Covid-19 Impact on Freelancers

South Yorkshire is home to a vibrant, interconnected cultural sector. This has a hugely positive impact on our economy, its competitiveness and residents' quality of life. It includes a vast web of freelance workers, from performers to events organisers, to sound and lighting engineers.

Sheffield Makes Music

Read the full report "The Impact of Covid-19 on Freelance Arts Workers in South Yorkshire" here.

Key findings from the first survey

  • Availability of work “decreased dramatically” for 75% of respondents. Some had no work since the start of lockdown and no future bookings. Loss of momentum and visibility were real concerns around securing future work.
  • Respondents lost 63% of their income during 2020 on average, dropping from £25k turnover in 2019 to just £9.5k in 2020. Many were helped to some extent by grants and hardship schemes, but some were ineligible and struggled to see a future in the industry. 61% considered, or actively pursued, work outside the creative sector.
  • Mental wellbeing worsened for 68% of respondents, with stress keeping many awake at night. When asked to rate their life satisfaction, freelancers indicated lower levels of happiness and wellbeing than the general population.
  • Looking to the future, many felt that digital skills were necessary to survive and 24% wanted training to support the production of online work. Respondents wanted to see grants that allowed for the creation of new work and exploring new ideas, stressing that grants should be flexible to each arts worker’s needs.

South Yorkshire has shown that in “normal times” the cultural industries contribute £200m to the region’s economy, supporting 6,500 jobs that contribute a further £170m. The impact on individual wellbeing is even greater, calculated at close to £1.2bn. The same report shows that self-employed and freelance workers are central to this picture, whilst benchmarking data, generated by the University of Sheffield, highlights significant risks from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Key facts from the first survey

  • Self-employment in the cultural sector is higher than in other industries, at 37% versus 15%, with freelancers earning on average more than a third less than directly employed workers.
  • Between March and August 2020, nearly £11m in reported income was lost from ticket sales, retail sales, sponsorship and donations, which leaving many freelancers with no work at all.
  • There was a total loss of 1,258,220 attendees over the same period.

The risks to the sector were widely acknowledged, but research that focuses on the national picture and narrowly economistic measures can miss the fine-grain realities of freelance employment in the sector, and as a result how it is both over-exposed to the pandemic and at risk of irredeemable collapse.

Key findings from the second survey (30 April 2021 - 27 May 2021)

  • 68% of respondents used online digital technology for creative work including online teaching/workshops (59%), work for online dissemination (49%) and/or live-streamed performances (47%). 74% considered it essential. The majority of respondents planned to keep a small (59%) or significant (27%) amount of work online.
  • Financial insecurity and precarity caused 45% to sometimes, or regularly (19%), think about leaving the sector. 17% of respondents were optimistic that work would pick up and cited love for their work (22%) and personal identity as a reason for staying. Early career freelancers were adaptive to new challenges but struggled financially. 
  • Most needed support was funding, followed by networking, health and wellbeing, marketing and paid opportunities for work. 
  • Respondents felt the UK government did not recognise the economic, social and cultural value the arts bring to the UK, and 49% of freelancers felt less valued in their work than before the pandemic. 
  • As restrictions relaxed, increases in work were slow and respondents expressed concerns that the sector would take a long time to recover and return to pre-pandemic levels.

Key facts from the second survey

  • Self-employment in the cultural sector is higher than in other industries, at 37% versus 15%, with freelancers earning on average more than a third less than directly employed workers. 
  • Between March and August 2020 there was nearly £11m in lost income from ticket sales, retail sales, sponsorship and donations reported, which left many freelancers with no work at all.
  • There was a total loss of 1,258,220 attendees over the same period.

Beyond the pandemic 

  • Most respondents were eager to get back to previous levels of activity, once they felt confident and safe to do so.
  • For some, there had been a reappraisal of their cultural engagement, leading them to want to do more, or to appreciate the quieter pace of life and consider being more selective. 
  • Many felt a heightened appreciation of the arts sector.
  • More optimistic respondents expressed the hope that the ways in which people had turned to the arts for solace and inspiration during lockdown would lead to an increased valuing of the cultural sector.

Our research on freelancers generated the evidence needed in the short term to appreciate the real impact for people and the sector more widely. Beyond that it helped planning for recovery, with a view to creating a more resilient sector that is fairer to its freelancers. Data on the true financial implications and the experiences of those seeking to keep their heads above water is presented here.

The aim was to empower the cultural sector to speak directly to decision-makers and feed into policy-making. If a venue or cultural event dies, the devastation flows out into a wider network of freelancers and suppliers, extending to the health and well-being outcomes of audiences and attendees. This has significant social justice implications, not least for young people who are simultaneously deprived of life-enriching experiences and access to the cultural capital that facilitates access to jobs and careers in the wider creative economy.

If you have questions or would like to be involved in the research please contact Professor Vanessa Toulmin (

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