Over the last six months I’ve spoken at numerous music industry conferences and have met many young early career music industry professionals all seeking my advice. The ‘always’ question that arises is the one of how to get started in the music industry, and it normally goes along the lines of “I’ll do absolutely anything to get a job in the music industry”, a quote that I’ve come to loath. While sitting on various music industry conference panels I appear to be the sole proud pariah who is totally against unpaid internships. Nothing seems to invoke such passionate arguments as when unpaid internships appear on the agenda. To state my position, so that I am absolutely 100% clear, I am totally against unpaid internships. Over the 34 years that I’ve worked in the music industry I’ve never NOT paid an intern at any of the companies that I’ve owned or managed. Let me explain why.
There aren’t many pieces of copy more depressing to read than job advertisements for unpaid internships. Like the ads for other menial jobs, they use absurd and insulting hyperbole in inverse proportion to the quality of the position, as though reading the words ‘superstar’, ‘legend’ or ‘rockstar’ numerous times will make them forget how boring the duties will actually be. These adverts normally state that they will receive an amazing experience to kick-start their career; sorry but this is complete and utter rubbish. Compounding this misery is the knowledge that whom-ever drafted the advertisement was probably an intern.
I’ve met lots of young Australians trying to start and build their music industry careers. Piles of these demining, insipid and often patronizing job ads confront them every time they go looking for work on the various web sites. Most companies seeking interns attempt to frame themselves as a service for junior workers, as though the company is providing experience out of the goodness of their own hearts, like an act of charity or benevolence. This sort of sophistry neatly inverts the actual benefactor-beneficiary relationship: for-profit companies are attempting to save money on entry level positions by extracting unpaid labor from a population of vulnerable young people, many of whom are unaware that these arrangements are often illegal.
The Fair Work Ombudsman’s fact sheet is reasonably clear on what constitutes a legal internship. Usually these are provided as part of an educational course, don’t last very long, and don’t involve the intern performing the duties of a paid employee. However, an increasing number of companies are advertising for internships that involve long hours and real work. Recently formed internships advocacy body Interns Australia found in their National Internships Survey that 65% of respondents reported internships lasting longer than three months, and 36% reported working five days per week. Three months of Australian minimum wage work is valued at $7,466.40, which ends up looking like a real bargain if you’re a business who used to offer junior jobs instead of unpaid positions. Some companies even use internships all year round and employ multiple interns at once, which can represent a sizeable saving on their wages bill, all very bad news for graduates hoping to earn real human money for doing real human work.
There are a number of factors contributing to this internship plague, including the normalization of unpaid work among students and recent graduates. ‘Experience or Exploitation?’ a report by University of Adelaide researchers for The Fair Work Commission, notes that the term “intern” has crept into the Australian lexicon as a recent Americanism. It lends an air of legitimacy to a dodgy practice. Saying “I’m doing a three month internship” sounds a lot less exploitative than “my employer has decided not to pay me for three months work“. The Fair Work Commission also found that internships are extremely common in media, entertainment and design, all sectors in transition (or decline, depending on your outlook) that nonetheless receive a glut of labor from popular university programs. Qualified and desperate young people are walking dollar signs to a cash-strapped industry, and it would behoove universities to endow their graduates with knowledge of their legal entitlements before turfing them out of the nest into a wilderness of financial precocity and un-employment or under-employment. Indeed some unscrupulous higher education institutions use internships to inflate their figures when they discuss students working in their given field after graduation. This is wrong; if they are not getting paid then they are not technically working, so stop claiming they are.
Apart from the intern population, the people who suffer most from this arrangement are those who can’t afford to work for free. Candidates for unpaid roles necessarily self-select along economic lines: those who need paid work to survive won’t apply for internships. This process is deeply anti-meritocratic, and entrenches social privilege at the bottom rung of many industries. How are you supposed to get a foot in the door as a poor person, when doing so requires you to have the same level of financial resources that entry-level jobs used to provide? The practice is also bad for industries, in that they are possibly excluding their best and brightest potential candidates from entering. Businesses committed to fair hiring practices and the promotion of talent regardless of its source should stand opposed to unpaid internships.
