How can I make a living as a freelance software developer/musician?
April 3, 2013 9:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm currently doing the 9-5 for a company as a software developer during the week and am a church organist on Sundays (as well as a few other freelance music gigs), but I would like to leave the office behind and become a freelance developer so I can spend more time on music. I've thought about this a lot, but now I want to actually DO it. What steps do I need to take to make this happen? Does anyone have experience being in this type of situation?

As you might imagine, my software gig pays pretty well (~$70k), while my church job does not (~9k). I guess what I need to do is calculate the minimum amount of money I would need to comfortably live each year, but I'm not sure how to take taxes/health insurance into consideration as a freelancer (I'm in the US).

My only college degree is an undergrad in math, so I don't have any sort of education degrees or music degrees to qualify me to teach music, although I would like to eventually teach some private lessons. My primary instrument is piano, although I play the organ in church as well as bass, guitar, drums, accordion, concertina, trumpet, and clarinet. I also have experience in audio recording, so that's another skill in my bag of tricks, I guess.

I would not want to work more than 20 hours or so per week doing software development, in order to give myself more time to pursue music, which is much more fulfilling and interesting to me. Working remotely (at least most of the time) would be ideal.

Thanks for your insight!
posted by mrbob14 to Work & Money (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Can you talk to your company about going part time as a developer? If you could live on that, it seems to me that it would be more secure, and possibly actually take up less time than freelancing. The people I know who freelance in their professions end up spending more time on marketing and networking and so on, and less time actually doing the job they like to do, so I'm not sure that freelancing would solve your time problem the way you think it would.
posted by lollusc at 10:16 PM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

You'll want one freelance contract because otherwise you won't have the time to manage the business. It will need to pay something like $100 per hour to be equivalent to your current job, maybe a little less, and you'll need to bill nearly all of those 20 hours.

And then there's the non-remote chance you'll become a really successful self-employer and be but by the entrepreneur bug like everyone else. You might wake up 20 years later and realize you've mostly abandoned your music, the opposite of what you wanted. Again, it's a vote for a contract that's as job-like as possible.

As a freelancer who used to be able to play the organ in church and no longer has enough time to practice, I warn you to be careful about what you're signing yourself up for.
posted by michaelh at 10:24 PM on April 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Hmm... Great points guys. I am not so sure that my company would go for that, but it's worth a shot I suppose. Do half-time software development jobs exist?
posted by mrbob14 at 10:28 PM on April 3, 2013

Can you take this thought:
"I would like to leave the office behind and become a freelance developer so I can spend more time on music."

And reduce it to this thought?
"I would like to spend less time doing non-musical work so I can spend more time on music."

If you can, a freelance life is not necessarily what you want. Freelancing in any field is very time-consuming, especially at first, and will always involve a fair amount of overhead beyond the actual billable hours. So if freelancing itself isn't extremely attractive to you, the stable, overhead-free, W2-paid, health-insured work hours you have would be quite valuable to hold on to if you can.

I'd ask your job about any possibility for flexible arrangements (working half-time, working fulltime but taking frequent unpaid sabbaticals, etc.). Make it clear you would love to keep being part of the company and contributing there, but you simply don't want to work fulltime anymore.

If they can't be flexible, there are definitely part-time telecommuting W2 jobs in dev and QA fields out there.
posted by kalapierson at 11:16 PM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

A former coworker has written some thoughtful posts about his work as a freelance software developer, covering his challenges and how he's made the job work for him: Freelancing: A 6-Month Retrospective, A Year of Freelancing, and Freelance Income Sources and the 80/20 Rule. (His reason for quitting his old full-time job: "When I asked if I could do work on the side for another company, it was rejected. I then asked if I could work part-time so that I could diversify my time between work and personal growth in other ways. The response was that that would be tantamount to quitting, so I had to choose.")

To help with your estimates: when I was looking for individual health insurance, I used the automated estimated quote feature of various insurance provider websites, such as this one for Anthem for California. And "The self-employment tax in the United States is typically set at 15.30%".
posted by dreamyshade at 11:23 PM on April 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm a full-time web developer and part-time freelance musician (I also used to be a church musician for many, many years). I'm not sure what the scene is like where you live, but here in Florida, many professional musicians have full-time jobs doing other things, so nearly all the gigs (and rehearsals) are outside the standard 9-5 schedule. So, it's quite possible to play more gigs without giving up your full-time job. That is my recommendation.

The viability of your ideal freelance situation is going to depend in part upon what kind of gigs you can attract. Word-of-mouth goes a long way -- are you already starting to get referrals? What kinds of gigs do you want? Are you picking up wedding work at least?

I used to be freelance in both web and music. I'm working full-time for an ad agency now, but plan to go back to freelance. Here's a short list of the things I learned:

* Join the music union. It will give you options for healthcare, legal help for contract disputes, and you'll be included in the music directory, which a lot of people hire from.

