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.