The income tax filing deadline in the U.S. approaches, and jazz musicians in particular know it. The overwhelming majority of jazz musicians are freelance performers (and often freelance teachers, composers and other music-related service providers). But the informal aesthetics of the jazz world often extend to its business practices as well, with its handshake deals and cash payments. That makes it quite difficult to keep track of income and expenses when it comes time to report to the Internal Revenue Service.
It can be to musicians’ benefit to keep meticulous records. Businesses, including people who are self-employed businesses unto themselves, file their taxes differently, and are eligible for different tax benefits. For example, they may deduct business expenses before paying social security taxes, and this can include manager and publicist fees, sidemen payments, instrument purchases, rehearsal space rental and so forth. (Some musicians even set up separate companies — often a Limited Liability Company, or LLC — to take advantage of further intricacies in the tax code.)
It’s not just a matter of good accounting, though. The site JazzDIY has posted an interesting interview with Eileen Lippe, a tax preparer who specializes in working with musicians. The bottom line: Lippe says musicians have to “prove” to the IRS that they’re operating businesses, as opposed to playing music for fun:
Freelance musicians are considered sole proprietors or owners of a small business. But, unlike the typical small businesses, it may take them many years before they actually show a business profit. The IRS presumes that if you show a loss for more than two out of five years, that this is a hobby loss and not a true business loss and they may audit you. The burden of proof is on you, as the freelancer, to prove you are operating a business and not a hobby.
If you lose this challenge and are classified as a hobby, then you cannot deduct your losses and may not even be able to deduct your expenses altogether.
In the world of music, the line between business and hobby isn’t as clear.
People who orient their lives around making jazz music often consider their vocation as “musician,” naturally. Often, they’ve spent years of school to the subject, and devote tons of hours practicing. But because the market for jazz is so unpredictable, and because it requires a high level of training, it takes a long time for most jazz musicians to become profitable businesses — to “officially” go from hobby status to business status — if they ever do so. Many accept “regular” salaried employment in order to subsidize what is officially a music hobby. But in their minds, their day jobs are simply part of the life of a musician, especially because these jobs are frequently in music education.
Insult to injury: That’s one of several reasons Tax Day is so frustrating to jazz musicians, anyway. [JazzDIY: Q&A: Tax Preparation For Jazz Musicians]