Jar Head (The Tip Jar, Part Two)

I went to grad school at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio.  In the nearby city of Dayton, there was a sandwich shop that I would play at about once a month or so.  Once, while playing there, a guy dropped a ten into the tip jar and said, “You remind me so much of Jim Croce!”  I took that as the high praise it was meant to be, and enjoyed the rest of my gig.  About a month or so later, a gal dropped a ten into the tip jar and gushed, “You are so much like Harry Chapin!” Again, I appreciated the compliment.  But about a month or so later, another customer in the sandwich shop dropped a couple of fives into the tip jar and said, “You really remind me of Steve Goodman.”  About this time, I was a little nervous, because, as great as all three of these songwriters are (and I play songs written by all of them), by this time they were all dead.  However, it’s been years since that sandwich shop in Dayton, and I’m still kickin’.

I mentioned in the previous blog post about the Native American tradition of counting coup.  To count coup was to earn honor; typically by showing that you could kill an opponent, but deliberately refraining from doing so.  I realize that the tip jar is a far cry from that tradition as such, but I regard the tip jar as a musician’s form of counting coup.  Getting someone to drop a little something in the jar is a very real and obvious affirmation.  What you are doing as a musician has pleased someone to demonstrate it in a noticeable way.

I was playing at the Feckin’ Brewery, in Oregon City, last Saturday.  Besides being my second time playing at Feckin’it was my birthday, and playing  a gig is definitely one of my preferred ways to mark the occasion.  Within the first twenty minutes of the first set, a guy dropped a twenty into the tip jar and flashed me a big grin (turns out he especially like the blues that I played early on).  In addition to that, when the bartender drops money into your tip jar, I find that a real vote of confidence (after all, they hear everyone who plays there).  And the same with the cook asking to buy a CD; that, too, makes me feel I had a good night.

As I said before, I think it’s important for the venue to show a basic respect to the musicians by paying them  something  for their service.  That leaves the tip jar to serve as a gauge of what sort of energy you bring to the show, and how you do connecting with the audience.

Like I said: counting coup.

Jar Jar Chink

Shortly after I first arrived in Denver (many years ago), I had a conversation with two ladies who owned and ran one of the more popular coffeehouses in the Highlands neighborhood.  At the time, they were featuring live music three days a week (Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoons), but musicians were playing strictly from what they made from the tip jar.

“I have a masters in music,” I told them.  And to be fair, that in itself doesn’t necessarily mean much under the circumstances, save to suggest that I had spent a fair bit of time, effort, and money learning my craft.  “  I have thousands of hours invested in working up my repertoire, and thousands of dollars invested in my instruments and equipment.  With no disrespect intended, I have a lot more invested in what I do, and doing it well, than your barristas running your espresso machines.  And yet, I can imagine if you asked those barristas to work for just tips, they would likely be laughing at you as they walked out the door.  So, again, with all due respect, why do you ask this of me?”

My argument worked; after that conversation, word got around that this coffeehouse was paying musicians.  Maybe not a lot, as such, but more than just playing for the tip jar.  It was a small step.

So I have been on this soapbox before (you can see my footprints, right there).  In a society where there is debate about a working wage, or a minimum wage, there are plenty of venues that still ask musicians to play for tips only.  And there are plenty of musicians willing to do it.  They think they need to do it, to get exposure, to build a following, to get experience.  All of those reasons are a good argument for open stages, which I feel is a different situation.  An open stage is usually run by a designated host (who is paid by the venue to run the show, and fill in any gaps, should it be a slow night; occasionally, they are asked/expected to provide the sound system for the evening).  Audiences will often see the gamut at an open stage: everything from gigging professionals who are trying out new material (and maybe building that all important following), to fresh, new talent working out the nervous jitters.  Open stages provide a vital service in this context.

But if you are booked to play the evening at a place, if a venue is using your music as one more feature to attract customers, then you should be talking about some level of guaranteed compensation.  And the places that do pay expect a professional performance (after all, you get what you pay for).

So by all means, negotiate some guaranteed compensation; something more than just the tip jar.  Then show up on time, with a solid repertoire, ready to play, ready to connect with your audience. Then the tip jar becomes something else; something (to borrow from Native American culture) I call counting coup.  More about that in the next blog.