So as many of you know I was off the grid last month in New Orleans on a (book!) writing retreat. As much as I love LA, it's very difficult to block out all the distractions of my daily life and solely focus on a creative pursuit. Meetings and (acting) auditions come up and it's hard to say no (especially to my acting agent) when I'm in LA. My focus would break and it was very difficult to jump back into the writing groove that I was in. So, I turned on vacation responders for my email and text messages (yes, I figured that out!) and logged out of all social media for the month. I highly recommend taking a tech retreat at least once a year if possible. Even if just for a week. It's a full-on cleanse and you will feel rejuvenated after.
I wrote for 10 hours everyday and went out most nights to check out the music of the Crescent City. I saw NOLA legends Rebirth Brass Band on Thanksgiving eve at Howlin' Wolf and saw a trumpet fave Kermit Ruffins play a dinner set at Little Gem. I caught up and coming soul/R&B singer/songwriter Nigel Hall's record release show at Tipitina's and then saw him again a week later at the Maple Leaf for his weekly residency show. I stopped into Preservation Hall to hear some some traditional New Orleans jazz blast about 4 feet from my face. And spent a good amount of time on Frenchman street hearing every kind of jazz incarnation from funk to R&B, soul to brass band. What country music is to Nashville, jazz is to New Orleans. Nashville has Broadway, lined with no-cover bars and country bands of every sub-genre, and NOLA has Frenchman (and Bourbon) similarly lined with no-cover bars with bands of every jazz sub-genre.
I met a bunch of great musicians and a few were actually Ari's Take readers! What what!
On one of my first nights there, I popped into Masion's on Frenchman and heard this killer funk band fronted by a horn section pounding out super tight riffs. Midway through a song, the trumpet player hopped off stage and made his way through the crowd holding a "Tips for the band" bucket. He went up to nearly all 200 people in there and most gave something.
Afterwards I chatted with the trumpet player / band leader, Alex Massa, about how they got paid for their set. He said most clubs on Frenchman pay the band a percentage of the bar (about 10-20%) for the time they played. And of course tips. He told me that on a good night each member of his 7 piece band would walk with $150! That's over $1,000 in just tips and a small cut of the bar.
But this doesn't just happen magically.
"Usually the best tippers are the serious, working middle class folks who look to music as a release and a form of forgetting about the outside world. These tend to be the people that appreciate it the most. And every now and then, you have the elite/ultra wealthy who will walk in and throw 2 crisp hundred dollar bills into the bucket" - Alex Massa, band-leader/trumpet player, New Orleans
Experienced band leaders in New Orleans (and Nashville... and really anywhere where tipping is the primary source of revenue) know they need to WORK the tip jar if they want to make out with a decent amount.
Like merch, just because you offer it, doesn't mean people will pay. You have to make it easy for someone to tip (and buy your merch). A tip jar placed on stage hidden by hoards of people standing in front of the stage won't bring much results. Even a seated venue with a direct line of site to the tip jar for everyone in the house, will not work out favorably for you. People are not going to exert much effort to pay you. You have to make it effortless. You have to go TO them.
Last time I was in Nashville, I found myself upstairs at Tootsies during some Monday afternoon. There were a couple fantastic singer/songwriters trading off playing acoustic songs ("a songwriter round" it's called) and maybe about 40 people scattered throughout the bar seated, enjoying the music (and beer). Of course there was a tip jar on the stage, but exactly 0 people went up and dropped in cash during their set. However, just before their break, the singer/songwriters announced they were going to come around with the tip jar and CDs and asked the audience to give what they'd like. One of the singer/songwriters even had a Square credit card swiper. Nearly every person they approached gave something. And some asked to swipe their card in exchange for exactly nothing - as a tip, because they had no cash on them.
There are plenty of ways to make a good amount of money on a gig if it's unpaid.
Just because a venue isn't paying you is no reason not to take the gig. If they allow you to setup a tip jar and merch and there is a built in crowd, it's very possible you would make much MORE money on tips and merch than you would have had there been a cover charge for which you'd have to split with the club. Put the gig to The Perfect 30 Test.
Working the tip jar is an art in it of itself. You have to know how often to approach the crowd and what kind of stage pitch (in the mic) will be most effective. Every situation is different. In New Orleans at Massa's Masion's gig, it was a party. Stopping the show to make a plea for tips then walking around to everyone while the band was over would have been a vibe killer. Instead, it was a smart decision for Massa to walk the crowd, trumpet in one hand, bucket in the other, while everyone was dancing and enjoying the band. However, in Nashville, at the chill afternoon songwriter round, it would have been outright disrespectful had one of the songwriters gone table to table chatting and selling CDs / taking tips while the other songwriter was on stage performing.
**Update: However, it's always a good idea to check with the owner/manager of the establishment if going to table to table is accepted or discouraged. An upscale wine bar/restaurant may frown upon this practice. But some may encourage it. Some even include a Tip For Musician line to the bill. Huge win! (Thanks for the commenters for pointing this out!)
Before a tip-based gig, plan out with your band how you want to approach working the tip jar. Make sure one member is responsible for going out into the crowd (either during the show or during the break). It's best if everyone in the band after the show (or at set break) can walk around with CDs and a tip jar, so every conversation each band member has with an audience member can be a potential money making opportunity.
It may feel awkward or slimy at first, but it's all in the approach. Music lovers genuinely want to support musicians who bring them joy. It makes them feel good to support you. And if they can make direct contact with you while they are giving you a tip, it's much more meaningful. Break the barrier. Get close. Bring happiness. Make money.