Working and Earning as an Artist: My Annual Finances

Personal, Rambles

This post follows on from two previous posts, “What I mean when I say I’m working as an artist”, parts one and two. As part of my artistic work I talk about my finances as openly and publicly as I can manage. I’m not going to cover the same ground as those posts now, but if you’re a geek about this stuff, or a voyeur, or are just interested on what the day-to-day of an artist’s life is like, they’re worth reading.

Why I Put My Money Online

First, I’m obsessed by money. I love learning how it works, how it flows. I genuinely enjoy spreadsheets, and I like visualising artistic projects through juggling their budgets. When I was an undergraduate, which thanks to proper state support was the single most privileged period of my life, I thought it was somehow anticapitalist to just not care about money. This was silly and wrong and also I hit the bottom of my overdraft a few times. These days, I write and chart obsessively about money because I feel like it gives me some measure of control or power over the systems which run our world. Though maybe I take it a bit far.

I also feel like I have some sort of general duty to talk about it. Most of my earnings come, ultimately, through taxes; a truly worrying proportion comes from either Creative Scotland or the Arts Council of England. I feel like a few hours a year telling the taxpayer how their money works for me is worth doing. Perhaps more importantly, I think that small-scale artists talking about this stuff helps to explain to the general public why it’s worth funding the arts: as I talked about in much more detail in my last post, the majority of artists work for absurdly long hours for absurdly little pay and to much unseen public benefit.

Equally, small-scale artists sharing this kind of information is a form of mutual aid. If you’re an artist and you can see how I earn, it might give you some ideas. As a Creative Scotland report, coincidentally published today, has shown, I actually earn more than the majority of Scottish artists, and I’m still not making the living wage. Maybe this information can help us all do better.

The Juicy Numbers

Here’s how much money I’ve earned in the last four financial years:

income table

(“Gross” is my total income, the actual amount of money that came into my bank account. “Expenses” is my business expenses as a self-employed artist, which I talk about below: it’s mostly travel. “Net” is gross minus expenses, and is more or less my actual spending money as a living human, except it also includes my taxes, which given my income are rather low.)

Here’s how that money breaks down into artistic and non-artistic income.

Income pies

(The non-artistic is mostly an environmental management/consultancy contract and a political organising contract, with some other bits and bobs.)

And here’s what the different income strands were last year:

income strands

(“Reader in Residence” was a big community arts contract; “Creative Scotland” was a grant for a single self-organised art project; “Patreon” is my crowdfunding scheme; “Workshops” is a lot of one-day or half-day arts training jobs for different organisations; “Commissions” and “Performances” are a lot of small and medium-sized contracts to create or perform art for different organisations. “Other” is my non-artistic income. The notable missing thing is sales, for complex accountancy reasons, but know that the products I sell are usually just about at cost (including labour of distributing) and I haven’t started earning royalties yet.)

Some important numbers to know to make a comparison:

  • The Scottish Living Wage is £17,160 per year.
  • The median (a kind of average) annual pay for full-time workers in Scotland is £27,710; the median for my age bracket including part-time workers is £19,292. I haven’t found numbers for the mean (another kind of average), but it’s likely a bit lower than those.
  • The poverty line (defined as 60% of median income) is £16,626. But then, the Tory government abolished that measure, so I’m probably fine.
  • I have never come close to these measures off artistic income, and have managed the living wage only once

Finally, some notes on my assets and liabilities:

  • I have a very small student loan for my undergrad (in Scotland, so paid no tuition fees), which I began paying back in my 2013-14 tax return. I had a bank loan for my Masters, but I have paid it off. I have no other debts.
  • I have no dependants, and no allowance.
  • I rent, in Edinburgh, sharing with a partner (though for half of 2013-14 and half of 2014-15 I lived alone). My parents now own their house outright.
  • Expenses includes a small portion of my rent and energy bills, half my phone and internet bills, and most of my artistic purchases, along with show materials, office supplies, and so on. The majority of it is simply travel. So if you were to compare me to a PAYE worker, you might want to imagine something like an income a little under halfway between gross and net. But closer to net.
  • I have very gradually built up savings, first as a cushion against lean years as a freelancer, and now in the hopes of getting out of the rental market. I’ve got to roughly £10k, mostly because I learned how to live on £10k a year and so put cash away in the good years.

