On Stage Lighting looks into a current hot industry topic – the immediate and and long term future of jobs in live events .
The entertainment business is not immune to the general ecomonic picture, as has been demonstrated by a number of production companies pulling down the shutters. Difficult times can also be the catalyst for reflection and change, specifically when it comes to how the production industry conducts it’s business.
This week, the most interesting of Blue Room technical forums has been The Office – a space for discussion on life as an production professional. Alongside reports of UK companies in trouble, topics have included a forced change in freelance staff payment terms, the tax status of sub contracted labour and so-called “part-time” freelancers.
It all starts with how showbusiness in the UK is run.
Theatre shows, concerts and other live events are staffed, sorry crewed, using temporary employees. Freelance management and technicians, the business couldn’t function as it does at the moment without a flexible workforce. Teams of skilled workers are assembled together for a particular period and then disbanded as soon as the show is over. Us “freelancers” crawl back off under our stones until the phone rings again.
Most freelancers are engaged on a self-employed subcontractor basis. Paying their own Tax and National Insurance they get none of the perks that a temporary employee would be entitled to. As a free market it’s pretty unregulated and most areas of the industry are untroubled by pesky things like unions.
What’s wrong with that, then?
The Taxman (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) doesn’t like all this. He says that temporary, labour-only employees should be treated as such and don’t really fit into the HMRC definition of genuine self-employed subcontractors. Small businesses, if you like.
What the Taxman doesn’t like, the production business loves. They’re blowed if their gonna start paying extra contributions, tax and giving these filthy freeloaders employee rights as well as cash. It makes sense to keep them on a string and use buying power in a saturated market to pass the business risk onto casual labour.
The freelancers are, for the moment at least, happy with the flexibility that the status quo affords. But it can seem like large employers want it both ways. They want to be able to treat you as a small business but then start trying to dictate terms, leaning on the unwary and using their large freelancer list as some kind of overdraft facility. “Well if you don’t want to do it, I can just call the next lampie on the list!. People will do anything to get into showbusiness”.
When a labour market is this flexible, shit always rolls downhill – and it doesn’t stop ’til it gets to the bottom.
So, we’ve established that the Taxman doesn’t believe in our system and is looking at ways of changing it. It’s reasonable that, as supply outstrips demand, freelancers (the bottom) start to ask questions about their future prospects. This begs the question “Can we really sustain this model of supposedly “freelance” temporary employees and still meet the needs of the market?”. After all, what we do seems to require a greater skill level than ever before and we ain’t going back.
Evil Part-Time Freelancers
When reflecting on “where it all went wrong”, people look for someone to blame. In the lighting industry, we don’t have a herd of eastern european migrants so instead some of the blame goes to freelancers who aren’t “keepin’ it real”. Part-timers who come in , undercut us and depress our fees (don’t forget, the Taxman told us we can’t do day rates anymore) and then go back to their day job. It’s all right for them, they don’t need the money. It’s all a bit of jolly day out of the office.
Well, I don’t agree and I’ll tell you why.
I don’t doubt that these extra bodies in the market have an effect on pay.
I believe in free enterprise. I am also the (almost) sole breadwinner for a family of four and have worked as a freelancer since 1995. I’m the guy who is supposed to be getting screwed by these moonlighting cowboys, food being ripped from the mouths of my children.
I believed in free enterprise when I pitched and won that gig over another LD. And when I was introduced to a client by a LD friend of mine, who I subsequently accepted work from. Some of which would probably have ended up in that mates lap. All’s fair and no hard feelings – that mate outbid me for a series of gigs later on.
I know freelancers whose partner has a good steady job. They have no kids and decent income even without the odd gig. I am the only earner.
I know freelancers who live with their parents or in a cheap bedsit. I have a house and mortage to pay.
I also know freelancers who spend all their time flying helicopters and parachuting in exotic places. I can’t afford to do that.
The point is, you can’t make a distinction. Part-time freelancer or gig slogging “lifer”, you either believe in “the market” or you don’t. When supply is greater than demand, fees take a bashing but there is an upside to the economics. When work is tight, you can bet I’ll be calling in favours, ringing up old chums and getting around. If in lean times, a freelancer is making their way just “below” my usual hunting ground, you can be sure that I will be looking to eat their lunch. It won’t necessarily be by cutting rates but it will be having a better “offer”. All’s fair and no hard feelings.
Freelancer or not, we could do ourselves a great deal of good by taking a more optimistic and pro active view of our own talents and marketable skills. Get more training, build more relationships and have more “offer” than the last guy. If you find that the supply is saturated, it makes business sense to become “ in demand” by upskilling and evolving. But don’t forget it’s people that count, not just skills. Let’s not blame the Eastern Europeans or the local house tech.
If it takes the Taxman to propel the UK events industry into it’s future employment system, that’s fine. If employers are forced to rethink how they do business in order to retain high quality talent, whatever. If all the good freelance crew upsticks and go away before London 2012, that’d be funny. One thing for sure, the status quo is not an option. If we want highly skilled, motivated home grown professionals in our business we need to offer them a bit more that the chance to work 15+ hours a day just in the name of showbusiness.
And you need to realise your own worth.