Free Billboards Outside, Ebbing Misery
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Is It Possible to Have a Career in Music Journalism and Retain Financial Security?
BEING working-class and a ‘certain age’ might preclude me…
from most of the best-paid jobs in music. A few of my earliest pieces this year revisit ideas I have tossed around before – one would hope my powerful and inspiration pieces (scan for irony!) would affect some sort of change! I am in the position, like many aspiring writers, where we want to project influence but are unable to – relying on our own resources and limitations of the free press. There is a definite austerity in music journalism that means the purse-strings are tighter than ever before. Gone are the heady days of NME when they were the must-read publication for the music masses. There are paid, quality music magazines about but fewer people are buying them. The online nature of music journalism means there are dozens of sites that can offer the reader the of-the-minutes new and events in the world of music. It is hard to produce a profitable magazine/music site and pay employees to. With rumours music journalism is on its last legs – in terms of the big-guns and profitable options – it makes me wonder whether an internship in music is a good thing. That is the only way a lot of people have in. Most labels, magazines and music studios have schemes where, unpaid, a hungry applicant can learn the ropes and get a first-hand look at how the industry operates. If you are lucky, months down the line, that might translate into a paid job.
Even if you are offered a job at the end; the wages can be pretty low and you have to work years before you are racking in anything vaguely impressive. That may be true of every job but there are those, like me, who have been writing for years and feel qualified enough to get a well-paid music job. Is it even possible in 2018?! Unless you are an established writer for a big paper – The Guardian or The Times, for example – you cannot really command too much of a pay-packet. Some of the best music publications around (MOJO among them) have paid positions but they are usually reserved for those with previous experience. Last year, when looking at how journalism still favours the middle-classes; I mooted the reason mainstream music was mostly middle-class was due to a lack of proletariat writers in the media. That may seem like a lazy viewpoint but there are so few working-class idols making music to bond the people – maybe, fearful there are few like-minded souls in the media who will respect and proffer their work. That is why I want to get to a position where I can change attitudes and create a genuine sense of optimism. That may be a bit pretentious but music journalism needs all the ambitious and hard-working journalists it can get.
I suppose the same is true of every musical corner: you need a lot of experience to command the best-paid jobs; there is a lot of grunt-work before you get that breakthrough. A lot of sideways moves and scrimping means the average music journalist might take years to get to a paid position. An interesting article was published in The Guardian back in 2014:
“Though laudably aimed at creating a fairer workplace for budding music industry professionals, the tougher enforcement from HMRC – with no alternative system to help young people gain the experience they need – could potentially be just as detrimental as it is helpful.
At the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), our third-year placements do not fall within the remit of the HMRC's "crackdown" because – crucially – they are an integral part of an undergraduate degree. What worries us, though, is that some music companies will not realise this, and will be frightened off helping young people gain experience by HMRC's aggressive approach.
Fear of penalties
The concern is that, with unclear guidelines and the threat of a £200,000 fine looming above their heads, HR departments of music companies might close the door to all internships, rather than checking whether they are acceptable or not.
At LIPA we have experienced first-hand the problems this sort of ambiguity can pose. Recently we had to respond directly to one company who almost pulled out of a genuine student placement because of concern about how the business might be portrayed in the light of the additional scrutiny focused on work placements.
We work closely with reputable music companies, and encourage our third-year students to do their research and then approach them independently, to set up a placement they feel comfortable with. At LIPA we regard this experiential learning as a vital element of the course and critically important in helping students to find paid employment when they graduate.
One might question why HMRC has decided specifically to target the music industry when there are, in my opinion, much more prominent offenders. Take for example the prime minister's recent assertion that exploitative treatment of interns is "unacceptable", yet it is reported that his own party offers non-paid intern positions to young graduates across the south of England.
Although there are plenty of reputable organisations out there, a damaging few take advantage of students by giving them menial tasks to complete such as distributing leaflets or picking up litter, and these companies undoubtedly deserve to be both penalised and monitored.
Securing a genuine internship
Young people undertaking any unpaid work experience placement or internship need to make sure they know what they are going to be asked to do before they commit. If a company can't be specific about what will be doing, then the placement should not be accepted.
At LIPA, we advise our students to look carefully at any voluntary opportunity to ensure that it is a genuine, mutually beneficial arrangement. We have also refused to distribute "opportunities" to students where we see that they are really thinly veiled attempts to get free labour.
So how do we begin to combat the problem, so that students and graduates still have access to real working experience without running the risk of exploitation? It's clear that changes are needed, as the current system of unpaid opportunities clearly favours those individuals who have the private resources, or family support, to enable them to work for free for some time”.
