02 Oct 2019

How To: Work as a Self Employed Musician

There’s an age old stereotype, played out in movies as often as in real life, of headstrong teenagers brazenly telling their parents that all they want in life is to play music. Traditionally, the parents will then either roll their eyes, laugh or become irrationally angry, but it’s important to remember that professional musicians come in all forms…

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Maybe you want to top the charts or front the ‘next big thing’, but that’s not where the vast majority end up. Most musicians work day jobs. According to the Musicians Union, about 10% work in salaried jobs, as school teachers, music therapists for charities like Nordoff Robbins or in-house producers, but many, many more work as self-employed freelancers.

Working as a self-employed musician includes a long list of benefits that, say, working as a bank teller doesn’t. International travel, exclusive access to events and a fluid timetable, to name a few. But to succeed takes work. It’s very rare for any musician to walk into these kinds of things overnight.

Alongside all the fun bits, working as a self-employed music artist also comes with some of the more dreary day-to-day aspects that any kind of freelancer has. You need to be able to keep yourself motivated to find work, make sure you’ve got all the legal nitty gritty covered and keep yourself dedicated to your craft, even if it’s not been your day, your month or even your year…

Registering As Self-Employed

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, is recorded as saying in one of his letters that ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ And to this day, that remains true.

Registering as self-employed or ‘sole trader’ with HMRC is one of the first things you should do as a freelancer. Employers generally use the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) system, which means that any taxes you owe are automatically; deducted from your pay cheque. But when you enter self-employment, tax becomes your responsibility.

So once you’re all set up, you need to keep track of exactly what you’re earning and where it comes from. Set up a spreadsheet and track your various revenue streams.

What You Pay Tax On

  • Gig earnings (including busking)
  • Any bonuses and tips
  • Recorded sales (CDs, streaming revenue etc.)
  • Merchandise

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. As a freelancer, you’re eligible for certain tax deductions. These are various necessary expenses incurred in the course of your work that you won’t have to pay tax on, so hold onto your receipts as proof.

A Few Examples of Tax Deductions

  • Posters, flyers and other marketing materials
  • Instruments and repairs
  • Commission paid to agents and managers
  • Accommodation

Of course, it’s possible to hire people to do your taxes for you, but if you’re starting out it’s likely you won’t be swimming in money, so every penny counts. You should also take into account ACM’s ‘learn by doing’ ethos. You may know exactly how you’re earning your money, but you should also know how much of it you get to keep and where it’s all going.

Even if you do decide to hire an accountant, it’s always best to know exactly what’s happening with your money. Take Leonard Cohen, for example. The Canadian poet and musician was forced to go on tour again when he was in his 80s as his long-time manager embezzled $5 million dollars of the artist’s savings.

Getting Paid

So you’ve set yourself up as a freelancer and completed a job, what you need now is to get paid. This may be easier said than done. It’s important to remember that delays in payment may not be because of any particular maliciousness, but paying suppliers (you) isn’t always a priority for companies.

As a freelancer, particularly one who’s starting out, you may feel that you don’t have too much power. While your employer may have enjoyed working with you and love the music you’ve created for them, you worry that getting too pushy about getting paid may result in them not wanting to work with you again.

The basics of it are that being paid is your right. You’ve done the work, your client legally needs to pay for it within 30 days of you submitting your invoice or work. It really is that simple. It’s better to be paid and then able to afford to find new clients rather than not paying the bills for fear of offending someone.

There are a few things that you can do to cut down on the hassle of getting paid. Send your invoice promptly and make sure it’s accurate so any faults come from the client’s end. Add on late-payment clauses to your agreements and invoices, the legal standard adds up to 8.75% – doubtless your employer will be eager to pay as little as possible. Finally, find yourself a contact in their accounts department, or, if there isn’t one, the details of who will actually be paying your invoice. This will make sure that if you do need to jog their memory, you can be sure that your messages get through.

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Remember, there are countless grants and loans available to musicians when you’re starting out, plus you should sign up to PRS for Music in order to claim your performance royalties – learn more in our previous How to Make Money from Royalties with PRS for Music article. But even if you’re successfully applying for these, it might not be quite enough. There’s nothing shameful in taking normal nine to fives to pay the bills. You need to work up to being employed solely as a freelance musician.

This might mean that you work all day in an office then come home and work all night composing, or you spend two months touring as a session musician and the next two pulling pints. The important thing is to just keep at it. Do good work, be amenable and flexible in what you’re willing to do, and eventually you’ll build up clients. Before long the only spreadsheets you’ll have to worry about are the ones with all of your fees and expenses.

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