This extension of student poverty post-graduation represents another difficulty imposed on young people trying to start their adult lives. Between soaring rents, impossible house prices, HECS debt, high youth unemployment and the expectation that early career work will be performed for free, Generation-Y is living out a very real set of inequalities with which their parents never had to contend with. The ridiculous rhetoric around internships as ‘opportunities’ rather than exploitation is symptomatic of the lines fed via the media (the biggest users of interns) by politicians and employers about young people’s supposed entitlement. This is a pervasive environment of classic hegemony, and it stops us from being able to recognize and articulate the raw deal that interns are been handed. It’s time interns were given the tools to stand up for themselves and demand the basic fairness that everybody should receive in the workplace. The future of the music industry and its very survival rests in the hands of the upcoming generation of youth, young professionals, and developing leaders.
These early career music industry professionals need the highest quality mentoring and to be paid a minimum wage too, just like medical doctors and nurses. Would a hospital use a surgical intern to work for free, of course they wouldn’t? Our industry contributes much to society in the way of financial income and in the cultural enrichment of people’s lives, it’s much to fragile and important not to pay people to work in it. The word amateur comes from the French word meaning ‘lover of’. The opposite of an amateur is a professional, someone who does it for money. The basic difference in today’s common usage is that the professional does what they do for money while the amateur does it for the love of doing it. This usually implies that the professional makes money because they adhere to recognized standards, while the amateur stands outside the accepted standards and probably doesn’t deserve to get paid. The music industry should be about very high standards, not standardization.
Rosemary Owens, a University of Adelaide Law School Professor, stated that the practice of using young people and not paying them was common in many industries. “It entrenches disadvantage, because only someone who is well off can afford to work for nothing“. The first push against unpaid internships started in Europe, a trend that soon spread. In the United States, news media organizations including Hearst Magazines, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Gawker, Cond Nast and Warner Music are facing lawsuits over unpaid internships. In Europe, where more than one in five young people in the labor market cannot find a job, governments have passed legislation on internships. In France, for example, youth unemployment hit 23.2% after the 2008 financial crisis. Under the Hollande socialist government employers must offer interns payment after two months of sweat equity.
In Australia, short, fully supervised unpaid work trials to test a job applicant’s skill are legal, as are college-backed, short-term student placements that allow students to accrue course credits for a term of work. At the various higher education institutions I’ve been involved with I’ve overseen the work related learning unit. Work simulation for a limited time defined period in order to produce a portfolio of professional practice reflection is a great tool. In essence this is paid work, the student receives credit for what they do and hard work is rewarded by a higher grade. Even unpaid internships are legal. A benefit test, showing whether the intern or the employer gains the most from the work completed, is one factor that determines whether a worker should be paid. “If a business or organization benefits from engaging the person, it is more likely the person is an employee and should be paid” according to the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Office. Joellen Riley, the Dean of the University of Sydney Law School, said relying on unpaid workers “is a creeping problem. It is gaining bigger and bigger purchase. And as soon as you go down that path of not paying, when do you ever pay? You end up creating real labor market problems“.
So where is the starting point, probably the minimum wage of $18 per hour? If your business can’t afford this then you probably shouldn’t be in business or the word “business” shouldn’t be applied to your endeavor. As I stated earlier I’ve always paid interns that have worked for me. I often empowered my interns by asking them to price a job I have for them e.g. “how much is it going to cost me for you to do . . . .?”. I instill a level of professionalism and accountability in them and encourage them to take professional pride in the work they do from our initial meeting. By paying an intern you can demand certain behaviors, through the monetization of a set task you can install a minimum level of quality or service and introduce some Key Performance Indicators. Paying interns is good for a business and its good for interns. By not paying interns businesses are open to the accusations that they don’t care for the longevity of this industry that they love some much.