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Playing for tips

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Playing for tips

Postby Mandoliniment » Thu Jun 06, 2013 12:22 pm

What do Madison musicians think of this practice? My take: it badly undervalues what musicians bring to a venue, and trains venues to think of musicians as an interchangeable plug-in novelty; the acoustic equivalent of rail vodka. It sets up a situation where folks who are trying to make a living at this stuff (not me) are competing with people who are giving it away for free. And it contributes to a culture that assumes shows should be free, making it harder to charge even a moderate cover.

I'm thinking there should be a cultural proscription on playing for free within the musical community - that musicians should let venues know that if they want live music, they'll need to be willing to either charge a cover, or provide a moderate guarantee to the band.

But then I wonder whether unpaid gigs play an important role in helping new musicians break into the market. Bands like mine have no problem getting paying gigs; we've all been in the scene in one way or another for years and have an established draw and relationships with club owners and promoters. What's Joe Newguy to do when he first moves to town? Are there sufficient opportunities for people to forge relationships that would allow a motivated and talented musician to break in? It's been so long since I've had to worry about this I really don't know what that process would be like.

We do have a handful of smaller venues (like the Mason, say) where if someone could draw ten or twenty of their friends it would make it worth it to the bar to throw them a few bucks, so maybe that's a reasonable path; most anyone can pull that many people if they don't try to do it too often and they're not awful.

Went to the Brown Derby CD release last night; the place wasn't packed to the gills but comfortably had 80 people, I'd guess? Would a $5 cover have harmed the Crystal's bar revenues at all? I can't imagine that it would have. No idea what the tip jar take was but dollars to doughnuts it was less than $5 per patron. I also have had money stolen from a tip jar back when we played at Wonder's (where they also paid us in addition to the tips, every single week for 6 years); asking the band to take that risk is absurd in my mind. The bar owners would never put their night's take in a pitcher and pass it around the bar unescorted.

Thoughts?
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby Marvell » Thu Jun 06, 2013 4:09 pm

I'm pretty sure I remember a thread on this topic, but I can't seem to find it; it must have fallen into the pre-2007 memory hole.

When I hosted the open mike at Mickey's they paid me in pizza and beer. Not that I was doing it for the money, but tips would have been gratefully accepted.

But I think that there's a fundamental issue with the hazy line between playing music for fun and playing it for money. Almost without exception the people who are playing for money started out playing for fun. How you perceive the tips / guarantee question has a lot to do with which side of that line you are on; if you've gotten to the point where it's a paying gig, it's understandable that you resent anyone who helps drive down your payscale. It's also understandable that some would see that attitude as hypocritical, since you were almost certainly that guy playing for tips (or for free) once.

P.S. - stealing from the tip jar should be a cock-punchable offence.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby Kenneth Burns » Thu Jun 06, 2013 4:49 pm

I think the key is not having the tip gig be the only gig. World-class cats in Nashville play on Lower Broad for tips. They also do other work.

If you're worried about security, you can walk around with the tip jar yourself. It can be kind of fun to meet everyone at the show. I stress kind of.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby Mandoliniment » Thu Jun 06, 2013 6:21 pm

Kenneth Burns wrote:World-class cats in Nashville play on Lower Broad for tips.


I guessing that the culture of tipping is very different in Nashville than it is here, though. If Sam Bush is playing the Station Inn for tips it's a very different situation than a local band playing the Malt House.

I'm not that worried from my own security point of view - I've personally got a pretty good thing going. Though unquestionably there are times that it's hard to get people to shell out for music. I'm thinking more of somewhat less established musicians, or on the flip side, folks who are trying to actually string together a living at it.

If we want Madison to be a world-class music city - something that certainly gets talked about with regularity - it seems like it needs to be a place that a very good musician can expect to come and be able to make a living in.

I guess arguably my willingness to play for $100 (depending on the show and the venue) also undercuts this somewhat, but I do think there's a powerful psychology to saying "what we do is worth something" rather than "please sir can you spare a dime?" No one's expecting union wages from local bar gigs.

