Sunday, 26 January 2014

On getting back to business...

Ah, January.  A time of rebirth.  A time of new beginnings.  A time of resolutions and personal growth.

Yeah, right.

The truth is, January isn't quite the inspiring time that it’s meant to be.  Despite all the fireworks and New Years hype, most of us greet January with a world-weary sigh.  The holidays are over.  It’s back to business as usual.  Christmas has left us overweight, overspent, and exhausted.  And now we have to haul our figgy-pudding-filled selves back to the everyday grind of work.  This is why the third Monday of January is known as "Blue Monday", the most depressing day of the year.  We’re like a horde of cranky children throwing a fit.  We just don’t want to go back to school.

You might think that returning to work is easier for a freelance musician.  After all, our work consists of doing what we love.  Don’t we spend all day making music, pursuing our deepest passion?

If only it were that easy.  While we do spend many hours making music, we also spend a lot of time doing non-musical work.  Sending emails, placing phone calls, booking flights, writing applications, and making out invoices.  This is the dreaded un-fun side of the job.  The never-ending list of administrative tasks.  The business behind the art.

In large-scale arts companies, this non-musical work is split up among a team of specially dedicated professionals.  The musicians deal with the music and the management deals with everything else.  Individual artists, when they are established enough to afford it, will also delegate their administrative work.  They might hire an accountant to do their taxes, an agent to book their gigs, or a personal assistant to take phone calls and manage paperwork.  But many of us don’t have the luxury of separating the business from our art.  We have to be our own agent, accountant, and personal assistant, all rolled into one.

The freelance musician: a Jack-of-all-trades.

If you're living in the UK, January means one thing and one thing only: the dreaded annual tax return.  Being self-employed can make your taxes more complicated than string theory.  You will have several different employers throughout the year, all with different tax codes.  And as if this messy hodge-podge of income sources wasn't bad enough, there's the matter of tracking business expenses.  Every penny you spend for your music should be accounted for.  The problem is, nobody is entirely sure what counts as a business expense.  Do you claim makeup and hair products, if you sometimes use them for auditions?  Do you claim heating bills if you teach or practise out of your home?  Musicians are constantly debating over these questions, and nobody ever seems to reach a solid conclusion.  The fact is that there are a lot of blurred lines in the music business.  Nobody knows quite where their business ends and their life begins.

If you work abroad, a tax return can get even more complicated.  The various tax laws and treaties between countries are enough to confuse an expert in international law.  Then again, your employer might decide to simplify things by charging a “foreigners tax”.  In other words, he will take a pickaxe to your paycheque and chisel off giant chunks until it's no longer recognisable as money.

This is your pay after foreigners tax.

When I first became self-employed, I was not at all prepared for the Gordonian Knot of paperwork that awaited me.  I hadn't kept track of anything.  When the time came to do my tax return, I was in for a nasty surprise!  Nowadays I’m fairly fastidious with my records.  I keep a diary of my income and expenses, marking down the date, location, and project for each receipt.  It’s tedious work, but I know it will make things much easier when I file my taxes.

Beyond the complicated world of taxes, there is of course the tricky matter of booking work in the first place.  This would be no problem if the work was regular, but it's not.  Music is a business of feast and famine.  Some weeks you will be inundated with offers, and other weeks you’ll be left twiddling your thumbs.  Music companies seem to have an irritating tendency of scheduling all their performances at the same time, instead of spreading them out evenly throughout the year.  Until Hermione's time-turner becomes a real thing, and you can actually manage to be in several places at once, you're left with a tough decision.  Instead of doing four projects in a month, as you would like to, you end up choosing only one.  Not the most exciting project, mind you, but the one which pays the most money.  And the rest of the month?


With work being so irregular, cashflow is often a problem.  When you get booked for a gig, you may think your bank account can heave a sigh of relief.  But it's not that simple.  Many companies will require you to book and pay for your own travel and accommodation, only to reimburse you later.  You have to pay a lot out of your own pocket before you see any money from your employer.  This is on top of the many other expenses which you regularly invest in to advance your career: lessons, coachings, masterclasses, young artist programmes, accompanist fees, headshots, website development, recording sessions, and the list goes on.  You tell yourself it will be worth it in the long run, and it usually is.  But it can take a long time before you see any tangible monetary results from your investment.  The fact is that most musicians have to go into a large amount of debt before they get paid.

A lot of musicians address this problem by applying for extra funding, whether it's a grant, a scholarship, a bursary, a loan, or a line of credit.  And what does that mean?  Surprise, surprise.  More paperwork.  

Send help.  Please.
Now if you're anything like me, you hate this non-musical aspect of the job.  The money, the logistics, and the piles upon piles of paperwork.  It’s the kind of stuff that makes me hate being a grownup.  But it’s a necessary evil.  Some days I can’t face it, and I let the paperwork and emails pile up.  Other days I get a burst of motivation and decide to tackle everything head-on.  I make up my mind: today is the day!  I’m going to be proactive and professional!  I’m going to sort everything out!  I send out a blitz of emails, and I fill out every application form I can get my hands on.


Oddly enough, not much seems to change after my monumental decision to Get Things Done.  As it turns out, just because I've decided to be super-productive and organised, it doesn't mean that everyone else has.  And so my emails sit unanswered in someone else’s inbox.  By the time I get a response, my burst of motivation has ended.  I let the work pile up, and the whole cycle begins again.

Sometimes, however, by some magical alignment of the stars, another person has decided to Get Things Done at the same time as I have.  They get back to me right away, and everything gets sorted out.  We both bask in a shared glow of smugness and relief, knowing that we've managed to accomplish yet another boring unsavoury task.  It’s pretty much the best feeling in the world.


When you think about all the petty administrative work and bureaucratic battles that musicians have to tackle, it's amazing that we ever get around to making music  And yet, somehow we do.

We do this non-musical work as a labour of love.  We love our music.  And we know that without the administrative work, the musical work would never happen.  So we soldier on, and we fill out more forms.  It may be tedious and stressful and unnecessarily complicated.  But it's essential work, and somebody has to do it.

And on that note, I have some more applications to fill out.  Happy January, everyone!

1 comment:

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