Tips or beer.. do we play for free?

Recently my colleague and fellow musician, Daedalus Howell, posted an article to his blog and in his printed space in the Sonoma Index Tribune about how so many local consultants that have put in years crafting their expertise are constantly asked to give up their talents for free. The debate rages on in the local musician community here in Sonoma Valley as well, and reared it’s ugly head recently with yet another venue offering “tips and beer” in exchange for a musical performance. I have been a performing musician for over 35 years in what I would call a semi-professional manner. I have made money playing music, not enough to make me rich, but enough to feed my AGS problem (Acquired Gear Syndrome.. the habit of acquiring gear that you probably will use once).  I have been on both sides of the story. I’ve played ‘just for tip’ gigs that ended up netting me more money than I would have ever asked for, I have also played well paying gigs that before the first set even ended, I would have given all the money back to leave right then.

I have also done the freebie gig that led to actual paying gigs, that I would have not gotten had I not played the freebie. I have also done many more that never got me anything but exposure, from which many local musicians are dying.

There are so many problems with playing live music these days that I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll honestly try to stick to the topic. And in in the full spirit of disclosure, this is my blog and totally my take. I encourage you to comment.

Back when I first started playing clubs in the early ’80s, bands got an average of $300 a night for a bar gig. Beers were a buck. Now beers are $4.50 and the average pay a bar band gets?.. you guessed it.. $300. Simple math would tell you that inflation alone makes that performance worth $1200 today.

If I am playing your venue ‘just for tips’ and your joint is so busy that without the band, you would have had Curly, Moe and Larry at the bar, even though the agreement was tips only, throw the band a bone after the show. Your cocktail waitresses are leaving with way more in tips than anyone in the band will make, and thanks to the band and the people they brought in, the waitress won’t be asking you for a raise that week… or quitting.

If the place is hopping and you are paying the band nothing while you sell way more plates of food, drinks, whatever than you would have without the band, then it is your duty to have one of your waitstaff work the room with the tip bucket.. twice a night. The band can’t do it.. they’re busy entertaining your customers that are buying things from you.. trust me.. patrons are not gonna not have that one more beer just because they tipped the band 5 bucks, but they’re also not gonna walk to the front of the stage and put the 5 bucks in the bucket either. It’s a two way street.

If you are a (bar, restaurant, coffee shop) and you clear away a 10×10 foot area for a band to set up in the corner of the room and provide them an outlet that may be in close proximity to where they’re playing and might be on the same circuit as the microwave, you are not a nightclub, and you can’t charge a cover unless all of it goes to the band. Period. You are also not the late  Bill Graham. You are a restaurateur or innkeeper. The band will draw people in, do for them what you’re in business to do when they arrive. Don’t charge them for the privilege of coming into your establishment and giving you money for things.

Most of the people the band will bring in will be their friends or family, as the venue has probably not advertised at all and EXPECT the band to not only play for next to nothing, but bring in people as well. These poor folks have been coming to see the musicians in all their configurations of bands for longer than you will ever know.. be nice to them.

You wouldn’t ask your chef friends to ” stop on by the store on your way over and pick up some food.. maybe you can cook something up” or your mechanic friends ” Hey, bring your tools, I’ve got a problem with my car.” If they offer.. Great!! But you wouldn’t expect it. Most musicians have day jobs, this is their passion, most would probably rather play than not play. It’s time to stop taking advantage of their passion. They are not solely vehicles to help you sell your wares. It’s nice to be respected and acknowledged for what is probably years of playing and practice that made them what you’re enjoying today.

16 thoughts on “Tips or beer.. do we play for free?”

  1. Funny. Merge your blog and my blog from yesterday (using your instincts in business) and perhaps you have the answer for any gig. You say you have done it every which way, with varying results. My thought is that if you pay attention, you instinctively know which one are good to take (paid or not) and which aren’t.

  2. Mixed feelings about this subject…
    I’ve been lucky enuf to make good tips most of the time. I play music because i really love it. I love playing in front of people, that’s what makes me feel good. Playing the free gig for tips n beer, etc. gets my music out there for people to hear…
    I usually get a good paying gig from someone who’s seen me playing at one of these gigs, THAT’S Why You Play Them…
    It also depends where your playing, some establishments just have better tippers. ..
    I know bands that won’t play these type of gigs and play 10 good paying gigs a year and there’s nothing wrong with that. Bands shouldn’t just play just these beer n tip gigs but it’s a good way for people to see your name and hear your music.
    This doesn’t work for all musicians and i’m sure lots of musicians will disagree but it’s worked pretty good for me.
    King Daddy Murr

  3. Oh yeah….this is true not just of musicians but all us performing types.

    When I moved to this town 5 years ago, I believed that performing for free for charity fundraisers, donating my walking tours to the auctions, even MC’ing or auctioneering would bring me actual $$$ through contacts made and future business….

