The barrier for entry into the music industry isn’t glamorous even for those behind the curtain. As unsigned talent attempts to find their footing in the industry with an impressive tune, an attractive video, or a notable press kit, aspiring music/media executives face the same struggle behind the scenes.
For up and coming producers, directors, managers, writers, and others who drive the culture, the investment of time, creativity, and resources in boosting an artists career often go uncompensated.
While doing it for the love can pan out in big dividends for some, the economics (or lack thereof) of taking on an unpaid internship can compromise the long term financial success of many who are looking for an opportunity to do creative work.
This discussion surrounding unpaid internships was recently pushed to the limelight after Toronto freelance writer, Wanna Thompson, took to her social media to offer her honest and genuine of Nicki Minaj’s music trajectory
What was supposed to continue as a music conversation to engage with fans, writers, and critics turned into something grander when Minaj caught wind of the tweet and sent a series of disgruntled #Queen like direct messages to the writer.
Nicki Minaj exhibited #Queen behaviour when she hopped in my DMs and insulted me numerous times over an innocent music opinion while her fans continue to harass me and DM me death threats. This is NOT okay. pic.twitter.com/bJI9TVvJV7
— Wanna (@WannasWorld) July 1, 2018
Subsequently, Thompson was terminated from her internship for allegedly violating the NDA with KarenCivil.com, the hip hop music and lifestyle blog famed by media personality Karen Civil – who also consults artists with social media marketing and branding.
Controversy aside, the unintended effect of Wanna’s tweet shed light on the politics and economics of internships when #BlackTwitter pivoted the conversation into a debate of paid vs. unpaid internships.
Alex dropped some cold, hard facts about that unpaid intern life.
I’m not a fan of unpaid internships but I am a product of em so ??♂️
I’m just lucky I didn’t get caught doing the shit I had to do to survive during my 2.5 years of internships.
— alex tumay (@alextumay) July 5, 2018
While others characterized the expectation for paid internships as the epitome of millennial entitlement
What in the lazy millineal bullshit is this? If u wanna make money while u do ur internships, get a job. I worked 2 internships (in NYC) and still worked at Finish Line so I could afford to move around and eat. Internships r designed to give u experience not pay ur bills. https://t.co/FOM8ZLdQaM
— keikei, do u love me?! (@keiopensdoors) July 5, 2018
Some pointed out the contradiction of those feel entitled to compensation for their creative contributions while willingly exploiting others.
I see a lot of y’all have opinions about unpaid internships and how they exploit people. I need you to keep that same energy when you’re asking freelancers to write for free or pay them per click or $10 per post. Exploitation doesn’t end after graduation.
— The Freelance Beat (@Freelance_Beat) July 7, 2018
Wherever you stand in this paid vs. unpaid internship debate, there is no question that internships are valuable for students to get a sneak peek into the inner workings of the industry they want to be part of. Eager, bright-eyed students seek educational experience, the ability to network with well-established music/media executives, build a reputable work ethic, and the possibility of landing their dream job; but with the rising cost of tuition and living expenses, when does the industry rise up and evolve to compensate those working for free?
Most entertainment and music industry internships that are required for college credit are located in New York or Los Angeles, cities that are notoriously expensive to live in.
This presents a huge barrier for unpaid interns who aren’t supported by their parents or any other benefactor that can assist with the cost of living.
Why shouldn’t interns be compensated? The media and entertainment industry is a $703M market, which grossly utilizes unpaid labor to cut operational cost, but the majority of the business model, especially within the music sector, is built off unpaid experience.
The twisted part about unpaid internships is that the vast majority of the organizations & non-profits that use unpaid intern labor have more than sizeable enough budgets to pay their interns. They just cry poverty & lay on the guilt when the interns try to advocate for pay.
— Muqing M. Zhang (@muqingmzhang) July 7, 2018
Historically, from Puff Daddy (who eventually got paid), Yandy Smith to notable A&Rs like Steve Carless, Manager of Nipsey Hussle, and Kei, manager of 21 Savage, all worked through the ranks to to achieve their ideal level of success, but as times change the industry should properly groom and invest in the talent managing the music.
Internships serve a valuable purpose, but the financial load shouldn’t fall solely on the individual looking to break into the industry. Access shouldn’t be just a matter of extreme work ethic and nepotism – but a worthy investment to be shared with major companies who have the budget to properly pay.
Folks asking for the end of unpaid internships aren’t asking for handouts. The reality is the systems that oppress marginalized folks show up at media companies. This “It separates the weak from the strong.” is outdated. The most privileged make it through those internships .
— Clarissa Brooks (@ClarissaMBrooks) July 5, 2018
Now this is not to say that there is no place for unpaid internships. There are levels to this internship game. If you have an opportunity to work for an individual/small boutique company that doesn’t have the necessary budget to pay interns, it may be a worthy sacrifice to work unpaid.
Lawrence Hudson, a Newhouse graduate who is entering his first year of law school this fall at Howard University told PopEd,
“If you’re working for somebody manager or agent, someone who is self-made and they themselves are trying to work their way up, paid (internships) isn’t the best way. They might not be able to offer you money. However, the trade-off can be beneficial because you’ve earned those opportunities, you’ve earned those genuine connections, and you’ve earned the Rolodex of a music executive.”
“[However], every time you walk into a multimedia corporation or any other company that has a budget, even with college credit, they should have the money to give for internships,” Hudson states.
The argument that paid internships reeks of entitlement doesn’t account for the fact that hustlers are in every industry and the best candidates are always going to rise to the top, especially within hip hop. The genre is built off that mentality, so naturally that will permeate into other parts of the business.
Hudson, who participated in a paid internship program with BET, convey how paid opportunities allow people to establish their worth and land better job placements in the future. Free labor within in the industry banks off young kids who are hungry and ignorant on how to navigate within corporate spaces. There is no need for extreme struggle when companies have the means to pay their workers. The goal is to understand when someone is using you for their personal agenda and when someone is genuinely helping you succeed.
You companies leaning on unpaid workers to do the lion’s share of labor to keep your company afloat…not only is it illegal, it shows in your product. Pay your interns.
— Kazeem Famuyide (@RealLifeKaz) July 5, 2018
We speak about mentors and mentorships, but what most people need is sponsorships. Paid internships should fall within the latter category where companies are going to invest in the professional development of their interns. These companies use their social capital and credibility to advocate on the behalf the interns to advance their careers. With monetary skin in the game, companies have to develop and ensure their internship programs are competitive, comprehensive and worthwhile.
The moral of the story in this paid vs. unpaid internship argument is essentially this: If we set up a system where only the most privileged are able to gain exposure and position within the entertainment industry, we ultimately dilute the media stream and limit the diversity of content by excluding the most organically talented taste makers from taking a seat at the table. When that happens, everyone looses.
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