How uncompensated labour is no longer taken for granted, and how those exploited are fighting back.
The entertainment industry is an “it’s-who-you-know” business, perhaps more so than any other business, and for at least half a century it has meant companies have taken advantage of an endless stream of people willing to work for free in order to get their foot on the ladder. But this summer has brought a “revolt of the unpaid interns” in the US, with Fox Searchlight, Warner Music, Atlantic Records and, last week, Sony and Columbia all being hit with class-action lawsuits.
In a lawsuit resembling those filed against the other record labels, Britt’ni Fields claims that her work day at Columbia was spent answering phones, making copies, sending mail and “other similar duties” that “did not provide academic or vocational training”, adding that the label “would have hired additional employees or required staff to work additional hours” if she and other unpaid interns had not been hired.
Could this be a rebellion spreading to the UK? How widespread are unpaid internships among British labels? Warner Music UK confirms that they pay all their interns. A Sony UK source said: “We provide several different types of work experience, including long-term paid internships.”
A Beggars Group source said that the label group uses interns for specific purposes: “Such roles in and for a company like us are a fantastic foot on the career ladder, and a great way to learn – most of our entry level positions these days are filled by ex-interns.” The group pays interns’ expenses.
The problem with unpaid internships is not just that they put a financial strain on the interns – it also creates a somewhat homogenised pool of applicants, by excluding those that may be the most talented but can’t afford to work for six months to a year unpaid.
Universal Music UK spokesman Selina Webb agrees, and says this was one of the main reasons the company launched its paid internship scheme in 2009. “Before then we offered unpaid work experience, but we weren’t particularly comfortable with it. Longer periods of work experience were really only an option for people whose parents could afford to support them – of course that narrowed the talent pool considerably. Now we have applications, and interns, from a wide range of backgrounds.”
The company, which was singled out as a “fantastic leader in the field [of paid internships]” by Hazel Blears in the House of Commons earlier this summer, now takes on about 25 new interns a year. The internships cover every part of its business from A&R, marketing, promotions and digital through to legal, finance and sales. They last 12 months and interns are paid the London living wage.
“There’s a really good conversion rate of interns becoming permanent employees – there are around 60 full-time employees in the business who started via the intern scheme – and even if that doesn’t happen immediately with Universal Music, most of them go on to find roles within the industry,” says Webb.
Paddy McLean got an internship with the company sales team after writing dozens of speculative letters to music companies and getting just one call back – from the Universal Music HR department. He had no music experience (he had been working as a postman to fund some travelling after university) but a huge amount of passion about working in the business, which was enough to get him noticed. After his 12-month internship, he was almost immediately asked back for a full-time job as a marketing assistant with UMTV, where he has been for six months.
“I realised after university that I desperately wanted to work in music, but there’s passion and then there’s practicality – no way could I have done the work experience with Universal Music without being paid,” he says. “Being paid for that first year was a huge lifeline. I love it here, the atmosphere in the building is always electric.”
Adam Soffe got a full-time job as an assistant with Universal Music UK’s synch team in May after doing a year’s internship. “Universal Music gave me a thorough grounding in how the industry worked – I wasn’t just packing CDs all day,” says Soffe. “And the most important part is that I was actually getting paid, a revelation in the creative industries for an intern.”
Chimene Mohammed is a marketing assistant at Island Records who also got a full-time job this spring after doing a year’s internship. She says she was “thrown into the deep end” from the moment she arrived, which was “a great learning experience”, adding that a large number of the staff at Island, including people higher up, all started off as interns and worked their way up through the company.
Island Records president Darcus Beese started out as an intern at the label. “They call it work experience and internship now but back then it was a tea boy,” he told the Guardian last year. “You made tea, you collected people’s dry cleaning. Car clamping had just been introduced, so I used to have to go and sit in their cars, wait for the car to be de-clamped and then drive back to the office.”
The landmark ruling in the Fox Searchlight case could spell problems for people trying to break into the music industry in the future, says a US record label source. The federal judge ruled in favour of the interns who claimed the production company violated overtime and minimum wage laws.
The source claims that the judge interpreted US internship guidelines to be that all chores undertaken by the intern would have to be “educational”, that if the company derives any benefit from the interns they needed to pay them. This has made many US companies reconsider if they should have an internship scheme at all, as it could leave them wide open to lawsuits.
If such stringent guidelines were applied in the UK, Beese would possibly not have been in the position he is today, considering the chores he was asked to do during his internship. UK law, however, states that interns are only entitled to the national minimum wage if they’re classed as workers. Such a classification would include a contract and numerous other requirements that don’t apply to the majority of internships.
Yet, despite not being legally required to do so, British record labels would benefit by paying their interns. The industry has long been criticised for being largely run by white, middle-class men. A workforce made up of people from a broader range of backgrounds would surely make it understand, cater to, and communicate better with its customers.