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Are we witnessing the end of self-employed creatives?

Equity, the performing arts trade union, found that nearly half of its members struggled to pay bills. What does this mean for working class creatives?

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People from less priveleged backgrounds are increasingly being squeezed out of creative industries by other costs. Image: Liza Summer/Pexels

“You need money to make money,” says London-based photographer Alexis Neve, who has been self-employed since 2018. The 34-year-old says creatives are stuck in a catch-22 whereby the longevity of their work depends on how much money they have to begin with. But, crucially, she adds, financial security is vital for creative thinking. And yet, the financial climate for creatives is looking dire.

In a new study produced by the performing arts and entertainment trade union Equity and the University of Warwick, it’s been revealed that nearly half of the Equity members surveyed had been unable to pay their bills at some point. Some 41% of members had gone without essential items, such as food, and 5% had been forced to leave their homes. And this will likely have been compounded by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing cost of living crisis

When it comes to accessing financial support, four out of five members said universal credit had not helped them to work in the creative industries. Equity is now calling for more financial support for artists and creatives, scrapping of the minimum income floor stipulated by universal credit, and a review of the current welfare system and how it treats self-employed and atypical workers.

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Without this support, self-employed creatives will be driven out of the sector, says Neve. She has seen how a growing number of freelancers have had to take up work outside their professions, even people who’ve had long-term clients in the past. “The lack of financial support shows me how the powers that be don’t take the creative industries seriously enough, and working-class people are being priced out of these industries.”

Katie Baskerville, a Bristol-based freelance writer, 31, has also noticed how elements of her business have been slowing down recently and that her income is not going as far as it used to.

“Those small luxuries I’d treat myself to when doing the food shop and feeling a bit more free in my spending have ground to a halt,” she tells the Big Issue.

With a lack of financial support for freelancers, Baskerville says she might have to start looking for work that’s not necessarily within the writing industry. “These non-creative jobs are not always work I love or enjoy. I worry that at the end of the current contract I have with a client, I’ll have to look for work so far outside my skillset that it might be a step down in experience and salary.”

Baskerville adds that when this happens to creatives, we lose so much: “Without creative voices from all walks of life and experiences adding to the creative conversation, we lose political voices, activists, commentators and the ability to find real social mobility and a more equitable future.”

As it is, the creative industry is inaccessible for low socio-economic groups, with working-class representation in the arts at poor levels.



According to the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre, only 5% of those from working-class backgrounds based outside of London and the South East work in a creative role, compared to 15% of those from privileged backgrounds living in these regions. The research also showed that privileged men are more than three times more likely to be working in a creative occupation than working-class women; and that disabled people from a working class background are 2.7 times less likely to find a creative role than their counterparts.

The research shows that the class crisis is signifiant and that 263,000 additional working-class people would need to be employed in creative industries to make it as socio-economically diverse as the rest of the economy. This deficit, researchers say, is equivalent to the size of the creative workforce in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

With the cost of living crisis impacting the entire creative economy, coupled with the pandemic, many creative organisations are haemorrhaging cash.

Publications such as gal-dem, written for and by non-binary and women of colour, as well as legacy internet sites such as BuzzFeed and Vice, have filed for bankruptcy, closed divisions or shuttered in their entirety, and in quick succession. This is something Marian Kwei, a London-based celebrity stylist and creative consultant, 40, has seen in her line of work.

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She tells The Big Issue: “As a creative, I’m not working as much or being booked as often as clients who would’ve previously hired me for styling, writing, or consulting as they are dealing with their own rising costs.”

Kwei also doesn’t think there’s enough support for freelance creatives and is seeing people either having to diversify their skillset, work alternative jobs alongside their creative ones, or be pushed out of their roles entirely.

For some creatives, they have to contend with another responsibility – the rising costs of childcare. Liverpool-based fashion stylist Joanne Watkinson, 40, says this adds another challenge to her work. After losing a long-term contract in 2020 due to the pandemic, Watkinson set up her own fashion brand, By Elleven, with a friend but said they have had to find ways to adapt to the current economic climate.

“[Childcare costs] mean I have to compromise on paying for childcare and picking up my children from school myself and work when they are in bed in the evenings,” says Watkinson. She adds that she and her business partner are now having to take non-fashion jobs to cover their increasing costs.

Currently, all children aged three to four are eligible for 30 hours of free childcare a week, but this only applies if their parents are working 16 hours each week – something freelance and atypical workers can’t always guarantee. Unhelpfully, in 2022, the average place at a holiday club cost £148 a week – a 5% rise on 2021 figures, with families now finding themselves almost £900 out of pocket for six weeks of holiday childcare for each school age child.

Previously, social security would have provided some relief for working class creatives but with dwindling benefits and an ever-challenging universal credit system, this industry is increasingly inaccessible.

Dr Heidi Ashton from the University of Warwick told the Guardian this means creatives are being pushed out: “In the past, people from working class backgrounds relied on social security in the early stages of their careers or in moments of hardship due to the precarious nature of freelance work. Without this safety net, people without other financial means are either leaving the sector entirely or face losing their homes.”

When art becomes homogenous, we lose not only numbers of talented people, but the real opportunity to be immersed in diverse, challenging, new, and unique experiences. That’s a loss to us all.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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