How I Feel About  All This

I feel great about where I’ve managed to get to. I’ve spent the last two calendar years working almost entirely as an artist, and without a big annual contract to get me through, and I feel like I’ve proven to myself that I can do it. I can, for at least two years, live, just about, off my earnings as an artist. I know that that’s unlikely to be permanently possible, but I have managed it. Seeing the blue half of the pie chart expand is something I’m proud of.

I’m also pleased that the last financial year has a lot of income diversity – much more than I expected. If I were to be really detailed, I’d break down the strands by how much of each was expenses and how much was net income, but I have to stop somewhere. I suspect it would make my income look a bit less diverse, however, because the bigger the wedge the small the proportion of the wedge tends to be expenses. Despite this diversity, though, over half my income came from just two big contracts. Without landing 2-4 big (£4000+) and highly competitive contracts each year, there’s no way I’d be able to live off being an artist, and to get those I have to be very good at applying for them and apply for probably about four times as many as I get.

However, despite all this, what I also know is that the idea of being a full-time artist is a lie. I wrote about this more last time. Very few people get to Just Make Art, and most of them are highly economically privileged already. For the rest of us who want to live off art, we have two choices: spend at least half our working week on a day job, or spend at least half our working week answering emails, filling out funding applications, sitting in meetings, and generally hustling. There is no moral or artistic difference between people who support themselves to make art by waiting tables and people who support themselves to make art by filling out funding applications: they’re both drudge work and hustle. Neither of us are full-time artists. Or, rather, all of us are. I make a living as an artist, which means I make a living sending emails and filling out forms. No wonder my art has so many spreadsheets in it.

What Happens Next

My life mission is to be able to earn the living wage out of making art (and thus also writing emails and filling out funding applications and doing workshops). Currently, where I live, that’s £17,160 after expenses and before taxes, based on a 40 hour work week. My other three life missions are to reside in a housing co-op, work in a workers’ co-op, and live in an anarcho-syndicalist utopia. I figure if I can get one of those three, plus the living wage, I’ll feel OK about my life. I’m a long way off any of these missions, but I can feel myself getting closer.

In the short term, I’m escaping the freelance hustle, for the most part. I’m completely astonished and delighted by this: I’ve been awarded an AHRC scholarship to study a PhD in Creative Writing, which covers tuition and a non-taxable stipend of £14,400 for three years. This could not be closer to my dream. (I mean, it could, but taking into account the practical considerations of being an artist in a neoliberal society, it could not be closer.) That’s still not a living wage and it’s supposed to be full-time, so I will have to work beyond my hours earning elsewhere. I’ll be less able to take on the many small gigs, so I’ll be looking for one or two big contracts to make up the rest.

My ideal scenario – total creative freedom – for the next three years would be mostly working on my PhD and making the rest of my income from my Patreon. I’m not there yet, but it’s feasible by the end of the PhD, when, well, who knows what will happen. Getting there is trickier than it looks, though: the first year of my Patreon has been boosted by getting a lot of small commissions, which I’m then able to share freely with backers to add to the unfundable oddities I make solely thanks to their support. That is, it might be harder for my backers to feel they’re getting “value for money” unless I’m able to be doing those commissions as well. If I’m able to earn around £3k a year from Patreon (i.e. three times as much as I do now) then I really could do that – what a dream! But getting there is harder.

So that’s me. As openly and honestly as I can put it: my income, how it happens, and my plans. If I were to give one piece of advice to other artists who are trying to “make it” (I have not “made it”), it would be: Get good at spreadsheets. Understand how money works. Think practically and with brutal honesty about how you can financially support yourselves. Make money work for you. Try to get to the point where the time you spend thinking about money saves you far more time than if you were trying not to think about it. If you want more creative advice, Action Hero has the beautiful goods.

If I had one message to taxpayers reading this, it would be, and is: please protect arts funding. My case puts me in maybe the top 20% of working artists in Scotland in terms of income earned solely from art, and in the bottom 20% of workers in terms of income earned. You have no idea how much you’re going to lose.

2 thoughts on “Working and Earning as an Artist: My Annual Finances

  1. Thank you for this Harry, it’s so valuable to see a breakdown like this of how people are getting by.

    I have one question though; how old are you? Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable answering that’s fine… I’d just find it easier to console myself about my career if you were at least a few years older than me.

    1. I’m 29! Turning 30 in a few months. But I think career and age comparisons are generally a terrible thing for most people — there’s no single trajectory, no single pathway, and all hierarchies are flawed and eventually collapse :D

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