I might be taking legal liberties quoting from that article with such ferocity and lack of editing. I am willing to walk a plank of litigation to show that there is another side to the debate. There are some institutions that provide the national minimum wage and treat their interns fairly. I am not suggesting every company rips-off their interns – or they are all treated fairly – but there is that clear danger of working for a company and having to survive on nothing. There are apprentices in every industry but few that offer no money – maybe only the cost of travel. That instantly excludes everyone bar students and the wealthy. If you have enough money in the bank to survive a few months wage-free; an internship might be viable and stress-free. Privileged folk can take that route and students, who do not pay rent and get their parents to fund them, are the most south-after sector. The fact there is very few big-money music publications around means, yes, you might be getting invaluable experience and exposure at your dream company – will that ever lead to anything substantial and worthy?
Maybe a writer like Alexis Petridis can garner a high-five-digit salary but one suspect even he gets less than deserved. He has been in the business for years and would have started at that entry-level position. I worry, years down the line, there will be fewer magazines and websites offering any chances whatsoever. It means those getting into an internship today might not even have a job this time next year. It is a volatile industry but there are some publications and solid foundations – the broadsheets and best magazines – who will survive no matter what happens. There is a lot of music to cover so one cannot say there is a tariff on numbers and scope. The best way to dominate and stand out is to employ more people and diversify your pages. A site/paper like The Guardian could get even further in the industry if they sourced their talent from a larger pool. They could do features on Urban artists and record interviews – get someone who knows their stuff in the field – or do a series of features that look at different sides of music. YouTube and subscription sites mean advertisers may money – you’d suspect a few of the bigger newspapers have fairly deep pockets.
My problem is not necessarily to do with the efficacy and practices of the internships: I am concerned with the class imbalance and how the better-off are gifted more opportunities than those from less-well-off backgrounds. Many sites need a ‘relevant’ degree - which usually means something based around (but not in) music. A lot of writers do not know what they want to do when they are eighteen/nineteen so it is understandable that crystallisation comes a few years down the tracks. Degrees are expensive and many do not want to spend that much money learning a new skill – and accrue that debt and have the burden on their shoulders. There should be better ways around that problem than creating a divide. Middle-class and better-off have better contacts and can get through the industry quicker. They might have connections in the music business or, at the very least, be in a much better financial situation. Money is a big reason so many sites are not offering paid positions; it is a reason why music media is going online (rather than staying in print) – and it is one reason why people fear the industry will be marginalised in years to come. I have hope there will be a sustained interest in music journalism and, for certain outlets, they can remain in profit. I have spoken to a few people who have gone through internships – in record labels – and the only reason they have managed to survive is because they had more money in the bank (or their parents could fund them).
It is a hard industry but, if you find a company that can guarantee a paid job at the end of the internship – grab onto it and ensure you are treated fairly. Those who go through unpaid internships cannot expect to receive minimum wage for a long time after that. It is unfair, regardless of experience, to pay so low for so long. From my viewpoint; I want to work for someone like The Times or The Guardian and bring my working-class background to the role; write about a variety of things and exert some form of influence through my writing. I see there are internships with every publication/site but they are usually three months at the least. That means I would need to commute and pay rent for that time without earning anything. Even if travel is covered; I would be in the red and in trouble. Even after I complete my internship; there is no guarantee a role will come out of it – the idea is to gain experience and the skills needed to get a role in journalism/music. I would make the sacrifice were there a guaranteed job that paid a decent amount. Maybe I am naïve but I feel like there should be a reward for anyone who embarks on an internship. I wonder whether it would be possible to at least offer some financial remuneration to those who go through an internship. Maybe covering the cost of travel in addition to a little bit on top would be more attractive – and mean more would take that risk.
Maybe a better approach into journalism/production etc. is to work in paid jobs that have a similarity to what you want to do. You can work in the media department for someone like BBC or a role that offers something practical and useful. It might not be the most direct way in but you can earn money at least and have that on your C.V. I wonder whether there should be ways one can work in the industry if they take a degree in Music. They could study and then, with that education and knowledge; apply that directly to the role. Rather than wait for the degree to be over, and that debt to mount; offer the writer/talent a paid position so they can combine education and training. Maybe that is pie-in-the-sky but I feel the only way we can attract new and talented writers is by providing paid positions – or ensuring internships guarantee a job (well-paid) at the very end. It may seem like a rather costly way of ensuring we foster the next generation of journalists but, for an industry that is being accused of lacking relevance…
IT may be the only solution.