The Business of Music: Questions Answered

This Business of Music resource addresses questions about the ins and outs of embarking on a career in music.

The questions were asked by third year students in the School of Music, University of Auckland after watching a FutureMakers showcase video of composer, producer and creative entrepreneur Marshall Smith sharing how he set himself up as a music professional. 

We followed up with Marshall over Zoom and went through a number of the students questions with him. We encourage you to watch the video and read the full Q&A resource below if you’re interested in learning more about how to start a career as a creative entrepreneur, what kind of creative portfolio you need to start, how you can support yourself financially, how royalties and taxes work and much more.

We hope this resource provides you with a great head start in launching your career in music!

Marshall Smith: A Career in Music

Marshall Smith is a composer, musician and Chair of the Screen Music and Sound Guild of New Zealand. He answers the following questions and much more in the following video.

  • How do you get started with composing for film/tv?
  • How do composers organise the criteria for setting commission prices?
  • Where do people who sync music (films/ advertising) find electroacoustic music?
  • How do composers begin their career? How do you find jobs as a freelance commercial composer?
  • How do you start a career as a creative entrepreneur? 
  • How big of a creative portfolio would you need to start? 
  • How long do you have to work for yourself until you find a way to support yourself financially?

Student Questions Answered:

Career Development

How do you start a career as a creative entrepreneur? 

How do you pivot between different jobs with no prior experience?

Openness, curiosity and effective communication skills are key to being able to try your hand at a wide variety of potential career paths. By developing experience in a variety of different roles, you can better determine what common aspects of the roles and industry you enjoy, helping you to determine what other opportunities might be open to you that engage those skill sets and experience. Entry-level jobs usually don’t require previous experience and are a good way to get an overview of a particular business or organisation while gaining experience. You’re then in the right place at the right time should a role become available that builds on the experience and connections you have gained in the meantime.

Volunteering or job shadowing is another good way to learn the ropes. If there is a particular company you would like to work with, asking whether you can volunteer or job shadow a particular position will also help you develop contacts that may help you find and develop opportunities in the future.

An intentional, methodical career pivot means doubling down on what is working to make a purposeful shift in a new, related direction. Everyone – regardless of age, career stage or bank account balance – can pivot from a career plateau and get better at adapting to change.

Look at what’s really working for you, look at your strengths, what you most enjoy, what you’re interested in, what skills you would be really excited to learn in the coming years. Set a vision for 12 months time and what success would look like for you at the end of that year.

You can run little career pilots to test a new direction without feeling the pressure to invest in a lifelong direction. Sometimes your pivot may not be the right move for you. Any next move is going to be informative about what works, what doesn’t work and what next experiments you want to try.  

What business opportunities are available for musicians who do not wish to continue making music but still want to work in the music industry?

There are a plethora of career opportunities within the music industry beyond making music as an artist. From managing musicians, promoting and producing music, to music journalism, music therapy and music teaching, you can be a vital part of the music industry even if you’re not creating the content.

Read more here and here for lists and definitions of music career options and definitions.

Listen to dance teacher Trudy Dobbie talk about how she made the choice to become a teacher in order to be able to enjoy everything she loves about dance while helping the next generation develop their own creative skills.

Image of two dancers in studio

Click to see Trudy Dobbie’s FutureMakers Showcase video

This article provides a summary of how different roles within the music industry get paid. 

How do you justify being a creative in the current economic climate?

The world needs creativity now more than ever – and skills developed within the creative sector are increasingly being recognised as vital to an organisation’s ability to be flexible and resilient in an age where market conditions are changing faster and faster. Read more about the creative future and COVID-19. 

Creativity is good for people’s well being in a crisis ,both for the creator and the audience and those working creatively are less susceptible to losing their jobs due to automation – the application of machines to tasks once performed by humans.

This a great read on the practicalities of being in the music industry, especially for those starting out. 

Read about why creatives are being sought to fill governance positions on Boards in the public and private sectors, here

‘Leaders from the arts and creative industries possess the imagination, savvy commercial ingenuity, resourcefulness and EQ that will allow boards to adapt to new conditions and even revolutionise their organisations.’ 

This is an excellent report from the World Economic Forum on the importance of creative industries. 

How do you choose between the job you want and the job you need?

Ari Harstan shares some sage advice on this topic in his book How To Make It In The Music Business:

“There’s not a single musician on the planet that I know of who has never had a day job . . .The day job you have should make enough money to live on while you’re building your music career. Every cent you make at your day job that isn’t going towards keeping you fed and housed should be going towards developing your music career.”

