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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published April 2012

Internships are a long-established means of breaking into the recording industry — but where is the line between learning and being exploited?

There are many similarities between the worlds of fashion and music, and the two overlap regularly and, often, profitably. However, some similarities are less desirable than others...

A lawsuit was filed in New York in February, by a young woman who worked as many as 55 hours a week as an unpaid intern at fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar. She accuses the magazine's parent company, Hearst Corp, of violating federal and state wage and hour laws by not paying her, even though she often worked there the equivalent of a full-time job. The plaintiff's attorneys are also asking that the case be made a class action, on behalf of what they contend are hundreds of unpaid interns at other Hearst publications, including Cosmopolitan and Seventeen.

Internships are integral to the assimilation process in many industries, and interns have been part of the fabric of the recording studio business for decades. As music recording became a viable career choice in the 1970s, aspiring engineers would gladly toil for hours and days on end for little more than the experience and the chance to be part of the creation of music, with the understanding that after they soaked up enough knowledge they would get a chance at proper employment there. As music production became increasingly complex in the 1980s and '90s, with a recording industry still blithely unaware of the term 'downloading', the need for intern help grew, to increase the depth of the technical talent pool. That was complemented nicely by the proliferation of audio academies, whose students were eager to fill those unpaid positions as part of their education and as a chance to get a foot in the door.

0There has always been some grumbling about the exploitation of interns at recording studios. But while records were selling, new studios being built and opportunities seemingly being minted on a regular basis, most dissent was drowned out by ever-more tracks of guitars and drums.

Then came 2001, the year that the record industry hit a reversal of fortune that it has yet to recover from. The number and scale of conventional studios — the commercial facilities that are the main portal for interns — dwindled, while personal studios proliferated, but they tended to be smaller and had less use for interns. It's a classic supply-and-demand scenario: more potential interns than ever vying for a declining number of slots. Like the fashion-school undergraduates described in The Devil Wears Prada, is the studio business being set up for possibly wider abuses of free labour followed by a greater potential for litigation?

That's not as speculative a question as it might seem. The same law firm that took the fashion-mag intern's case, Outten & Golden, last September filed a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures, accusing them of violating wage laws by using unpaid interns to work on Black Swan and other films. (Fox have denied any wrongdoing and have essentially blamed it on the production company.) The connection to the entertainment industry is clear.

Historically, studios have largely respected the boundaries of intern propriety, but abuse is not unheard of. As one long-time large-facility owner in New York told me, "There are those people who do it, but then, they're the same ones who've always done it.” I checked with SPARS, the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services, and that organisation has no guidelines in place on the subject. All there is, really, is US law, which requires that unpaid internships must serve primarily as educational training experiences; that an unpaid intern cannot replace an existing employee; and that the employer cannot profit directly from the work of the intern. The audio schools, the single largest conduit for interns nationally, do take steps to vet internship environments. SAE, for example, sends out a questionnaire that asks prospective intern users to list the types of training that interns will be exposed to, and includes the six criteria developed by the US Department of Labor for differentiating between an employee entitled to wages and a trainee who may be unpaid. However, while the questionnaire stipulates that interns may not spend more than 50 percent of their time working (the rest, putatively, must be spent learning), it doesn't limit the number of hours a student can be asked to be on site. This underscores the fact that once an intern is removed from the supervision of a school or training facility, there's little that educators can do other than monitor progress via periodic reports. And if there is abuse of an intern's labour, they might be reluctant to complain. After all, there are dozens who would take the position if he or she doesn't want it. Worse, the overall employment picture in the US remains pretty grim, and even an unpaid position that holds out a glimmer of hope for future employment can be tolerated now more than it once might have been.

This is an industry that's been pretty good at policing itself in this regard over the last few decades. It's not easy to quantify an exact quid pro quo when working 24 hours straight with fantastic musicians and talented engineers. Benefit, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What puts the issue front and centre are the recent internship lawsuits. While liability in these kinds of cases is murky at best, defending yourself in litigation-happy America can be costly. And if any schools are turning out more graduates than the audio academies are, it's law schools, about a quarter of whose recent graduates are now working as temps. There is nothing more dangerous than a bored lawyer, so beware.