* Have a nice nest egg to live off of before you go down this road.

* A reliable car is absolutely required for the gigging musician. Most folks I know have a 3hr driving radius they service. (I'll drive up to 4 hrs... only after I do the math and make sure the gas costs won't kill my paycheck.)

* You will need to file quarterly taxes if you're full-time freelance. If you take on more music gigs and stay full-time with your software job, ask them to take more out of your paycheck to cover the music earnings.

* If you are good at sight-reading, it's always good to earn a reputation as "the sub guy". This can eventually lead to you becoming "the regular guy" for many groups.

* I quit my church gig (3 services a weekend) because I felt like I needed my weekends back. I regret doing this, because it was regular, dependable income. I also regret quitting because the real problem was that I was very bad at keeping M-F, 9-5 hours as a web developer, instead caving in to client requests outside of standard business hours. This is a problem most freelancers run to at some point in their careers -- setting boundaries. Because your music career is going to be the most unpredictable, you'll need to be good about setting boundaries on the software side.

* A good laptop is invaluable. There were a few times where I got a call to go on tour for 2 weeks... starting the *next* day. Being able to work on the road made the difference between finishing a project and losing a software client.

* It's getting harder and harder to teach private lessons and master classes at public schools. I have band director friends that would invite me to teach a few days a week. Now, the security requirements and background checks are such a pain in the ass, it isn't worth the hassle.

* Parents are a nightmare. Be prepared for this if you decide to teach privately.

* Music work comes in seasons. Figure out what yours are so you can load up with software work.

* Church gigs are awesome. Lots of professionals turn up their noses at church gigs. I don't know why, because it's pleasant and profitable work. Cultivate your church contacts. Play other services, play all the little concerts, just be careful you don't double-book yourself by accident around Christmas and Easter.

* Since you belong to a Church already, chances are, you're going to miss out on some lucrative Christmas/Easter work because of your organist duties.

* Most musical theater work goes to doublers. If you can't play all the brass or all the woodwind instruments, you'll have a VERY difficult time getting wind work here. I'm not sure how it is for percussion and electric guitar/bass.

* Unless you're willing to travel, you will probably cap out on gigs. This is because the same people tend to play the same jobs year after year. And there's usually just a finite amount of work.

* Being pleasant and being on TIME will almost always trump playing ability when people consider rehiring you for a gig.

* You really need to be able to network as both a musician and a software dev. Word-of-mouth is HUGE.

* Once you get known in the music circles, gigs will start coming to you. It's easy to become complacent on the software side. STAY AGGRESSIVE WITH SALES.

* With gigs, you usually get paid on the day. With software dev, who the fuck knows when the client will cut that check. Be good at setting expectations and collecting.

* If you're in the bad position of missing a deadline on a software job or missing a gig with little-to-no notice... miss the software deadline. If word gets around that you're a flake musician, your jobs will instantly dry up. It's usually easier to recover from the software fuckup, even if you lose the client. Note that you want to avoid this scenario entirely, but you WILL run into major conflicts and you WILL need to have the foresight to identity conflicts and get them resolved before there is a problem. That means either pushing back your deadline or getting a good sub to play for you WELL AHEAD of the gig.

* November through April is both lucractive and stressful. Lots of music gigs this time of year, and lots of software clients wanting work done by Q4 / Q1. I'm just coming off this season (one more major gig this month) and feel like I could sleep for days.

I think that's about it for the short list. It's a very nomadic lifestyle at times and requires you to be absolutely passionate about what you do. I think it's worth it, but it sure as hell isn't for everyone. Test the waters with more gigs before you go solo.

If you only want to work 20 hours a week in dev, consider partnering with someone or working through an agency that hires out contract developers. Being a freelance software developer is FAR more stressful, IMO, than a musician and it will take up MUCH more time than you imagine.
posted by Wossname at 11:23 PM on April 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm going to add a few more things:

* Contract work through an agency that hires out developers will probably pay more per hour than what you make now, but less than you would as a freelancer with your own business.

The flip side of that is, if you start your own software business, chances are, you'll be spending around 60-80 hours a week on both your work and drumming up new business. (And you will get stiffed a lot your first few years due to inexperience.) There's truth in this freelancer joke:

"I felt like I deserved to work just a half-day today. Yup, only 12 hours! (I'll make up for it over the weekend.)"

* Musicians usually earn crap. $100 for up to a 3-hour service is a good rate here in Florida. In my personal experience, gigs fueled my discretionary income. My web work is what actually paid the bills.

* This is a combo of careers in which you will be working. All. The. Time. (I'm counting practicing as work.) This is ideal for me because I hate being bored. If puttering around with nothing to do sounds like a fun thing for you, do NOT freelance 100% in both of these careers.
posted by Wossname at 11:46 PM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I did this! I quit my job last year so I could take a break from work and focus more on music, but I had the luxury of my job asking if I could still contract for them. So now I steadily do contract work for them and with an updated LinkedIn profile and some contacts within the industry I get requests for freelance work all the time.

