Singers and their Finances, Part Two: Time and Taxes

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As a follow-up to my first article on singers and their money, I would like to address some basic ideas for the singer (and, to a lesser extent, all self-employed creative people) about how to manage your life so that art and commerce can happily coexist.

It is not a given that if you are artistic then you have no head for financial management. Let us consider the bicentennial birthday boys. Richard Wagner was one of the youngest of a large brood of children. You might think that, in a big family, he would have learned certain domestic economies but, if he did, he ignored them thoroughly. He came to feel that other people should serve and finance what he considered his genius. Wagner’s tempestuous relationships with his benefactors form a significant portion of his life story. He was often in debt and fled cities where he owed money.

By contrast, Verdi grew up in a modest agricultural family and drew from the lessons of nature: Life and fate are unpredictable and beyond our control. Resources should not be wasted. Always keep something in reserve for emergencies. There is a proper time for everything and, indeed, time is precious.

As with any profession, talent and aptitude are required to be a singer. But so is the commitment of time. For a singer, a lot of the required preparation comes unfunded. You might need to learn a role and will have to work with a teacher or coach who, justifiably, must be paid for his or her work. You are not earning money in this circumstance. You are investing time. Your calendar is as important as your spreadsheet.

Creating a realistic budget requires you to think like Verdi. What are you goals? What are the tasks required to try to achieve them? What responsibilities (rent, loan repayments, needs of your family, etc.) do you have? Another consideration to always keep close is how much time will be required to accomplish the tasks and fulfill the responsibilities.

Your budget should not be focused on how much money you have for spending but, rather, how much money you are required to disburse each month and year. If you know the amounts of certain fixed costs, this becomes a base to work from. On top of this, there are ongoing required expenditures (food, transportation, singing lessons) that are variable but for which you can make reasoned estimates.

Beyond these costs is the money you want to use to advance and sustain your career. You learn these as you better understand who you really are and what you really want.

Once you have drafted your budget, then you must look at work you already have contracted for in your art form and calculate how much that will bring in. If you become more successful in your field, a greater percentage of your income will be derived from doing what you love. But almost all self-employed people must do some kind of work that will not be high art but is honorable and keeps them solvent. This is where the idea comes in of budgeting time (which also represents energy and focus) so that you are able to both earn money and pursue high art.

My further suggestion, and one I will address is a future article, is to put some money aside for an emergency fund or for future savings. If you can create a budget that includes a line to reserve 10-15 percent of your income for that proverbial rainy day, so much the better.

It is challenging, and liberating, to candidly determine what your needs and priorities really are. There are some singers I have met who are so single-mindedly focused on their career that everything, and everyone, else comes in second. This may seem off-putting, but it is a choice some people make. Think of certain athletes who practice constantly, play competitively and are not necessarily the most congenial people to be around because of their seeming self-absorption. Yet, on the playing field, they are outstanding, they thrill the public and they usually are well-compensated for their efforts. For that matter, think of some of the foremost solo pianists and violinists and you find similar phenomena.

Most people, singers and others, want a more balanced life. They want a happy, fulfilling career, to make money, to have true friendships and to enjoy family life. This is where decisions about priorities, needs and sacrifices must be made.

I have known some singers who, for the sake of stability, decide at a certain point to forgo the pursuit of a solo career and take a job in the chorus of an opera company. This choice might seem like a dream deferred or dashed, but it fulfills other exigencies. The singer who opts for the chorus, even if she had a successful career, might be a parents, especially a single parent, whose children are in school and require continuity. Or these singers might just be tired of the road and the pursuit of work and the unpredictability of the business. Chorus work in major opera companies provides a steady income and health insurance.

The Taxman

Taxes are very complicated for singers, almost all of whom work in good faith and want to do the right things. There is the famous story of Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (right), who ran into trouble with U.S. tax authorities when, on her income tax forms, she listed Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing as a dependent! This was her very particular sense of what was funny, and perhaps accurate, but it kept her out of American theaters until everything was sorted out. Other foreign artists, with no intention of avoiding tax obligations, have run afoul of the laws because they are so complex. Add to this the fact that they pay taxes in their home countries and in many of the places where they perform.

Let us think of a hypothetical American soprano who lives in Jersey City, NJ because that is where she was born and where her family resides. Her husband, a dentist, works in their home town and her children go to school there. She sings occasionally in New Jersey but much more in New York. Because she is very much in demand, she might, in a calendar year, also sing opera in Chicago; Detroit; Houston; Miami; and San Francisco and sing concerts in Aspen; Atlanta; Memphis; Omaha; St. Paul; Tucson; Washington, D.C. Therefore, depending on laws from state to state, her accountant might have to file returns for her in those cities' states in addition to the return filed in New Jersey.

In addition, the soprano did a concert tour to Barcelona, Dublin, Munich, Paris, Stockholm and Vienna. She also sang in an opera production in Amsterdam. This means that tax work (either reporting income in the U.S. with a waiver from the host country or paying some taxes in both) is required in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.

Your accountant, who should be a specialist in the fiscal issues of self-employed creative people, will have to sort out which states and countries require individual tax return filings. If you are married, your accountant should discuss with you the pros and cons of filing joint or separate returns. If one spouse earns his money entirely in-state while the other earns in many places, there are many subtleties to consider.

In May, a book called Arts & Numbers: A Financial Guide for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Other Members of the Creative Class (Agate Publishing) came out that I have been plowing through for inspiration. The author, Elaine Grogan Luttrull, certainly wants to help people in the arts learn how to become responsible with their money, but has created a significant obstacle with her writing style. She has never met a comma she does not like, as evidenced by this typical sentence: “You decided the rewards justified the risks, and you are willing to bear them, manage them, and work to minimize them by budgeting, building a cash reserve, and translating your goals into financial terms, all of which are discussed in ensuing chapters.”

It is unfortunate that an editor was not more engaged in cutting through the tall thickets of dense prose. The book does have many nuggets of good concepts and practical solutions. While her nostrums seem obvious they, nonetheless, bear consideration. As she notes, “A budget ‘works’ when income exceeds expenses.” True enough. Then she adds, in ungainly prose, “Expenses are more controllable than income, given that you can weigh wants versus needs and prioritize expenses with more ease than you can confirm additional gigs, find new clients, or land more assignments. This means, to the extent possible, spend less or spend later.”

The author certainly means well. The reader recognizes her desire to help, inspire and console. I recommend this book for its concepts and charts that help in planning. Many of its ideas are ones that I had already drafted for an article that will be my second “letter to aspiring young singers,” to be published next month, about how to push forward in pursuit of a career.

Weigh in: If you're a singer, what do you find to be the most challenging aspects of your finances? Leave your comments below.