Empowering the Freelance Economy

“Elitist fortresses” – freelancers working on a West End show can’t afford to go to one, says new report

London's West End is highly dependent on the hard work of freelancers/ Photo by Martino Battista via Pexels
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Freelancers in the theatrical arts and entertainment are considered the lifeblood of the industry, especially when it comes to London’s West End shows. The sad thing is, they can’t even afford to go to a show if they wanted. This is one of the findings of Freelancers Make Theatre Work’s Big Freelancer Survey 2022.

Here’s what some survey participants revealed:

I study and work in theatre yet can’t actually afford to go.

I can’t afford to take my godson to see a West End show and I have worked in the industry for over 10 years. Freelancers are the lifeblood of the industry but can’t afford to engage in it – says it all really.

The report’s recommendations say that the entertainment industry has become elitist and unaffordable for the masses and something has to change. Ticket prices are very concerning in terms of exclusion, according to the findings.

The report said that better support for regional theatre and subsidised ticket prices for London-based theatre was deemed to be vital to building a more accessible and sustainable future, with West End theatres being referred to e.g. as ‘elitist fortresses’ for audiences and workers.

Suggestions were made by many respondents that prices should be controlled or subsidised more to improve accessibility and sustainability.

Mass exodus of talent leaving Britain’s entertainment industry

For those considering leaving the industry, the most common reasons for leaving were concerns about financial insecurity, poor pay and working conditions. But in the background there is also a growing mental health crisis, widely believed to be a ‘silent epidemic’ in the industry, necessitating the need to take ‘rights, rates and respect’ seriously, said the report.

Many respondents linked low/no pay to overwork as an endemic problem impacting mental health in ways that must be tackled.

As one respondent put it:

I’ve never paid tax and that’s not because I have a great accountant – it’s simply that I work … 50 hours a week on average on minimum wage or less. It’s just totally unsustainable.

Freelancers who identified as being from working-class backgrounds highlighted precarity as a major barrier to entering and remaining in the industry.

I’m very seriously considering retraining and leaving the arts altogether. I have worked in the arts for 16 years and my freelance income was my only income for several years before the pandemic.

Freelancers, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, have so many barriers to participation beyond money. But money is the biggest barrier for many of us and we need more support and security to stay.

I’m encouraged by orgs like Strike A Light committing to employing artists for a year. More organisations should be looking to support freelancers in ways like this.

Big Freelancer Survey 2022 respondent

Lack of compliance and enforcement

Freelancers in the industry are calling for more consistently regulated work environments, with improved enforcement and more accessible advice and HR support. Specifically, they say they want improved contractual arrangements and working conditions, with clear routes to advice and enforcement for non-compliance with relevant legislation, policy, and good practice guidelines.

Another suggestion was to address the ‘enforcement gap’, which has limited recourse for freelancers to tackle individually or collectively. One suggestion was that commercial producers who do not adhere to safe working hours and practices ‘should be listed by SOLT’ (The Society of London Theatre).

Many of those who work in the entertainment industry on a freelance basis are looking for ’employer-type benefits, which do not always marry with being a self-employed freelancer, but rather an umbrella company contractor. Benefits that respondents were looking for include training and development opportunities, holiday and sick pay, and paid maternity/parenting leave on a par with PAYE employees. 

“The most widespread calls were for greater equality, fair pay and improved working conditions, including greater parity with those who are employed by venues/productions. For some, a better regulatory and support structure was identified as a possible route to tackling some of the worst excesses of persistent inequalities,” said the report.

Respondent examples included making sure artists are paid for meetings, that they are given clear briefs and told upfront how much they can expect to get paid, and most importantly that they are paid in a timely manner should be the bare minimum of what organisations can do to help.

BFS2-Exec-Summary.pdf (freelancersmaketheatrework.com)

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