I just think it's not too much to expect venue owners to either allow a modest cover, or provide a modest guarantee, but the only way we achieve that is by acting together to demand it.

None of this is meant as an attack on the people who have opted for these gigs in the past, nor even (much) as an attack on the venues - If someone's going to give it away for free, why not take it? Actually there are good answers to that question, but that's neither here nor there. I just hate seeing very good, established local bands with serious draws not receive even token recognition for the value that they bring the venue that's hosting them. Being in a band costs money - rehearsal space, time, strings, PA, instruments, babysitters - it all adds up. We wouldn't deal with art galleries that sold paintings and kept the proceeds because they were "providing an opportunity" to the artist. Music's not really that different.

And while I don't really blame the venues, I do think we should give props to the ones that don't ever ask this - we all know who they are.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby fennel » Thu Jun 06, 2013 6:32 pm

Marvell wrote:But I think that there's a fundamental issue with the hazy line between playing music for fun and playing it for money. Almost without exception the people who are playing for money started out playing for fun. How you perceive the tips / guarantee question has a lot to do with which side of that line you are on; if you've gotten to the point where it's a paying gig, it's understandable that you resent anyone who helps drive down your payscale.

This calls to mind those unpaid internships in the business or professional worlds. But perhaps the potential benefit to the sponsor is a bit unclear with musicians.

I would expect live listeners are more generous than algorithms.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby christopher_robin » Thu Jun 06, 2013 8:29 pm

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Re: Playing for tips

Postby Igor » Thu Jun 06, 2013 8:49 pm

"We're the Wizenhiemers, we play for beer..."
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby Mandoliniment » Thu Jun 06, 2013 9:45 pm

To be clear - I'm not talking about busking; that's a whole different thing that doesn't compete with club-type performances.

I also would have a hard time holding new bands to this standard; there'll always be a place for the coffeehouse circuit and open mics and such as a way to break in.

I just think that established bands should be able to ask for money, and they can only do that consistently if there aren't other bands waiting to swoop in on the gigs they pass up.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby supaunknown » Thu Jun 06, 2013 9:53 pm

I wonder how much moo the Wizenheimers raked in through the years. They were Sconnie-big there for awhile with that Packers song, and longtime regulars on the bowling alley festival wedding circuit. My guess? A hundred bucks.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby fisticuffs » Fri Jun 07, 2013 7:41 am

supaunknown wrote:I wonder how much moo the Wizenheimers raked in through the years. They were Sconnie-big there for awhile with that Packers song, and longtime regulars on the bowling alley festival wedding circuit. My guess? A hundred bucks.


I played with their drummer for several years in a different band. They invested a lot of their own money. Only now do they make some cash when they do a reunion show but Sam just left for CA so no more of those.

I don't think the guys that are playing for free are competing much with the bands that won't. I don't know any band worth paying that doesn't charge. There's always the occasional benefit or festival. Shitty band pay is a highly localized thing only found in Madison. I play small towns all over WI and make twice as much as my best Madison gig.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby Mandoliniment » Fri Jun 07, 2013 8:33 am

fisticuffs wrote: Shitty band pay is a highly localized thing only found in Madison. I play small towns all over WI and make twice as much as my best Madison gig.


But doesn't this pretty much make my point? There's something about the culture here where patrons and venues have been trained to expect a lot for a little, and bands have been trained to feel lucky to get to play at all. How does that change? Not by club owners voluntarily giving musicians money (though there are a number that can be counted on to treat you well, not coincidentally the premier venues in town) but by musicians agreeing that this thing we do has some value and should be treated as such.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby wack wack » Fri Jun 07, 2013 8:58 am

My thought is that you're about 10 years too late, Mandoliniment. We're well past the point of saving live music, especially as a career.

I don't think tip jars will keep you from anything. Musical acts are already "interchangeable plug-in novelty." There is always someone to take your spot for less than you're holding it.

