A flat I used to rent had a leaking pipe. Nothing dramatic at first. Just drip-drip-drip above the kitchen every time someone emptied the bath upstairs. We told the landlord – let’s call him Colin – about it, many times over the years. Every now and then he would take notice and send someone round to look at it. A plumber would come, wince, and tell us it needed a builder before he could do anything. A builder would come, suck his teeth, and tell us a plumber needed to look at it first. We’d always report back to Colin, who would nod and make encouraging noises. Everyone agreed something should be done. But no one could pinpoint who should be doing it. And so it went on, with lots of talking, wincing, and sucking of teeth. But very little by way of action. Meanwhile, drip-drip-drip went the pipe above the kitchen. Eventually, inevitably, one night the kitchen ceiling fell in; and that was the end of our time at Colin’s flat.
Over the last three years, there has been much talking, wincing, and sucking of teeth regarding the drip-drip-drip over the heads of the UK’s performing arts freelancers. There is a broad consensus that something must be done – even, despite how it might sometimes appear to the grass roots workforce, among most of the industry’s Colin the Landlords. In many cases there is also a growing awareness of the sort of thing that needs to be done; although as with Colin’s kitchen pipe, the nagging suspicion that it may well require major excavation, rather than a quick bit of duct tape and a lick of paint, means that the temptation to look the other way and hope for the best is often hard to resist.
But the biggest obstacle to the necessary renovations is not whether there’s a problem, nor what needs to be done, but who should be doing it.
Since the start of this year I’ve jotted down the details of each separate issue facing performing arts freelancers as they’ve cropped up in meetings and conversations, and collated them in a diagram. It’s incomplete and not thoroughly logical, but at the moment it looks like this:
I’m sure there are issues I’ve missed, and further elements which should quite rightly be added to the ones already there. Each one of them is a very long conversation in itself. But the glaring omission is right at the centre: who should be dealing with all this?
Various answers spring to mind. Westminster / National / Local government? DCMS / the Home Office / Foreign Office? Arts councils? Charities? Unions? “The industry”?
In truth of course, all of the above in one form or another do grapple with one or more of the issues listed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and effectiveness. But what’s lacking is one professional body with freelancers’ interests at its core, as its raison d’etre.
Freelancers are, I sense, feeling this absence more keenly than ever. Not just on a practical level in having their issues addressed and problems solved, but also in terms of a fundamental feeling of being acknowledged and valued by an industry to which they have, in so many cases, devoted their lives and for which they have made so many sacrifices. In a Twitter poll (admittedly the most inexact of sciences) I ran last week, over 90% of freelance performing arts workers responded that they did not feel that the current model of arts funding had been effective in supporting their work and careers in recent years. Freelancers feel they have nowhere to turn when confronted with this multitude of intimidating and disheartening challenges; a sense that no one is going in to bat for them, no one to consistently represent their interests and make their voices heard.
Perhaps a generation or two ago a single entity to fulfil this role wasn’t necessary. Government and other sources of funding passed money on, perhaps via a funding body, to companies and organisations, which in turn looked after the artists and other freelance workers on which they relied. A “trickle-down” economic model.
But trickle-down economics, if it ever works at all, has been shown to fail over time. That was never clearer than during the first phases of the pandemic, where the UK government pumped £2bn of emergency funding into the top end of the pipe, and freelancers waited for their share to trickle down. In many cases, they waited in vain, as organisations battened down the hatches of their large ships, prioritising their buildings and permanent staff, and waited to see, once the seas were finally calmer, which freelancers might have managed to cling on to their life rafts and weather the storm.
Meanwhile, surely the freelancers should have been taken care of by the Treasury’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, which was supposed to mirror the 80% furlough payments available for those in permanent employment? And yet, because of the various idiosyncrasies which make up a typical performing arts freelancer’s income, 59% of them missed out on the SEISS support throughout; 29% of the freelance workforce received no financial support during lockdown at all. Sink or swim.
And in many cases, survival of the richest: those from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds were the hardest hit, with least to fall back on. In an industry which talks such a good game on lowering barriers and increasing diversity, the reality behind the scenes is so often in stark contrast to the well-intentioned words and shopfront displays.
