I guess many graduates or current students of the creative industries know the situation: you send out a massive amount of intern applications to interesting companies of which over 90% are being ignored, and a lot of the remaining applications end up in an unexplained rejection. In the end, those internship positions may be occupied by friends and family members of the company's employees or stay empty because nobody in the company has the ambition and time to supervise the potentially incompetent young candidates. A lack of commitment of the employees often results in a delegation of easy tasks to the interns that drastically reduces the learning outcomes and useful, educating experiences that its maintaining should be the primary objective of both the intern candidates and the internship providers.
The question arises if it makes more sense to skip the search for unpaid interns as student or graduate, to directly start your professional career with a paid entry-level employment and to work one's way to the top. Now people would argue that this is even harder without a years-long "career" as an intern hopping from company to company. I would respond that you do not need to start at your favourite company immediately after graduation and if you as a person, your skill set and grown "portfolio" is convincing, you also can come back to the creative industries later, probably as "career jumper" in a positive manner. "If they do not want you right now, they probably want you as a grown-up with an outstanding professional profile." That is my motto. Let us see why I hold such opinion and keep in mind that it is only possible if you are focused on creating an outstanding professional profile yourself, no matter where are you working.
The Disappointment Called "Intern"
Let's say you achieved to get an internship position, the risk is remarkably high that you end up, e.g. at a music label working on Excel sheets day and night or employees exploit you like a coffee/tea boy, doing work a) nobody in the company wants to do and b) has nothing in common with your initial objective and does not further you personally. Being placed somewhere in a dark cubby in front of Excel sheets or delivering coffee cups to employees' desks cannot be described as the consistently mentioned benefit "professional networking" of internships.
The companies in a music metropolis like London are logically flooded with intern requests and applications because every year a new generation of local music business, arts management and media management students are seeking for their entrance in the industry to launch their professional careers. Admittedly, cities like London offer an astonishing variety of non-profit organisations and commercial companies in the creative sector, but even this supply does not meet the needs of the masses of active students and graduates. However, receiving tons of profiles of intern candidates, the companies are in the happy position of being able to choose the best candidate among the applicants that can be used as an inexpensive source of labour.
A story of a graduate, who spent his time completing unpaid internships at all possible major labels and claimed - after almost three years - a part-time temporary paid position at one of those, is far from ideal and shows the "slow build" situation of the music industry. But even that profile is rare and by industry standards considered as a successful one. Most of the internships in the music industry do not transition into paid employment afterwards. There is no guarantee for graduates to enter their professional field and it is just hoping to get hired somewhere. The truth is that most interns do not find employment in the music industry.
In summer 2013, a court ruling deemed Fox Searchlight in violation of labour laws because the company did not pay two interns on the 2010 film set Black Swan. The interns, trying to learn more about film production were asked to make photocopies and fetching coffee, a job that was meant for a paid employee on the set. The court said that the students worked to the immediate advantage of the employer that therefore requires compensation. Similar lawsuits took place in 2013 against Atlantic Records, Bad Boy Entertainment, NBCUniversal amongst others.
When I have a look at the generation of my parents where a lot of coffee/tea boys and girls made it up to the director, vice-president or president level - some of them even without a metres-long register of academic records and certificates as people expect from us nowadays - we can be confident that times have changed. There was a time when interns were being trained for a job within the company and worked side-by-side with someone with skills and knowledge that should be transferred to the new generation. Exactly this setting is needed in the pro audio field where it is absolutely hard to learn and grow by reading books.
If A is not working, continue with B!
Interns should offer you a set of potential benefits like the improvement of soft skills, career clarification and an enhanced chance of securing employment after graduation. Also, you should have the possibility to learn more about the professional environment and to meet and network with people. If this is not included in your internship offer or if you are not able to catch an offer after investing a lot of effort and time in it, better skip this step and continue with something else!
From my point of view, it should not be impossible for you to directly start your professional career with an entry-level position if you have the right, convincing demeanour and profile instead of wasting years in intern positions with the unsatisfying outcome of being temporarily employed in a part-time job with a bad salary. Somewhere out there, there is a future boss that believes and wants to invest in you if you are worth it. I mean, even with an already existing history of completed interns you need to venture the step someday to continue with a junior-level position and steadily develop yourself the way up the career ladder. Why not do it directly?
After all that negative points, I need to admit that I am sure that there are mid-size companies or organisations out there offering students a great and beneficial internship experience with close supervision by the company's staff or even a specialised internship coordinator. Unfortunately, the industry did not prove me that when I was in the intern-seeking situation. I already passed this spoke of the career ladder, but I hope that some of the future students have more luck and can use the intern's outcomes for further steps. For those who are experiencing similar situations as described in the text above, keep in mind my advice to have a plan B and to focus directly on a career-enhancing alternative.