Music: a hobby or a profession?

I complained that I have to make enough income to show that it’s not a hobby. So far, the expenses are way too high. How can we say we’re professional musicians when it costs more to do it than to sit at home and do nothing?

Another way to look at it is to consider these activities as investment. They are necessary to scope the market.


I had an interesting conversation with our painter this afternoon. He has a portfolio career of teaching karate, sociology, and painting. Presumably being a sociologist pays the most. Karate keeps him fit. And painting? Whenever there is a demand for it.

As I’m doing my taxes right now, I complained that I have to make enough income to show that it’s not a hobby. So far, the expenses are way too high.

View in La Coruna, Spain in May 2009
View in La Coruna, Spain in May 2009

Last year, we went to Seville, Madrid, La Coruna, Ferrol, London, Paris, and Crete, not counting Venice, Florence, Rome, Dusseldorf, and Helsinki where I went without Robert.

Robert worked on a flamenco guitar project in Seville. We gave concerts in Madrid, La Coruna, and Ferrol. We went to London to check and relet my house. We took the train to Paris for a long weekend of inspiration. We spent a week in Crete, in an artist residency which culminated in an exhibition and concert in Brugge earlier this year.

We got a grant from a Dutch foundation and airfare from a Spanish electricity company for a concert.

The airfare enabled us to give the one concert (on the way) which actually paid us cash.

Airfare, accommodation, and living expenses were paid for the week in Seville, but no other income.

How can we say we’re professional musicians when it costs more to do it than to sit at home and do nothing?

Another way to look at it is to consider these activities as investment. They are necessary to scope the market.

Our painter said that he would most definitely get paid more if he was on a university payroll. But he could not conform. He preferred to freelance as a sociologist and accept the uncertainties of cashflow.

We too have to accept this income uncertainty if we want to be flexible. [See future blog about uncertainty and flexibility.] If there were an orchestra or an outfit or a conservatory or an institution that would hire us and pay us to do what we normally do, we would probably get paid more than our expenses.

Does such an institution exist? Pay us to fly to Seville, Madrid, La Coruna, Ferrol, London, Paris, and Crete?

Author: BLOGmaiden

As one of the earliest bloggers (since 1999), I enjoy meeting people who embrace "out-of-the-box" thinking and fear not the unknown. I believe in collaboration for sustainability because it increases stakeholder value.

6 thoughts on “Music: a hobby or a profession?”

  1. Interesting question.

    It is a profession if your aim is to be a professional, so to say to get an reasonable income (e.g. self-supporting) within a few years.

    In many busiinesses starting up costs a lot of money. In general costs for, for example IT, or cars are seen as investments. For a musician taking additional lessons, following master classes, recording a demo, organizing events, building your network have to be considered as investments. This takes time and patience.

    1. Nicky, you are absolutely right.

      Little did our conservatory education prepare us for the amount of time, energy, and resources required to invest in a career such as ours.

      Even going to concerts is a necessary investment. The costs add up.

  2. It is so true! Similar case : can somebody be both teacher in a management school and be “professional” composer at the same time? In Holland, it is a hard struggle to get an “official” recognition as a composer, needed to profit from tax advantages.

    To be honest, I made my switch to composition rather late, but definitely not as a hobby: I gave up half of my teaching profession, just enough to do it without getting bankrupt with two kids studying. Anybody can say he is a composer, or an artist. And what is “professional”? It is all about money, not quality.

    In spite of an academic degree in musicology, a regular creative output and winning an international composition prize, the Dutch composers union didn’t accept me, because I did not make a living as a full time composer. It had nothing to do with the quality of the music, they emphasised. They even wished me good luck, saying they were looking forward to welcome me into their club once I will earn my living as a composer! The chamber of commerce considered my case just a hobby, like breeding fancy pigeons. “They also have prizes” the civil servant remarked with a note of pity.