The Creative NZ Survey Portrait of the Artist conducted in 2003 revealed that:

On average, artists first worked in a paid or unpaid role in their principal artistic occupation at the age of 23 and got their first paid work in their principal artistic occupation at the age of 28.

50 percent of artists interviewed had changed from a non-arts career to an arts career. The reasons given included, “it was what they always wanted to do”, and “lack of job satisfaction/boredom with their current work”.

The survey revealed that musicians tend to start working in their principal artistic occupation at a younger age than artists overall, in both a paid and unpaid capacity:

• by age 18-20 years, 78% of musicians had worked in a paid or unpaid capacity (all artists 49%) 

 • by age 21-24 years, 70% of musicians had been paid to work professionally (all artists: 45%) 

How do you avoid stress as a freelancer?

The best way to deal with stress is by acknowledging it and its source, and by engaging in activities that can fight off the harmful effects chronic stress can have on your well-being.

Some signs that you may be suffering from stress include an inability to sleep, trouble focusing and losing your temper over small things.

This article on lists a number of ways to combat stress as a freelancer and this is a good starter guide for freelancers working from home.

A really effective way to deal with stress is by sharing your experiences with others. Working from home, or on your own can feel lonely at times and it’s important to feel like you have a network of people around you who you can talk to about work-related issues just like you would talk to colleagues in an office setting or fellow students at uni. Connect with others in your field and join any membership organisations that act as a connector for your field. 

This is a worthwhile interview with production sound recordist Mike Westgate discussing how to measure your success, make your own breaks, stay creative and build a lasting positive attitude. 

To find resources to fuel your creative resilience, go here.

To find resources to help you maintain your well being, go here.

Are most freelancers learning skills on the job and what are the best qualifications to ensure a steady income as a creative?

Part of being a successful freelancer is having a growth mindset vs a closed mindset. Have a look at this infographic to further understand the concept of a growth mindset. Being open to learning new skills on the job while knowing what it is you need to know in order to get the job done, is the balance you are looking for in order to continue to grow and evolve as a freelancer. Having a growth mindset means being open to taking short and long courses throughout your career and committing to continuous learning.

Rather than looking at qualifications which will vary depending on what kind of creative role you are looking to pursue, the traits you also need to cultivate to succeed as a creative are: reliability, curiosity, conscientiousness, effective communication, openness, self-discipline and a problem-solving mindset.

Who makes a good mentor and how do you find them?

A good mentor provides you with the tools, guidance and feedback you need to thrive. They have been down the same road you’re on and so are able to advise on what has worked for them. They should be able to play a consistent role in your life over a period of time. A good mentor should have the following qualities and experience:

  • Relevant expertise
  • Enthusiasm for sharing their knowledge with you
  • A respectful attitude – this goes both ways
  • The ability to give honest and direct feedback
  • Reflective listening and empathy
  • A willingness to be a sponsor – this means going further than just providing advice and guidance by actively advocating for you both publicly and privately.

Check out the Music Managers Forum NZ – a collective voice for music managers and self-managed artists – and their mentoring programme.

This overview of organisations and award programmes supported by APRA AMCOS, will give you a good idea of the various organisations supporting musicians across New Zealand. Get involved with the organisations who might be able to connect you with mentors, grants and career opportunities.

ArtsLab works in the creative sector to provide career guidance, job seeking advice, mentoring support and professional development workshops, with the outcomes of employment, self-sustainability and a more resilient creative economy.

Crescendo (CTOA) list themselves as a growing social enterprise run by a group of musicians, audio engineers, radio DJs, event managers and other creatives using their skills, industry experience and industry connections to empower young people to find their voice, expand their wellbeing and empower their future. They have mentoring opportunities you can register for.

Why is integrity an important part of being a freelance musician?

The central belief of musical integrity is that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Otherwise we are wasting time and energy. This isn’t a moral imperative, but a personal decision about how and where to spend your time and attention.

Ari Herstand author of ‘How To Make it in the New Music Business’ says this about the need for integrity:

“Before you invest every last penny of your savings, destroy your relationships and hop in a van with four other smelly dudes or dudettes for two months, step back and ask yourself why you want to be a musician. This may seem like a dumb question, but it’s the most important one you will ever ask yourself. And it will define the rest of your life.

“Because I love music” is not the answer you’re looking for. A music career, unlike most other careers in the world, requires more than a passing enjoyment. A music career requires a passion like no other . . .

Those who enter music to become famous fail. Hobbyists play the guitar to impress people. Musicians master their instruments to feed their soul.