Finally, I imagine I'll get crucified for this but: IMHO there is a serious delusion factor affecting the Madison music scene today. Bands are not as good as the small-pond crowds and back-patting fellow musicians lead them to believe, nor are they as good as the legendary Madison bands from "back in the day." I'm not saying "all Madison bands suck," but any time conversations of value for music come up this needs to be considered.

No offense to all the OUTSTANDING musicians posting to this thread!
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby Mandoliniment » Fri Jun 07, 2013 9:27 am

wack wack wrote:My thought is that you're about 10 years too late, Mandoliniment. We're well past the point of saving live music, especially as a career.


Live music was never really a career, especially in a market this size, but it can be part of a portfolio that supports a career in music in general. In many ways the shift we've seen over the past ten years is a shift towards more bands surviving on touring rather than record sales, though - at the national level, anyway. Not sure how this translates to the local scene. Everyone seems to agree that Madison is uniquely bad about musician's pay, so why are we different than other similar markets?

wack wack wrote:Finally, I imagine I'll get crucified for this but: IMHO there is a serious delusion factor affecting the Madison music scene today. Bands are not as good as the small-pond crowds and back-patting fellow musicians lead them to believe, nor are they as good as the legendary Madison bands from "back in the day." I'm not saying "all Madison bands suck," but any time conversations of value for music come up this needs to be considered.

No offense to all the OUTSTANDING musicians posting to this thread!


I don't disagree with this at all, and I don't have any illusions about having the chops to make it big. If anything the explosion of digital music has laid bare just how much talent is out there. Simply being good is nowhere near enough. But I think as a small-pond band there is something we have to sell, which is a sense of connection and community - something no national touring act can compete with. My point isn't OMG we're so talented - it's that regardless of our competitiveness on the national stage we have something of value to offer locally.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby Stebben84 » Fri Jun 07, 2013 9:39 am

Mandoliniment wrote:But I think as a small-pond band there is something we have to sell, which is a sense of connection and community - something no national touring act can compete with.


I think you nailed it right there. I'm not a musician, but I really appreciate live music. To me this community connection with music has been lacking since when I first moved here. I can't tell you why. I'm not sure the best way to bring this back, but is there any type of musicians "summit" for lack of a better term. Maybe once a year or something promoters, local musicians, club owners, and anyone else interested can get together to discuss the local music scene, what can be done different, and where people see the scene moving forward.

From what you're writing about the tips, it seems as though club owners and musicians aren't on the same page. Some of these bars could probably survive without the music scene and could maybe care less, but it seems like others are in a symbiotic relationship that needs input from both sides. I dunno.
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Re: Playing for tips

Postby wack wack » Fri Jun 07, 2013 9:40 am

Mandoliniment wrote:Everyone seems to agree that Madison is uniquely bad about musician's pay, so why are we different than other similar markets?


To me it appears to be textbook supply and demand. There are LOTS of bands here. How does the pool of bands in Madison compare to a pool of bands in other college towns of comparable size? How do those areas pay?

Mandoliniment wrote:I don't disagree with this at all, and I don't have any illusions about having the chops to make it big. If anything the explosion of digital music has laid bare just how much talent is out there.


I agree... this adds to the supply and demand issue too; there are electronic acts now which didn't even exist to compete 10 years ago.

Mandoliniment wrote:Simply being good is nowhere near enough. But I think as a small-pond band there is something we have to sell, which is a sense of connection and community - something no national touring act can compete with. My point isn't OMG we're so talented - it's that regardless of our competitiveness on the national stage we have something of value to offer locally.


Excellent point, and I agree... but at the same time, the real payback for a sense of connection and community is a devoted fan base, not cash. I always come down on the wrong side of the "playing for free" arguments though, because I'm an artiste! and want much more to be loved than rich.

I stepped out of live music 6 years ago because of everything you're looking at now. I feel for you and for all musicians.
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