Two weeks ago, I wrote a quick post on my personal blog about Amanda Palmer’s refusal to pay musicians on an upcoming tour, and was amazed by the sheer magnitude of interest.
A groundswell of popular pressure eventually convinced to Palmer to reverse her position, but while the controversy raged, that little offhand blog post of mine was read by as many as 5,000 people each day.
Critically-acclaimed cellist Zoe Keating sent me a tweet about the debate, offering two simple words to help explain the scale of the response: “Subtext: Recession.”
I think that’s a big part of it. But what we might have missed in our conversation is that an unfortunate shift in values around work and compensation may have helped create the recession that we now find ourselves climbing out of. Behind our nation’s dismal employment figures, there’s a larger conversation about labor bubbling up around us, ready to boil over and spill onto the center stage.
Large-scale debates about labor have traditionally centered around manual work and government contracts, but as our economy becomes increasingly information-based, a nascent new labor movement seems to be brewing among the creative class.
In the past year, at least three high-profile lawsuits have been levied against big media companies including Hearst publishing and Fox Searchlight. They are centered around the practice of profitable organizations using unpaid interns to do menial tasks as a way to circumvent paying minimum wage.
These developments have become news enough that Time magazine has called them “the beginning of the end of the unpaid internship.”
The Case Against the Unpaid Internship
It’s fairly easy to make an ethical and economic case against our newfound reliance on unpaid internships. Arguments that they can depress wages, slow hiring and put lower-income students and grads at a great disadvantage are hard ones to refute.
On top of that, the official guidelines from the US Department of Labor also make it clear that unpaid internships at for-profit companies are in fact illegal in the vast majority of cases, and one recent survey of opinions from The Atlantic led to the conclusion that unpaid internships are “Bad for Students, Bad for Workers, and Bad for Society.”
I’d add that unpaid internships may be bad for one more thing: Business. And ultimately, that may help to end the practice for good. When for-profit companies seek short-term payroll savings by relying on unpaid interns, they are effectively forcing would-be innovators to become the competition.
Music and journalism, the two fields where I make my living, have become renowned for their over-reliance on unpaid interns. And I believe that it’s no coincidence these fields were two of the hardest-hit in our recent recession.
It’s easy to cite new technology as the force which devalued these industries so dramatically, but the reality is that so much of this devaluation began internally.
The overly-simple analysis which has become so dominant, ignores the fact that these industries have traditionally been quick to capitalize on new consumer trends – but that they somehow slipped-up catastrophically when it came to the most significant, most important, most obviously-potent technological advances in our history as a species: that of personal computing and the world wide web.
So why were magazines, newspapers, record labels and music studios so unable to adapt to changing technology in the 2000s when new technology had almost always been a boon to these businesses in the past?
The one thing that was truly different this time around is that the big media companies had essentially stopped investing in substantial pools of young workers. They instead turned to milking them for free labor for brief periods of time, before turning them out on the street in favor of new recruits, also desperate for the chance to work for free for a brief stay.
This, I believe, has created an institutional brain-drain and youth exodus, leading to the slowing of innovation that doomed so many traditional music and media companies. It happened at the music studios, it happened at the record labels, and it happened in print.
“When In Doubt, Hire the Bastards.” (Or it might just come back to bite you.)
Any smart businessperson knows that if you come across someone in your field who is young, smart, ambitious, entrepreneurial, and a potential threat, the best thing you can do is to hire them.
This turns a threat into an asset, rewards intelligence and hard work, keeps your company sharp, agile and relevant, and leads to a better product for the end customer.
In the past, recording studios did just that. They routinely hired “gophers” – minimum-wage employees who would answer phones, run errands and clean up. These low-wage workers became the pool from which assistants and engineers might be drawn.
The same was once true at newspapers, which employed young “copy aides” who took charge of menial tasks and honed their writing and proofreading skills while earning a humble, but living wage.
In the the 2000s however, and far before their decline, recording studios and newspapers began to increasingly jump on the free-labor bandwagon. They would now recruit young unpaid interns and hold onto them for a few weeks or few months, unlike the gophers and copy aides who might have stayed on securely for a few years before moving up or moving on.
The New York Times reports that the use of internships essentially tripled between 1992 and 2008, when our great recession began (although they failed to make that connection themselves.) As many as half of those internships are thought to be unpaid, a figure that they place in the hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Although this unpaid labor might have increased the bottom line by a small fraction in the short run, in the final tally, this misguided strategy helped to turn what were once the music and publishing companies’ greatest assets into their gravest threats.