    It hasn’t worked…and now I’ve stopped doing stuff for free.

    I completely agree with James when he states that you wouldn’t ask other professionals for a free service. I actually do this for a living…and I am insulted when offered a free gig “for the publicity.”

    Everyone thinks that their charity is the most important cause on earth…and that their friends will hire me for something else. This doesn’t happen.

    This town is a great place for my kids….but I now work in Napa. Over there, they LIKE tourists, and are HAPPY to take their money. By the way, they also treat tourists with respect, and are not “stuck up.”

    Guess who is? US!

    By the way, the best place to hear music in the North Bay is Silo’s….a great venue where respectful jazz lovers come to actually hear the MUSIC.

    Silo’s is in Napa….a few feet from where I begin my Napa Walking Tour at the Historic Napa Mill.

  4. Thanks for your piece James. It’s more than time for our fabulous musicians in town to be paid fairly!

  5. Everyone seems to think content of all kinds should be free or next to nothing… Back in the day, newspapers and a cup of coffee both cost about a nickel…Today a newspaper will cost you 50 cents but a mocha is somehow $4.50? That math doesn’t add up. Newspapers are hemorrhaging cash because we give away everything for free online but that system cannot be sustained without sacrificing the quality of the journalism being produced, which is why most major organizations will be switching to pay models soon (Full disclosure- I am a newspaper reporter)

  6. Hey JM, you got my thougts on this yesterday on your facebook page.
    Just wanted to add something that you & I totally agree on besides all of this. We charge to load up, drive to, set up, and tear down all our gear.
    Playing is the fun & easy part.

  7. You bring up a ton of valid points.

    One thing that we feel we must offer a rebuttal to, though:

    Comparing what we do to what the cocktail waitress does is pretty unfair. She (or he) is busting their ass. We’re having fun.

    Having been on both sides of that coin, we’ll tell you that the musician’s work is fun, easy and rewarding compared to what the bar staff is doing. (how often does the musician have to mop up vomit at 3 am?)

    So, god bless the staff that does the actual work at the venues we perform at. We’re taking a fiver out of our tip jar and giving it to them for all the free drinks they gave us during the night…

    JMB>> My intent was not to disparage the waitstaff or what they do in any way shape or form, merely to point out that a packed house will generally be more profitable than an empty one, and we always encourage folks to tip their staff.

  8. I think this is a great discussion to bring up. I think there are a ton of factors that contribute to disregard for the entertainers. First of all, we are not unified and unfortunately most bands are only concerned with self interest. I’ve thought many times, “what if there were an informal musicians union”? What if bands unified and stood up to venues and asked them to start giving fair flat rates rather than obscure percentages that we trust them to count or drink tickets? Well, the truth is the moment that many of us unified, some other band who “just wants to play” will take the non-paying gig.

    What it really comes down to is when you try to make money doing something that so many people have passion for and pursue, people will compete to do that “job” despite making peanuts. Works that way in ANY popular job out there. It’s all supply and demand, really. Is it “fair”? Not so sure. In a perfect world, venues would pay bands more than they do. I do disagree with the previous statement that we just “get to have fun”. I sacrifice relationships, other hobbies, passions, etc so that I can be at practice multiple days per week to continue making better music for people to listen to. yeah, it’s definitely the ultimate high to get to perform live, but it takes a lot more work than they seem to think. I don’t expect venues to necessarily compensate me for this sacrifice but would like a little more personal respect for it. My interaction with most venues thus far has me believing that they not only disregard the work you put in, but they don’t even take the time to say “thanks for playing”, despite drawing.

    And then another related (though not directly related) issue is that of popular support. I hate to say it, but we live in a time where live rock music is being passed up on in favor of DJs who focus on pop and electronica. This is a sign of the times…a time where people are being barraged with “feel good” music with electronic steady beats to dance to…all entertainment, no art. It also doesn’t help that other bands (at least, “rock” bands), instead of embracing difference, choose to recycle music from the past or pop sounds of the present. By doing this, venues will tell themselves, “I may as well just play this kind of music through a DJ”. At least in terms of live rock, we will continue to suffer until something different comes about and is then somehow miraculously latched onto by popular culture. Sad but true.

    After reading this, I definitely see myself only targeting the area of “original rock” and this does not apply to a lot of other musicians in there. But the root of it does apply to all of us.

    This was a great blog, brother. Keep inspiring discussions like these.

