My Wages as an Artist, 2015-20

Uncategorized

From 2012-2015 I posted transparent figures on the amount of money I make as an artist. I did this for three reasons: first, because most of my income comes from public funding, so you pay my wages and I’m accountable to you for that; second, because workers sharing information about their income is one of the best tools we have for organising; third, because I’d like to improve public understanding of how artists actually live.

I let this project slide for the last few years, as other bits of life took over. I regret this now, in pandemic times, when worker organisation is more important than ever and the arts are in a very precarious position. So I’m sharing some basic figures about my last few years of earning to help contribute to that conversation. This is what income looks like for an artist, working primarily in literature and theatre, entering the middle of their career, with a reasonable public profile and high status commissions from national institutions.

The last few years have been possible for me because of gaining a full scholarship for a creative writing PhD. This is non-taxable, and so meant that for the last four years I have made roughly the real UK living wage from my art, with one bumper year in which I made nearly the UK median wage. It also meant that I didn’t pay a great deal of tax on all that. On the other hand, it also meant that it wasn’t eligible as income for the pandemic self-employed income support scheme, radically reducing my support there. Another important aspect of this is that travel expenses for my work are tax-deductible, as is a considerable degree of cultural consumption which qualifies as research. There is much more travel and art in my life than for the average person who is just scraping together a living wage. On the other hand, as a freelancer I receive no sick pay or other workplace benefits, and I have no pension at all.

I think these numbers give a good picture of the actual precarity of life for an artist who is doing reasonably well. If this is what it’s like for me, it is a great deal worse for the majority of working artists of my age.

A significant number of venues, festivals and arts organisations, the kinds I would usually rely on for income, are expected to close in the coming months. Some have closed already. All will have significantly reduced budgets for the next few years. There will be a great deal less work, and more competition for it. Like most freelance artists I know, I am now actively pursuing work in other industries.

In future I would like to provide a clearer breakdown of where my income comes from: how much is large commissions, how much projects I apply for, how much small events, how much patreon income. But in the future we now have, my income may all have to come from somewhere else entirely, and my art live elsewhere.

2015-162016-172017-182018-192019-20
Gross Freelance Income22,46110,75121,13314,74520,273
PhD Scholarship7,25014,50014,5007,250
Expenses8,8265,8158,1468,680
Net Income Before Tax13,63518,00129,81821,09918,843
Income Tax and NICs1,1001501,239153424
Take Home Pay12,53517,85128,57920,94618,419
UK Median Income (ONS)28,29129,02729,00729,427
UK Real Living Wage (LWF)17,16117,57618,20018,72019,344

Notes:

My expenses data for 2016-17 is buried in a spreadsheet and would take a long time to recalculate, so my income figure there is my recorded income after expenses. I would expect expenses to have been between six and eight thousand.

Similarly, I am missing a record of how much income tax and NICs I actually paid from 2016-19, so the figures there are an estimate from the stated tax rates. They sound about right to my memory.

The comparison data on the UK Median Income is from the Office for National Statistics. Mean income is higher; median in this case gives a better picture of the average life. The figures refer to “disposable income”, which I believe means after tax.

The comparison data for the real living wage (not to be confused with the state’s misleadingly-named minimum wage) is from the Living Wage Foundation, assuming a year of 40 hour work weeks at their stated rate.