Here’s an interesting fact to consider: The rise in unpaid labor at recording studios was echoed by another rise – That of the inexpensive, independent home recordist.
Likewise, the rise of unpaid labor at newspapers was mirrored by the rise of the blogosphere.
And finally, the rise of unpaid labor at record labels was followed by a veritable explosion in new avenues of music distribution – New avenues that left those labels in the dust while a handful of young, tech-savvy music-lovers earned many millions of dollars.
The fact is, when profitable businesses refuse to find a place in their ranks for smart, entrepreneurial young people, those young people are left with no other choice but to become the competition.
And I’m living proof of that.
I Am Unable To Work For You For Free, But I Can Steal Your Business.
Normally, home recording studios should be no more dangerous to professional recording studios than home pianos are to professional pianists. If anything, interest in the one naturally drives interest in the other.
But when I was in my early twenties, graduating near the top of my class from an exclusive and then-rare 4-year studio technology program, I unwittingly became one of the very things that helped doom so many studio owners. Through no planning of my own, I found myself forced to become the alternative.
Like the vast majority of Americans, I come from a humble working family. I was surprised to find that when I carpet-bombed New York’s recording studios with resumes, I got a number of responses, but each of them said they would love to have me, provided I was willing to work for free, and for an indefinite period of time.
I was raised by union school teachers with an uncompromising work ethic, and when I discovered that my salary offers were all “zero,” I did what any working boy with bills to pay would do: I got to work doing something that would earn me a living. And what I knew how to do best was record.
Why work for free to scrub someone’s toilets, I thought, when I could just as easily work for free for myself doing more meaningful and instructive work? And why work for myself for free, my mind went on, when so many musicians were still willing to pay?
I already had four years of studio experience under my belt when I graduated with a Bachelor’s in music in 2005. So I hung up my shingle and soon began making good money producing great-sounding recordings for bands at prices that were about a third of what they’d be at an already-established studio. I could even take my rig to bands’ own rehearsal spaces and homes.
This was back when recorded music was still generating a healthy revenue, and you could get paid well to do that kind of thing – provided you were really good at it and easy to get along with. It wasn’t long after graduation that I tacked a check for $850 for a single day’s work on my refrigerator. I was 25 years old.
Meanwhile on the web, the kinds of people who might have been content to spend their early years as copy aides at major publications instead found themselves contributing to the rise of the blogosphere.
They learned how to monetize, and how to write headlines better than their print counterparts thanks to real-time feedback. And in the process, they found themselves getting web-users accustomed to reading high-quality, up-to-the-minute news and analysis free-of-charge.
A similar thing happened at the record labels.
The majors, through the same short-sighted strategy, no doubt fueled interest in illegal file-sharing, but also innovation. Instead of taking on promising, music-obsessed young minds and keeping them close at hand by paying an entry-level living wage while implementing their best ideas, they left them to strike out on their own.
Hiring young people earns you loyalty among them and among their peers. When you work in a field like music, forgetting that is suicide. That explains a lot about why record labels are still playing catch-up when it comes to music streaming, digital distribution and online regulation, instead of innovating on those fronts.
Good Ethics is Good Business.
The ethical case against unpaid internships is almost too easy to make, so I’d rather not harp on it here. Suffice it to say that:
A) It’s illegal in almost all cases where for-profit companies are concerned,
B) It’s an exploitative abuse of power that stacks all the bargaining chips on the side of labor demand,
C) Just because an arrangement is voluntary, doesn’t stop it from being corrosive to the economy (think sub-prime lending), and,
D) If we want to live in a nation that values economic mobility, where hard work can lead to a better future than we were born into, then an unpaid internship is antithetical to that goal, as it gives further advantages to those who are born into wealth, and penalizes those who are not.
But putting that aside for a moment, I’m always struck by the fact that what’s right — and what’s good for business and the economy as a whole — are so often the same thing.
We can look forward to a future wherein, facing desperation, we undercut one another and tear each other down. Or, we can choose to live in a society where we value one another, and move ourselves forward by investing in talent and helping to build one another up.
Given the choice, I will always decide on the latter. It’s not just good ethics – It’s good for the economy and the long-term bottom line. Ask a former newspaper reporter. He might just tell you about it on his blog.