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‘An exploitative environment’: The interns behind Electric Lady Studios

Student interns expecting to gain hands-on experience in the music industry told WSN they were made to do janitorial and administrative work at the renowned recording studio.

A front entrance with the text “Electric Lady Studios” written in a retro white font on two reflective walls.
Electric Lady Studios at 52 W. 8th St. (Matt Petres for WSN)

Each year, a new batch of interns, some of them NYU students, walks through an unassuming mirrored door on West Eighth Street expecting the opportunity of a lifetime — to work with the world-class music recording studio Electric Lady. However, the experience wasn’t what they thought they signed up for. Multiple former interns told WSN that their work for the studio included clearing up sewage spills, hiding in closets, mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms — all while being unpaid.

Electric Lady boasts a famous repertoire of visiting artists. Everyone from The Rolling Stones to Taylor Swift has recorded with the company. Albums like Swift’s “Midnights,” SZA’s “SOS” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “GUTS” — all of which were nominated at this year’s Grammy Awards — were recorded at Electric Lady. The studio was founded by musician Jimi Hendrix in the 1970s, and is intended to be a comfortable recording space for artists to relax and create.

Despite the studio’s reputation in the music industry, former interns told WSN that they learned very little that could help them advance their careers while working there. Multiple former interns and engineers told WSN that they felt the studio exploited them as unpaid interns.

Students at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music told WSN that Electric Lady stopped being recommended to them by professors after they learned about the work conditions for interns through word of mouth.

For the protection of the artists who frequent Electric Lady Studios, as well as their work, all interns are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement prior to their employment at the studio. This article is based on conversations with over a dozen people who worked at Electric Lady, all of whom requested anonymity due to future employment concerns and legal repercussions for speaking out against the studio. 

“We learned where to buy the best organic fruit, not how to mix up a song,” one former intern said. “Go hide, don’t talk, but be there.” 

In order to secure an internship, prospective interns reach out via email to secure interviews, as Electric Lady doesn’t post public job listings. Interns said they went through a brief interview process and were informed of the heavy time commitment and that NDAs are a required part of the position. Multiple former employees of the studio said that during their interviews, they were told part of the job would be miscellaneous studio cleaning tasks alongside learning about music production — however, they quickly learned that there would be no instruction on music production and that the vast majority of their time would be spent cleaning.

Interns said they never thought they would immediately be put in the studio with clients, as taking time to learn the environment and the industry is common, but janitorial work with long hours and little to no industrial exposure was unexpected. The studio employs 15-20 interns at a time rotating in three month cycles, multiple former employees told WSN. 

“I knew I was being exploited,” one former intern said. “But I thought it would help me in the long run. It hasn’t.”

Electric Lady declined an interview request and did not respond to detailed questions and requests for comment.

Sewage, toilets and hiding in closets

Interns described having to clean bathrooms, empty garbage and even hide in closets to avoid being seen by celebrity musicians recording at the studio. After signing NDAs, interns were given a handbook describing how to perform their responsibilities. Former interns said the document was a guide on how to interact with clients and expectations for each shift. 

“We are the living DNA of Electric Lady Studios,” pages of the handbook obtained by WSN read. “For 50 years, people like us have come here to take care of the living legend and household name that it has become. With a river running through us, we continue to strive for the absolute best experience and sounds imaginable.” 

Multiple former interns told WSN that the “river running through us” line in the handbook is meant literally, and alludes to the sewer line that runs directly under the studio. Former interns said they spent a significant amount of time maintaining the sewer line, with one reporting they had to shovel sewage after flooding. Multiple former interns reported having to do “pump checks,” where they would go down an unstable alley staircase and walk through muddy floors to see if the pipes were running properly. The handbook requires that interns check the sewage pipes every night, however one intern told WSN they had to monitor the drainage system “at least once an hour” during their time at the studio. 

You work so hard for so little.

— a former intern

Many interns said that they did not receive any training in music production during their time with the studio, and one described the experience as “trial by fire.” According to the handbook, interns’ shifts can include “common area cleaning, studio restocking, preparing the studio for session, and taking care of general housekeeping.”

In conversations with WSN, interns called the environment “exploitative and condescending.” Former employees of the studio also said interns were expected to be on their feet and ready to come in at a moment’s notice, and worked minimum shift lengths of 10 hours. One source called the experience “grueling and dehumanizing.” 

“It’s blatant manipulation and being taken advantage of. People were fired to make a point,” a former intern said. “You work so hard for so little.”

One section of the handbook stated that interns should use down time to learn about “the studio history, the gear, technical maintenance and fabrication.” Former interns told WSN that much of their work involved helping the studio operate on a day-to-day and session-to-session basis. Multiple former interns and engineers told WSN that days without interns on staff were rare, and said there was an expectation for them to offer “extra hands” whenever needed.

