Oxford Economics estimates that roughly one-third of employees in the performing-arts sector across the UK could lose their jobs as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.  This is bad news indeed, however many of us who are employed in the arts are either still working or currently protected by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.  It’s the freelancers or contractors who are suffering.  In the arts world, 70% of the workforce are self-employed freelancers.  Many of them are without a job now.

The government has provided very welcome support for self-employed individuals, but unfortunately many freelancers in the cultural sector do not qualify for that support.  Lucy Campbell and Mark Brown’s recent article for The Guardian picked up a survey by the membership organisation Women in Film and TV which found 67% of freelancers were unable to access any government support.

The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme was only available to individuals who had started trading in the tax year 2018 to 2019.  Individuals new to the industry since then automatically did not qualify.

Many arts freelancers have been actively encouraged by HMRC to be on PAYE and any PAYE income will not count towards the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.  In addition, if the freelancer wasn’t employed on a PAYE payroll on 19 March, their employer cannot make a claim to cover their salary through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.  Double whammy!

We have seen some positive financial support from freelancers.  On 24 Mar 2020 Arts Council England launched a £160m emergency response package to support individual artists, freelancers and cultural organisations, of this £20m was specifically to support creative practitioners and freelancers, with grants up to £2,500.  By the middle of June they had allocated £17.1million allocated to 7,491 individuals.  Whilst this level of support isn’t going to sustain freelancers in the long-term, the speed of response of Arts Council England was extremely helpful in giving some freelancers a life-line.  At the time the announcement was made, none of us, ACE included had any idea how long freelancers would need to be supported for.

What can we at November Club do?

We don’t directly employ any performers, designers, musicians or back-stage staff.  We rely on freelancers to deliver every single piece we produce.  We are really worried that we will lose access to a large proportion of our skill base.  We want to do all we can to support those we have worked with and those we want to work with in the future.

Foods and Feuds: Two Cooks of Hexham - cast photo. © Jason Thompson, Sound Ideas MediaWhen the coronavirus pandemic started to affect the UK, we were rehearsing Foods and Feuds: Two Cooks of Hexham.  It was a difficult time leading up to lockdown as we didn’t know whether we should continue working or not.  Everyone who works with us had to feel safe, so we kept consulting the performers, stage managers and creative staff to ensure they were happy to keep working.  We want freelancers to choose to work with November Club because we are great to work with so it’s important to carry people with us.  When we took the decision to stop the show, we, of-course, paid the freelancers their full contract value.  I say, of course, but we are aware that some companies didn’t do this.

Since then, it has been difficult to know how to help.  We have been doing our best to develop our digital work for which we need freelancer expertise, but is isn’t as much work as we were planning to offer out this year.  That’s why we were delighted to become involved in part sponsoring a freelance creative, Olivia Hunt, to participate in the Freelance Task Force.  The Task Force intends to represent the needs of the creative freelancers and ultimately feed into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Cultural Renewal Taskforce.  We have partnered with Unfolding Theatre and Open Clasp Theatre Company to sponsor Olivia.  We are grateful to Fuel, an independent producing company that works in live performance based in London, for originating the idea and to Northern Stage, who are sponsoring a second freelancer, for allowing us to piggy-back onto their recruitment process. (A third freelancer is being sponsored by Mortal Fools).  We hope that the work that the taskforce undertakes will ensure that a vibrant freelance artistic pool continues to be available to us, particularly North-East based freelancers.  They are crucial to our success.

What can we all do?

Perhaps we can all do something to help.  Most of the freelancers we employ specialise in working on live events and don’t have a means of generating alternative income.  Perhaps you could offer your morale support instead.  Many freelancers are facing a crisis in confidence as well as a loss of income.  Follow them on Twitter or Instagram, look on their Facebook page or website and leave them comments.  (If you don’t know their ‘handles’ look who we follow or are followed by on our social media).  Most of the people we work with get a buzz from the reaction of the audience, you can continue to be their audience even remotely.  Don’t underestimate what a little sign of support can do for someone. Get tweeting!

#FreelancersMakeTheatreWork

Whilst it isn’t related solely to supporting freelancers, you could sign up to the Campaign For the Arts.  The campaign supports all forms of arts and culture, however given, as we have already said, that 70% of the workforce are self-employed freelancers, it could have a direct impact.  On 6 July 2020, the government announced £1.57bn funding for the arts.  Whilst this is very welcome it remains to be seen how freelancers will benefit from this.

https://www.campaignforthearts.org/

#campaignforthearts @CampaignfortheArts (Twitter) @campaignforthearts (Instagram), @CampaignForTheArts (Facebook)