We Need To Talk About Money
We’re at what feels like a watershed moment. Our societies are in the process of asking who we are, where we’re going and what future economic systems will reflect that: because what we have now is not working for the vast majority of us.
As creative people, in order to make the work we want to make, to ensure our industries are fairer and thrive in the future, we have to be part of that conversation.
We need to talk about money.
Talking about money; what you earn, how much money you have, spending and let’s be real - debt, is still very taboo. “It’s not polite to talk about money” is a social norm which has served those who have it very well, and kept those who don’t from eating them for a very long time.
Gaby Dunn’s Bad With Money podcast is doing an incredible job of destroying this norm and I strongly recommend you listen to it. I’d also recommend the highly informative Her Money podcast by Jean Chatzky and the FT Money Show with Claer Barrett.
The only way to change things is to start creating some transparency. However, we need to be thoughtful about how we do that.
The people who are most likely to start this transparency revolution are the ones who have the least to lose and the most to gain.
For example, art critics and curators The White Pube publish their accounts every month, you can read them here. A quick scan reveals that Gabrielle and Zarina are incredibly dedicated and passionate about what they do and the art world is exploitative.
It's worrying that more of the people who offer them work aren't ashamed for the world to see how little they're paying, and I sincerely hope this will change in the near future.
Telling everyone, including potential employers and clients, what you earn can make it difficult if you want to charge more, which is why it’s so problematic when potential employers ask for your current salary. The least risky place to start is with our friends.
The most recent episode of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast is a great example of a money conversation between creatives and friends. They discuss everything from their family histories with money, structural inequality, spending habits and who has helped them, to what they earn and how.
Both Ann and Aminatou are making six figures (yesss), and I’d love to know exactly how much but as Aminatou fairly pointed out “I don’t want to tell everyone on the podcast because I’m trying to make double that!”.
If we’re talking about transparency, we really do need to know what other people are being paid, and also what the industry standards are (not always the same thing).
Probably the most complicated area to get a sense of transparency is for freelancers and artists who charge fees.
I know consultants who charge £850 a day and people who charge £100 (whoever you are that's too low). Artists who charge hundreds of thousands for a gig, and artists who have paid to play (never do this).
Equity minimum wages are so depressingly low it's hard to imagine anyone would have the gall to ask artists to work for so little, but apparently they would (see The White Pube's accounts for ref). How anyone is supposed to pay rent in a major city on these wages is a mystery Equity members should demand the answer to.
“What did you get paid?” needs to stop being such a loaded question. We need to stop seeing what we get paid as a measure of our talent, because it’s not.
What we get paid is a reflection of what we’re willing to ask for and what employers can get away with asking. When the only information we have to go on is hearsay and conjecture, we will never have any collective bargaining power.
In the UK’s funded arts sector it’s almost the opposite. You can just go on the Arts Jobs website and see how stagnant and uncompetitive relative to other sectors the salaries are for anyone who’s not an Artistic Director or CEO of a large organisation. Some would argue that this makes things fair, though not if they read about the arts gender pay gap, or even worse the ethnicity pay gap.
There is also an air of inevitability around publicly funded salary levels; we’re all in the same boat, we take what the Arts Council will give, some organisations are losing their funding.
At some point, we need to start asking at what cost to creativity, innovation which leads to increased income generation, and to diversity (especially when viewed through the lens of structural inequality and generational wealth) do we continue to grumble about instead of making the case loudly for higher compensation?
In the more commercial creative sectors such as music, design and film, salaries are less likely to be published and so the need for colleagues to talk to each other about what they’re making is greater.
The gender pay gap at Warner Music UK was revealed to be a staggering 49%. Gaps this huge wouldn’t happen as often or grow as wide if people talked to each other openly and regularly about money.
You’ll notice that every example in this article is a woman. Whilst they are all admirable and doing incredibly valuable work, the reality is we need men, in particular white men, to start talking openly about money with the rest of us.
If that’s you, especially if you make decent money, think about the women and people of colour (especially those who are both and/or any other minority group) in your circles.
Offer to chat with them about what and how you get paid or commissioned. Even if you don’t get paid very much you might be surprised to learn it’s still more than a lot of other people, and that just having that conversation could be a game changer.
So what about me? I have two sources of income: I work part-time as Head of Communications with a funded arts organisation in London and I work freelance. I make the same amount in three to four days of freelance work as I do in 12 days on my salaried job.
So why do I do my salaried job? Honestly, because it makes me feel happy and secure.
I’m passionate about the work we do, I like my team and they highly value my work, I never have to argue about what or when I’ll get paid (which really affected my mental health and confidence as a full-time freelancer), and I'm not constantly thinking about the next job.
I also get a training budget, paid holiday, sick leave and maternity pay should I need it. Very importantly, I only have to go in to the office once or twice a month, which means I can live and work from anywhere I want to (currently, Brussels).
All of that is what gives me the freedom, balance and stability to only do the writing and the freelance work I really want to do, at the rates I’m happy to charge. NB, this also means I'm quite busy but if you are interested in working with me let me know here.
This makes a huge difference, because as a youngish-looking black woman - additional transparency, I’m 35 - a lot of the work I’m offered (and turn down) is less than half the rate I know for example some my white Clore Cultural Leadership Fellowship year group alumna charge.
I choose not to publish my rates or salary here because I’m currently researching and reviewing them, but I do talk to people about them in person.
We need to get comfortable talking about money, with our friends, our families, our colleagues and for those who will not be negatively affected by it - with everyone.
Who are you going to start a money conversation with? Let me know in the comments below, and much respect to you in advance.