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Freelance working in the creative industries and the impact of non-status employment

A blog by Assistant Professor Heidi Ashton


Politicians, sector organisations, government departments and research centres have all referred to the UK creative industries as ‘world leading’. This has attracted creative freelancers from across the globe who describe the UK as the ‘Mecca’ of the creative industries.

So, what is a creative freelancer and what do they do?

Freelancers in the Creative Industries are an interconnected group of highly skilled, trained people. Many of them train for around ten years to gain the skills and knowledge that they utilise in their work. They are often paid per project which does not consider the time it takes to prepare, research and develop the work. In their report, Freelancers Make Theatre Work found that 100% of creative freelancers almost always do more work than they are paid for and without the security of ongoing employment or access to funds between jobs.

How do freelancers contribute to the economy?

The sector economic statistics for 2019 published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport show an estimated contribution to a gross value added (GVA) of £115.9 billion. According to Creative England, this figure increases to £178 billion when all creative jobs (the creative economy) are factored in. Alongside this, the creative industries saw an increase of 61,000 jobs in the same year which was 2.7% higher than the UK average for that year (Creative Industries Council, CIC) and accounted for 15.7% of all jobs across the UK (DCMS).

The workforce behind these impressive economic figures includes a relatively high proportion of freelance workers. The CIC estimates that a third of the workforce is made up of freelancers, although in 2017 the CIF estimated these figures to be closer to half at 47%. Some sub-sectors are particularly reliant upon a freelance workforce with the British Film Institute estimating that over half of workers in TV and Film are freelance at around 54% and a report by Freelancers Make Theatre Work revealing 71% of theatre workers to be freelance.

The difficulty of defining what constitutes freelance work

The figures are estimated partly because of the nature of freelance work, workers are constantly finding different ways to earn a living so an individual may be freelance or employed or both at any given time. A further complication is that no such category of worker exists in official terms, that is there is no clear definition of what constitutes freelance work, and no such term exists in employment regulations or policy. As a result, the terms ‘self-employed’ and ‘freelance’ are often used interchangeably which can lead to misconceptions about the nature of freelancers and freelance work.

For example, in many official government statistics the term 'self-employed' is used, as this is the closest term to the nature of employment relations involved in freelancing but it covers a range of different work contexts including those who employ others as micro enterprises, sole traders, contractors and those dependent upon others for temporary, short-term contracts such as freelancers.

The official government definition of 'self- employed' status is someone who meets most of the following criteria:

  1. Being in business for yourself and responsibility for the success or failure of the business.

  2. Deciding what work you do and when or how to do it.

  3. Can hire someone else to do the work.

  4. Responsible for fixing unsatisfactory work.

  5. The employer agrees a fixed price for the work which is not time dependent.

  6. Provide their own tools and buy all business assets.

  7. Can work for more than one client.

Whilst points 5 and 7 may be applicable in specific circumstances, much of this list does not apply to freelancers. The list also presupposes some opportunity for the self-employed person to negotiate a fee based on the costs of the work whereas freelancers are often told what the fee is with little or no room for negotiation.

Precarity, pay and the pandemic

A dancer, for example, will face an intensely competitive audition for a job and then must accept the pay and conditions if they manage to secure a contract. The lack of employment status in policy terms means that they have little access to the employment rights of other employees and little access to the autonomy of the self-employed. This, alongside the dependency on numerous short-term contracts, provides the basis for the precarity experienced by freelancers, a precarity that was highlighted during the pandemic.

They also don't hold any official employment status. This in turn has led to them falling through the gaps of support during the pandemic. This lack of status leaves them in a financially precarious and vulnerable position and is perhaps the reason why the Centre for Cultural Value found that 38,000 freelancers left the creative industries in 2020. With so much of the sector reliant upon the freelance workforce, sustaining a global ‘Mecca’ status requires a rethink and repositioning of the employment status of these workers. An opportunity for them to be paid for their vital contribution to the success of the creative industries.

Working to get work

One of the difficulties that freelancers face is that much of the work that they do is hidden. They are constantly working to get work, arranging meetings, marketing themselves and their work, developing skills and completing admin tasks. In a conventional company or business model, such costs would be considered overheads and would be factored into the value placed on the work but as individuals, these costs become invisible to the outside and as such are unpaid.

As a result, 40% of all theatre freelancers make less than £10,000 per year with the Musicians Union reporting 56% of their freelance members earning less than £20,000 gross per year despite their investment in skills and overheads. This is a contrast to the 8% of freelancers that earn over the lower-rate tax threshold.

Adapation and diversification

Consequently, freelancers are extremely adept at adapting. They juggle many jobs and transfer their skills across a range of sectors to earn a living but rarely have enough to generate significant savings. They may be juggling part-time or fractional contract work as PAYE employees in education, hospitality, fitness or in the service industry, whilst also being self-employed business owners of small craft businesses, dog walking/grooming, photography, videography, floristry, and others whilst also working freelance in various jobs across theatre, film, television, events, fashion, and music industries. The contribution that they make to the economy is inevitably undefined and almost certainly underestimated.

Dr Heidi Ashton is an Assistant Professor in the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies. She has extensive experience in the creative industries having worked as a freelance dancer, choreographer and producer in settings including film, television, theatre and live events around the world.