Record Label Internships

How to Land a Record Label Internship: Writing a Great Cover Letter

Many students looking to break into the music business seek a music industry internship as they are completing their music degree. An internship is seen as a great way to make the transition from student status to the world of work and many college music programs either include an internship experience as a graduation requirement or make it an option. As a result, the search for a relevant and valuable internship is often highly competitive. There are many good candidates in the market and in order to succeed, you will need to stand out in comparison to all the rest. As with the regular job market, organizations are looking for the best candidates. It’s not enough to be good, you need to be great and you must communicate this fact to the Hiring Manager.

As a Hiring Manager who has reviewed many hundreds of cover letters and resumes, I can offer some important tips and strategic advice on how to stand out from the pack. Since I recently published articles on this site about how to write a great resume and artist bio, I will focus now on how to write a great cover letter. A well-written cover letter might be the key for you to get that coveted record label internship, starting your career off right as you enter the music industry.

First: Look at the Big Picture

Before you sit down to write a great cover letter to get you that record label internship, you will need to do some research. Starting with the music industry, arm yourself with some statistics. For example, you could look up the total music-related revenues annually by country and region, the total spent on streaming music, physical copies (CDs, vinyl), concert revenues, music syndication (licensing for TV, radio, advertising, films), musical instruments, education and training, and so forth. You could also look at historical trends.

You might have studied these areas in your college courses but since the industry is changing rapidly you should make sure you are armed with the most current numbers and statistics. Hiring Managers like to engage with smart, well-informed young potential hires. Do what it takes to be that engaging, smart, well-informed candidate. There are many resources for these statistics online but you will notice discrepancies so be sure to keep track of where you get your numbers from, in case you are asked.

A very good resource for the recording and touring industry are the directories and publications from Pollstar, which lists all record companies and their rosters, Talent Buyers, A&R Representatives, and management companies for Touring and Recording Artists. You will find very detailed information here (including contact info for decision makers) and in other industry publications. If you don’t want to buy the Pollstar guides (they tend to be expensive) you can ask your school career resources center or library to buy them for you. The main point is you should know as much as possible about the music industry, as befits your goals, interests, background, and the internship you are applying for.

You should certainly research the companies you intend to apply to. Following is a list of the specific details you might want to know about any organization you are considering for an internship. You should be prepared to talk about any of the following things in an interview, although not every one will apply to every opportunity or organization. Consider arming yourself with the following information about a label or any organization you would apply to:

  • Main product(s) and/or service(s) offered
  • Original company founders
  • Date company was founded/formed
  • Company’s legal form, i.e., corporation, LLC, sole proprietorship, partnership, non-profit, public or private company, etc.
  • If it’s a public company that trades on the stock market, information about current stock price, and the future outlook for the company
  • Key leadership/management team. If there are board members, know how many and who some of them are
  • Number of employees
  • Company culture
  • Annual profit/loss (approximate for the past 1-5 years)
  • Top and bottom salaries i.e., what does the CEO make versus an average entry-level employee
  • Company’s philosophy and vision
  • Company’s mission statement
  • What comes to mind when you think of the company’s brand
  • Main challenges the company is facing
  • Why did you select this company for an internship

Armed with your research on the company (or companies) you are interested in for your internship, you will be much better prepared to apply and interview for the position. Keep in mind an internship is no different than a job, besides the opportunity to earn course credit. You will be competing with others who may be equally or better qualified so you will want to put your best foot forward at every step of the process.

(In a future article I will address the different types of music industry internships available, what they offer, what to expect, and what to watch out for or avoid. For this article I will focus mainly on writing your cover letter.)

If I have 300 letters, chances are I won’t read most of them completely to the end. I might read fifty at the most. That means I will screen out five of six letters initially without reading them completely, based on the visual impression the letter makes, plus any obvious mistakes.

