, from banking to newspapers to art galleries. And very often, they just keep going through new interns, season after season, without ever hiring.

    As someone else mentioned: who can work for free? Someone who has an economic safety net — their parents, or are already wealthy.

    How about the idea of a 3 month max internship period — companies /bosses should be able to decide how hire-worthy you are in that time. Or make it more like an apprenticeship: “The rate of pay for an apprentice is based on a percentage of the wage rate for a certified journeyperson under the employer’s operation. For a first-year apprentice, this wage rate is generally 60% of the journeyperson’s wage rate, and increases as the apprentice progresses through the apprenticeship period until certification is achieved.”

    Tired of the middle class being eradicated.

    • Doug Christman

      I’m from a single family household in WV. I didn’t have financial support from family and I’m definitely not wealthy. After my junior year, I knew I was going to be trying to get a summer internship and saved as much as I could. For the rest, I was able to get a student loan. It wasn’t easy financially, but I figured out a way to make it work.

      I knew what I was getting myself into (as did all the interns that are suing). Nobody goes into the music industry because they think they’re going to make a lot of money.

      • Ben Webster

        Hey Doug,

        I think the biggest problem that no one has addressed yet is that you had to take on debt to make your internship happen. Over the past 30-40 years, American wages have stagnated while the costs of living and student loan interest rates have shot up. To make up for the difference between income and costs of living, Americans have taken on historically unprecedented amounts of debt, over $2 trillion.

        You were able to take on debt and get out of it, but millions of students every year default on their loans. Corporations can declare bankruptcy but students are shit out of luck, they default and can end up practically unemployable. I have mixed feelings on unpaid internships, but if its truly the case that a student has to take on even more debt to make one happen, then we’re in a really bad place.

        • Doug Christman

          I looked at it as an investment in my education. As with any investment, I was taking a risk. Luckily it was a risk that paid off.

          If the interns didn’t think they could financially handle an unpaid internship, they had other options to get into the industry. I know people who got in through being college reps at their college or university, and some that had no music industry background before getting hired. Find a paid internship somewhere, and then figure out how to apply those skills to the music industry. Doing a paid internship in an unrelated industry looks better than complaining and suing over your unpaid internship.

          • dude

            Do you really think that’s a fair “investment” to ask someone in your situation to make though? Even with no experience you had a capable mind and body & you were willing to do whatever Ultra needed you to do, do you not feel like that’s worth SOMETHING in and of itself? Were the tasks you were doing for Ultra completely worthless to them, and if so is that not a reflection on their poor management skills rather than your insufficiency as an employee? Do you believe the less than $1500 a month it would cost them to pay you minimum wage would make or break them, and if you do why should they be allowed to make their savings on the backs of broke college students? Have a little self-respect dude, Im not sayin Ultra shouldve made you rich just for showing up but you’re worth better than putting yourself into debt so Sony can save a few bucks — or at least you should be

          • Doug Christman

            To be clear, my internship wasn’t at Ultra. Ultra is just the label I currently work for.

            To answer the rest of your questions, I wasn’t asked to intern out of the blue. I applied, interviewed, and accepted the internship knowing it was unpaid. Would it have been nice to have been given a stipend, or minimum wage? Sure. But I consciously made a decision to do an unpaid internship and thought there were other longterm benefits. I did my research ahead of time and worked during the school year to save up.

            No, the tasks the department asked me to do weren’t completely worthless to them, but they also weren’t essential to the functioning of the label. For example, I was good at using excel and I was also interested in how certain promotions affected sales. Knowing that, they could say “Marketing did this….is there a way you can show us X, Y, Z?”. If I could, great. If I couldn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world. I was challenged as much as I wanted to be.

            I put my head down and worked hard. It’s been 4 years and I’m still here. The self respect I have for myself from that alone is enough for me.

          • dude

            Thx for the response.

            Maybe “self-respect” isnt the right word to use but I do feel like you’re letting yourself get played here… You said it yourself, you were helping (in some admittedly small way) your employer run their business and make money in exchange for worse than nothing. Why do you think that’s fair? Sounds like you learned some valuable stuff as an intern, but have you stopped learning stuff since you started getting paid? I certainly didn’t, and I don’t feel like there’s a hard line between “working” and “learning” that can be used as a moral justification for not paying some workers anything at all.

            On the point of making a conscious decision to do unpaid work, I did the same thing. I felt at the time that it was unfair I should have to work for nothing, but my college course required internships and I feared I wouldn’t be able to find work without doing them so I did it anyways rather than give up on my dream of working in the music industry. That choice was and is the reality of the business but the business is created by people and there’s no reason people can’t change it for the better.

