Obligatory 'freelancer's rant' stock image from Google
So I’ve been self-employed my entire working life. There’s many perks to being self-employed: greater flexibility over when you work, the opportunity to have a varied portfolio of work and the ability to be able to (sometimes) work in your joggers and dressing gown.
There’s also many, many, MANY downsides: you have to manage your own accounts, constantly promote and market yourself, absorb all training and professional development costs and face the dread of the tax return once a year. ‘Tax doesn’t have to be taxing’… no it doesn’t, but HMRC somehow make it so excruciatingly complicated.
I’m mid stage in my career, no longer ‘emerging’, not quite ‘established’… floating somewhere in between. I’m at the stage where work offers are slowly starting to come in without me having to seek the depths of the internet and apply for anything with the word ‘creative’ in the job title but I’m not so swamped in offers I am turning them down left right and centre.
Despite taking this ‘upward step’ on the career ladder, one thing I haven’t noticed is an ‘upward step’ in my salary… that, sadly, has stayed pretty much the same (and some months, if you break it down that way, it has got lower).
So what do I get paid then?
Well, around May last year I set my day rate at £150. That’s pretty low. In many industries, freelancers and consultants are paid double and even triple this amount to do a similar job to mine.
Next thing you should know is that I rarely get paid my day rate, despite having set it to ensure I earn enough money. I normally have to work for much less… currently I get paid anything between £65 and £150 per day for my work. I’ve seen jobs posted that would pay me less than minimum wage to do what I do, I’ve seen jobs posted asking me to do what I do for free… not surprisingly, I haven’t seen jobs posted offering more than my day rate.
I’m not here to shame companies. Much of my work is in the funded arts. Budgets are tight. Every penny needs to be accounted for, the worth of what it has been spent on proven to the funders and beneficiaries of the work.
But it’s for this very reason many companies must use part-time freelancers to deliver work: the cost of employing somebody full-time or even part-time is out of the question. And freelancers (good ones) bring a unique set of skills and knowledge to a team or project. Time is money for a freelancer – we work hard and fast. We want to see results because results mean happy clients and this means repeat bookings.
Freelancers also often have a huge skill-set: they have to in order to find enough work. One week I might be working with year 8 students in a classroom-setting delivering defined educational learning outcomes which will be assessed, the next I might be networking with CEO’s of big companies selling creative services and the week after that I’m delving deep into some artistic unknown with a company of performers. I am highly skilled, highly trained and have such a wide-ranging wealth of experience which you won’t find in someone employed to do a single job role.
I also love what I do despite the challenges it brings. I’m very lucky to be able to say I really do enjoy my work. I don’t want this to look like I’m being entitled or ungrateful. I’m not. But I want to make people more aware of the reality of the freelance artist’s life.
So let’s do some number-crunching…
Let’s take an average day rate of £92.50 (based on the range I’m currently being paid on various projects. And let’s say I work an average of 4 day per week (that’s a very generous estimate by the way). That’s £370 per week, £1,480 per month. If I worked like this for 12 months of the year that would be £19,240.
That’s pretty low considering the national average is £27,600. If you also consider I take on roles that require management of projects and people alongside roles that require artistic and creative input (many times the roles demand both skill-sets) then it looks even lower.
But it gets worse…
What about that 5th day? It’s generally accepted most people work 5 days a week, so why can’t I? Well, that 5th day is taken up with website management, job searching, marketing and promotion, networking, phone calls, emails, meetings about potential projects, training and development, accounting… the list goes on. And who’s paying for that time? It SHOULD be my clients as it is essential to me being free and available to work for them and deliver the results they want, when they want them.
But then it gets even worse…
That £19,240 is calculated on me working 12 months of the year. But those in employment get PAID for 28 days holiday! So let’s take off £2,590 (£92.50 x 28) for the days I will have off from work… £16,650. OUCH.
And if you think we’re finished, we’re not…
What about other costs needed to run my business? There’s too many to name but here’s a few: First Aid Training (approx. £300), DBS checks needed for working with young people and vulnerable adults (approx. £50), Safeguarding Training (approx. £120 p/day), the loss of earnings whilst partaking in training/networking/meetings, internet and phone costs, website fees, agency fees, office supplies, computers, printing, insurance…
Granted, some of these are tax-deductible but when your take home salary is 10k below that of the national average, believe me, you need to scrape back every penny you can.
And this is when a friend/partner/peer/voice-in-your-head pipes up: ‘Oh you’ve got to really love your job in this industry haven’t you?’
Yes. You do have to love it. But love doesn’t pay the rent or mortgage or bills. And why should we have such LOW expectations of our working lives anyway? As though doing a job you love is some kind of privilege…
The arts don’t pay. We all know that. To put this into greater perspective, the lowest weekly pay a theatre director working on an ITC (Independent Theatre Council) contract can get is £447.50 and it’s about the same for actors and technical staff. When you add prep fees of around £1k that sounds like a healthy take home salary. And it is for the time when you’re actually working. But when does a director work back to back on projects all year? They don’t… and they probably never will.
So what is the solution? Stop creating theatre? Stop making art? Stop community engagement through the arts?
There is an argument that some of the best art is made with little or no money and yes, having very few resources to hand does often force one to discover better creative solutions. But an artist/theatre-maker/facilitator IS an important role in the make-up of our society: they teach, question, engage and inspire us and they help to make sense of a messy, confusing, conflicting and also beautiful world.
And they deserve to be paid fairly for that.
The problem really lies in the calculations of rates of pay for freelancers. All too often I see projects advertised with the fee calculated based on the equivalent pro-rata pay-scale for an employed staff member and if people in paid employment are drawing up contracts based on their experience of what they and their colleagues are paid, maybe they think this is fair.
Except it isn’t… For all the reasons I’ve outlined above.
I’ve always been told to not undersell myself and to not undercut the average rate of pay needed to get by as a freelancer in your particular industry. But following that advice is hard when you have three weeks empty in your diary and there is an offer of some low paid work to fill the void.
The flip side of this is the months where you are swamped with offers of work and, to make up the shortfall from the quiet periods, you take on far too much and the work you deliver suffers as a result.
It’s a catch-22 situation.
But I won't ever make apologies for trying to forge a career doing what I love the most... and neither should you.