  9. Well,
    I’m the sort of person that doesn’t spend a lot of time playing music at home. As bashful as I am, I still crave the assurance and ego stroking that the gig provides (Bobo, yer so kewl). The money has always been a bonus. Whenever we play a “Pay at the door” gig, we have to turn into the door-man police. Half of the patrons come in before they start charging and never get asked. And the other half are buddies with the door-guy. 95% of our gigs are 30 miles or more from my house, we get there and we find out they didn’t advertise(We always request that they put up fliers)…………. You changed the line-up and we have to play in 10 minutes? But Joe never gets here until the last minute. And who is the know-it-all asshole sound guy? What, you hired an AC/DC tribute band and you say we’re too loud? And where is my goddamn Chinese food, that was in the rider. I’m hungry. (No Sushi, please). No, we don’t accept checks. 1099(4th Street Tavern, biggest asshole on the planet)?

  10. The pay rate for us lower class (monetarily) has stagnated over the years. It’s not just the arts. The rich get richer thing.

    But that’s not my point, I used to run a country western place in Madison, WI (The Dry Bean Saloon and Smokehouse).

    It was hard to find bands that could fill it. It held 450 people. We had Martina Mcbride in her early years, and she was great. We were perfectly located in between their shows in Chicago and Minneapolis… so it was extra money.

    We’d agree on a price that we both thought was fair (sometimes we took the loss), but if we had a big night I’d add cash to the deal for the band.

    We had one band that packed the place every night they played (12K to 20K per night) they always agreed to play for 600 bucks. If we had a big night I’d throw in 300 to 600 bucks. It was worth it so they’d keep coming back.

    Owners and GM’s should know where their bread is buttered.

    We also knew not to overexpose them, it would become normal instead of an event. We sold tickets for Martina, The Marshall Tucker Band, The Kentucky Headhunters and a few others.

    The rest we charged at the door. You are correct that most places are not night clubs and people will not pay at the door.

    But, owners and GM’s need to respect the dreams and passions of the bands. If they have a great night they should overpay the band… I knew what a normal Friday night take was. If we beat it by 2-4-6 or 10K it was because of the band…they earned to be paid more.

    But that takes an owner or GM that doesn’t get too greedy. There were also nights we lost big on the band, but that isn’t the successful band’s fault.

    You earned it, you should get it.

    Sorry for the length Jim…I’m getting more verbose in my old age.

    Your Friend,


  11. OTOH (which stands for “On the other hand” for those not text familiar), after playing for 30 years, supporting myself solely on gigs for 3 of those years (then, having children and wanting more for them than Top 40 gig money was providing) and having a sudden Spiritual awakening, I’ve been only too grateful to donate my time and talents to my church for FREE. Of course, that led to a paying gig as Worship Leader, but money has never been the issue since I started playing for the Lord. After seven years of playing for free at church, rehearsing on Wed. and playing two services on Sundays, we needed a drummer so I called an old friend I played clubs with for years. I was surprised when the first thing out of his mouth was “What does it pay?” LOL I was floored by the question, but knew, at that moment, that I was a very different person than I was when I played with him because after coming to Christ, money had never been the issue. Okay, okay – money had RARELY been the issue. There’ve been times I thought it was asking too much of me to put in the hours it takes to prepare, rehearse and play two services each week for FREE…and so I stepped down as Worship Leader and went back to just rehearsing and Sunday worship. My call. But Sonoma County died musically years ago in the clubs. Rap and formula music killed the paying gigs at SoCo clubs. Ah, but I digress. If it’s about the money, you’re in the wrong business. I love music, and I’m grateful the Lord blessed me with talent. That’s what it’s about for me today. Can’t wait for Sunday…

  12. Rockin Believer.. I play many gigs for free still.. local non profits, benefits. The scope of the piece is that if others are making money, the musicians should as well.

  13. As a musician who makes a good chunk of my income playing live and who has a family to feed from that income, it bothers me that pay seems to be going down as more places are offering “a beer a set,” or a tips-only situation. In addition it seems like it would be fairly easy for point-of-sale system to add a “tips for the band” line on their customer receipts.

    Not to diminish the hard work that servers, bartenders, baristas and chefs do-they work very hard and grueling hours, but it is a false equivalent that they work harder than musicians. We are loading gear, putting out energy on stage and rehearsing/preparing for the gig. Then at the end of the night we have to load out our gear.

    As a final thought we as artists don’t have to take every gig that is offered. Perhaps if we set a community standard and didn’t undercut each other eventually venues would come around to actually paying. I hope that venue owners who are reading this thread understand the amount of time, energy and equipment costs that musicians incur to do their craft. Yes, we have a passion for what we do, but does that mean that we shouldn’t be paid for that passion and dedication to our craft. Thanks for taking the time to read this lengthy response.

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