            I also get that there’s pride to be had in “toughing it out” and overcoming adversity and all that but I think its important to separate that pride from your take on the fairness & ethics of your situation — agreeing to something unfair & to someone else’s benefit just cause you *CAN* do it makes you capable but it also makes you a sucker. I was proud of myself for balancing unpaid internships, paid work and a full college courseload too but again, I thought that it was unfair that I should have to do it, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else cause it totally sucked and I don’t see any reason why we can’t change the circumstances that led me into doing that.

          • Doug Christman

            In my eyes, I was still getting something in exchange for my work as intern – something more valuable to me than monetary compensation. I was getting an experience and an opportunity to get my foot in the door of an industry that I wanted to be in.

            I get that not everyone sees this as fair, and I’m not saying people with different opinions than mine are wrong. I’ve said in previous comments that all other things equal, I would have rather gotten paid. Maybe I am a sucker for doing an unpaid internship, but that’s not how I saw it at the time and it’s still not how I see things. The point of writing this article was to point out that not everyone has a bad experience.

          • dude

            I dont think you were a sucker for doing an internship, I did em too and I think it was well worth it cause like you said its the best (if not only) way to get your foot in the door in the industry.

            Where I DO think you’re letting yourself getting played is in defending the practice, and this was what led me into the whole “self-respect” thing in the first place — you seem convinced that your work as an intern was not valuable enough to merit a small paycheck along with the “experience” and “connections” and all those other intangibles, and you’ve given me no reason to think that’s true. In my book, no person that works 40 hours a week should have to put themselves into debt to eat and put a roof over their heads, especially not while other people are profiting off their work. I guess if you feel differently, Ill leave it there… but please reconsider

  10. also

    To the author: how many of your own interns did you eventually hire?

    • Doug Christman

      I’ve only had a handful of interns, but one got a job at the same label right after graduation. The rest still had 1-2 years of college left. If they have graduated since interning, they have either chosen to go into other industries or have not reached out to ask if positions were open or for a recommendation.

  11. Don't like it? Find a new internship...

    I had 4 unpaid internships totaling 16 months. The experience got me a job right out of college and I’ve been getting paid for working in music for 7 years now.

    One of my internships had me running errands all day. I didn’t feel like it was benefitting me so I quit and found a new internship. The power is in your hands.

  12. Former Intern

    The sad part of these lawsuits is that companies are going to stop having interns. It is actually quite tricky to be compliant with the law. They could pay interns minimum wage and avoid the laws governing internships, but it will be easier and cheaper to just stop the programs.

    There are those who have great experiences as an unpaid intern, those who have poor experiences, and everything in between. This does not change the fact that companies are not complying with State ( and Federal employment laws ( that govern unpaid internships. Just because many young people are willing and able to take a non compliant internship does not change the fact that the companies are in violation of the law and are liable.

    Are these lawsuits being pursued by bitter ex-interns who did not gain full time employment? Maybe but that is really beside the point. The companies are going to lose and lose big, and the side effect will be less internship opportunities.

    • i wonder

      so there’s less internship possibilities. so what. if companies need people, maybe now they’ll have to hire people to do the work. what’s wrong with that?

      if a company is so busy (meaning: it has revenue coming it to make it busy) that it needs laborers, it will pay for it.

      • Former Intern

        I don’t disagree with you re: hiring more people. Internships are not free labor and should not be viewed as such. We’ve done this as an accepted industry practice, but that does not make it right or legal.

        Internships are meant to provide valuable learning in the workplace and there is still no substitute for that when entering the workforce.

        Hopefully companies will do as you suggest and hire and pay for the labor they need. What that should do is also allow them to offer legal and compliant internships. My fear is that this will not be the case and interns will be looked at as a risk.

        • dude

          “We’ve done this as an accepted industry practice, but that does not make it right or legal.”

          Good to know someone other than me is capable of making that distinction, I was getting pretty worried

  13. GlacialConcepts

    The issue with unpaid internships isn’t whether they are beneficial or not, it is whether they are legal and whether they are . Of course you can benefit from an unpaid internship, but does that make it better than a paid internship – No.

    We can use anecdotal evidence all day and never come to a definite conclusion.
    I had an unpaid internship, and I did all the right things and it led to my first position in the Music Industry at that company. This would lead you to believe that unpaid internships are good.

    That summer one of my responsibilities in my first full time job was supervising the 9 ( thats right 9) unpaid interns we had in an office with 4 full time staff. I did my best, but I know they didn’t learn too much. They sat on the floor of our tiny office stuffing envelopes and making copies, and asking for more things to do. This would lead you to say that unpaid internships are bad.

