Live Free and Work Hard
Unpaid apprenticeship has become the norm among applicants looking to break into competitive media fields. Here’s a guide to navigating the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The deafening commotion surrounding unpaid internships has only increased throughout the economy’s downturn, coinciding with the rise of free labor contributed by ambitious young people. Some voices are now deeming unpaid internships illegal, while others make claims more along the lines of immoral: Though many offer reward in the form of academic credit, often unpaid interns perform tasks that traditionally have been completed by paid workers, obviating the need for companies to hire entry-level employees.
But it cannot be denied—unpaid internships have become expected among applicants looking to break into competitive media fields such as the music, film, and gaming. By presenting the insight of past and present interns and intern coordinators in the entertainment industry, we bring you a guide to good, the bad, and the ugly of unpaid internships.
Hitting the jackpot
Susan Varghese, a senior at the State University of New York’s Purchase campus, was hesitant to take her fourth unpaid internship in the entertainment business. But like many interns, she was swayed by the company’s big name, MTV Networks, and envisioned the opportunities that might lie ahead. Never did she expect what happened to her a few weeks ago, as she was finishing her current internship at MTV’s New York office.
“My supervisor told me she wanted me to head this special awareness project about the MTV Movie Awards,” Varghese said. “Several days later, my coordinator pulled three of us interns into a room and said, ‘We want to bring you to the MTV Movie Awards.’ I almost fainted! I didn’t think MTV would ever fly interns anywhere.”
Varghese traveled to Los Angeles earlier this month to work the red carpet at the MTV Movie Awards. The experience topped off an internship about which Varghese has nothing but positive things to say. Unlike some entertainment corporations, Varghese says that she believes MTV’s unpaid internship program to be set up in a way that is both beneficial and educational, two aspects that interns should always inquire about before accepting unpaid positions.
“Because MTV literally has hundreds of interns, they have to have a structured program,” Varghese said. “They bring in speakers and hold forums for their interns, which cover topics like résumé tips. They have a résumé book, and they keep interns’ résumés on file in case positions open up. They definitely give you a lot of opportunities to make your way in and teach you their tricks when you’re there.”
Varghese feels as though she is “living the dream” when she goes to her internship at MTV, despite it being unpaid and offering no travel assistance. She recognizes, of course, that taking numerous unpaid internships may not be financially feasible or desirable for some attempting to break into the entertainment industry. “For me, it took three unpaid internships to come out of my shell. My earlier internships were learning experiences, and through them I’ve stopped second-guessing myself. I feel ready for a real job now.”
Making the leap
Part of the draw of accepting unpaid internships is the hope that they will lead to more prestigious, paid internships, or even transition into full-time jobs. Successful entertainment companies such as the Walt Disney Corporation, LucasArts, 20th Century Fox, and EA Games offer their interns reasonable compensation.
However, undergrads studying more “glamorous” aspects of the competitive entertainment industry may discover that unpaid internships are the norm, even at reputable companies that can afford to pay their interns. Recent internship listings at Warner Bros. Records revealed that less desirable internships within their finance department are paid, while internships within the A&R and marketing departments are not.
According to Amy Houck, a 2007 alumna of Full Sail’s Recording Arts program and the founder of 440 Artist Alignment, major record labels and top entertainment companies couldn’t run without their unpaid interns. Before founding 440, a boutique firm that specializes in online marketing and design for top artists including Rihanna and the Killers, Houck worked at Universal Music Group as an Internet outreach coordinator. “I started as an intern at Universal, but it’s difficult to get noticed in that big of an environment,” Houck said. “Maybe one intern out of 25 would be hired.”
However, big companies may not be the way to go for interns looking to get the most out of their internships. “You’re right there in the middle of the action at a small company,” Houck said. “If I have a meeting, my interns have a meeting. If you’re going to spend three months at a company, then why not spend it with the vice president learning everything she knows?”
440 Artist Alignment just might be an anomaly; the two-year-old company has hired all four of its unpaid interns to full-time positions. While not every company has the capital to do the same, Houck urges unpaid interns to pay close attention to their employers’ energy and the depth of financial information shared in order to understand the long-term opportunities available with the company.
While small companies may be the best way to learn firsthand, start-ups are notorious, not to mention unapologetic, for using unpaid interns as free labor. One such company, a game design start-up called Nonstop Ninjas, recently flooded job boards with its unpaid internship listing. In regards to job responsibilities, the listing read: “Look, you’ll be an intern, this means you’ll basically do whatever we think of for you to do. That’s not meant in a ‘we’ll treat you like scum’ sort of way, it’s just how it works.” Interns, beware: If an employer cannot clearly explain job duties and expectations, there might be a reason why. On the other hand, a seemingly slapdash employer may be ripe for a detail-oriented self-starter to come in and kick some ass.
The cautionary tale
Sarah Schaaf, a 2008 graduate of Ohio University, was expecting to jump-start her career in audio production when she took an unpaid internship with the well-established production company Goldcrest Films. After completing three months of menial work in Goldcrest’s New York postproduction office, she wasn’t expecting to be told not to bother showing up for her last day on the job.
“My goal throughout the internship was to sit in on as many recording sessions as possible, and it was never a problem,” Schaaf said. “The day before my last day, Lou Reed came in to do vocal overdubs for an animated film, and I asked him if I could sit in. He said no, but it was no big deal until one of the Goldcrest employees made me feel so awful for asking. Later, when I delivered Lou Reed a food tray, he said he would take it later. I waited for a while to deliver the tray, but my workday was over and I had to leave. I got a message on my way home, saying that Goldcrest was really disappointed in how I acted around Lou. They asked me not to come back for my last day and said to never ask for a recommendation from them.”
Schaaf left New York soon after the Lou Reed debacle and returned to Ohio to pursue veterinary sciences. She has not looked back since. “My Goldcrest internship was probably the number one factor in switching career fields,” Schaaf said. “Being with people in the industry who are not willing to help you—I didn’t want to deal with that.”
In retrospect, Schaaf admits that she could have seen the warning signs and asked smarter questions before accepting the internship. “Nobody at Goldcrest was an intern before they were hired,” Schaaf said. Her take on the company: “They manipulate interns to do minimum wage work for free, with no hope of offering them a job or career advice. It was the structure of the company, and I should have seen that all along.”
In addition to asking how many of the company’s staffers started as interns before accepting an internship, it’s smart to take stock of how many entry-level positions exist within the company. If there aren’t very many, if any at all, it might be a telltale sign that interns are responsible for administrative duties typically covered by receptionists and assistants.
In Schaaf’s case, her employer went one step further. In addition to low-level duties like hosing off the office’s sidewalk and making coffee and cake, she was asked to take on temp duties for no pay. “Because they did like me, they’d ask me to do a job that someone was actually hired to do,” Schaaf said. “For a week I did video library duties. The woman who usually worked the job was salaried, but I had to do it without getting paid. I felt like I couldn’t say no because it was a volatile environment.”
This behavior may be illegal soon enough, which could help interns to avoid situations such as Schaaf’s. According to an April 2010 New York Times article, the federal Labor Department is following the lead of states like California by investigating whether unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws. According to the Times article, “Federal regulators say that receiving college credit does not necessarily free companies from paying interns, especially when the internship involves little training and mainly benefits the employer.”
If unpaid interns find themselves in situations that seem exploitive, they should not be afraid to seek out their rights. But if the internship is a mutually beneficial exchange (free labor for free training and networking opportunities), the equation is working as it should. The key is to keep those eyes open and ask questions.
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