Tips: Nice as icing, not as cake.

Street Musician in Mexico. Some rights reserved (CC)

Street Musician in Mexico. Some rights reserved (CC)

LiveMusicTipWell-meaning friends who know about my work have been posting the photo at right to my wall for days.
in case you can’t see from the photo, it’s a register receipt from a bar, and it has a separate line-item for a live music tip.

It usually includes the question: “Wouldn’t it be great if more restaurants [and bars] did this?”

At the lowest common denominator, internetz level, sure. tips are nice.

However, there’s a little more to this — the story actually goes back to about 1890!

So what about tip line items on bar and restaurant receipts?

1. It’s not really a new idea.

Many bars and restaurants already add music charges to the bill, either a cover or as higher prices,   None of this is bad. In fact, it promotes that music is something that has value.

That promotion, however, is more powerful if the music shows up above the tip line, not just below it.

2. Tips are icing, not cake.

Or, if you prefer, they’re the gravy, not the meat-and-potatoes.

In other words – tips are not wages because you can’t rely on them.
Would you try to make a living playing the lottery?

Tips only work if the musicians are already actually guaranteed some kind of wages. 
Unfortunately, these days, performers often work for zero guarantees, minus their expenses.

3. Performing just for tips alone isn’t just a gamble — it’s a completely different kind of work.

Generally speaking, unless you are working the room, and working it hard, audiences do not tip.  They generally assume that the house is paying the performer many times what they’re actually getting (especially if the guarantee is zero, which is common.)

Street performers know how to perform for tips. 
Orchestra musicians probably don’t.

A performer working exclusively for tips has to continually educate an audience that’s probably not even paying much attention. They also have to perform in a flashy way that encourages tips, making the asks clear, free of subtlety, often just shy of being utterly tasteless.  It’s an entirely different art form.


Ur halfway there(z)! keep reading!

4. With no guarantees to musicians, this is just business as usual. 

Regardless of how they say they “support musicians, ” restaurants and bars are for-profit businesses.

Everything they do is to make money and reduce expenses:  music is no exception.  Musicians are often expected to perform “For the LOVE, Brah!” but make no mistake — no sane businessperson does what they do exclusively for the love.

This ‘tip’ can be just another way venues can shift costs onto the consumers,  thus lowering their expenses and making more money for them.  It’s just another thing that enables the house to guarantees no wages whatsoever, something that’s illegal for most other kinds of service providers.

Prevalent competition, undercutting, and lack of cooperation among musicians ensure that for most performers, the choice is either to perform under these conditions, or not perform at all.

5. Transparency

In the comment streams, several people mentioned that they were skeptical that musicians ended up getting any part of the tips at all; the same has been said for cover fees taken at the door, etc. This, too, is nothing new.

There is often a lack of transparency in these deals, which are rarely written or agreed upon beforehand. A lack of a written agreement gives the house virtually unlimited license to rip off musicians.

Not surprisingly, even well-meaning booking agents are vague and noncommittal in written communications regarding gig details, and, sadly, most musicians are too timid and fearful of losing their precious (poorly paid?!) gigs to press for clarity.

All too often I’ve seen houses tell the musicians what the deal was at the end of the night… after they’ve had time to revise the terms to their advantage. Who’s to say it was ever any different? Of course, this is partially (Largely?) the musicians’ fault.

6. The worst

By far the most obnoxious comment I saw accompanying this picture was: “Waitstaff make their living on tips… Why can’t musicians?”  This is an ignorant and inaccurate statement. To set the record straight and answer this question: 

  • Waitstaff are employees, protected by minimum wage laws.
    Musicians have no such protection: Powerful corporate interests created loopholes to minimum wage laws for independent contractors in 1946, musicians specifically in 1978. The 1% was alive and well even back then, and they spent a LOT of money and time on laywers and lobbyists on this.  They even managed to use the Red Scare to make sure it was illegal for unions to organize and bargain on behalf of these independent contractors. Thanks, 1%!
  • It’s customary to tip waitstaff, cab drivers, and other service industry folks.  It is not customary to tip musicians: In general, audiences do not see the amount of preparation required to perform well. Thus, they see music as a hobby, or something that comes out of their iPod.

Just to make things even more fun, this article from Huff Post points out that some restaurants are steering away from tips, which has direct advantages to both wait- and kitchen staff.

Musicians can help ameliorate these conditions by becoming endorsers of Fair Trade Music and joining together to create a more vibrant, functional music scene.

Music fans can help by taking the Fair Trade Music Pledge. 

Comments are open; feel free to share yours.


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