Your Home-Based Musical Activities Might Be Illegal

Are you breaking the law with your home studio or giving lessons in your house? Turns out, many, if not most communities have rules intended to keep you from engaging in money-making activities of any kind in the privacy of your home, even if no one in your neighborhood knows what’s going on.

My earliest experience with this issue started in 1995, when, as a recently laid-off technical writer, I started a consulting business in my country home. I called the zoning people, etc., and asked what permits, etc., were needed. Turns out I would have to get written permission from everybody who owned property near my home, and I wouldn’t be allowed to put up a sign or have clients come to my house.

At that time, there were cottage industries all up and down our country road: locksmiths, chain-saw sharpeners, blacksmiths, guitar teachers, and even a woman who made and sold costumes for concrete geese. And many of them had signs in their front yard advertising their services. I explained that writing computer manuals from my dining room wasn’t likely to bother anybody, and I asked him why was I being held to a higher standard than everyone else on the street. That was probably a mistake, since he acted like he wasn’t aware of the “problem” and he’d get right on it.

True to his word, within several years, the local constabulary had made most of those presumably nefarious characters take their signs out of their front yards. How many of them continued to practice their industries behind closed doors we’ll never know.

Here’s a big irony – the family that owned the house before us had a tire and battery store in Springfield, Ohio, and for decades had manufactured car batteries in a shed in the back yard. That’s right. Zinc, copper, lead, sulfuric acid, the whole nine yards. For all I know, the whole back half-acre is a “brown-field,” though our well water tested fine, and I had enough sense not to ask the EPA to check the grounds around the shed for toxins. But back when the previous owner was in business, you couldn’t see the shed from the street, and the neighbors never complained, so he got away with it, potentially as late as the 1960s. Of course, his family was also influential in county government for half a century – maybe that played a part.

Back in 1995, I let the bureaucrat I talked to think I had given up on the idea of starting a home business. I never bothered to get a permit, though I worked out of my home off and on for the next twenty-one years. If someone looked through the window and saw me at the computer, they had no way of knowing I wasn’t doing something perfectly legal, like downloading internet porn, or researching fertilizer bomb construction.

Turns out I could have been fined heavily if anyone in the zoning office had discovered that I was actually doing something as nefarious as tweaking html files or translating a convoluted instruction page into plain English. Never mind that the same activities would have been perfectly legal if I had been doing them in, say, a coffee shop, or a MacDonald’s parking lot.

Unlike today, when certain local governments will joyfully fine people for doing things like writing software manuals, or starting 4th-graders on clarinet, or recording demo tracks in their homes.

Recently I learned that folks in cities like Nashville are getting fined for operating home studios, even if no one in the area even knew about it, much less complained. This is especially noxious in “Music City,” where songwriters depend on affordable demo recordings to make a living.

It’s also illegal in many, many places to give guitar lessons in your home, even if nobody knows about it except your next-door neighbors. In fact, many communities have regulations that, if strictly enforced, could get you fined for writing a song with a guitar on your living room couch and Skyping a brief performance to a friend in the “industry.”

At the same time, my neighbors can own big dogs that growl menacingly every time my kids go into the back yard to play. Or hold loud, drunken parties six nights a week. And as long as there aren’t any actual dog bites or underage drinking, there’s nothing I can do about it. Don’t ask me how I know about this stuff.

Back to the home business issue: one problem for potential home business owners is that it’s hard to find out what the rules are without accidentally blowing the whistle on other “malefactors,” like I did when I got the lady who made clothes for concrete geese “busted.”

The good news is that most communities ignore such regulations unless someone complains. In our new home, I’m hoping to give lessons and maybe provide other services like demos and videos of “tiny desk”-style concerts that are probably against local regulations. In fact, just typing this blog may be technically illegal here, since it relates to a source of income.

So how do you making a “cottage industry” musical living from your home in communities where even posting a blog like this one is technically illegal? Depending on your circumstances, one of the biggest considerations is being a good neighbor. Maybe you could even go out of your way to help your neighbors feel like part of what you do – perhaps offering free guitar lessons to their kids, leading carols at their Christmas parties, or anything else that matches your gifts and circumstances.

At the very least, be on good terms as much as possible with everyone who lives on adjacent properties. Make certain that nothing you do could be considered a nuisance (not just music stuff – avoid anything that would tick your neighbors off).

And when you promote your music, don’t do so in a way that ties your money-making (or at least public ) activity to your home address. In fact, the fewer people who know about the gear in the basement, the better, for all kinds of reasons.

Most folks reading this will never have a reason to fear someone knocking on your door or serving you a cease-and-desist notice from a local bureaucracy. But all of us can afford to be good neighbors and avoid drawing unwanted attention to our neighborhood.

And by the way, if anyone asks, I typed this blog at the closest Starbucks, and I only write or record songs in the back of my van in the parking lots of public parks. I wouldn’t dream of doing anything as nefarious as pursuing a musical career in the privacy of my own home. 🙂

Paul

About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

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