A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a former intern. Mid-way through the conversation she said, “You know, I’m glad I interned for you in college. You told me I was stupid & made it very clear why I was stupid.” Today she works at a high profile artist management firm & is a day to day manager for a lot of major artists you might know.
Today I read a lot of articles about this ruling against Fox Searchlight Pictures for using unpaid interns in roles that people feel should only allowed for paid employees. I can’t speak to any other industry, but in the entertainment industry it’s my belief that unpaid internships should not only be a prerequisite, but that the people getting those internships should be grateful that companies are giving them an opportunity to learn from skilled employees in the hopes they can actually learn their trade.
Now a lot of people might argue with me about this and that’s fine. I don’t give a shit about a lot of people. Here’s what I know.
When I was 18 years old, I made a decision that no matter how hard I had to work or the cost, I was going to learn how to manage bands. While a lot of my other friends were joining fraternities/sororities, clubs on campus, or getting jobs as bartenders or waiters, I decided I was going to spend the next 3 years of my life working for free for anyone and everyone in the southeast who would help teach me how this whole whacky business of music works. I interned for artist managers, booking agents, small record companies, talent buyers for venues & festivals - I believe I had over 14 internships in college. Some of the companies were bigger and had nice offices, while some of them literally operated out of their basements. Now I’m not saying every experience was ideal. I worked for a lot of people with substance abuse problems, a few people that sold cocaine on the side, hell one of my bosses even peed on himself at a client’s show because he was so wasted. But on the flip side, I also worked for some unbelievable entrepreneurs: people who had outstanding work ethic, intense passion & a respect for the opportunity to spend their days earning a living via the business of music. Every opportunity (and I use that word in particular, because every experience was an opportunity) taught me more and more about the business. It taught me how to conduct myself, how to build trust with clients, how to keep an attentive eye to detail, how to be a man of my word, and how to always add value to any situation I was in. I was a sponge and would do anything anyone ever asked of me. I swept a lot of floors, I made a lot of copies, I packed a lot of boxes & I marked up a lot of posters. When I did something wrong I got scolded, if I ever gave an attitude I got yelled at, and if I did the right thing… well that’s just what I was supposed to do… no one was there to pat me on the back and tell me I was a special little butterfly. Through that I learned a lot about myself & gained a great deal of respect for the business I wanted to break into.
The summer before my senior year, I received an opportunity to move to Chicago for the summer for an unpaid internship at the company I currently work at. I got a loan, moved into the shittiest apartment in what I soon learned to be the prodomently gay neighborhood in town, and for 4 months I worked from 8 AM until 8 PM for 5 days a week for no money. The money I did have basically covered my rent & utilities, and left me a small allotment to buy bread, hot dogs, paper plates, cheese & Dr. Pepper (I love Dr. Pepper) every week. And so became my summer diet of eating cheese toast and hot dogs off re-used paper plates (see I’ve always been super healthy) and drinking Dr. Pepper out of the container. I wasn’t going to waste my money going out and getting drunk every night, because well I couldn’t afford to. This was my one chance to work at the company that had inspired me to work in music in the first place, and I wanted to be around it every second of every day. When my internship was over, I didn’t get a job offer, I just went back and finished my last year of school.
Those experiences helped prepare me to start my own business during my senior year and taught me how to build a relationship with bands who then trusted me with their careers. Those experiences showed me that when you are presented with a good opportunity you take it no matter the money - which eventually led me to becoming a touring crew member for a few years, and then getting an offer to return to Aware as an employee. I also credit my internship experiences for teaching me the proper way to conduct myself so that I made the most of every opportunity & could climb the professional ladder throughout my career.
I’ve been working in music for over 13 years now, and have been priviledged to have interns of my own. One of the things I’m most proud of in my career is that around 78% of the kids that have interned for me, currently have jobs in the entertainment industry. Some of them work at booking agencies, some at record labels, some tour, some work at management firms, & a few own their own businesses. All of those kids have made sacrifices to take an opportunity to learn from me & my peers, and use it as a stepping stone to the next step of their careers. I can be a very difficult person to work for. I’m a perfectionist and I’m quite outspoken. Ok let’s be honest - I yell a lot, I point out their flaws, I don’t tolerate a half ass work ethic, & I push them to see how much they want it. But the ones that “get it” they learn a hell of a lot, and I keep in touch with them. I’ve helped most of them get their first jobs, I give them advice or just listen when they need to vent. I consider them friends and they have my respect. And I think that’s how it should be, especially given the current generation of kids graduating college may be the most entitled generation ever with the highest expectations of what they should make financially post grad. So it’s good to kick a little dirt in their face while they’re still young enough to learn from it.
So when I read articles written by people who don’t understand how this business works and then have the balls to say that internships take advantage of the people working for free, it touches a nerve. An internship is what you make of it. If you take it seriously and you work your ass off, it will help you when you get that first entry level job to keep it. And well, if you don’t take it seriously - there’s the fucking door walk out anytime.
One of my old bosses once told me, “the only reason anyone should ever pay you money is if you provide value to their business and in turn can help them make more money.” Think about that the next time you complain about not getting paid for your internship. Are you really at a point where someone can take your skills and make money off them? Again I said think about it, don’t whine about it to me, because I don’t care. Now get the broom and sweep the damn floor.