Entertainment Company Was a Trade or Business, but Failed to Substantiate Expenses

The Tax Court held that an entertainment company that signed artists and produced, promoted and distributed their work was engaged in a trade or business for profit because, although the company never earned a profit during the years at issue, the owner had prior business successes in the music industry, ran the company in a businesslike manner, and devoted significant capital to make it a profitable business. However, the owner’s losses from the business were denied because the court found that the company’s bank statements, which were the only evidence of the expenses produced by the owner, were insufficient to establish the amounts and business purpose of the expenses. Barker v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2018-67.

Cecile Barker is an experienced aerospace engineer with a background in music. In the mid-1960s he formed the group Peaches & Herb, which achieved considerable commercial success, and in 1973 he co-produced a song by Gladys Knight & the Pips. Barker left the music business and formed an aerospace engineering company in the 1970s. In 2001, he sold that company and decided to reenter the music business.

Barker formed SoBe Entertainment International LLC in 2002. He contributed all of SoBe’s capital and owned 95 percent of its profits and losses. His son, Yannique, and daughter, Angelique, split the other five percent. SoBe is an independent entertainment company that signs artists and celebrities, produces music and videos, and promotes its artists and distributes their work. As SoBe’s chief executive officer (CEO) and managing member, Barker devoted 40 to 60 hours per week to the business. He consulted music industry professionals before forming SoBe, and hired several high profile producers to bolster SoBe’s chances of success. SoBe employed a marketing professional and, at one time, chief financial officer (CFO). In total, SoBe had eight employees and regularly hired independent contractors.

Yannique Barker was one of SoBe’s signed artists. SoBe had several artist contracts and renewed at least one. SoBe also contracted with producers and writers to work with its artists. SoBe also entered into a distribution agreement with Universal Music to distribute music digitally. SoBe advertised online and through its websites in addition to placing ads in print magazines. SoBe was also a member of the trade organization Record Industry Association of America.

Barker saw stars like Adele and Taylor Swift as examples of how one artist could make his company profitable. Although none of his artists had achieved such a level of success, they had each contributed to the catalog of songs that SoBe owned. SoBe’s catalog had value in March 2016 and it placed a song in a TV show on ABC.

SoBe was founded at a time of major change to the music industry, as online platforms made it possible to buy or sell music at low cost or share it for free. SoBe cut costs as a result of the effects of these platforms, reducing its employees from 17 to 8, and moving its recording studio to a less expensive location. SoBe had never earned a profit and its cumulative losses increased from year to year.

SoBe employed John McQuagge as its CFO and controller from 2006 through 2010. McQuagge used Quickbooks software to produce SoBe’s general ledger and journals. SoBe had two separate bank accounts, one used as a primary operating account and the other used for payroll. McQuagge balanced the accounts against monthly bank statements. While SoBe kept records of the checks it used to pay its expenses from 2006-2010, other expenses recorded in SoBe’s general ledger were paid by credit card or cash, for which no documentation existed other than bank statements.

SoBe had two outside accounting firms prepare its tax returns for 2003-2011. SoBe provided its accountants with all of its Quickbooks records. Accountant Stanley Foodman prepared SoBe’s returns for 2006-2009. Foodman also prepared Barker’s personal income tax returns for 2005-2011. Foodman calculated Barker’s net operating losses (NOLs) and total capital contributions to SoBe for 2002-2011 and listed each of his individual capital contributions to SoBe in 2006-2009. Foodman determined that Barker made over $45 million in capital contributions to SoBe from 2002-2011. This calculation was based on the Schedules K-1, Partner’s Share of Income, Deductions, Credits, etc. from SoBe, supplemented by SoBe’s general ledger and bank statements.

Barker reported income from sources other than SoBe, mostly capital gains, interest and dividends. His 2011 income came mostly from Mistral, a defense contractor Barker helped found. Foodman calculated Barker’s income or loss after taking into account Barker’s interest and dividend income, net capital gains and losses, and share of gain or loss reported on the Schedules K-1 from SoBe and other businesses in which he held an interest.

Barker was the victim of identity theft when someone filed a tax return for 2011 using his social security number. Barker eventually filed his 2011 Form 1040 in August 2016. His return showed a loss from SoBe of over $800,000 and an NOL carryover of $19.6 million for 2011. The IRS issued a notice of deficiency in June 2014, determining various adjustments to Barker’s income and deductions. The notice showed that Barker owed approximately $1.2 million in tax for 2011 and that a 25 percent addition to tax applied for Barker’s failure to file his return on time. Barker challenged the notice in the Tax Court.

The IRS asserted that SoBe did not incur any operating losses (and thus, no losses flowed through to Barker) because SoBe was a hobby rather than a trade or business. In the IRS’s view, Barker lacked the actual and honest objective of making a profit. The IRS also argued that Barker could not substantiate the expenses giving rise to SoBe’s operating losses. Barkley contended that SoBe was run as a business from its formation and that making a profit was always its primary objective. He also challenged the addition to tax by arguing that his late filing was due to the identity theft.

The Tax Court held that, under the facts and circumstances, Barker operated SoBe as a trade or business with the actual and honest objective of making a profit. The Tax Court found that Barker had prior business successes in the music industry and had run successful defense contracting businesses, having helped to turn one of them around after several years without a profit. In the court’s view, Barker leveraged his experience and contacts in the music industry as he prepared for SoBe’s formation. He also ran SoBe in a businesslike manner, working there full time and devoting significant capital to it.

Although SoBe had never been profitable, the court found that it had positioned itself to make a profit by amassing a catalog of songs that it had been able to monetize. The court also took into account the turmoil in the music industry and the difficulties faced by artists and producers during the years at issue. The fact that Barker’s son, Yannique, was a SoBe artist did not mean that SoBe was merely a vehicle to fund Yannique’s musical aspirations, according to the Tax Court, because SoBe had other artists and did not devote most of its resources to Yannique. Nor did the fact that Barker enjoyed the creative aspects of the music industry, and had income from other sources. prevent SoBe from being engaged in a trade or business, given the other factors indicating a profit motive.

Although SoBe was engaged in a trade or business for profit, the Tax Court found that Barker failed to provide evidence on which the Tax Court could determine or even estimate the amount of SoBe’s business expenses for all prior years of its operation. The court found that the only documentation to support SoBe’s business expense deductions for previous years were SoBe’s bank statements. Those statements, in the court’s view, did not document the amounts of SoBe’s expenses paid by cash or credit card, nor did they describe the business purpose of the expenditures. The court found that Barker had produced SoBe’s general ledger only for 2005-2009 and that his testimony was insufficient to fill in the gaps. The Tax Court reasoned that Barker had access to additional documentation, including SoBe’s general ledger for all years of its existence, but failed to produce it; therefore the court presumed that such documentation would be unfavorable to Barker.

The Tax Court also held that Barker failed to provide enough evidence for it to determine his NOL deduction for 2011. Barker failed to substantiate SoBe’s income and business expenses for all prior years and, in turn, the amount of losses for which he claimed a deduction for 2011. If the court could not estimate the amount of SoBe’s operating losses, it could not know how much flowed through to Barker. Moreover, even if Barker had substantiated SoBe’s expenses, the court could not determine how much of those losses were absorbed by Barker’s other income in the years before 2011, because Barker did not produce his returns for 2002-2004 and those that he produced for later years were missing crucial information.

The Tax Court also upheld the penalty assessment after rejecting Barker’s argument that his identity theft issue excused his failure to file his 2011 return on time. The court reasoned that Barker was a sophisticated businessman who should have known that he was required to file his return, and that his accountants and return preparers could have made inquiries.