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One, two, freelance!

Last month, I wrote an article in the Dancing Times about freelancing, called “Surviving or Thriving?” In it, I summarised the findings of a large research project about freelancers in dance, while updating the project with some post (or mid?) pandemic statistics: 7000 performing arts workers were made redundant in 2020, and 51% of workers in the arts were furloughed compared with 13% across the country as a whole. Competition for funding has increased dramatically as a result, with the Arts Council reporting three times more applications for its Developing Your Creative Practice fund in 2021 than in the previous rounds.

So, in the midst of all of this job insecurity and competition for funding, why on earth did I leave my comfortable, stable job in Higher Education to try freelancing? In this blog, I try to explain!

It’s a very different prospect to the last time I was a freelancer. Back in 2006, I’d just graduated from my MSc Dance Science, and couldn’t find a permanent job. So I temped in retail and signed on for Job Seeker’s Allowance, and slowly the dance jobs started to build up. But I wasn’t freelancing by choice, it was by necessity. Fast forward 15 years and I am freelancing again, but this time it is by choice, and I’m really excited about it.

What is freelancing?

Freelancing essentially means being self-employed, selling work or services by the hour, day or job, rather than a full-time permanent, salaried position or contract. Many freelancers perform a range of roles (e.g. teaching, performing, choreographing) in a portfolio career. It’s been estimated that the large majority of those working in dance are freelance (around 80%) – but this statistic only includes performers and choreographers, so the actual proportion is likely to be much higher. Freelancers in dance may find themselves working in and beyond the industry, contributing to arts and culture, education, leisure and tourism, and health and social care. Freelancing also involves formal roles (e.g. the teaching, performing and choreographing) as well as informal ones such as administration, budgeting, marketing, accounting, networking and funding applications.

The challenges of freelance working

Research conducted by my colleagues and I detailed the challenges of unstable working patterns: sometimes being extremely busy and in other times having no work at all; poor rates of pay that were not always commensurate with experience; few benefits such as sick pay or parental leave; lack of structure or career progression opportunities; and challenges with work-life balance. The unpredictability of freelance working means that it can be difficult to balance home and work life satisfactorily, and can also result in financial instability. It can also mean that freelancers feel socially isolated at times as they work irregular and often unsocial hours, often without a regular team with which to collaborate. Finally, the freelancers in our research felt that their work was undervalued. For instance, performing and choreographing roles still tend to be valued more highly than others like community dance leaders or healthcare providers. The poor rates of pay also carry connotations of value and worth. In our research, we spoke to freelancers who were highly experienced and well-known, but were still being offered the lowest rates of pay which typically wouldn’t happen in a salaried job that has clear career and pay progression policies. Freelancers make a huge contribution to many sectors but this often isn’t sufficiently recognised.

So in the face of all these challenges, why does anyone do it? OK, some people don’t do it out of choice, like me back in 2006, but plenty of people do, like me in 2021. So why? It can’t all be bad, can it?

The upsides of freelance working

What I find really interesting is that freelance working shares many of the same characteristics that are used to define psychological wellbeing. These include autonomy, flexibility, freedom, a sense of purpose, and the opportunity to make a contribution to society or a community (for more on definitions of wellbeing read this, or for some easy ways to enhance wellbeing, try this blog). Indeed, the freelancers in our research reported high levels of wellbeing, particularly in the areas of personal growth and having a sense of purpose in life. This makes sense as many freelancers described a great sense of satisfaction in pursuing their own artistic vision and taking on the projects that they really wanted to do. Freelancers often have a tangibl