Guest column: Can’t rely on tips

To improve opportunities and fairness for musicians, we need an attitude adjustment—and guarantees.

To improve opportunities and fairness for musicians, we need an attitude adjustment—and guarantees.

Earlier this week The Capital Times published an interesting piece about how to better compensate musicians for their time and skill. It talked about how an establishment in Philadelphia recently began offering a novel solution for customers that skirt a cover charge: a live music tip. Simply put, they added said tip line to customer’s credit card receipts. [Editor’s note: The Cap Times story notes that the practice “may be coming to some Madison establishments,” but it’s not clear if any venue in town is currently planning on it.]

In theory, this sounds great: it’s an easy way to raise extra funds to help pay for the musicians who add value to the patron’s experience at one’s establishment. No hustling the floor with tip jar in hand, or hoping that a few kindly souls wander up to drop some spare change in a guitar case.

The problem with this solution, however, is that it pushes the climate around how we do (or don’t) value creative work in the wrong direction.

A debate currently happening around service industry jobs that make their wages mostly from tips mirrors this issue. Currently, for instance, it’s legal to pay wait staff well under the federal minimum wage because they’re supposed to earn enough in tips to make up for it. This is far from a foolproof system, as we should all know just based on the many tales we hear or experience of stingy customers and duplicitous bosses. And where tipping started off as a way to encourage or reward good service, these days it’s either compulsory (because we know how little wait staff earn otherwise) or punitive (because we want to punish someone for some real or perceived slight). Letting customers decide how much to pay employees seems like a pretty terrible idea, though.

Wouldn’t everyone be better off if we did away with tipping and simply guaranteed that service industry employees made a living wage? It’s not unheard of (it’s the norm in most of Europe). It’s just a weird culture that’s sprung up in the U.S., and that has persisted long after it stopped making sense.

So, too, with creative work. Whether or not musicians are playing traditional (cover charge at door) venues or places like restaurants and bars, it’s almost unheard of for them to be offered a guarantee, or flat rate for their services, anymore (unless they’re represented by a good booking agent who can contractually secure guarantees from a promoter or venue). In my 15 years of playing in various bands in venues across the Midwest, I’ve only been paid a guarantee once at a regular venue (in Des Moines, of all places), and a handful of times for playing private parties. Otherwise, all of the money I’ve made has come from cuts of the door, the bar, or tips. Which is to say, not much.

Let’s put this in very frank, capitalistic terms: live music adds value to the customer experience at your establishment. Indeed, sometimes it’s the only reason a customer enters your establishment and spends any money at all. The performer(s) should earn some kind of guaranteed take for the time, skill, and preparation that goes into their work. That should be part of your budget, as a business owner, if you intend to include live music in your setup. You can base the rates on the time of day/traffic likely to come in during a particular time slot, or on a band’s draw history, or any number of other factors. You can include the promise of more on top of the flat rate should your bar do particularly well.

And you can require that both your establishment and the performer(s) do a base amount of promotion, too. This can and should be a two-way street. Local musicians can be weirdly lazy about promoting their gigs, but by providing incentive to do better it’s likely that more of us will—and everyone benefits. Then, too, a venue owner can see if a particular band isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, or isn’t retaining customers, or isn’t very good, and cut them. Or do more thoughtful planning and research in advance to better ensure that they’re hiring acts that will be a good fit for their needs in the first place. Like you would with any employee or contractor. Fair’s fair.

Guarantees need not be gigantic sums of money (though that certainly would be nice), either. Just enough to, at bare minimum, cover the costs of the performers—transportation + time—just like is required of most every other employer.

As a society, we aren’t going to learn how to better appreciate and value creative work until we actually start, you know, valuing it. Forcing artists to “live” on tips, just like forcing service professional to do the same, is not realistic or, frankly, terribly moral. Both artist and arts appreciators need to take this lesson to heart, and work together to build a more sustainable creative community.

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