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Tips for Musicians Working for Tips!

2015 November 17
by Mike Vial

Multitasking. Regram from @natalieburg_

A photo posted by Mike Vial (@mikevial) on

Nashville performer Jennifer Sullivan shared a great post about working the tip jar:

This topic is so important for new musicians playing the bar/restaurant scene. I’ll add a few points:

While it’s acceptable in Nashville to walk around the room with the tip jar, musicians won’t be able to do that in most regions. In the Midwest, restaurant owners will not allow for that! That’s an action that will ensure a musician will not get asked back to play.

However, I recommend musicians bring their own stool and their own tip jar, and leave it pretty close to the microphone or stage area so you can acknowledge with a smile or nod when someone leaves a tip. People are more likely to tip if they will get acknowledged by the performer for doing so.

I’d also advise musicians to be considerate that some restaurant owners might not appreciate hearing the request for tips in the microphone. When I got my start at 22 at a restaurant, I didn’t know what to say between songs, so I’d often say the cliche, “Don’t forget to tip your bartender and musician!” The legendary owner came up to me and said, “Don’t say that. Everyone knows to tip! Let’s keep it classy.” It was an important lesson to find a more unique voice between songs. Again, I recognize the rules on Broadway are different. On Broadway, you have to work that tip jar with fury, for the folks bar hop and it’s the only income being made! It’s important for new musicians to recognize the different implied rules for different gigs.

Still, the fact remains, the tip jar is essential to surviving the bar/restaurant scene anywhere. One longtime performer told me that if someone asks for a request you don’t know, make other suggestions in that style or era. Ask the person’s name before they walk away, and give them a shout out at the end of the song.

Folks asking for “happy birthday” requests gets old, but I’ll play a drinking song after 20 seconds of “happy birthday” and mention my favorite drink the bartender makes at end of the song. Treat every opportunity as a way to be unique.

You’ll notice in the photo that I’ll have a sign saying, “Leave a tip, take a CD!” While origianl music shows really need a merch sales person and clear prices, bar gigs are different. Any sale you make is good at the bar gig, and it’s really to encourage interaction, hopefully build a fan or two.

I’ve noticed that I’ve made close to the same in tips and sales this year after 119 gigs then I did two years ago playing 200+ gigs. It’s difficult to make exact conclusions why, but I think part of it is that sign saying, “Leave a tip, take a CD!”

Thanks for sharing your tips, Jennifer. Break a leg at the gigs!


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