The Industry Doesn’t Love You: Young, Wild, and Working For Free

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Down, down, down, into the rabbit hole of a touchy subject we go…

From the first adrenaline rush of a beat, or a moment when a lyric hit your heart, the thrill of music intoxicates us. And once you fall, it’s nearly impossible to climb your way back to the surface. Naturally, many of us become trapped. Suddenly there is no option but to pursue music in some capacity, whether it be making music, experiencing music, or working to make music even better. That all said, what we fall in love with is music itself, usually not the industry. Often, our love and devotion to music and what keeps it alive goes unnoticed and unpaid, creating a cycle of abuse between interns and industry execs. So, who’s to blame for this? Who do we shame for the exploitation that exists from the love of music itself? 

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When I got my first editorial internship, I had no idea what to expect. I wore wedge-heels and pristinely straightened hair to my interview with an emphasis of appearing as professional as possible. Upon arrival, however, I was met with the scent of the latest in-office smoke-break and was handed a sheet of paper from an executive editor in converse and paint-stained pants. The paper was filled top to bottom with questions of taste: favorite visual artists, favorite fashion designers, favorite breakout actors, etc. The nerve of proclaiming bad-taste and basic preferences brought me to panic mode, and I remember instinctually writing down Timothee Chalamet wherever I could (oh, 2018). But, of course, the music section was easy. In all honesty, I didn’t know why I wanted a glitzy Hollywood editorial internship besides the pure possibility of being around music and absorbing all that I could. I guess my taste was up to par (thanks, Timmy), and I landed the gig. The rest was history.

I was never told about the music industry nor did I expect to find myself so seamlessly in it. I loved music and was getting published for writing about it, being the editorial intern with the inside scoop on electronic music and underground culture. I started getting to go to shows for free, meeting my favorite artists, and being pitched to by teams of the highest industry caliber. I felt like the shit, gladly entering the office every single day of the week just to increase my opportunity. Within this, I didn’t realize I was being exploited. I suppose I thought that the music industry just pays in parties, proximity, and pot.

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This is precisely what I am trying to address. Whether you were explicitly told or picked it up along the way, the desire to work in the music industry creates demand for unpaid gigs. As an eighteen-year-old blonde girl with a sub-par fake ID, the perks felt like real money. I was able to be whoever I wanted in the industry, calling myself a journalist when I was merely an intern. It brought me more writing gigs, more friends, and best of all, more music. What it did not bring me, however, was money.

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Why is it that the industry has normalized exploitation and unpaid labor? Are the perks and opportunities to network worth real monetary value? How much does age/gender/race/socio-economic status play into who benefits from picking up unpaid gigs? Most of all, can you even begin to feel successful when you can’t afford rent in the city that you do it all for?

To answer these questions, I posted a survey to a music industry networking page. Those who responded ranged from caucasian college DJ’s to WOC A&R executives. The statistics gathered are as followed: 94% of people who answered the survey have worked for free in the music industry. 59.4% of these unpaid jobs were at companies that clearly had enough to pay them. 72.7% had to take up an extra job to make up for the unpaid gig. 50% received school credit in return for their unpaid internships. 75% got perks of some kind. 90% do not feel that those perks equated to any monetary value. 66.8% said they feel that the opportunity to network made it worth it. 63.6% do not believe that the norm of working for free in the music industry will change. 

After speaking with an appropriate sample of people, one thing was evident across the board: The love of music brought us all to bite the bullet and take the gigs. “I’ve always been a fan first and journalist second,” said Eric Walden from Bythebarricade.com. This sentiment rings pretty true to a lot of us, as the ecstasy of the crowd is so alluring due to its allowance to forget all professional and social identities that we must dress ourselves in each day. The devotion to music has only increased in recent years through accessibility and content wars (everyone can be a fan so long as they have a smartphone). This means that the market is continuously being saturated, leaving many people willing to work free gigs and many companies being able to only profit further from it. 

