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GUEST,Sandy Andina Can We Talk About Tip Jars? (55* d) RE: Can We Talk About Tip Jars? 14 Mar 06

Here in the Midwest, most coffeehouses and bars DO NOT (because most CANNOT) pay folk performers. The few that do pay handsomely or give a guarantee are so popular that there is often a 2-to-3-year rotation among performers to play them. The tip jar gig is the norm, rather than the exception: most small cafes cannot afford the ASCAP and municipal entertainment licenses and are operating on slim enough margins as it is. Some places have owners and hosts who are experts at "working" the tip jar and merch tables, much to the artists' benefit--and we reciprocate by praising the food and drink to the skies so that everyone profits.

If we are playing a place with a cover or door charge, it is considered very poor form to solicit tips on top of that. Because of municipal ordinances, many clubs can't collect a true "door" or "cover" charge and thus call it a "suggested donation;" they have a jar at the entrance for that purpose. In that case, as many audience members kick in a tad extra as do those whose straitened circumstances don't permit them to meet even the "suggested" amount. What we do for tip jar gigs is put out large opaque plastic beer cups (opaque for discretion and privacy) labeled "Tips for the Musicians;" we put them out on each table as we set up and collect the proceeds as we tear down. This allows people to tip as they feel comfortable without the embarrassment of others (including us) seeing how much or how little. One place has a jar by the door and stage, and I think it's embarrassing for people who can't afford to tip to have the performers be able to see that; conversely, it can create unpleasant peer pressure for audience members to tip as much as the next guy when they would otherwise be disinclined to do so. When we put out these cups, we invariably make much more than from a central, visible and transparent tip jar.

One club on the North Side of Chicago (which shall go nameless but is the 800-lb. gorilla of acoustic coffeehouses) not only neither charges a cover nor pays its acts (3 per evening) but passes around a champagne bucket during each performer's set. And they make the performers kick in $10 apiece to pay the sound person (for a very simple rig, BTW), who also gets paid and fed by the house (used to be they kept the bucket till the end of the evening, raked $20 off the top for the sound person, and divvied up the rest among the performers). So it can turn into a pay-to-play situation not unlike (albeit on a smaller scale than) rock clubs who require acts to buy and resell tickets and pay the soundperson on top of that. Now, the college kids who bring in a crapload of their friends who immediately leave after their set--or who don't arrive till their set--are the ones who make out like bandits. It's distressing enough to see people leaving in droves as soon as the preceding act leaves the stage; but add to that the knowledge that you will be losing money as a result and it becomes downright demoralizing. It's compounded when you are older, your fans are older, and you are playing late on a weeknight.

I suppose that an argument can be made that those who promote should reap the benefits, but turnout is as much a function of demographics and time slots as it is of artistic merit and promotional industriousness. And it used to be that when people went out to a folk club, they stayed for the WHOLE show. There is a selfishness today among younger audiences and performances alike. Also, we are no longer competing with other folkies playing opposite us around town--there are so many more new and FREE forms of entertainment (most of which don't even require people to leave their homes) that adequate draw is a challenge--and some clubs like the aforementioned 800-lb. gorilla will bar you from future tip-jar-and-pay-the-sound-guy gigs if you don't draw enough! (Ever hear of restaurants firing kitchen and wait staff for not promoting the food and service)?

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