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Empty concert venue, with chairs spaced out.

How coronavirus has hit the UK’s creative industries

As the days get shorter and the second wave of coronavirus sets in, the UK is switching to a new winter economy plan. The package of measures marks a shift in government rhetoric from “jobs retention” to “jobs support” as the new plan focuses on so-called “viable” jobs, rather than protecting jobs in general.

For those that previously made their living in the creative industries, this is worrying news. With many sectors of the creative economy unable to resume activity due to the pandemic, many creative jobs may not be seen as viable under the rules of the new scheme.

An even greater crisis faces the many creative freelancers who have been excluded from all forms of jobs and business support since the pandemic hit in March. Campaign group Excluded UK estimates that 3 million UK taxpayers have been unable to access meaningful government support. For some, this may be because they have a part-time job on a company’s payroll. For others, it is due to the small profits made by their limited companies. And there is a litany of other reasons.

Ironically, many of the excluded are those creatives who worked on the recorded content – the TV shows, the albums, the National Theatre streams – that sustained the nation during lockdown. While 15% of the working population is freelance, in creative sectors that leaps to 47%.

Creative responses to coronavirus

In our research on the effects of the pandemic on creative freelancers, most of those we have spoken to had every gig, job or commission in their diaries cancelled in those first few days and weeks of lockdown earlier this year. Projects that may have been three years in the making were shelved indefinitely, and there was an immediate halt of cashflow in many cases.

Many creative freelancers have “portfolio careers”, with multiple jobs. But a high proportion of these ancillary jobs, such as teaching, were also halted due to lockdown. This meant many were unable to make any money. Plus, the reasons that people were excluded from government support – such as being newly self-employed or having part-time work on a payroll, which generated around 50% of their total income – were also the reasons that these workers were particularly in need of support. For example, because they were new graduates or still emerging in their profession and had a mix of jobs.

Arm of person playing guitar, with another person playing on screen in background.
Working under lockdown has been difficult for lots of creative freelancers. Volha Werasen / Shutterstock.com

The cancellation of arts festivals has further removed vital opportunities for creatives to show and develop new work, find collaborators and make the industry connections who would commission them or fund future events and tours. And while much creative work has found an audience online during this period, many are worried that by giving this content away for free, they are setting a precedent that their work lacks value and risks devaluing their practice as a whole.

Many creatives we spoke to described experiencing a pressure to somehow maintain an active profile, stay relevant, and find some kind of artistic response to current events – but often with little promise of any tangible reward. Undoubtedly, many creatives have taken opportunities to develop new skills and expand their practice in new ways. But their capacity to actually earn any money from this, or other jobs, remains fundamentally limited.

Support is slow to appear

While the government has pledged support to the creative industries, this money is slow in appearing. Despite being announced on July 5, none of the UK government’s £1.57 billion rescue package has yet been distributed. It is also aimed at larger cultural institutions.

The creative freelancers we have spoken to will need to continue to rely on food packages sent by family, small one-off charitable grants, and (for some) universal credit allowances, in the hope that some of the rescue package eventually trickles down to them. In the meantime, the rent and mortgage holidays, which had been keeping some afloat, will come to an end.

The creative economy makes an enormous contribution to the cultural fabric of British society. Its value to the UK economy is estimated to be £13 million per hour. Before the pandemic, the creative industries were one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, contributing £111 billion in 2018.

But the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inherent precarity of the creative labour market. Creative work is often poorly paid, insecure, and it requires a great deal of investment to create and sustain a creative career. With the recent announcement of redundancies by the Sage Gateshead concert venue and the V&A museum, it is clear that even the biggest and most important performing arts venues in our country will struggle to survive.

Less visible, but just as important, the vast freelance workforce that delivers the artistic content and support for these organisations has already been depleted and will continue to suffer until the government and sector leaders find a way to adequately support freelancers directly. Otherwise, there is a risk that we will retain the country’s cultural architecture but without the artists necessary to produce the plays, songs and visual art needed to fill it. Worse, diversity in the arts will be considerably set back as artists without the connections and finances to survive six months or more of unemployment are driven out of the industry.

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