One Size Can’t Fit All: A Fortnight of Research and Policy on Creative Freelancers

04 May 2021

Two weeks of the latest research and policy to help support creative freelancers as we come out of lockdown

Over the last five years, the creative industries grew at twice the rate of the rest of the economy. They are worth over £115bn a year to the UK and employ more than 2 million people. Over the next two weeks, we will be publishing evidence that shows that creative freelancers are a key reason for that success, and suggesting policies to better support freelancers and self-employed workers in the creative industries.

Almost one third of the creative industries workforce is made up of freelancers (in comparison to 16% across the UK more broadly), and 95% of creative organisations are microbusinesses.  Unfortunately, current policies in areas like skills and immigration, do not work adequately for industries that rely on freelancers. 

One example is the apprenticeship levy, a skills policy that is aimed at larger businesses capable of taking on trainees, but does not address the needs of a sector where a significant proportion of people are either working in micro-businesses or are self-employed. Equally, despite evidence on the importance of EU freelancers to UK creative businesses, the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system currently has limited pathways of entry for skilled freelancers, unless they are deemed exceptionally talented or have a significant amount to invest in a new business. 

More broadly, whilst a significant amount of data is collected by the Government on employment status, there is still limited evidence on the complex working practices of the self-employed which means that policymakers struggle to understand the impact of their reforms on a diverse group of people.  

COVID-19 has exposed the extent of these structural challenges and the inadequacy of the current policy status quo, but it did not cause them. And whilst self-employed people across the creative industries have struggled, those in some sub-sectors have fared far worse than others. The arts in particular have been hard hit. With theatres, galleries and venues all closed, many have struggled to win new audiences online. Research, from our project with the Centre for Cultural Value and the Audience Agency, exposed this crisis, showing a loss of 55,000 jobs across music, performing and visual arts, with the number of freelancers in all creative occupations declining by 38,000 since the start of 2020. The screen industry has also struggled, with cinemas closed and production halted during the first lockdown.  In Scotland, our latest commissioned research found that the government support schemes had not met the needs of the creative freelancers in their sample. 

There have of course been examples of resilience during the pandemic. For example, the latest research from the Freelancers in the Dark project found that freelancers in the theatre industry tend to work within tight knit, informal peer networks, which during lockdown have been invaluable for developing new skills, reorganising their working lives, promoting online shows, and looking after each other. More formal networks, such as the Association of Illustrators, - which some of our Industry Champions told us about in a panel discussion (we will be publishing their recommendations next week) -  provided the sort of support and useful information for freelancers that other workers receive from their employers. 

Despite these strengths, there is a huge risk that, as other sectors begin to recover from the pandemic, some parts of the creative industries will be left behind. Across the cultural sector, more than a quarter (27%) of young workers left their creative occupation after the end of the last lockdown, higher than the usual turnover rate (15%). In the performing arts, where 88% of the workforce are self-employed or freelancers, 72.4% of the workforce felt more pessimistic about their future as a freelancer. 

There is  also a significant risk that the creative industries will be re-concentrated in South East England and London, as we saw following the global financial crisis in 2008, which would reverse the trend of new creative clusters emerging in places like South Wales and North East England, and put breaks on the Government's levelling-up agenda. 

Over the next two weeks, we will be shining a spotlight on creative freelancers - why they are such an important part of the creative sector, the challenges they face, and the policy interventions needed to support them.  We aim to illustrate the social and economic value of freelancers to the creative industries, and to help policymakers and people working in the industry find out how to break down the barriers preventing new freelancers from entering, progressing, and maintaining work in the sector. 

In particular, we will be publishing research on the challenges faced by the arts sub-sectors.  From Tuesday 4th - Friday 7th May, we will be looking at the experience of self employed workers in theatre, a pay and working condition comparison between New York’s Broadway and London’s West End, and a deep dive into freelancer careers in the Scottish screen industry. 

In the second week, from Monday 10th - Friday 14th, we will turn our attention to highlighting some of the possible policy responses, including insights from some of our  of Industry Champions, an analysis of how different creative sectors have fared over the pandemic, and finally we will be summarising our findings and outlining our recommendations for how we can support the creative industries to recover and thrive in a post-pandemic economy.

What are creative freelancers?

The Government defines someone’s employment status as self-employed if they run their business for themselves and take responsibility for its success or failure. The term ‘freelancer’ is less clearly defined. It is sometimes used as a subcategory of self-employment - for example in the Labour Force Survey where respondents can choose to list it as their particular type of self-employment, although it is left to them to define what this means. IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed) havedefined freelancers as those self employed people working in highly skilled managerial, professional and technical occupations; this includes occupations from lawyers and accountants, doctors and scientist, writers and designers to high level managers and directors, to list a few.

In practice they are often treated as synonymous with self-employment as a whole, as is the case in this blog. Over the next two weeks the PEC’s research will emphasise different aspects of self-employment with a particular focus on freelancers of all definitions.

Image by Sebastian Erzi