I Didn't Say "Tip" Musicains, I said PAY Them

The amazing part about my last essay is not that anyone read it, it’s that some people got angry about “tipping musicians.”

“Tipping musicians”?

Who said anything about that? 


Musicians spend most of their lives honing their craft.

But no one wants to pay them for it.

This differs from accountants, who go to school for four to six years and then...oh yeah, get paid daily to practice their professions.

It differs from baristas who learn how to make espresso then...oh yeah, get paid to make espresso.

It differs from auto mechanics who study car bodies and engines and then...oh yeah, get paid to fix them.

These people are not “getting tipped,” mind you.

They’re not standing there like Oliver Twist with hat in hand begging. “Please sir, I’d like some more, sir.” 

They’re getting paid.


You “tip” Susie Barista because Starbucks doesn’t pay her enough in wages, so the transnational company “allows” you to supplement Susie Barista’s income.

Isn’t that nice of them?  Starbucks still pays her a wage and provides her health insurance.

Your “tip” is extra.

You “tip” Bob Bartender because the owner of the club doesn’t pay him enough in wages to make his rent. 

Your “tip” is extra.

And you “tip” Wendy Waitress because the restaurant she works at – and at which you pay heartily to eat –doesn’t pay her enough in wages to support her son.

In all these cases, “tips” are supplemental.

Not for musicians, though. 


I live in the third largest city in the country.  I know some of the region’s most talented musicians. 

These are men, usually in their thirties, forties, and fifties, who’ve been going at it their whole lives. 

And they’re dying.

They can’t afford health insurance.

They can’t afford food.

They can’t pay their rents.           

They’re dying, people. 


Of course you want them to play your weddings.  Isn’t it cute to be able to dance with daddy to a live version of “Isn’t She Lovely”?             

But after they set up, do the gig, and walk away, you pretty much don’t give a fuck about them.

Of course you want them to move you at your funerals.  “Oh Danny Boy” sung with emotion by a few acoustic guitar players trumps some cheesy recorded version, every time.

Of course you want them to be there in that hip dive bar on Division Street when you bring your friends in from Ohio.  “See how cool my city is, man?  Great live music here, badass.  Beat that, Cinci!”

Now I don’t know what’s going on down in Austin.  I’m too poor to get there.

I don’t know what’s happening in Nashville, though I’ve heard musicians work 8 to 10 hours day – and make a somewhat livable wage.

I can only speak for Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S.A.

And in this city, at this time, musicians are playing, largely, for free.


Why is this?

1. Venues get away with it.  Never bereft of the next hopeful group of troubadours, owners simply sit back and wait.  Musicians need to play, that’s how they ply their trade.  That’s how they get better.  Venues know this.

Ever see a performer look uncomfortable on stage?  It’s because he hasn’t practiced on tons.  Professionals seek stages like dancers seek out rehearsal rooms.  Like football players seek out fields.  Like athletes seek out gyms.  Like artists seek out charcoal.  Like models seek out mirrors.  Just making sure you’re paying attention on that last one. 

Players seek out stages.  Every time.  Like, every time.  Like, every time.  Like, to get good.  Bar managers know this, and offer musicians “use of” their stages occasionally – usually when the DJ they’re paying $300 a night to serve up crap is unavailable.           

It doesn’t matter that musicians attract patrons who guzzle beers, so they make venues money.

It doesn’t matter that the longer musicians play, the more patrons guzzle Jack Daniels, so the more venues makes on them.

Kinda reminds me of how the U.S. feels about health care “You can’t afford it?  You’re garbage.  You’re too poor to hire a dentist?  You’re not good enough for one then.”  It’s a barbaric jungle-oriented every-man-for-himself attitude America’s gotten away with for years now.  And it’s taking us down, both economically and culturally.                                            


2.  People don’t give a shit.  Individuals have been downloading music for free for fifteen years now.  At this point, humans feel entitled to not paying songwriters and musicians and producers and recording engineers to do their jobs.            

Only trouble is: if musicians and songwriters and producers and recording engineers don’t get paid, you have the kind of crap that’s coming out of Hollywood taking over the airwaves.  And you have a lot of sick and dead musicians in their middle years.  And you have a lot of really great musicians who give up because they (god forbid) have a family.  And you have a lot of musicians depressed and contemplating suicide.

What if someone told you marketing, teaching, advertisement, doctoring, taxi driving weren’t jobs anymore, they were volunteer positions?  Would you still go to work?  Do you enjoy your job enough to do it for free?      

I bet you would.           

Because our jobs, in many ways, define us. 


3.  Genuinely talented and gifted people make us nervous.  This is one no one wants to talk about.  And there are plenty of talented, gifted people walking around your neighborhood right now.  Look, there’s one now!  Holy crap, there goes another! 

Talented and gifted people spend their lives practicing, playing, crafting their talents and gifts.

And at the end of the day, they’re just not the same as you. 

They have a certain “edge.” 

They’ve done something “different.” 

They’ve taken a “risk.” 

They have a certain “sparkle.”

They made a choice long ago that they’re not going to follow the herd.

And you can smell it on them.

You can hear it in their voices.

You can taste it on their necks, because god, how you want these people.

They are the sexiest of them all.           


At the same time, though, meh, you’re jealous of them.

“What does she get to stand on a stage?  I have a good voice too!” you might overhear someone whining to her friend at a table in the corner.

“Why do they get to be out all night on a Wednesday when I have to work tomorrow morning?” 

“Wait that guy’s pretty good, my girlfriend’s giving him googly eyes.  Better snub him with the tips.”

And ah, yes, here we have the rub.

Back in the day, when there was a healthy diversity of songwriters and musicians in the top-40, and artists didn’t employ the same stylists and plastic surgeons, and didn’t make waaaay more than us, and actually were REAL PEOPLE not corporate stooges, they…had soul.

Their talent was authentic and seemed to “be” them, to “come from” them.

Now, at the Grammys, actors sing empty lines.

Corporate puppets do work for corporate sponsors.

And bars up and down Division Street in Chicago copy this model, playing the same hackneyed music, serving the same fru-fru drinks.           

Catering to the same people who’re afraid to strike out and just...be themselves.

Be yourself.

Another rub.

It’s really fucking scary to just be yourself.


So when someone simply is themselves, simply does what they’re good at, it’s like a roaring fire.

When someone simply does what they’re good at, without apologies, without much ado, as though it’s simply a part of breathing, it confuses the rest of us.

“But, like, he’s not famous.  Why’s he doing this?”

“But, like, no one’s at this club?  Doesn’t that mean they suck?”

“But like I never heard of them before” which translates to: “So that means they suck.”

I’m getting off topic here.

My point is it takes more than a little balls to get on stage and sing anything, let alone your own music.

And for Christ’s sakes it takes more than courage to produce records, pay recording engineers, rent studios, pay musicians, hire publicists, pay printers, pay graphic artists,

It takes money, and it takes time.                                       


So the fury arisen by the notion that you should TIP musicians ultimately proves my point.  

Why, why, why don’t we pay musicians?    

You tell me.

I am one.                          

  © Rebecca F. 2017