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The perks are often of utmost importance. If you were to take the price of concert/festival tickets, free merch, marijuana, etc., I would have a college-tuition-equivalent of compensation for the work that I did. Sadly, this is not the case. I met some of my favorite artists for interviews across LA, all the while never being reimbursed for it. Sitting across from a musician at Chateau Marmont is a dream, yet paying for the literal $12 latte and that of the artist out of my own pocket was anything but glamorous. However, I am not blind to the privilege of this. 

One of the most common things that came up in my research is that those who work free gigs often have parental support. In full transparency, I lived under my parent’s roof throughout the blossoming of my career. The majority of America may not be able to say the same. So, as I worked my way up the ladder of this dog-eat-dog industry, I was able to benefit due to my distinct circumstances. And the more I made connections, the more opportunities I would get. Many journalists experience the same thing. So, those who get the highest-profile jobs due to their ability to take internships are those who eventually write the societally accepted rulebook of “truth.” This means that much of what we see is written from the point of view of the privileged.

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Ironically, I am writing this very article for free. I love The Kollection, full of fellow kids who put their all into the industry that gives them nothing but family in return. This is not the norm, however. Many internships or unpaid writing gigs come from corporate music big dogs that make enough to pay everyone at an underground show 3 times over just for showing up. This is where it gets sticky- where we beg the question of who is to blame and who is to shame and we ask ourselves what success really means…

Simply put, success is subjective. After speaking with so many people in varying positions in the industry, this became quite clear. Chris, a 22-year-old music producer/engineer/journalist who has been working music-related gigs since high school, eloquently explained that success for trust fund babies may merely include monetary gain, whereas success for a starving artist would be someone they idolized simply listening to their song; a stark contrast that illustrates success’s subjectivity rather sharply. 

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Our perception of success has changed as well due to social media. The influx of messages of “how much you’re killing it” feeds that fragile ego of ours, and we feel the endorphins rush in even while knowing that you can’t get compensated in compliments. There is no one idea of success, and the subjective nature leaves much space for gendered, racialized, and age-related intricacies. 

In hopes of not making this too meta, I must say that I do feel successful in writing this for free. I feel that the industry at the very least allows me to connect with people through conversations of its highs and lows. So, does this mean that I am to blame for the vicious cycle of supply and demand of unpaid labor? If we want to eat the rich, should we make an appetizer of the kids who make music spreadsheets in return for VIP passes as they live under their parent’s roof as well? In short, I think not. Rather, the employers are to blame. 

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The cycle of abuse in the music industry is, dare I say, quite fraternal. White men who made their way up from their internships now profit from other white boys doing the dirty work. This cycle creates the idea that there is one straight path to making it in the music industry- exploitation as the rite-of-passage to success. But, we cannot blame those who are taking orders both of the latte and literal kind. 

Madison, an A&R assistant and talent scout whose transparency in her own racking up of debt from concert fees alone was the shamelessness I needed, spoke to the fact that the only way to progress away from the norm of gatekeeping is through honesty. “The only person who will care about your job is you,” Madison stated. Those who took school credit as compensation for the internships were literally paying to not get paid, and the reason for the acceptance of this is the power of profit for those at the top. As the pandemic hit, industry dominators who shall not be named increased their acceptance of interns, using the volume of people entering the workforce during an economic recession to their advantage. The kids graduating from college in 2020 who found a love for music along the way are not to blame, it is the ones who are profiting off of their eagerness and unpaid labor.

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Like music itself, those who run the industry curate the culture. As we are all doing our best to make it in the music scene, our job is to evaluate how the institutions within the industry do it. Those who have the ability may experience a sense of guilt, grappling with their own complicity of the whitewashed industry that so many outside of it adores. Our job, however, is not to get coffees and ignore the realities of how the industry runs. It is to evaluate how and why these truths come to be and what our worth really is.

Once we’re down the rabbit hole, it’s hard to even see the surface. Yet maybe 2021 provides a bit of light to look up to. In the name of capitalism, it’s hard to be an optimist. But in having real conversations with real people from around the world within the music industry, it became clear that if we start being critics of our own craft, maybe things can change.

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