Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Paul Attewell

Subject Categories



Career, Creative work, Cultural work, Internships, Music industry, Precariousness


As internships become an increasingly normal part of early careers, there is a need to examine how internships really function, if--and how--they benefit interns and companies. Through participant observation at two firms and semi-structured interviews, I focus on one of the major users of unpaid intern labor--the music industry--to analyze the meanings of intern work, both for the interns themselves and their supervisors. Consequently, this research provides an account of how aspiring and current workers in a competitive industry make sense of and reproduce precarious work conditions. By focusing on how interns and employees construct the importance of the music business within a context of routinized work, I analyze how the "charisma" of artistic production generates a powerful, but short-lived source of commitment for workers. I show how the lure of the music industry attracts people who want to do "important" work, though participants must learn to convey their excitement according to an informal code of conduct. Moreover, I show how music industry personnel generally devalue formal educational pathways to music industry employment, instead privileging on-site learning as an ennobling rite of passage. Aspiring and paid employees interpret and accept what I call the mailroom model for training. The responsibility for training thus falls on the intern and occurs under challenging circumstances. I find that interns perform provisional labor - work that is temporary, conditional, and ambiguous ("what you make of it"). Interns embody a flexible pool of labor for a host company, allowing for a range of formal and informal benefits for all parties concerned. Analyzing how people do succeed within the intern economy, I find that it is possible for interns to elevate their status and move beyond the characteristics and constraints of the role, though notions of race, class, age, and gender inform the selection and evaluation of interns. Taken together, the above suggests how the intern economy exacerbates class and other forms of inequality while nonetheless allowing some especially skilled interns to secure advancement. I conclude with an analysis of current intern activism and legal challenges to unpaid work.

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