20% Pass Through Deduction for Musicians

You’ve probably heard about the new 20% tax deduction for “Pass Through” entities under the  Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), and have wondered if musicians qualify. For those who are self-employed (1099, not W-2) here are five frequently asked questions:

1. Do I have to form a corporation in order to qualify for this benefit?
No. The good news is that you simply need to have Schedule C income, whether you are a sole proprietor (including 1099 independent contractor), or an LLC, Partnership, or S-Corporation.

2. How does it work?
If you report your music earnings on Schedule C, your Qualified Business Income (QBI) may be eligible for this deduction of 20%, meaning that only 80% of your net income will be taxable. Only business income – and not investment income – will qualify for the deduction. Although we call this a deduction, please note that you do not have to “itemize”, the QBI deduction is a new type of below the line deduction to your taxable income. The deduction starts in the 2018 tax year; 2017 is under the old rules.

There are some restrictions on the deduction. For example, your deduction is limited to 20% of QBI or 20% of your household’s taxable ordinary income (i.e. after standard/itemized deductions and excluding capital gains), whichever is less. If 100% of your taxable income was considered QBI, your deduction might be for less than 20% of QBI. If you are owner of a S-corp, you will be expected to pay yourself an appropriate salary, and that income will not be eligible for the QBI. If you have guaranteed draws as an LLC, that income would also be excluded from the QBI deduction.

3. What is the Service business restriction?
In order to prevent a lot of doctors, lawyers, and other high earners from quitting as employees and coming back as contractors to claim the deduction, Congress excluded from this deduction “Specified Service Businesses”, which includes not only health, law, accounting, financial services, athletics, and consulting, but also performing arts. High earning self-employed people in one of these professions will not be eligible for the 20% deduction.

4. Who is considered a high earner under the Specified Service restrictions?
If you are a performing artist and your taxable income is below $157,500 single or $315,000 married, you are eligible for the full 20% deduction. The QBI deduction will then phaseout for income above these levels over the next $50,000 single or $100,000 married. Musicians making above $207,500 single or $415,000 married are excluded completely from the 20% QBI deduction. Please note that these amounts refer to your total household income, not the amount of QBI income.

5. Should I try to change my W-2 job into a 1099 job?
First of all, that may be impossible. Each employer is charged with correctly determining your status as an employee or independent contractor. These are not simply interchangeable categories. The IRS has a list of characteristics for being an employee versus an independent contractor. Primarily, if an employer is able to dictate how you do your work, then you are an employee. It would not be appropriate for an orchestra, university, or contractor, to list one worker as a W-2 and someone else doing the similar work as a 1099.

Second, as a W-2 employee, you have many benefits. Your employer pays half of your Social Security and Medicare payroll tax (half is 7.65%). You might think that 20% is more than 7.65%, but remember that a 20% deduction in taxable income in the 24% tax bracket only saves you 4.8% in tax. That’s less than the value of having your employer pay their 7.65% of the payroll tax.

Employees may be eligible for other benefits including health insurance, vacation, state unemployment benefits, workers comp for injuries, and most importantly, the right to unionize. The Lancaster Symphony spent eight years in court, unsuccessfully trying to assert that musicians were not employees, to prevent them from unionizing. You would have a lot to lose by not being an employee, so I am not recommending anyone try to change their employment status.

Still, I expect many of you have Schedule C income from teaching private lessons, playing weddings, or other one-time gigs. If you do have self-employment income, you should benefit from the new tax law as long as you are under the income levels listed above. If you do other related work in music – publishing, repairing instruments, making accessories, etc. – that income might not be considered a Specified Service, so be sure to talk with your tax advisor about your individual situation. We will continue to study this area looking for ways to help musicians like you take advantage of every benefit you can legally obtain.