You must decide early on what kind of artist you want to be. You should place yourself first and always. Don’t write music you think people want to hear. Don’t play songs you think people want to hear. To succeed as an original artist you have to pave your own path. The most important thing you should remember is to be authentic. The reason fans connect to artists on a deep, spiritual level is because artists bring truth.”

How many music freelancers are there in NZ?

In researching this we found it a very difficult question to answer accurately due to the fact that many freelancers have a portfolio of different services they offer and there is no specific category or database that collects information on music freelancers in general.

In 2016, WeCreate commissioned NZIER to produce a valuation of the creative sector which estimated its contribution to GDP at $17.5bn and employment at 131,000 people – one third of whom work outside the creative industries. There is no clear data to indicate what proportion of that number is made up of music freelancers.

In the 2018 Census, Statistics New Zealand recorded 5,742 respondents as Creative Artists, Musicians, Writers and Performers and 264 respondents identifying as working in the music, music publishing and other sound recording activities. 

APRA AMCOS has 12,725 composer, songwriter and publisher members in New Zealand, of which approximately 7,000 are active. 

Recorded Music collects on behalf of the owners or exclusive licensees of copyright in sound recordings Master Rights Holders and has 3,500 members that may represent more than one person.

If you work as a freelancer how do you get the jobs? How do you make your initial business connections?

Read this handy guide to getting to your first paid client.

Freelancing is all about your connections. Find industry groups to join such as APRA AMCOS, Independent Music NZ, The Screen Music and Sound Guild of NZ, the Music Manager’s Forum of NZ. Go to meetups and industry events and join industry groups and platforms online, and review the rich resource libraries available online such as that on The New Zealand Music Commission website.

This overview of organisations and award programmes supported by APRA AMCOS, will give you a good idea of the various organisations supporting musicians across New Zealand. Get involved with the organisations who might be able to connect you with mentors, grants and career opportunities.

For classical musicians there are virtually no agents so you need to do all the networking yourself and be comfortable with that.

How do you join an established music business? 

Research the market and become familiar with specific businesses. Look for someone who could make an introduction so you can learn more about how you might assist the organisation you want to join. Find out if they have any intern or job shadowing opportunities. 

Look the organisation up on LinkedIn and see if you have any connection to people already working there. Try calling the organisation to see if they have any entry level roles going.

What are some well-known arts industry jobs composers take because composing music and taking commissions doesn’t give you enough of a salary?

This article provides a summary of how different roles within the music industry get paid. Graphic design, film making, producing are all commonly held roles by creatives who also compose music. There are many examples of kiwi composers who also have other roles to supplement their income. A multi-skilled approach is typical as Marshall Smith can attest to in both of his videos. Below are a number of examples of how composers use their talents in a variety of ways.

  • Christopher Blake is an NZ composer who continued composing while he was a Chief Executive in the public service
  • Victoria Kelly is a composer, performer and producer of music – and is also the Director of NZ Member Services at APRA AMCOS.
  • Huia Hamon is a musician, visual artist and studio engineer. She also runs Integrity Promotion and Kog Studio
  • Javier Weyler has played the drums with Stereophonics, Phil Manzanera and Zak Starkey among other artists, in between making his own albums and creating soundtracks for movies, commercials and documentaries.
  • Meyele Manzana is a drummer, composer and producer.
  • Tom Larkin is Shihad’s drummer and manager. He is also visual artist and the producer/founder of Signal Artist Development Accelerator, a trans-tasman artist development training course in partnership with The Studios in The City. His VVV MGMT company is responsible for the careers of Killing Heidi, Darren Middleton, Strangers, Woodlock, Villainy and DECADES.
  • Moana Maniapoto is a singer, songwriter, producer and documentary maker.
  • Rob Ruha is a composer, solo artist and kapa haka performer. Rob is an ambassador for APRA AMCOS NZ, the Waiata Māori Music Awards and a mentor to many young Māori artists
  • Tigilau Ness is a songwriter, reggae artist and activist.

How do you become a music writer or a blogger?

  • This NPR article offers some great tips on how to break into music journalism.
  • This is a great interview with Nick Fulton and Sarah Gooding, two freelance music journalists who started off in New Zealand before moving to New York. They talk about how they got into writing about music, their work, and the future of music journalism in an ever-changing industry.
  • This article provides a good overview of the pros and cons of freelance music journalism and tips on how to get started.

How does one get nominated or apply for an award such as the Silver Scrolls?

