A few days ago, Sam Bakkila posted an interview with Sarah Kendzior about why you should never have taken that prestigious internship, by which one of course means unpaid internship.
They’ve become common to the point of being standard, and are, of course, inaccessible to anyone but the upper-middle-class or above. Sarah, in the interview, elaborates about the moral bankruptcy of this unpaid economy; how it devalues education – a process that started with the strangling of affordable college education – then devalues skills, then people, essentially in the interest of making entry-level/starter jobs cost ‘employers’ absolutely nothing.
I wanted to talk a bit about the similarities I see between this and music in the post-scarcity environment that I’ve spent so much time writing about. I wanted to talk about how it’s a lot like what musicians have been expected to go through, starting around the advent of high fidelity recording and peaking with the end of scarcity and digital reproduction. The thousand-fan model is, after all, a form of prestige economics – but one that can be turned into income.
Which is, of course, the rub. Always.
As I was outlining that essay, Nicole Dieker of Hello, The Future! posted On Going Places, wherein she talks about learning Ruby on Rails, a web-developer programming language. She’s doing so because, as a multifaceted writer/musician, she sees the price of words being bid down to zero – a phenomenon which has not yet reached code. And minutes later, Klopfenpop posted his IndieGoGo project to raise money, because key studio equipment got stolen and his wife’s teaching job at a private school is hourly, doesn’t pay into unemployment and – just like those herds of barely-paid adjunct professors out there – if she’s not picked up, well, so much for dosh.
Throughout this series, I’ve tried to be ruthlessly realistic, but optimistic. There are ways, as an artist, to build and a community, and from that, possibly, a living. I’ve talked about ways that people are making this work, in bits and pieces. Much of what I’ve talked about boils down to building fanbase and community, a set of people who value what you do and are willing to pay you to keep you doing it. Get enough of this, you can pull many small donors into a salary, of sorts. You can create and then leverage your prestige, often by giving your work away.
But here? I am having none of it. Here, I come not to praise this model, but to bury it.
A few reasons are obvious, of course. Unpaid entry-level “interns” have damned little opportunity to stand out as artists. Development? Hardly. Oh, maybe, here and there, but mostly – in the modern application – it’s all about doing scutwork for people who don’t want to pay for it.
And, obviously, they have absolutely no opportunity whatsoever to build the thousand fans. That’s by design. The opportunities, generally, are limited to finding a mentor here or there, or sucking up to a manager or three, doing their work and a job above your level for a while, then – if you’re lucky – getting hired to do that same job for some pittance of actual pay.
Plus, building you up? Ha! Building out your own existence apart from the organisation is antithetical to the entire concept of these internships. Even in theory, these internships are about fitting in and making connections in an organisation while you work and they don’t pay you for it.
Are you going to learn how to build something around you, yourself, in this environment? Hell to the no. These are huge and difficult lessons to learn, and even people really good at it and talented – like Nicole and Klopfenpop – find it tremendously difficult, as the above proves. These internships, by design, divert people away from all the lessons they actually need to be learning.
But even were none of these fatal flaws present, the system would still be intrinsically self-defeating. Its core internal contradiction destroys it: by making this “prestige” a mass requirement, it makes attaining that prestige impossible, because the entire point of prestige is atypicality.
Making prestige typical dilutes the concept past the point of meaning. Everyone is famous; no one is. I suppose that’s the dirty little secret of the independent path: the value in it still comes out of scarcity. It’s not the recordings any longer which are scarce, but the willingness and ability to build the reputation and the fandom. To build your self, or, at least, the self which you present to the world. None of which is meaningful or possible in this internship environment.
In short, the “prestige” supposedly allocated by this unpaid labour is fundamentally a cynical fraud of the worst sort.
It’s no different than making you pay to get your paycheque. It’s just another way to steal from the already underpaid. You aren’t working for prestige, because it is literally impossible to attain in this system. What you’re working for is for not getting paid, and not one damn thing more.
Nick Mamatas is well known for reminding everyone of Yog’s Law, originally coined by James D. Macdonald: “Money flows to the writer.” Money also flows to the artist, and to the intern. If it doesn’t? It is a fraud. And nothing but.
eta: HI TUMBLR! Welcome to the Lair. We’re supervillain musicians who also blog a lot. We have some free download tracks if you care to sample – and thanks for reading.
This is Part Eight of Music in the Post-Scarcity Environment, a series of essays about, well, what it says on the tin. In the digital era, duplication is essentially free and there are no natural supply constraints which support scarcity, and therefore, prices. What the hell does a recording musician do then?