I have to confess I’m a little afraid to write this post. I’m really afraid I’m going to get some scolding comments, but if it helps just one musician out there (and not necessarily me) I’ll take whatever comes my way as a result of this. At the Malt Shop, I have good and bad nights in terms of tips. The Malt Shop “pays” its musicians with a free meal, and rarely have I had a bad night in that department. But tips are something else altogether.
Phil and I have speculated about what makes a good tip night. He proposes the theory that good tip nights are likely to happen when fewer people visit the restaurant. People feel more responsible to tip when fewer are there. If it isn’t a great night on an empty dining room night, I understand. People can’t give a lot, and if there aren’t many people, it’s usually bad for me and for the servers. I’ve seen validity of both arguments. I’ve also seen nights with a packed house where tips have been really good, because even if everyone gives a buck, I come out with an average night between $30 and $40. A great night is above $50, and when they happen, they are wonderful. Usually, I can tell when I’ll have an average or great night, The house is packed, and many people stop to compliment me on the way out. I also over -hear conversations about how good the music is at tables.
I must say a quick word about applause. Many people wonder why I play and don’t pause very long between sets. I try to discourage applause, although when it breaks out, I try to be gracious about it. Servers have asked me why I don’t want applause, and the answer is simple. If people applaud, they feel they have fulfilled their responsibility and don’t tip. The compliments on the way out often are accompanied by their putting something in the tip jar. I don’t always hear it, but the compliment gives me the excuse to thank them. There is a flip side to not pausing too long. Some people don’t know that I can talk to them while playing, and Phil has wondered whether pausing to be available for people to talk to me would be a good idea. I do offer my business cards with contact information, so people can get ahold of me later. One lady apparently didn’t want to interrupt me last night, took my card, and said she’d be calling to hire me for a fundraiser. Sounds great!
The servers who know me know that if possible, I will tip them. Apparently, I am the only musician currently who does this. The others have the understanding that with a free meal, they don’t have to tip. Servers do a lot of kind things for me during the whole night. They keep my water filled, help me put out the CD’s to look nice, and set up my sign and tip bowl with display lite (which turns different colors) under it. They understand when I have a bad night, and I have to give them less. This is mainly because when I have good nights, I try to give more to compensate for the bad ones. The meals are $15, and I give 20%. So on an average night, it’s $3. On a great night it may be $4 or $5, because there are plenty of nights when I have to give $2 or $1. There are nights when they won’t take anything at all, because they know what a rotten night it was. Servers are aware that I have brought business to them, because we’ve heard people say they specifically come in on Sunday nights to hear me.
Last night was looking like it would be average, so imagine my shock immediately after I was done when there was only $8 in the bowl. Playing for three hours with very few pauses other than to drink water is exhausting, but if I make $30, that’s $10 an hour — not an uncommon wage and actually quite good in this economy. I was making less than $3 an hour last night.
My Paratransit rides each way are $3, and please don’t write to me about why I shouldn’t use Paratransit! I have my reasons. That’s the first set of scoldings of which I’m afraid. I can also hear people saying that I should just be grateful for whatever I get, because I agreed to the terms. There will be good nights and bad nights, and I should just suck it up and not waste people’s time writing about this. Most of the time, I don’t write about this in great detail on a bad night, so I have followed this advice for the most part. But I hope my statements above provide some justification about why I am writing about this topic today. Now for the third set of scoldings. If you choose to scold me on this, you can’t possibly scold me anymore than I have scolded myself. I was caught in a very vulnerable moment last night. Tears were running down my face, and a very nice lady came up and said that although she plays classical music, she’d love to be able to do what I do. She told me I was talented. I thanked her and apologized for the tears running down my face. I know I should have stopped right there, but I didn’t . I told her about making $8, and I know I should have kept my mouth shut. Yes, she gave more and a few other tips trickled in as well. I had an average night after all, and because of my initial $8, my waitress wouldn’t take the tip I offered.
Last night was a great night for compliments, but I’ve had nights on which I didn’t think I moved people at all and rare nights where I heard negative things about my selections. My sign says I take requests, but rather than doing that, they had to grumble. It’s hard to work your buns off for hours and not see any result whatsoever. Music can be a psychologically difficult profession.
I’ve heard two excuses for people not tipping. The first is they can’t afford it or weren’t prepared to hear the music and tip accordingly. Lack of preparation, I can understand, although the restaurant has been willing to charge a little extra to the credit cards and give them change back. But if one is going out to eat, one should be able to afford a buck or two for unexpected service. Certainly I treasure when I get the higher bills than ones, but it isn’t expected. The second excuse of tipping is more tricky. There are people who think I am paid by the restaurant and thus don’t tip. I’ve had people tell me about musicians who have crass signs saying something like “Not paid by restaurant. I do this for tips”. I’ve tried to avoid doing that, but I am getting to the point where I may have to have a sign which says I am not a restaurant employee and appreciate tips.
So why am I whining, griping, and complaining to you all? I hope you’ll think of me and look for a tip jar the next time you hear a musician — especially in a restaurant. Certainly if the musician is polluting the air with noise, you don’t owe them a thing. If they are making your experience a little more pleasant, throw in a buck or two. If they are really outstanding and you can afford to do so, consider a five or more. You’ll be helping them, because you’ll be covering for the people who enjoy the music but won’t tip.