Patrick Towell explains why underpaying or under-employing workers can never be in an organisation’s long-term interests and suggests how you can start thinking more sustainably about the big picture – for everyone’s benefit.
The Audience Agency's 2018 study on resilience in the cultural sector, which gathered over 1,200 responses from arts professionals at all levels, revealed an intimate relationship between the personal resilience of individuals working in the sector, the wider resilience of the organisations that rely on them, and the ecosystems of both.
Because organisations are made up of individuals it’s extremely difficult for a cultural organisation to be truly resilient if its people aren’t. Concepts of personal resilience typically relate to psychological wellbeing (mental health) and depend on the usual hierarchy of needs being met: from food and shelter, through social contact to – as we hope that much artistic and creative endeavour helps to achieve – self-actualisation.
As the negative connotations of the gig economy and zero hours contracts take root, people are no longer necessarily benefiting from that spirit of flexibility
Trying to make an organisation resilient by underpaying or under-employing the people who do its work may seem to make financial sense in the immediate term, but is almost certain to be unsustainable in the long-term. There are many reasons why this may be true.
When I left university in 1991, for example, I worked for £7,500 a year (about £16,000 in today’s money) as a runner in a TV and video post-production company in West London. I cycled to work because I couldn’t afford to pay the bus fare. I was then poached to run a nearby creative workspace that included desktop publishing, illustration and design and film/video editing, with a salary of £10,500 (about £22k c.2019). I made myself ill overworking and taking on the stress of running the whole place as a green 21-year-old without anyone really managing me.
Being short of money in one of the most expensive cities in the world only added to that anxiety – even though in those days I didn’t have a student loan, I did have student debt. In the interests of my health (mental and physical) I went to work freelance for a management consultancy instead. They helped me establish my first proper business as an IT consultant working with creative businesses. It took years before I returned to being directly involved in creative and cultural organisations again.
Freelancing can be terrific
Freelancing – or running your own micro-business, which is more or less the same thing – can enable us to have much more control over what work we do, when we have breaks, where we work from and the passion projects that we pursue. (A launch PR piece about freelance brokerage platform Nodal explains this well.) It’s a long time since 1994 when Charles Handy imagined a new future of work in 'The Empty Raincoat'. This championed, in a context of constant innovation, the outside view of ‘consultants’ who, he argued, can be more attuned to the next big wave of change than the staffers in any single organisation. The subsequent transition in certain sectors to the dominance of self-leading, self-determining individuals picking and choosing who they work for seemed, at the time, radical to some. To me, with a dad who combined being a jazz musician with carving wood to commission and doing the milk round for Golant – the village I grew up in – this flexible working paradigm seemed perfectly normal. He and we were poor, but he was happy (though I think my mum and I wouldn’t have said no to being a little richer!).
Freelancing can be terrifying
As the negative connotations of the gig economy and zero hours contracts take root, however, people are no longer necessarily benefiting from that spirit of flexibility. Instead they are suffering disproportionate levels of insecurity. In the cultural industries there exist very particular factors around what creatives have to do unpaid before they can secure paid projects. This is especially true where they need to develop or create artistic work at their own risk and expense.
The consequence of this underpayment and under-employment is that the only people who end up doing the work are those who are privileged to be financially independent or otherwise resource rich. Only they can afford to commit so much of their time and energy in return for a reward that will not support a decent or even basic lifestyle. We, as an industry, understand that this perpetuates an elite workforce that excludes those from lower socio-economic groups and ends up privileging the cultural expressions of a narrow workforce that is not representative of the broader community. Arts Council England calls this challenge ‘the creative case for diversity’ – but what can we do about it?
5 ways to start planning in your own and your freelancers’ best interests
1. Start off each project or initiative with the intention of making a profit.
If you aim to make a profit you may do so, or you may break even. If you aim from the start to simply break even, that’ll be the best you ever achieve and, statistically, you’re more likely to actually make a loss. One of the easiest ways to cope with making a loss is to reduce the payments to artists, creatives, technicians and other professionals who will often be non-permanently employed. If you want to improve your chances of making a profit, arrange that those who have most control over creating it have a share.
2. Set goals for the resilience of your ecosystem, including the freelancers that work for you.
Imagine trying to run your organisation without the whole ecosystem or ‘supply chain’ of freelancers, associates, partners and other suppliers. Impossible, right? Then your resilience depends on theirs, so you had better factor that into your strategy, if only out of self-interest, let alone values. It’s worth noting that there’s a marked difference between the priorities of creative endeavours here in the UK versus the developing world, where the purpose of enabling people to earn money – and thereby eat, have a roof their head and, if they’re lucky, have quality time to apply to their work – is baked in from the beginning of every project. It is not seen as a by-product, benefit or happy coincidence.
3. Resource each stage of every creative project, from ideation to exploitation.
Everyone’s process will be different but there is a surprising structural similarity between most artforms (performance, exhibitions, visitor attractions) and most media and entertainment (games, TV, film, music) in that they follow a lifecycle of:
- Ideation (formulating the idea’s purpose and intention)
- Development (in the sense of developing an idea into a thing that’s ready to produce)
- Production (realising, making, rehearsing etc, until the idea is ready to be shared)
- Exploitation (presentation, touring, distribution, licensing, loans etc).
The key is to resource each stage properly, particularly development. That said, it’s difficult to justify your organisation investing in the development itself unless it has a financial interest in exploitation. So make sure you do. It’s probably better for the individual creative that you take a small percentage of future earnings from a project and help pay for their time in developing it, than they have to do that phase unpaid.
You can legitimately invest in a portfolio of products, services, experiences, happenings and works, some of which will fail and some succeed. But with careful creative and financial judgement across the portfolio, they will overall not only pay back but also create a profit. If you are a non-profit, then like other social enterprises you will use this gain to invest in other things important to your mission or to increase your reserves and therefore financial resilience.
4. Explore the non-monetary ways of paying
You may have assets or resources (like skills, relationships, knowledge or information) which can either help a freelancer generate money or save them money. They may cost you nothing, or at most significantly less than their value to the individual concerned. So in effect you can create some money out of thin air. This requires a conversation upfront to understand ALL the things the freelancer is doing in their professional and personal life (that they are willing to share) to see what other value you can bring to them. This might be a free conference pass, a chance to showcase their work, desk or rehearsal space, discounts on food and drink, IT facilities, mentoring, childcare… And make sure you pay them on time – or early even.
5. Make them part of your extended enterprise
Develop long-term relationships so that, from the freelancer’s point of view, the effort to get to know and start working with you isn’t just about one project and one fee. From their perspective, as understanding develops between parties over time, they will come to be able to provide you with the same value for less effort. From an organisational stance, you’ve gained a regular collaborator and set of experience without having to pay them every month. Treat your regular freelancers as ‘associates’ – a part of your extended team – with no less respect than staff. Keep them informed, give them a chance to have their say and contribute to their professional development, even if it is just helping them set goals and reflect on their progress.
For most organisations, there are many ways that their relationships with freelancers, and the benefits those workers themselves derive from the arrangement, can be improved. Overcoming the temptation to ever underpay or under-employ your extended team is in your organisation’s long-term best interests, as well as theirs.
Patrick Towell is Executive Director of Golant Innovation and Innovation Director of The Audience Agency.
This article, sponsored and contributed by The Audience Agency, is part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.