I’ve just put my accounts for the financial year 2020-21 to bed, and will share a few comparisons with 2019-20 to illustrate the typical impact of the pandemic on freelancers in the performing arts, as well as some of the lifelines we’ve been clinging to where possible.
This is from the perspective of a singer who, after 20 years in the job, was doing ok financially, reaching the kind of stability where you can start to imagine keeping at this for the rest of your working life. I’ve also been relatively well supported by various support and recovery schemes, unlike many colleagues who have slipped through the gaps.
With all of these figures, I’ll deal in percentages (using figures for 2019-20 as the denominator) rather than the absolute brass tacks, if you’ll forgive the discretion. Because the financial year runs from April to April, the 2020-21 period corresponds very neatly to the period of lockdown – cancellations started in mid-March 2020, and things began to splutter back to life around April 2021.
Total gross income for 2020-21 was down 47% compared to the previous financial year.
Business expenses were also down, as you might reasonably expect, by 66% compared to 2019-20.
Those combine to produce a decrease in net income of 34% in 2020-21. That’s a pretty substantial blow on its own terms, although not entirely unprecedented in scale as part of the precarious financial rough and tumble of life as a freelance artist. Let’s dig a little deeper though…
When we isolate the income from actual work, the decrease from 2019-20 becomes a pretty seismic 78%. Even then, just under half of that earned income was from cancellation fees for contracts which fell foul of lockdown.
Income from contracts outside the UK was reduced to precisely zero – that’s having been around 26% of the previous year’s earnings. As an Irish citizen, I’m largely immune to the impact of Brexit, so that reduction can fairly safely be put entirely down to the pandemic.
Income from support payments and grants was equally predictably up from zero in 2019-20 to well over 50% of the gross income for 2020-21.
Income from actual singing work was down by a whopping 90%, nearly disappearing entirely in 2020-21.
(Read more about the entirely avoidable near-extinction of monetisable classical music during lockdown in Giving It Away – Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales, on sale now worldwide.)
The bottom line: discarding support schemes, grants, cancellation payments and the like, 2020 income was down by 87%.
I’m deeply grateful for those financial lifelines; and at the same time, acutely aware of many, many colleagues who were not so fortunate, and in many cases completely abandoned. Given the 90% annihilation of my singing income, that financial support meant that, while I’ve had to make a lot of spending cutbacks, I’ve still been able to focus on keeping my voice going during lockdown. From time to time I also earn money as a singing teacher, language consultant, voice actor and (over the last few months) a professional writer; but thanks to those support payments, I didn’t have to find an alternative full-time job to replace the main breadwinner, which has left me with some energy to devote to singing.
That’s played a large part in my being able to come back to performing in decent vocal shape: rested rather than rusty. Many other colleagues have achieved the same feat under more demanding circumstances; and any who may have found the comeback curve a little steeper deserve to be cut a fair amount of slack. The challenge has been unprecedented, and there’s no guidebook.
A few more figures for you, with an eye to the knock-on effects and the whole ecosystem. My spending on transport, accommodation and so on was down by 80%. Agents’ fees by 70%. Spending on coachings and lessons down by 88%.
These are all UK workers and businesses who depend on people like me for their income. That income disappeared for them too, and since our financial reserves have been depleted, our ability to bring that income back on-stream is still severely limited. The UK arts ecosystem is in existential crisis, and it’s only just beginning to bite.
For example, I’ve already had to turn down some great UK projects because I no longer have the resources to subsidise their lower-budget fees. That’s something I’ve been able to do in the past, and it’s a great regret that I can’t help out at the moment. The same will be true for many experienced colleagues, and it’s the UK arts scene which loses.
Some well-funded UK companies have clearly understood the importance of bringing these income streams back online as swiftly as possible, and are consciously supporting the country’s performing arts ecosystem back towards some sort of viable economic health. Bravi to them and more power to their elbows. There are others who would do well to heed their example.
As I say, I’ve been fairly well protected by the erratic safety net. Many colleagues have been less fortunate. And there’s no meritocracy to it: this is far from some sort of necessary Darwinian cull of the less artistically viable. Some colleagues who’ve been cut adrift are more lauded, some more talented; and many of them younger than I am – they’ve been amongst the most vulnerable.
Our industry has long had an unhelpful habit of presenting an image to the public that the life of an artist is “Living The Dream”. The last 18 months have been truly brutal, and the crisis is still biting as hard as ever. Behind that PR smokescreen, now more than ever, the UK freelance arts scene hangs by an extremely fragile thread.
Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle and audiobook editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy
“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine
“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine