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Boom and Bust in the Lighting Business

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.

The Future

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.

  1. Maximilian Zhichao

    Great blog post. The same can be said for freelance conditions in Chicago metro area – in competition with everyone and their mother. Anyone who thinks they can use a camera will definitely snipe your bids and snatch clients if you don’t maintain excellent relations with them. Definite food for thought.

  2. Rob Sayer

    Hi Howard

    As an American in the UK, you are probably aware that large parts of the entertainment business here are unconnected to the traditional theatre and broadcast unions such as BECTU. Even in the union heartlands of theatre, I have heard of some employers trying to move toward commercial labour companies to reduce crewing costs.

    Many production technical staff (including myself) are not union members. Legislation against the “closed shop” has made the UK labour market truly “free”. As in all business, employers only put up with unions if they think they have to….

  3. Maximilian Zhichao

    In response to Howard’s question, both.

    In the United States, virtually any major city (top ten in population size) will have labor or production unions. To work for a major radio or television network in one of these cities, there is almost certainty that you will be required to join a union. This has both positive and negative things as a result.

    Depending on the venue location, you may be required by the facility to hire only union based labor – effectively killing the freelance market.

    Smaller, independent production companies find it very hard to compete or provide services at the largest venues and still make a profit.

    I’ve personally worked at a very large named venue in the Chicago area as a grip for an event, and the only reason I was allowed to do so was that the people that rented the facility had made the concession that the lighting and cleaning crews were to be union.

    The production truck crew were employed by the production company, and the crew I was hired with were all freelance at a day rate given the short notice and inadequate staffing level the production company had.

    Other venues, outside of the city limits had much more relaxed policies regarding union involvement.

    Another production I freelanced with was at a major corporation’s corporate headquarters. We subcontracted out the lighting for television, and hired an engineer at day rate for support, and the crew I was with did the cameras and other duties.

    Much of what I do freelance at present is editing, and single camera video ENG based. I have full time employment at a production facility outside of the city limits, so we’re not forced to utilize union crews until we rent a major venue.

    I hope this clears it up a bit for you.


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