It was announced recently that HMRC plans to crack down heavily on music companies found to be exploiting interns. While on the surface this sounds like good news, it could in fact create problems for some young people looking to gain experience in this industry.
Despite the desired effect of creating a fairer workplace for budding music industry professionals the new legislation 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 Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, our own third year placements do not fall within the remit of the HMRC's "crackdown" because they are an integral part of an undergraduate degree. What is most worrying here is that some music companies will not realise this, and will be frightened off helping young people gain experience due to HMRC's aggressive approach.
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 ambiguity can pose, recently we were moved to respond directly to one company who almost pulled out of a genuine student placement because they were concerned about how the business might be portrayed in light of additional scrutiny 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 in order to set up and then embark upon a placement they feel comfortable with. At LIPA we regard experiential learning as a vital element of the course and critically important in helping students to find paid employment when they graduate, this includes gaining experience from additional voluntary activities, as well as from the integral work placement module.
One might question why HMRC has decided to specifically 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.
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 litter picking, and these companies undoubtedly deserve to be both penalised and monitored.
Young people that are undertaking any unpaid work experience placement or internship need to make sure that they know what they are going to be asked to do before they commit, to be sure that they will getting a genuine development opportunity. 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 it is really only a thinly veiled attempt to get free labour.
So how do we begin to effectively combat the problem so that students and graduates still have access to these essential resources that help them to gain 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.
What is needed are more initiatives such as the Creative Employment Programme that work to regulate internships meaning they protect students against exploitation by creating formal and paid internship opportunities for young and unemployed people in England.
The addition of programmes for shorter periods, supporting undergraduates, not just those on Job Seekers Allowance, would really make a difference.
With the help of more regulated programmes, students AND GRADUATES can continue to learn experientially and organisations can continue to pass on their wealth of knowledge to the next generation of music industry professionals without the threat of any retribution.
Contribution by Jeremy Grice, Head of Discipline (Music, Theatre and Entertainment Management) at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.