    And all of us have stories about good internships and bad ones, just like we all have stories about good jobs as and bad ones, and good companies and bad ones. It doesn’t prove that unpaid internships are fair or valuable, or for that matter it doesn’t prove that they unfair and not worthwhile either.

    Objectively its a question of whether people should be paid for their work. Everything that the author said above would be true for an internship or entry level position where he was paid as well. He could have made copies and learned and made connections, and also been able to buy lunch without taking out a loan. All companies should have to pay for their labor. If they can’t afford that labor, then they need to look at their business model. It is time for the loophole of unpaid internships to end.

    To the author, All other things being equal would you have rather been paid at your internship ( lets say minimum wage) or do you feel there was some extra benefit to it being unpaid?

    • Doug Christman

      I see what you’re saying. I obviously have my opinion, but my point of writing this wasn’t to say whether or not unpaid internships are or are not legal. The articles I’ve seen only talk about the negatives, but nobody is talking about the benefits of doing an unpaid internship.

      My biggest issue is that the thousands of interns entering the class action lawsuit didn’t have a problem with whether or not their internship was legal until after the fact. They knew the terms going in. Based on the complaint filed, it sounds like the internship wasn’t all the glitz and glamour they expected from the industry and now they feel like they’re entitled to pay to make up for it. If at any point they thought they were being mistreated or what they were involved in was illegal, why didn’t they file a complaint at the company, or even through their college? I mentioned in a previous comment that the individual’s school is there as a resource. They could have helped place them at another company, or worked with the Intern supervisor at the label to make improvements. I’d be interested in knowing if any of them actually filed complaints during their time as an intern.

      And to answer your last question, yes, all other things equal I would have rather been paid. However, I in no way felt I was entitled to it.

      • GlacialConcepts

        I’m not sure how you can have a problem with that. Speaking up after the fact is the most prudent option. From a practical matter if they fought the terms during their interviews or internship, they would be branded troublemakers because we have all accepted this unjust system of unpaid internships as right and normal, and that somehow doing unpaid work is a badge of honor.

        These laws are in place to, to stop companies from taking advantage of the workforce. Are you for kitchen staff or day laborers being paid below minimum wage since they knew the deal going in? Are you for 100 hour weeks in sweatshops because they knew the deal going in? Would you have a problem with those classes of workers fighting back after the fact? And while being an unpaid intern is not nearly as bad as those conditions, it is still not right.

  14. David

    I don’t totally agree. You wouldn’t be able to afford transportation, food, all the little things that add up.
    They should just it “compensation + school credit.

  15. ABP

    My biggest problem with unpaid internships is the fact that educational institutions will bill the student, bills the stupid for each credit earned.

    That being said, I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for my unpaid internship at a major label.

  16. Laurie Jakobsen

    An unpaid internship does not mean you have to live off your parents. I did a number of unpaid internships during summer breaks from college, and I worked other jobs for money. And that meant I worked 7 days a week, all summer. But it also lead to me landing my first paid internship when I was a senior. The reason companies now require college credit is because of the threat of these kinds of lawsuits. As a result, entry level opportunities have become very limited.

  17. bob

    Would the experience really have been any different if you were paid minimum wage though?

  18. also

    so you pay for college. in your PAID course-load, you have to work for free doing an internship for private enterprise. you may even have to take a bank loan to do it (bank makes money on you too)… and at the end of it all, you end up loaded with student debt from your 4 year education, so you have to take any job you can get, as fast as possible.

    you have far less job mobility as a result.

    meanwhile, executive pay has skyrocketed, and major corporations are sitting on (not reinvesting) on cash hoards (see The Economist). the middle class has disappeared, and the top .1 percent has increased their wealth enormously

    and yet there is vilification of unions, who are the only voice for the worker, and a contempt at artists wanting to be paid reasonably if their music is used. enterepreneurship has become increasingly difficult — see many mom and pop businesses around lately at your strip mall? even tech start-ups are funded from the get-go by huge investors…

    why do the vast majority of people vote against their best interests? (against unions, against health care, etc)?

    rant over

  19. internship

    that’s nothing. i too am an upaid intern; i work hundreds and hundreds of hours, for thousands and thousands of people for free. my ’employer’?: illegal downloaders.

    (ps but hey, those streaming companies are stepping up and being responsible — i’m make tons of micropennies off of them)

  20. hippydog

    Quote “My internship didn’t have academic or vocational training either. [snip] If I wasn’t working on a project,[snip] Occasionally, the company I interned for had guest speakers”

    real world projects and guest speakers
    ARE considered vocational training..

    just sayin

    • Doug Christman

      Yeah, I didn’t word that part well. What I meant was there was no formal “today we’re going to sit down and teach you this” type of training. I learned as much as I wanted to put effort into learning.