There are weeks in which I don't work, and then there are weeks I do somewhat of a 9-5, but it's flexible. If you build up a little nest egg, it's totally worth to try to invest in a freelancing lifestyle even if for a little bit. It is REALLY nice to have days off in which I can practice, take day gigs, or even show up to gigs early for set up and sound check which I used to previously not able to because of work.

So, step #1 in my opinion is to ask if your current job allows you to contract for them. If not, I would try to look for contracting gigs. Search around job sites, tech meetups, mailing lists, etc just to see if there's anything suitable.

About health insurance -- shop around for individual plans. It's easy if you are in perfect health, just apply. I would say high deductible plans for a single person can range from $150~300 a month, and don't forget potential out of pocket costs for any checkups, prescriptions if not covered by a plan. Also you may be on the hook for your own dental/vision costs.

Taxes - every time I get a check from a company I try to sock away 25% in a different bank account to account for tax. Also I would look into hiring an accountant for tax filing to get the best deductions. You can deduct a lot more from music stuff too! Also I believe you may have to file more than once a year, you should ask an accountant about those rules about freelancing taxes.

You probably have to spend some time to work on the business logistics of being freelancer at first, but the eventual benefits really pay off if you want more time for music.

Oh also, half-time software development jobs do exist. Obviously not as common as full time jobs and you really have to work to find them. One of my freelancer friends got into a nice situation in which she only works 20 hours at most for a startup doing web development. A few places in which I've worked at had half timers doing development. It's not that common, but it's not impossible either.
posted by xtine at 11:49 PM on April 3, 2013

If you're good and find the right clients this can work, but it may be tricky.

It's harder to be a part-time freelancer because, most of the time, people want things done as quickly as possible. Often that's why they're bringing in a freelancer, to cope with excess work or when they suddenly realise something is beyond the abilities of in-house staff.
So ideally you'd need a retainer-type situation, where a couple of clients need ongoing updates/maintenance and buy regular chunks of your time.

Also, freelancing needs to suit your personality. People who are comfortable in a rigid corporate environment, or are just money-motivated, often tend to be miserable/stressed as freelancers (and vice versa, of course). I make less self-employed than I could in a job, but do it because I prefer the lifestyle, variety and freedom. Currently I have nothing confirmed beyond next week and am absolutely fine with that uncertainty.

And leaping into freelancing when your motivation is something other than the freelance work.. well, that won't make things any easier when it's 2am and you've still got a tricky bit of code to finish by the morning.

As your day job pays well, the safest option would be to cut down your living expenses, save more for a year or two, then try to reduce your hours or use the savings as a buffer to pursue any promising freelancing opportunities (e.g. you hear of a client with a maintenance contract up for grabs).
posted by malevolent at 1:23 AM on April 4, 2013

More advice from another thoughtful acquaintance who writes from experience (he's an interaction designer instead of a software developer but the business parts are similar): How to Freelance Without Dying (notes on networking, setting boundaries, billing, coworking, etc). He's written in more detail about his work on his blog: choosing and defining projects, billing, having a lawyer. Hopefully all these links help you get a sense of the practicalities of freelancing.
posted by dreamyshade at 2:10 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

As noted by dreamyshade, when you become self-employed, you have significant costs. You pay your own insurances - health insurance, obviously, but also life insurance, and you are generally not eligile for unemployment. You're eligible for Soc. Security disability, but your day job may provide better coverage for short term & long term disability. Your day job likely contributes to a 401K or has some kind of retirement plan. And you get paid holidays and sick time. These are non-trivial. You don't think you'll use disability insurance, etc., but stuff happens. Your car mileage will go way up, increasing your costs, which are deductible, but always remember deductible just means you don't pay tax on the money you must earn to pay those costs*. You pay FICA, and you pay the employer's share of FICA, since you are your own employer. As a rule of thumb, benefits add 50% to your salary. Unless you are quite unhappy where you are, carefully assess your willingness to live on a lot less.

I've been self-employed, and loved parts of it, like building the business, but the instability and health insurance were were not fun. Dealing with the IRS as a small business employer was the suckiest part, but you don't have that to deal with.

Once you consider all this, and consider any possible costs of re-entering office life at some point(re-training), then the encouragement I have is that following a dream and taking a risk is totally worthwhile, especially if you have researched it really well.

*Friends would always think deductible meant I could splurge on conferences, business entertainment, etc. They also assumed being self-employed meant I could do anything I wanted, any time, when it usually meant quite the opposite.
posted by theora55 at 6:55 AM on April 4, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your answers and advice. I think I may reconsider freelancing and may look into some part-time contract positions. Also I suppose it'd be worth it to ask my employer if they would consider such a thing.
posted by mrbob14 at 6:50 PM on April 4, 2013

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