Big Freelancer Survey 2020 logo

The Big Freelancer Survey aims to provide a detailed report of the past 12 months. This data will feed into ongoing lobbying of both industry bodies and government, informing them where support is most needed and what the greatest issues facing freelancers are.

You can read a plain language (easy read) version of the executive summary here.

About this year’s survey

We are hugely grateful to everyone who completed this year’s survey, and who shared the link and encouraged others to fill it in. Without this support for the work we are doing, we wouldn’t have the rich and detailed evidence base that we have.

1156 freelancers took part in BFS3, which included a mix of pre-coded and free text questions. The survey was designed and analysed by the survey team, in consultation and collaboration with the wider FMTW community.

This year’s survey responses generated 224 pages (83,000+ words) of qualitative data. Participants were asked to identify up to five key words to describe their experiences of working in the industry over the past twelve months; to identify three things about the industry that they would change if they could; to provide any other comments on the survey and the issues it raises; to comment on their thoughts and feelings about the impact of Brexit on the industry and their work, and to describe any thoughts or feelings they have about concerns about a current skills drain in the industry following COVID, Brexit and the increasing cost of living in the UK.

Our first survey (from 2020) was the largest survey of its kind and directly influenced the announcement of the CRF as well as the production of the Routes To Recovery report. 12 months later we published the first Big Freelancer Report, mapping the problems facing the freelance workforce with practical recommendations for change. 

Our second Big Freelancer Survey was entitled ‘Open to all, but not open all hours – Hopes and fears for the future of the UK’s entertainment industries‘ and was published in 2022 and used widely in the lobbying of industry bodies and government.

The Big Freelancer Survey has become an annual survey which provides a detailed report of the past 12 months.

Our 2023 report entitled ‘Underpaid, Undervalued, Under Pressure’ is available to read now.

You can read the full report now here or you can read the Executive Summary below which is also available to download here.

Executive Summary

Underpaid, undervalued, under pressure.

It is three years since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – and three years since our first Big Freelancer Survey (BFS). This year’s survey paints a stark picture of a freelance workforce ‘under siege’, facing the perfect storm of a cost-of-living crisis, and the ongoing impact of Covid and Brexit, combined with deeply embedded structural inequalities.

The clear message from this year’s survey is that the freelance theatre workforce feels ‘undervalued, underpaid and under- appreciated’, a feeling that has been amplified by significant funding cuts in the last year. Although many find the work fulfilling, unsustainably low pay is leading to skills shortages in certain roles and work intensification for those who remain, often without adequate – or any – remuneration. There is
a widespread sense that the precarious nature of freelance work across the industry has worsened since the pandemic, and that its effects are exhausting, with many describing their working lives as ‘unpredictable, unsettling and unsustainable’.

This report presents the findings of a mixed-methods survey of freelance workers conducted in early 2023. It is the third in a planned series of five Big Freelancer Surveys (2020-2025), designed to provide evidence-based insight into how the effects of the pandemic over time intersect with longer-term

ssues such as chronic insecurity and precarity. Overall, average earnings for freelancers in the industry are 17.5% below the UK national average salary.

1156 theatre freelancers took part in this year’s survey, which highlights a pay-gap between the male and female workforce of 37.4% (regretfully, the data set for non-binary respondents was too small to draw reliable conclusions). Reports of an industry rife with ageism and sexism are further corroborated by data which reveals that the pay-gap widens to 47.7% for freelancers with 21-30 years experience in the industry.

The report highlights:


1. Financial uncertainty and underpayment were the most widely reported concerns across all career stages, regions, and sectors. Many said that their lives are a ‘constant struggle’ because of financial precarity, income uncertainty, and underpayment, resulting in a chronic scenario in which many freelancers are living hand- to-mouth due to the constant expectation to work for below minimum wage, for free or for ‘ridiculously low pay’.

2. Work intensification (doing more work for the same, or less pay), and work extension (being required to take on more roles and/or responsibilities for the same, or less pay) were widely reported across sectors and levels of work, with 64.6% of respondents saying that they have felt under pressure to do more work for the same or less pay in the last year. The qualitative data suggests that this situation has worsened since Covid, due to high numbers of freelancers leaving – or being forced out of – the industry, the subsequent skills shortage, and companies trying to achieve the same work for less money, which is leading to the hiring of low-paid, inexperienced freelancers.

3. A skills shortage in specific roles and sectors is having an impact on workplace fairness, safety, and workloads. Producers, stage mangers and those in technical roles were identified as being particularly over- stretched as a result of this.

