A Fair Income
Don’t undervalue your skills. You can benchmark yourself by establishing a useful point of comparison as a reference point (a performance benchmark). You will have a fair idea of the value of your work in relation to other professionals. You can also refer to the APDG Live Performance Design Guidelines.
If for any reason you agree to work for less than the industry minimum, be very careful to not make this a precedent for either yourself or your employer, as this may negatively affect you and your peers.
In an APDG survey, 70% of set, costume and lighting designers stated that someone designing both set and costumes would need to design more than 6 productions a year to gain a fair income. Specialist set, costume, lighting or video designers may need to design up to double this number of productions to gain a fair income.
The Australian national minimum wage is $772.60 per week, or $20.33 per hour (1 July 2021 figures). Read more on fairwork.gov.au.
The MEAA minimum wage for theatre actors (2020 figure) is $1145.70 per week and can be used as a benchmark for live performance designers. Read more from MEAA.
You might prefer to benchmark yourself against other design industries. The APDG Guidelines provide useful wage benchmarking and minimum wage calculations. You can also benchmark yourself against others working in similar roles on the same project, for example your director or co-designers.
However you are paid, you are being paid for your talent, skills and for your time. Establish an hourly and/or weekly rate that feels fair to you and calculate how many hours of work at that rate your fee or salary equates to. See the time management section.
Your hourly rate should increase with your level of experience. You might have different hourly or weekly rates for other design roles you work in, such as when you work as a scenic artist or buyer, or when you work in film versus working in live performance.
If you are working as a sole trader or other entity, you also need to take into account your business running costs, superannuation and any other expenses. Add these costs to your hourly rate to ensure you don’t fall below the minimum wage. If you are a contractor, the business you are contracting to has an obligation to ensure that you don’t fall below the minimum wage.
How you are paid
There are 5 ways you can receive income as an independent design professional:
- as a fee
- as a salary
- as a royalty
- by profit share
- in kind (as a service in lieu of payment)
Different employers have preferences about how they will pay you, and you will have your own preferences too. From one project to the next you might be paid differently, sometimes with a royalty payment added on to any of these (if included in your contract).
This is the negotiated payment you receive for an individual project. This is how most live performance designers are paid.
- Your fee and fee instalment schedule is negotiated and stipulated in your contract.
- The fee may be paid in one lump sum, or split across instalments which may be tied to deliverables such as initial design, design presentation, and opening night.
- You (or your agent) provide an invoice for the next fee installment due.
- Companies vary widely on fee levels for comparative work – from sector to sector, between design roles (eg set versus costume design) and even vary from state to state.
- Employees and contractors may receive payment by fee.
- For a scale of indicative fees appropriate to your level of experience and the complexity of the project see the APDG Guidelines for more detail.
This is a negotiated and contracted payment received as a regular (weekly, fortnightly or monthly) payment. Normally this is under an employment arrangement and tax (PAYG) is deducted with each payment.
- You technically become an employee of the company for a specified period of time when you are on salary – either full-time, part time or casual,.
- Smaller companies may prefer to contract you this way (and you may prefer to be contracted this way) as it makes the employment relationship, superannuation and insurance obligations very straightforward.
This is a negotiated percentage of a production’s ongoing box office income paid to you. Royalties need to be negotiated at the time of contracting. Royalties will be on top of any other payment for the job, and are a payment for your contribution to the ongoing profit of the production.
- The current industry standard percentage for set, costume and lighting designers is 0.5% (for each discipline), but be prepared to negotiate on this. See Section 4 of the APDG Guidelines for more detail.
- It is common for royalty payments to commence only after the initial presentation of a production. eg. if a production is remounted or goes on tour.
- When your contract stipulates a royalty pool this means that a number of the royalty participants (for example all the designers) are grouped together and paid in specified proportions instead of the full royalty. This could make the difference between the project being financially viable or not, as you would receive a smaller royalty overall.
4. Profit Share/Co-op
When working on a profit-share production, consider yourself an investor in the project with payment as a percentage of the overall profits made by the production, negotiated with a written or verbal agreement (preferably written). There are various structures for this:
- All creatives and performers involved receive an equal share; or,
- Different people receive different percentages of profit. This often depends on the level of commitment and time spent working on the production.
Important: A profit share situation doesn’t guarantee an income. The risk of the production making a loss may also rest with you.
To be a valid financial document, tax invoices must include at least seven pieces of information – The Australian Tax Office lists what information must be included in your invoices:
- Identify that the document is intended to be a tax invoice
- Seller’s (designer’s) identity
- Seller’s (designer’s) Australian Business Number (ABN)
- Date the invoice was issued
- Brief description of the items/services sold, including the quantity (if applicable) and the price
- GST amount (if any) payable – this can be shown separately or, if the GST amount is exactly one-eleventh of the total price, as a statement which says ‘Total price includes GST’
- Identify any item that is tax-exempt
- Invoices for more than $1000 also need to include the ABN of the person/company you are invoicing.
- Set up an invoice template that you can reuse. Auspicious Arts provides invoice templates in their client resources.
- If you don’t have an agent to invoice for you, link the template to an app that keeps track of your hours and issues scheduled invoices for you.
- Time keeping apps may help, some used by designers include:
Tips & Tricks
- ‘As soon as I stopped accepting unpaid work, I started to be offered paid work.’
- ‘Have the money conversation first.’
- ‘It’s ok if it’s just a ‘money job’, just adjust your expectations.’ (not everything needs to be a ‘passion project’)
- ‘I have several income streams. I keep a lot of pots on the boil, so I am not relying on any one.’
- ‘Recognise that flexibility and diversity in your career is constructive, positive and healthy.’
- ‘Benchmark your fee. What are your director and co-designers being paid? A daily rate for a designer should be no less than a daily rate for an actor.’ (asking others what they’re paid can be tricky, but it’s worthwhile)
- ‘Work out how many weeks of work your fee or salary corresponds to, and plan your time for the number of paid weeks.’
- ‘Have a look at the APDG Live Performance Guidelines table of fees before you negotiate your contract.’
- ‘Talk to other designers for advice before you negotiate your fee, especially with an employer you haven’t worked with before.’
- ‘Work out how many instalments you want your fee to be paid over, and negotiate the timing of these to suit your cash flow. I want more of my payment up front so I negotiate this.’
- ‘Specify that you want to be paid within two weeks, but understand that in the commercial world it might be as much as 90 day terms.’
- ‘I prefer 4 fee instalments, with more of the fee paid early.’
- ‘Invoicing – use accounting software that will send clients/companies automated reminders to pay invoices. This takes the personal (emotion) out of it when trying to chase up payment. Find the one that’s right for you: here are some ‘free’ options.’