None of this is intended as a criticism of any particular organisation, government department, union or arts council. They all have their role to perform in the system as it stands. In particular, I’m not here to criticise any of the existing UK arts councils; in fact, it seems to me that most of them do their job of focusing on the needs of organisations and buildings very well, certainly relative to the interests and concerns of freelancers. But even if all these bodies played their parts to the utmost, that ??? gap at the heart of the freelancers’ diagram would remain unfilled.
What is needed is a new body, not instead of any of the existing elements in the system, but working hand-in-hand alongside them, informing and enabling them to support the freelancers who support them, and whose work, creativity and dedication vitally underpin the industry as a whole.
What is needed is a properly funded, permanent and empowered Freelancers’ Arts Council.
I’ve sat in countless crisis meetings over the last three years as one representative of the freelance workforce. The discussion will always eventually turn to, what can be done directly to help our freelancers? And the answer is so often: nothing – we just have to sit and wait for the trickle-down.
The way in which a plethora of grassroots voluntary groups sprung up during lockdown was surely a reflection of the urgent necessity for something to change. But those groups are now under threat as the pressures of work have returned, and curtailed the available time and energy of the volunteers involved. Many have already fallen by the wayside; and the few that have survived, including Freelancers Make Theatre Work of which I’ve been a member since 2021, do so largely because of some degree of financial backing to cover a few of the costs involved. Either way, the need is clearly there, and there is only so much voluntary groups can do to meet that need. A more permanent, securely funded body is needed to take on the bulk of the extensive workload.
Crucially, such a body should be staffed where possible by members of the current freelance workforce. 48% of performing arts freelancers earn some of their income from elsewhere – the “portfolio career” is far more widespread than many realise, and most arts workers in this country are versatile and multi-skilled. This would be a way of keeping their talents and knowledge within the industry, and making sure that as much of the funding goes to maintaining the economic viability of the arts in this country – in other words, not just another layer of costly administration for its own sake, but an opportunity for working arts freelancers to bolster their income and financial security. It needn’t cost an arm and a leg on the scale of UK arts funding; but whatever does get spent on it should be kept within the workforce as it currently stands wherever possible, providing a much-needed boost to the ecosystem on that basis alone.
One of the first tasks facing a Freelancers’ Council would be to gather more information about the freelance workforce itself. Proposals to support performing arts freelancers often fall at the first hurdle of the lack of hard data – our best estimate is that there are about 200,000 of us in the UK, but we don’t really know for sure, because nobody has the authority or the resources to pin the figure down. In order to help freelancers, we need to know who they are, how many of them there are, and where to find them.
Who would fund a Freelancers’ Arts Council? Surely, when the country is faced with so many other crises and challenges, no politician would be brave enough to tackle such a radical, wide-reaching project?
Under normal circumstances, I’d probably, reluctantly, agree. But there is a window of opportunity approaching, not just with a General Election imminent, but in this once-in-a-generation post-pandemic moment of maybe, just maybe, meaningfully wanting to “Build Back Better”. Empowering Britain’s creative freelancers is a concept which should get backing across the political spectrum. If any party with an eye on their manifesto is looking for a Big Idea on the arts, this should be top of their list.
The freelance workforce is in crisis, and all the signs continue to indicate that it’s an existential one. Not for the individual freelancers themselves: once any of them takes the heartbreaking decision to leave, the problems no longer belong to them, but to the industry they leave behind. Colin’s tenants moved on; Colin’s flat, or what remained of it, was ultimately Colin’s problem.
For the freelancers’ crisis to be solved, and for the UK’s performing arts industry to survive in anything like its current form, radical action is needed, soon. We know what the problems are. We know what needs to be done.
Now somebody must be given the power to do it.
This article represents the author’s own views and not those of any company or organisation to which he is affiliated.
Statistics quoted from The Big Freelancer Survey 2022 unless otherwise stated.
The narrative elements of this article are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is coincidental.
This is very thorough. Worth a repost on FB?