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Freelancers are Losing £5k a Year to Free Work

This Young Workers’ Month, we look at the stats on working for no fee in the creative industries and how young musicians can protect themselves.

Published: 14 November 2016 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:28 PM
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A recent survey of freelancers working in creative industries revealed that working for free costs workers an estimated £5,394 per person per year.

While low pay is an issue that affects every creative worker, in particular musicians, the survey shows that this exploitation particularly affects young workers. And that makes it something we really need to talk about this Young Workers’ Month.

Recent research by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed (IPSE) and the Freelancer Club found those surveyed spent an average of 31 chargeable days in the past two years working for no pay. That’s 15.5 days a year working for free.

On top of that, the average worker surveyed lost £5,394 to this unpaid work. Many freelancers surveyed were left unable to cover work related costs, or even basic living expenses.

The majority of respondents (44%) fit into the 16–29 age bracket. Shockingly, freelancers who took the survey had an average of seven years’ experience in their field, revealing free work is not reserved for those at the beginning of their careers. And a large proportion of those recently undertaking unpaid work were female (67%), revealing a disproportionate impact on women.

Over half (54%) of freelancers have worked for free in the hope of gaining exposure of their work, and just under half (45%) have worked for free to be associated with a reputable brand.

Worryingly, one in five (20%) identified working for free as standard practice in their industry. While this survey looked at the creative industries as whole, it would be fair to say that in our industry, this number is probably higher.

IPSE and the Freelancer Club launched the survey as part of the #NoFreeWork campaign, which aims to put an end to exploitative free work where the client clearly profits financially.

This chimes with our own campaign here at the Musicians’ Union (MU) called Work Not Play. More and more professional musicians are being asked to work for free on a regular basis. Over 60% of MU members we surveyed last year said they worked for free in the previous 12 months. Amongst students, that number was even higher. Over 90% told us they had been asked to work for no fee in the previous 12 months.

This is unacceptable.

Musicians rely on live revenue to survive. Income from album sales is decreasing, streaming isn’t plugging the gap and illegal downloading continues. All this makes a sustainable career difficult without fair pay for live performances.

Are you a working musician aged 30 or under? Share your experiences of being asked to work for little or no fee. Tweet us about it using the hashtag #WorkNotPlayMU. Send us your stories for Work Not Play via And share this post with other musicians and music fans alike.

Are you hosting an event and need musicians? Take a look at our advice on how to go about it – from finding musicians to fair pay.

And remember, it is okay to ask for fair pay.

If you’re not sure what you should be paid for your work, or you have a contract you’re not sure about, get in touch with your MU Regional Office. We can give you advice on fair pay, negotiating a higher fee, and contracts.


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