4. Many feel that the past twelve months have been worse than their experiences during the pandemic due to Brexit, the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and the overwork-underpayment bind. There is a sense that ‘building back better’ hasn’t happened, that lessons learned during the pandemic have been abandoned, and that the last few years have been a missed opportunity for industry reform. The combination of these factors is driving freelancers to leave the industry, with one participant saying, ‘due to Brexit and Covid, the last thirty years of hard work has left me with nothing – no income, no pension, no work, and it seems no future’.

5. The survey highlights concerns about persistent exclusivity, inequality and inaccessibility. Many participants referred to feeling frustrated and discouraged about working in an industry in which inclusivity is believed to be ‘just a word and not reality’, with respondents feeling that there is a lack of meaningful progression in terms of equality. This is reflected in the data on pay, which shows that respondents from a global majority background earn 17.19% less than their white counterparts, and that for those living with medical conditions, caring responsibilities, or from traditionally working class backgrounds the mean income is lower than the industry average (£22,900).

6. A striking imbalance between the income of male and female theatre freelancers (37.4%). A closer look at the data provides some possible factors in the existence of this pay gap, for example that more male respondents earned 100% of their income from freelance work (Male: 55.4% compared Female: 49.4%). However, it is clear that this pay gap persists through various methodologies and can only be partially explained by differences in the amount of overall work done by male and female respondents.

7. 77.9% of survey respondents feel that Brexit has been a source of uncertainty for their work in the industry, with those working in opera, classical music and live events being hit particularly hard. There is a widespread perception that difficulties in obtaining visas are causing employers to discriminate against those with/ without EU passports and the 90/180 day rule means that freelancers are having to turn down work. There is also evidence that UK makers and suppliers are losing contracts to their EU counterparts due to high import costs and slow delivery times.

8. Our analysis spotlights specific roles across the industry that are particularly impacted by the issues raised in the report. This includes directors, assistant- and associate directors being expected to do unrealistic amounts of unpaid preparation time; a growing mental health crisis in stage management due to the skills shortage; and costume workers and designers being asked to work multiple roles beyond their job descriptions and contracted hours.

Recommendations and actions in this year’s report include:

1. The introduction and enforcement of fair rates of pay that tackle the disparity between freelance wages and salaried staff in organisations. It is recommended that all projects pay at least the union rate, and that this rate should be treated as a minimum rather than an industry standard. Actual rates of pay need to reflect the skills, knowledge and expertise of those hired, and to be
realistic about the number of hours each project involves. Adequate remuneration should be offered for travel and accommodation, and to those working 40+ hours per week.

2. Better systems for recognising the value of the freelancer voice, and for holding organisations accountable. These could include a more organised unionisation of the creative freelance workforce across art forms and sectors, freelancer presence on organisation management committees and boards, and new systems for reporting discrimination in the workplace.

3. Improved accessibility for under-represented groups across the industry. For conversations about inclusion to progress from being ineffectual and largely rhetorical to meaningful action that sees pay gaps eliminated, accessible routes into the arts, and better support for those from under- represented groups working within the industry.

4. A thorough review of funding, including of government funding policy. This should look at how grants are administered, the amount of work that is involved in making funding applications, and whether financial support schemes (eg. government schemes) could better support the freelance lifestyle.

5. A drive to tackle London-centrism in funding policy and provision. A lack of affordable accommodation and travel support for those living outside of London, combined with recurring rail strikes has caused particular stress to the freelance workforce in the last year. The touring allowance needs to be increased to match inflation.

6. The introduction of a general EU/UK work passport or permit so that short notice and short term work is possible again for the creative workforce.

The Big Freelancer Survey is conducted by Freelancers Make Theatre Work in partnership with The University of Essex.

The Big Freelancer Survey (BFS) team consists of Freelancers Make Theatre Work members of staff and volunteers; Josie Underwood, Alistair Cope, Mimi Doulton, and Paul Carey Jones. The team also includes Melissa Tyler, co-director of the Future of Creative Work group in the Centre for Work, Organization and Society at the University of Essex. The aim of the survey is to provide an evidence base for FMTW’s work in lobbying for a fair and sustainable future for freelance workers across the UK’s theatre and entertainment industries. 1156 freelancers took part in BFS3, which included a mix of pre-coded and free text questions. The survey was designed and analysed by the survey team, in consultation and collaboration with the wider FMTW community.

Special thanks to Freddie Crossley, Melissa Tyler, Mimi Doulton and Leigh Toney for contributing to the Audio Versions above.

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