Anyone who is a New Zealand APRA member can enter. It’s free to be an APRA member, and it’s also free to enter. There are a number of eligibility criteria which you can check out in detail here, but basically, the song must have been written (at least in part) by an APRA member who is a New Zealand citizen or resident. 

How do you become a studio session musician and is it a financially viable career?

Making a full time living as a session musician in New Zealand is virtually unheard of but not impossible. It is part of your approach to your career. If you specialise in playing a niche instrument(s) this may help you to get involved in recording/ live sessions that require your specialist skills. Such work is likely to be only one of your income streams though and Marshall Smith talks more about this in his video above.

What happens if you don’t want to do a project after you have signed up? Do you prioritise creativity or professionalism?

You negotiate your exit by talking with the people who brought you into the project and/or hired you. Exiting before a project is completed may result in you not being fully paid. Marshall Smith discusses this situation in is interview above.

While you can’t be forced to continue to work on a project you no longer want to work on, you should be aware of the terms and conditions signed in the agreement and how early termination of the contract may affect you.


How do you get a regular income as a freelancer?

In deciding to go down the route of a freelancer you need to be comfortable with potential peaks and troughs in your income cycle over the year. The best way to ensure your income is as regular as possible is to grow your client base. If you are able to secure one or two clients on a retainer basis then that takes the pressure off and keeps the lights on. It also means you can take on riskier or less well paid but creatively rewarding projects at the same time. If you do not have the appetite for risk and flexibility with income, then it would be wise to think about whether the freelancer route is really for you.

This is a great overview covering how to get started in business whether you start your own company or freelance as a self-employed sole trader. 

How do royalties work as a freelancer and what is better – royalties or one-off payments?

Here is a detailed overview from APRA AMCOS on how music copyright works and who pays the royalties. With a one-off payment for a song, which you have, for example, been commissioned to write, you have no further rights to that song as it belongs to the commissioner. This is explained in more detail in the overview above. 

How do you collect royalties?

If you’re writing, composing or publishing music, join APRA AMCOS in order to have the royalties associated with your music creations administered on your behalf. The NZ Music Commission website also has a host of information and tips on touring, musician well-being, music upskilling tools and resources; and runs the international market development & trade show programme Outward Sound.

Recorded Music NZ collects fees on behalf of the owners or exclusive licensees of copyright, for example, labels for sound recordings.  See here. Recorded Music NZ also pays a portion of income to registered recording artists – for more about this click here.

Here is a performance agreement template you can fill out and download. It will give you a good idea of what factors need to be taken into consideration when doing business. NZ Music Commission also has a basic agreement template you can download here.

How much does a manager charge? Are there any differences between a band manager and other members’ percentages? How do you split revenue after a show?

Managers receive an agreed percentage of the income from the artists they work with. Sometimes, musicians may pay managers a salary or a retainer but that would likely only happen when the band is making sufficient income to support its members comfortably and there is a strong need to make sure the band’s manager focuses only on them. 

A manager’s cut of a band’s earnings should not exceed 25% on a commission basis or 50% on a profit-share arrangement and is more often somewhere between 10 and 15%.

There is no set formula for how much each band member or the manager should receive. The most important thing is that you agree on this before you reach a stage where merchandise, gigs and record sale earnings need to be divided. All income from radio play and advertising/tv/movie syncs will go to the writer unless an agreement stipulates otherwise.

A band agreement should cover the following aspects of ownership and revenue splitting:

Copyright – who owns the songs – is it one person or a group effort? How might you want to differentiate contributions? If a band member leaves do they forfeit all rights to the songs or would they retain a percentage?

Income – what share of royalties or other income, (such as merchandising or sponsorship), does each member receive? How does any income be divided if the band splits up?

Band name – who has the right to use the name and who can use the name if the band splits up?

In most cases, original band members divide proceeds from touring, records, merchandising, endorsements and sponsorships equally. Income from songwriting is typically divided equally among the people who actually do the writing. If one of the band members is the producer of the album, they may then get separate royalties.

How do you prepare an invoice?

Xero provides a detailed breakdown of what you need to include in an invoice and two templates to use depending on whether or not you are GST registered: 

How do you charge as a freelance musician?

Joining the NZ Musicians Union would be a good starting point as they provide  members free contract, taxation, copyright, royalty and legal advice.

This article details some of the factors to take into consideration when figuring out what to charge.

Marshall Smith also answers this question in our follow up video above.

Read more here about the key differences between an employee and a contractor.

What does a decent living actually mean?

This can only be defined on an individual basis, related to your goals, values and priorities. You can start to plan your financial path by reading this personal finance overview on the FutureMakers website.