You Only Get One Chance to Make a First Impression

While I’m sure you have heard this saying above, when applying for an internship the initial impression is vital for you to stand out from the competition. As a Hiring Manager, I have read many hundreds or thousands of cover letters and I can tell you the majority of them are poorly written, unenthusiastic, and uninspiring. I am always looking for that “diamond in the rough” and when I read one boring letter after another, I feel a sense of disappointment. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to show the reader of your letter you have done your homework. This means you need to be very clear on a number of important points. You also need to know what not to include. In any case, the cover letter is typically the very first thing a Recruiter or Manager will read upon receiving your application and can make or break your chances of landing the desired opportunity.

I will lay out the sections of the letter for you in detail throughout the rest of this article. While it is okay to inject a little personality and personal style, it’s crucial to keep in mind this is a business letter. There are many resources you can consult to learn how to write a great business cover letter (such as at the career resource center at your school, a library, the internet, or bookstore), but you should never copy someone else’s letter, as your cover letter must speak with your own authentic voice.

While you might refer to letters written by others to get ideas of the best approach, it’s always a terrible idea to copy a letter written by someone else. Your goal should be to develop your own style of writing that makes you and your qualifications shine. The more letters you write, the easier it gets and the better you will become at it.

Protocol, Protocol, Protocol

I like to use the word protocol in discussing what should go into a cover letter. Protocol is an accepted way of doing things. It isn’t necessarily a set of hard and fast rules but it does include a few: no misspellings, no grammatical errors, includes your contact information, your signature, and so forth. These items might seem like common sense but you would be amazed at how many people get screened out because of silly and avoidable errors. (It might help to have someone proofread your letter before sending.)

The cover letter will always accompany your other submitted materials, at minimum: a professional resume, possibly also: artist bio, video interview, links to social media, discography, or other supplemental materials. You can lay your letter out in a way that makes visual sense to you and fits your style, but there are some required components and you should pay close attention to visual impact. This means using appropriate fonts, margins, a signature at the bottom, and a clean layout.
Here is a list of the most basic required components of your letter.

At top:

  • Your name, address, and contact info at very top of page
  • The name and address of the addressee (don’t need their contact info here)
  • Optional for “memo style” use a subject header
  • Date
  • Salutation (professional greeting), NEVER use “Dear Sir/Madam,” or “To Whom It May Concern”

Body of letter:

  • First paragraph: why you are writing, how you heard about the role
  • Second (middle) paragraph: why you are a good fit, how your experience lines up with the role, show understanding of the role and the organization. You can break this into two paragraphs if it gets too long
  • Third paragraph: mention enclosures, ask for specific follow up from them, tell them what you will do if you don’t hear from them

At the bottom:

  • Your signature above your printed name
  • A postscript (P.S.) if desired
  • Annotations at very bottom, i.e. list enclosures, c.c. if any, file

It’s Not About You, It’s About Them

I will now provide you with some useful pointers about what to do and not to do, based on having read thousands of cover letters from students (or recent graduates).

Do NOT make it about your goals. The truth is, the employer doesn’t care one whit about your goals. The only reason someone hires anyone is to solve a specific problem. Whether they are paying you a wage, actively training you, or both, they are not advertising for an Intern because they want to help some young person reach their personal or professional goals. Don’t even mention your goals; they are totally irrelevant. Instead, try to figure out in advance exactly why they are hiring for the role and talk about your understanding of how to solve the specific problems they are facing.

The best approach is to mention your experience as highlighted in your resume and talk about how it aligns with their operational needs. Be careful not to parrot what is in your resume. Only mention something you’ve done in the context of how it will help you to help them. Be careful not to use a lot of buzzwords. Terms like “self-starter,” “good interpersonal skills,” and “reliable, on-time” are overused, and end up being meaningless to the reader for that reason. You do need to talk about your strong points but the trick is to do this within the context of the job you are applying for while showing how your previous roles have prepared you to succeed in the role. You also want to show your knowledge of the organization, your understanding of the demands of the internship, and say why you are a good fit.

You don’t need to thank them for their time. Many applicants do this, but it can come across as fawning and insincere. I’ve always felt they should be thanking you for your time, as every organization needs well-qualified, hard-working, and talented people – people just like you!

