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Business in Music by Carey Skinner

About a year ago, I decided to officially pursue a minor at the Jones School of Business at Rice. It was a difficult decision to make considering the extra workload and its affect on my time at the Shepherd School, but, after talking with Ivo about it, I realized it was the right decision for me. Out of the many ways I plan on applying this degree, there are two topics I will focus on in this article. One deals with networking and marketing yourself, specifically in writing e-mails. This is an underestimated utility in making a strong impression. The second is informing yourself on the provisions made for musicians by our government in regards to your taxes. First, we’ll start with e-mails.

Part One: Business Communication

Often as a student or freelancer, we have to send e-mails to potential professors or employers. In one of my communications classes, we spent two weeks just on the topic of e-mails under the wider scope of business writing. Here are some important guidelines to follow when writing an e-mail:

1. Subject line: Make it concise and meaningful. If it is relevant, it will be more “searchable” in their inbox.

2. Purpose: Assume that your reader is busy and will need to skim the e-mail for quick, important details. Define and state the main point up front and clearly.

3. Format and Organization: Create a visual structure. Opening an e-mail that is one long paragraph will not only make it difficult for the reader to extract the important information but might also cause them to ignore parts entirely. Create the structure by:

a. Surfacing key points (names, dates, etc.); and

b. Signaling topic shifts with white space or meaningful headings. Now step back

and make sure that you can literally see the structure of the e-mail.

4. Closure: Specify next steps or a “call to action.” You can’t expect a response if you don’t close the e-mail by making it clear to the reader what their part is in the conversation. Even a simple statement such as: “Thank you for taking the time to read this, please let me know if you have any questions,” goes a long way.

Key points to remember: Consider “need to know” versus “need to tell.” The more relevant and concise your e-mail is, the more likely they are to respond with the information you’re looking for.

Tip: Don’t type out the e-mail address until you have finished writing and proofreading your whole e-mail!

Part Two: Accounting and Taxes

One joke I keep making to my friends about the financial accounting classes I have to take next semester is that I need to learn how to do my own taxes, because I’ll never be able to afford a CPA . . . which is probably still true. All jokes aside, though, there are a lot of benefits to learning the details of accounting for musicians, especially for freelancers and students. In addition to the economics course that I’ve already taken, I’ve been preparing for those upcoming classes by looking through the “Accounting for Dummies” book. Even though I feel pretty silly about it, learning the basics of bookkeeping will make it even easier to keep track of and correctly organize my earnings and expenses come April 15. In addition to inexpensive books on general accounting practices, there are a lot of online sources with tips and instructions on musician-specific tax deductions.

Below are some common deductions relevant to musicians to investigate on your own and familiarize yourself with. This list is not exhaustive or complete; it is just a starting point for your research. Before you go through the list, however, know that for the IRS, all deductible business expenses are those that are: 1. Incurred in connection with your trade, business, or profession; 2. Must be “ordinary” and “necessary”; and 3. Must “not be lavish or extravagant under the circumstances.” Keeping those guidelines in mind, here are three common deductions that might be useful to you:

1. You can deduct expenses associated with overnight travel for performances, auditions, or other work related trips. This includes a percentage of your meals that are “business” related, and in some cases, hotel stays.

2. You can keep track of the mileage from using your car for work, rehearsals, etc., as well as details about the trip to report at the end of the year as an expense. There are a few different acceptable formats for mileage reports, so research all of the options and find the way that will be most accurate for you.

3. Here’s a tricky one: equipment. There are a lot of rules to deducting equipment, because the title covers such a wide range of things. From strings to shoulder rests to the instrument itself, depreciation is taken into account, and there is also a limit on how much you can deduct. But when you’re spending $100+ on strings and shopping for a professional-level bow, it’s worth the extra effort to learn the details behind these deductions.

Key points to remember: Keep detailed records of anything you plan on deducting and be able to prove its relevance to your work. Make sure it is always necessary and not extravagant—an ordinary purchase or expense. Educate yourself and do extensive research. A few hours now can save you more than a few bucks in the future!

Tip: Visit GSA.gov for more detailed information on things like mileage reimbursement rates and guidelines.

Ideally, before writing this kind of article, I would first finish my business classes so that I could then develop this into a longer series with more detailed advice. But, the main point of this post is to get you thinking about the ways that you can broaden your knowledge about every aspect of being a musician. You can spend all of your time in the practice room, but you still have to do normal day-to-day things (like taxes) to aid your career, and at some point you will have to interact with other people in order to get a job, start a new degree, etc. That is when this information and experience—developed outside of the practice room—is invaluable.


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