Marshall also talks to this question in the video above.

What is the average yearly income for a decent freelancer in music?

It is difficult to pinpoint the average income for a music freelancer as it very much depends on the kind of role you are fulfilling. Creative NZ have some statistics on this, however, this only refers to funded artists. Bene has just bought her first house – but her commercial success is definitely above average.

Make friends with other bands/artists and talk about money. These people are your allies, not competitors. Talk about guarantees, ticket sales, all that stuff!

The APRA AMCOS 2019/2020 Year in Review report contains information on the revenue their members receive split out over live performances/ digital/ television and radio.

How do orchestral musicians get paid?

This varies significantly per organisation. Orchestras such as the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) have a number of permanent positions for key players/section leaders, and other performers would be employed on a contractual or performance basis, generally determined by the orchestra manager.

The full complement for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) is 90 musicians and 27 support staff in permanent full-time salaried roles. Occasionally, NZSO requires additional musicians or staff, who are then engaged on a fixed-term casual employment or contract basis. Internships are also sometimes available for those embarking on an arts career and looking to underpin their education with practical experience.

What amounts of dosh do film composers receive for their efforts in scoring an entire film?

This varies wildly. Marshall answers this question in his follow up video above.


Pay someone well versed in the arts to do your taxes for you. It will be worth the investment and remove a lot of stress and anguish while also saving time that can be better spent on creating your music.

What is a good strategy for tackling your student loan as a musician?

Have a read of the articles on finance and managing student loans in the Futuremakers Creative Freelancer’s Tool Kit

Do self-employed freelancers have a different tax code or pay a different amount of tax? Should you set up as a contractor or incorporate a company? What is the most sustainable rate to aim for under the M SL SF tax rate? 

Bands and entertainers can start out playing for fun or as a hobby. If your band is successful, your hobby can turn into a business and you’ll have legal and tax responsibilities.

You can download this guide for bands and entertainers from the IRD.

If you’re working for yourself and don’t receive a regular salary or wage then you are most probably a self-employed contractor. You can find more information about your tax responsibilities here

You can read all about tax codes and their relevance and usage here

How do you pay tax on prize money?

Check with Inland Revenue whether you need to pay tax if you get more than $500 in prize money. Withholding tax may have already been deducted from the prize by the prize distributor but it would pay to check. 

How do you write something off as a business expense?

At the time you need to pay your income tax on your total profit, you calculate your taxable income minus the expenses you can claim — so the more you can claim, the less tax you have to pay. provide a good overview of the business expense claim process.

One thing to note is that you must keep all receipts of any expenses you claim.

What is GST and how is it different from tax?

Goods and services tax (GST) is added to the price of most products and services. If you earn above $60,000 as a self-employed contractor you need to be GST registered. If you’re GST registered, you can claim back the GST you pay on goods or services you buy for your business. You can also charge GST (15%) on what you sell — this is collecting it on the government’s behalf.

You can read all about GST here

How do I pay tax and who gets my money?

If you’re earning any sort of income, you have to pay tax.

The New Zealand Government relies on taxes to help fund services that benefit all New Zealanders. The Government pays for everything with tax revenue – schools, roads, hospitals, pensions for the elderly, social welfare, and so much more. Paying income tax is compulsory for anyone working in New Zealand. All taxes are paid to Inland Revenue — the Government’s tax department, which is also known as IRD.

If you’re self-employed, you’ll need to manage your own tax and file a return at the end of the tax year (typically the tax year runs from 1 April to 31 March). Inland Revenue will consider you a one-person business.

Inland Revenue collects your money on behalf of the government to pay for public services. The IRD helps people to meet their obligations and receive their entitlements. 

If you earn income in New Zealand, you will need an IRD number (tax number). If you do not have an IRD number, you will be taxed at the highest possible rate.

Personal income tax rates

10.5%: $0 to $14,000

17.5%: $14,001 to $48,000

30%: $48,001 to $70,000

33% from $70,000

If you’re earning wages and you’re on the right tax code, you will not have to do anything at the end of the tax year.

Your employer will deduct tax using the code you gave them when you started work. Make sure they’re using the right code or you could pay the wrong amount of tax.

If you’re self-employed you use your individual IRD number to pay tax. You pay tax on net profit by filing an individual income return.

You can claim back expenses for business activity that you carry out. You need to register for GST if you earn over $60,000 a year.

The IRD website has a number of handy guides covering information on sole trader and business owner tax obligations.

Other Helpful Resources