“There’s a high reputation, and interns run a lot of it,” one former intern said. “Moments of generosity of knowledge and learning are sparse.”

Interns also said they were often hidden from the view of the studio’s clientele. The handbook directs interns to “not enter rooms when clients are present.” Multiple former interns said they were often instructed to duck into stairwells or closets if they heard clients coming, and were to “only speak to clients when spoken to,” according to the handbook.

“There’s an exploitative environment,” a former intern said. “It’s a flawed system with dispensable interns with no standardized training.”

James Walsh, founder of Threshold Recording Studios NYC, said the intern experience in the music recording industry means learning quietly and having to do the more boring aspects of studio work until you build enough experience to be trusted with equipment.   

“It’s normal to ask staff that aren’t qualified not to speak or advise clients, but in my world no one needs to hide,” Walsh wrote to WSN. “If there are explicit instructions for the client to remain anonymous, then we would just ask the interns to find space to work out of sight or not schedule them for the day — but not hide.” 

Multiple Clive Davis students said their professors stopped recommending that they intern at Electric Lady after learning about work conditions there.

“We still allow students to intern there but we are cautious because students have had very mixed reviews about their experiences at Electric Lady Studios,” Paul Geluso, program director of the Music Technology program at NYU, said in an email to WSN. “A few years back some students claimed that the internships that were offered to them at the time were focused on reception and other admin duties so they were not a great match.”

On unpaid internships and when they’re legal

In the United States, internships need to “provide a clear benefit to the intern, the intern must be fully aware of the conditions of the position, the training must be similar to training received in an educational environment and the internship must be of limited duration,” a U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson told WSN. 

These are all requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is intended to prevent workers from being exploited and employers from breaking overtime and minimum pay laws. Under the act, interns are required to be paid if the responsibilities aren’t contributing to educational and career advancement. 

At Electric Lady Studios, there is “no official janitorial staff,” multiple former interns and employees said, so interns were required to clean up studios after each session and prepare it for the next artist. In New York, janitorial work falls under labor that must be compensated under labor laws. Barry E. Janay, a New York City attorney with experience in labor law, told WSN that based on the accounts of previous interns, Electric Lady may be in violation of the FLSA.

“It must be primarily for a professional development or educational type of activity. [The internship] does sound like a violation of the wage and hour laws under the FLSA, and the FLSA describes minimum wage and maximum hours as well as rules regarding unpaid labor, which this internship sounds like it’s trying to be,” Janay said. “But it also sounds like it’s not for that educational career enhancing purpose.” 

After reading portions of the studio’s handbook, Janay said he believes the interns could have a FLSA claim as, by law, internships must comprise “somewhat career and skill-enhancing” tasks. Janay also told WSN that it is common for young people to overlook labor violations when they are working for big-name companies in order to advance in their field. 

“So many people want to go and ‘make it’ that they’ll agree to really unfair practices of an employer because they have celeb type of gravitas,” Janay said. “The person that’s doing the hiring in the division, they want to produce good numbers. So getting free labor is an easy way to get work done that is beneficial to the firm, but not really beneficial to that employee in terms of career development, and that is where they’ll try to fudge stuff up.”

You harass interns because you need them to have tough enough skin to handle it in a real session.

— a former sound engineer

A yearslong cycle

Most of the current staff at Electric Lady Studios began as interns and worked their way up in the ranks, multiple former employees said. Former interns told WSN that the studio’s hierarchy created a cycle of poor treatment, where employees who had been mistreated as interns in the past would use their experiences to justify their actions.

“You harass interns because you need them to have tough enough skin to handle it in a real session,” a former studio sound engineer told WSN. 

Some interns said issues with the work environment at Electric Lady can be traced back to 2005, when former intern Lee Foster acquired the company and brought it back from the brink of bankruptcy. Foster is credited with rebuilding the studio for the 21st century while also trying to keep it old school and music-centered. But one former intern said those advancements have come at a cost for unpaid interns.

“Lee runs the studio with fear because he started with it failing,” the source said. “He forgot about the workers’ happiness and only remembers what it was like at rock bottom.” 

Today, Electric Lady is thriving. Three of this year’s album of the year Grammy Award nominees were recorded there. The studio has its own record label for live studio recordings. It’s the background of most of Taylor Swift’s paparazzi photos. 

“The music industry is essentially a service industry,” one former intern said. “It’s an ecosystem that survives on maintaining relationships. They’re adept at getting what they want when they need it.”

Contact Julia Diorio at [email protected].

Developed for web by Manasa Gudavalli.

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