If the most recent season of The Voice taught us anything, it’s that the average person is a poor judge of talent (goodbye, Adam Levine, sorry we broke your spirit). Unfortunately, earning a good living as an artist can be difficult. Much like teachers, artists tend to be undervalued and underpaid, which make their tax write-offs all the more important.
The IRS allows individuals to claim certain continuing education expenses that further their career. Now, before you get excited, there are two key stipulations (you thought this was going to be easy, didn’t you?).
The nitty gritty rules
In order to write-off the cost of an educational activity, it must be:
1) Required by your employer or the law.
Pub 970: “...The education is required by your employer or the law to keep your present salary, status, or job. The required education must serve a bona fide business purpose of your employer.”
Let’s unpackage this. When it says “required by law,” it’s typically referring professional licenses that have continuing education requirements in order to stay active (think lawyers, accountants, doctors, etc). This clause excludes most artists. However, take note of the “or” in the sentence. The activity only has to be required by either your employer OR the law - one or the other will do. You might be thinking, “well great, I don’t have an employer either,” and while you’re not wrong, the beauty of being self employed is that as far as the IRS is concerned, you are the boss.
With that in mind, look at the second sentence: “the required education must serve a bona fide business purpose for your employer.” Basically, the activity has to further your knowledge of your field and make you better at your job. If you can check that box, you’re most likely eligible for the write-off.
Now, before you pull the trigger on those Ariana Grande tickets, let’s take a quick look at the second requirement:
2) Must improve your skills and should NOT qualify you for a new job.
Pub 970: “...The education maintains or improves skills needed in your present work... [It does NOT] qualify you for a new trade or business.”
Put simply, the activity needs to be in your line of work, and cannot be a means of landing a different job.
Let's do some examples
Example 1: Lisa is a music director. She gives voice lessons and directs a local high-school drama club. She buys Hamilton tickets (who else is still dying to see this??) because she’s thinking about having her choir perform songs from the play. Are those tickets a write-off? Yes, they further her knowledge of her field and have a clear business use in her job.
Example 2: Jim is an artist. He paints portraits and sells them all around the country at local art festivals. He is also passionate about ballet, and watches the Nutcracker every year to get inspiration for his paintings. Are his tickets a write-off? Unfortunately, no. While he is an artist, performing art is not his profession. To write-off ballet tickets would be considered training for a different career, and the connection to his work is too ambiguous (what counts as inspiration? A spa day? Trip to Disneyland?? Vacation in the bahamas??? You see my point).
A further note of caution - be reasonable
Allow me to stress this further: if you’re a pianist, local symphony tickets qualify but Ke$ha tickets might look iffy. If you’re a hip-hop instructor, take your pick of pop-artist performers but don’t try to claim the cost of an art museum. If you’re a fashion designer, runway shows are acceptable but pottery classes would be frowned upon.
Just like the tone-deaf public shouldn’t judge voice competitions, you shouldn’t try to write-off activities outside of the parameters of what you do. It’s not fair to everyone else, and unlike poor Adam Levine, the IRS can and will intervene.