Design for Visual Impact

When laying out your letter, consider the visual impact first and foremost. There is a very positive subliminal effect a well-designed letter has, and the opposite is also true. When I look at a letter, before I even start reading it, the graphic design elements make a strong impression on me and thus reflect on the writer directly. I’ve seen poorly laid out letters that made my job harder — this is often a way Hiring Managers use to screen out candidates. The reader will evaluate how well you express yourself in writing, and that includes the “look” of your letter.

If I have 300 letters, chances are I won’t read most of them completely to the end. I might read fifty at the most. That means I will screen out five of six letters initially without reading them completely, based on the visual impression the letter makes, plus any obvious mistakes. Your job is to make the reader’s job easier, and the best way to achieve this is to have a professional looking, clean layout. Everything should be spaced properly, the font large enough but not too large, and avoid using flowery fonts, italics, excessive bolding, or anything else that doesn’t contribute to a clean look.

You might consider using a logo. The header with your name and contact info can also be used as a unifying visual element across all your documents. It might look the same on your cover letter, resume, artist bio, or any other materials you are submitting. Look at your completed letter as a work of art, that needs to make an impact visually. Pro tips: avoid “justification” (having right and left margins aligned straight, as in a book or magazine), avoid colors and flowery designs, and definitely NO fragrance!

Note we are talking about printed letters here. Even though most letters are sent today via email, or uploaded to a web application, in most cases they do get printed by the recipient prior to review, and for use in the interview process. And there are still some organizations that will ask you to send by snail mail, believe it or not. In an interview, you and the interviewer will almost always have printed copies of your letter and materials to refer to, as it is more comfortable and polite than looking at a screen during an interview. Even if you are doing an online interview, you will want a printed copy in front of you for reference. (Note: If sending through the mail, use a good quality paper such as bond or linen, with any watermark facing the right way and correct side up.)

Having said all this, there are also protocols for use of email. Nobody likes to read long emails on their phone, so keep the body of the email as short as possible. Mention your reason for sending and what is enclosed. Effective use of the subject line amounts to an art in and of itself. Study what others do to figure out the best approach for yourself. There are also many online blogs and tutorials describing various approaches or protocols you might wish to use with an email cover.

A Strong Finish

In the final paragraph, after mentioning your enclosures, you should take responsibility for the next steps. Show the reader with authority you understand what is supposed to happen after they read your letter. Tell them in your own words what they should do next (e.g. “Please call or email me as soon as possible to set up a time for us to discuss the role further….”). You should also tell them what you will do if they don’t do what you are suggesting (e.g. “If I don’t hear from you by next week I will call to ensure receipt of my materials….”). Don’t be vague here; your success depends on them taking the next step. Show them you know how this is all supposed to work, and you are not afraid to take charge.

You don’t need to thank them for their time. Many applicants do this, but it can come across as fawning and insincere. I’ve always felt they should be thanking you for your time, as every organization needs well-qualified, hard-working, and talented people – people just like you!

Always sign your letter above your printed name. At the very bottom of the page, include a mention of your enclosure(s), as the letters and resumes can easily get separated. If you want to be sure everything conforms to business letter protocol, you could consult an encyclopedia of business letters (or google for it). Webster’s puts out an excellent reference book for business letters which should be available in the reference section of a bookstore or library (or in the career center at your school).

In the end, approach internships no differently than applying for a job. Write clearly, say what you must say quickly so as to keep it short (people are busy), avoid mistakes like spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, use a personal voice in your writing, and be enthusiastic about the position you are applying for. All of these strategies will help you as you prepare to enter the music industry, whether as an Intern or in any other capacity.

P.S. You can feel free to add a postscript (P.S.) as research has shown when a letter includes one, the eye is drawn to it and the reader is more likely to read to the end of the letter. I like to end up with a P.S. which underlines my enthusiasm and preparedness in some way. Something like: “I’ve been a huge fan of XYZ Records for as long as I can remember. I look forward greatly to the opportunity to contribute to your success!”

Now, get writing on those cover letters, and apply your creativity, enthusiasm, and knowledge to the process of landing an internship.

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