In this guest blog, award-winning freelance lighting designer Paule Constable gives her opinions on recent news about arts funding in England and the impact on freelancers.
I’m angry. Really angry now.
In a week when we have witnessed so much horror in the global news, I know that I am feeling lost, angry and helpless; and it may seem indulgent and insensitive to then shift my fury towards Arts Council England – into a world that many may consider exclusive. But the news that English National Opera are axing 19 orchestral jobs and employing their remaining musicians part time is the icing on the proverbial cake. Because this is a narrative that affects all of us freelancers – not just classical musicians, and not just those who work in opera.
I am not pointing the finger at ENO. I mean, what choice do they have? This is the direct result of the disastrous position they have been placed in by the Arts Council. As ENO said in a statement: “we are having to reevaluate our employment levels across every part of the organisation”.
So what does “reevaluate” mean? If we make things cheaper then we can afford to do what is expected of us. And how do we do that? Ah – by creating more freelancers.
Because employing musicians as freelancers is – guess what – so much cheaper. This was demonstrated by the recent Musicians’ Census report, which contained the shocking revelation that freelance players are earning on average 29% less than their employed colleagues. I mean….what?
It is rare in the performing arts to find a place where you can compare like with like, because so many roles that are freelance have no employed equivalent. But here is a statistic that reveals a stark and often hidden truth. Employed musicians – with pensions, sick pay, rights, HR departments and job security – earn on average 29% more than those who are freelance – with no job security and no safety nets.
Traditionally in the past, maybe we did believe that we earned slightly more than our employed colleagues, on the basis that this was because we had to cover all our own outgoings. From time away from work to holiday pay, paying for our own studios, computers, emergency medical care, Continuing Professional Development even. Covering our own backs. That’s our lot.
And it takes a lot: this is why we fought for a different tax bracket – so that we can offset some of the many things we individually cover that are necessary for us to do business. Our freelance earnings have to pay for all of this.
But hey – we are still cheaper. We are still paid less.
Recipients of Arts Council funding are required to proclaim publicly how “grateful” they are – alongside an almost impossible and, we are all well aware, unsubstantial policy shift towards “Levelling Up”. But we, the freelancers, do not have to echo these sentiments.
I am not grateful. I am really angry. We know that freelancers earn less, feel more vulnerable, are more vulnerable than the employed. We’ve raised awareness of this everywhere and yet still the answer is to create more freelancers. Because we are cheap, and we’re dispensable.
So when ACE then launches – this same week – a survey of its own to learn about the freelance lot, is it at all surprising that much of the response online has been exasperation and despair. We’ve shown them the data. If they really wanted to find out what the problem is – where responsibility lies and what needs to change – then let’s think about what questions they should be asking and who they should ask.
How about asking funded companies what their freelance spend is? How about asking the producing companies and National Portfolio Organisations and opera and ballet companies how many of their core making departments they have had to close down and outsource in the past ten years? What does their core funding pay for now?
What are their rates for freelancers? I’ve recently worked for an opera company who admitted to me that they haven’t looked at their creative team fees for 12 years. But that’s fine, is it? Where is the data that considers these questions? What systems of oppression does ACE funding and modelling enforce?
How is ACE funding actually investing in the skills that this industry needs? We are losing highly skilled experienced freelancers, who carry skills that are no longer held anywhere else in our industry, faster than we can ever replace them. That’s a fact that we have proven through data and experience. And a fact we have shared widely.
And we have asked people why they are leaving, or considering it. What do they tell us? The precarious nature of our jobs. The lack of stability. The fact we are all judged and seen relative to the one job we are doing. The lack of investment in skills. The loss of skilled workers. The huge pressures that come from being treated as the raw materials with which work is made, rather than as human beings.
And yet ACE policy is directly causing more individuals to be pushed into this situation.
I think if ACE want to know what the situation is like for the freelancers working in the arts, they should take a long hard look at their own behaviours and what the fallout is from new policies.
So no, I am not grateful for my lot as a freelancer. I am angry.
But perhaps now I’ll tell ACE how I feel. Because finally – better late than never – with their freelance survey, there is somewhere to put that fury.
ACE’s survey of the cultural freelance workforce is currently open until 31st October 2023 and is available online here:
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