    With these encouraging experiences, I ‘ll go next week to the Dutch Fiscal Department to discuss tax deductions for my travels abroad to promote my music . I was told the Dutch Taxes don’t care about profit, but they do care about making turnover. Hopefully they will accept first my investments to get involved in the classical music world, to get works commissioned. I never realized before that being a composer would mean such a quest as a culture samurai…

    If there exists somewhere an institution that pays these initial expenses please let me know too! Bill Gates, I hope you read this, you can do a fabulous job!

  3. Perhaps our perspectives are different from those who started out in music and only did music. They can’t compare the investments with anything else other than music.

    On the other hand, we see how substantial it is compared to what we did before.

    Nicky could have worked as a public administrator or become a professor. Rolf could have continued lecturing full-time without venturing into composing. But we chose to move to music — and thus see the costs.

    I’d like to write a blog about the obvious investments such as your instrument (did you know that cello strings cost around 200 euros? yes – 50 euros each!). A piano needs tuning twice a year — and average 60 euros per tuning. I already wrote about Maria’s harp dilemma in a previous blog post.

  4. Ah, many, many things to say on this topic. First of all, I believe that all people who are working independently in any profession, even as a full-time musician, typically earn their income in a portfolio fashion (for example, merch, performance, royalties, etc.). Some years ago I realized what was happening in my own life and I called it my portfolio of IGOs & because this sounded more exciting than having lots of different jobs/gigs (to me).

    I am based in Los Angeles in the US (for any fellow bloggers). In the United States, there is the MEET THE COMPOSERS organization for which you can apply for grants. There are also tours organized by reputable establishments such as the Lincoln Center (and there are others) and musicians can apply for those. You could also make a grant proposal to take music to areas where the kind of music you perform is rarely played. But you would need to research those foundations.

    I also wanted to tell you about this organization to which you could apply:
    With aims:
    To promote intellectual and cultural co-operation and understanding among artists;
    To create a world community of artists that would emphasize the central role of art in the development of world culture; and,
    To defend the arts against the many threats to its survival which the modern world poses.

    One of the members is Angela Jia Kim (you can look her up) and she has toured widely as a classical pianist though now she is focused on other endeavors. One of her tours was funded by a grant of some kind and went through small towns in the US.

    Now – taxes – The way taxes work here is that you file a Schedule C for each source of income that comes to you as a non-employee. Then you are supposed to deduct the applicable expenses against that particular source of income. In any case, I’m not an accountant and not qualified to give any tax advice to anyone, but what I can say is that if you have a lot of expenses, they say it is better to report fewer expenses…in keeping with the income. Some years you might show a profit and others a loss. And, keep your paperwork & receipts even if you haven’t reported all the expenses. If you are audited, you can demonstrate that you could have deducted a whole bunch of other expenses, but you did not (and that supposedly would reflect favorably upon you).

    If you are a serious artist, the investment both in terms of time and money are considerable. Tuning the piano is nothing compared to taking the lessons (past or present) and the time it takes to practice. Then try recording that same beloved piano…needing to find a studio that has one of good quality or trying to record yourself…and up and up go the costs depending on your objectives. Never mind the investment of time in honing your voice, sound, skills and developing your artistry. And then the marketing machine to make it all happen once you actually have something called a CD…merchandise! YIKES! And suddenly you have added salesman/woman to the many hats you wear.

    I actually wrote a plan some time ago in which all the costs for one year were included. Though I did not include the opportunity cost, which is considerable. This is the part that makes pursuit of music as a professional challenging. The true economic cost would include the income you are foregoing.

    But here’s one thing that continually is an issue when it comes to music: people want to play, people want to compose…and nearly always the supply is greater than the demand. So the price that people are willing to pay has less to do with “quality” and “experience”, however that might be assessed. The price people are willing to pay has to do with brand name and how many seats can be filled. That is how it works for the major public venues or series.

    The good news is that today it would be great if you found a patron, but even if you don’t, you still have the opportunity to build a following & reputation. But it is indeed very, very challenging.

  5. Thank you for sharing, Manisha.

    Indeed, it takes time to find the right networks, to get the advice, the right sources of funding, and lots of time to write the proposals, …. In short, a lot of time and investment.

    I like interviewing people who have done it and made it — to learn from them just what the steps are. So thank you again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s