Tipping a Musician


This blog post covers the practice of putting bread into musicians’ jars.

The first part is my opinion on gratuity. It explores when I think tipping is recommended, when I think it’s not, and when I think it’s obligatory.

The second part is my consideration on the psychology of tipping. It explores tipping behavior through the lens of reciprocity.

As always, let me know your thoughts on this matter. I appreciate your feedback–especially if you don’t agree with me.

Busking vs. Gigging

Steve Buscemi, acting as Mr.Pink in Quentin Tarentino’s seminal masterpiece Resevoir Dogs, articulated a common viewpoint on tipping.

Unlike Mr. Pink, my opinion on tipping is not nearly as staunch. It varies by circumstance.

In the case of busking, I hardly ever tip.

I can, as much as anyone, appreciate the charm of a distant, lonely saxophone playing under a bridge while I peruse the sidewalk shops or I walk with a crowd towards a sporting event.

Not everyone wants to hear music in these moments, though. I’m one of them.

Being that the music is filling the outside environment as opposed to a contained environment (such as a bar or a restaurant), it is inescapable and, in my opinion, forced upon the listener.

For this reason, I find busking annoying.

If, on the other hand, musicians are gigging at a bar or a restaurant, then I feel more compelled to tip—even if the musicians are already being paid by the establishment.

This is because I believe that part of the going-out-experience is the ambiance created by the venue. The music is usually the magic ingredient to this ambiance and therefore worth something to me.

In contrast with the buskers, the gigging musicians are providing a service congruent with my choice as a bar goer. If I don’t like the music at a certain bar, I can simply go to another bar.

If you’re a minority report among friends and you’re staying at a bar that you’d normally leave, then not tipping the musicians is the correct response.

If, on the other hand, you’re digging the music and the ambiance it’s providing, then a dollar or two in the musician’s tip jar is the correct response.

If you are requesting songs and the musicians are responding in kind, then you are now obligated, beyond question, to tip. This is true whether the musicians are being paid by the establishment or not.

If you are on the fence about tipping the players at a bar then consider the following question:

Are the musicians trying, to the best of their ability, to earn an honest dollar with music?

If so, perhaps they are working hard and deserve your extra money.

On the contrary, are the musician wanking? That is, playing music solely designed for the pleasure of the player at the expense of the listener.

If so, go ahead and keep your money.

Musicians, If you are expecting a tip, ask yourself the following question:

Am I providing value to the listener? Am I honestly playing music meant to please them as the listener over me as the player?

If you are, then you deserve a tip.

It’s possible that you might be playing music that is pleasurable for the listener and for you.

But in my experience, I find the distinction pretty clear: I am usually not at my happiest while playing the Freebird solo. Judging from audience response it seems listeners are of the opposite opinion.

Therefore, when I play you the Freebird solo, and you are digging the shit out it, I deserve your tip.

Sometimes I don’t deserve your tip, though. Such is the case when I refuse your requests, play too loud, or engage in pointless noodling. I freely admit that I play this way sometimes.

The Psychology Of Tipping

A recent study by a team of Harvard psychologists tested the effect that common knowledge has on reciprocity.

The findings of the study suggest that people who behave in a way that incurs a cost to themselves but a benefit to another are more likely to do so when the parameters of the interaction are common knowledge.

If you know that the risk we’re both about to take will leave us both better off and that you know that I am also aware of this fact, then you and I are more likely to engage in risky behavior.

Tipping is an exchange for mutual benefit at the expense of mutual risk.  To clarify this, think of me as the tipee you as the tipper.

The risk for you as the tipper is money, of course. Money and the psychological cost of paying for something that’s not guaranteed to be good or to improve your well being in any way.

The risk for me as the musician is more nuanced. If I come through with the your every request and you have not paid me for this service. then I run the risk of encouraging a sort of nuisance behavior from you.

The nuisance character, a staple at nearly every gig, asks for far too many songs, tries pointlessly to engage me while I’m playing songs, and generally becomes an obstruction to others seeking to engage me with requests of their own or to tip me.

The other, less obvious risk for me as the musician, is of having to endure playing a crappy song that robs me of four minutes of my life.

To empathize with me here, consider how many times you’d really need to be reminded that a southern man doesn’t need Neil Young around.

So, when you know that I know that I’ll benefit–by getting a tip–and that you’ll benefit–by having an improved ambiance—then the parameters of our relationship are common knowledge. Therefore, we are more likely to get what we want out of the interaction.

Another study, conducted by Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University, is also relevant to tipping.

Cialdini’s paper compares phone survey data with field experiment results on the question of why people engage in pro-environmental behavior.

The results were quite antithetical to what you might expect. It turns out that social influences–whether everyone was doing it or not–was a better indicator of behavior than declared intentions such as saving the environment or saving money.

In my experience, a herd mentality could’t be more obvious when it comes to tipping.

Nights when my acoustic duo has collected the most tips are nights when the act of tipping had become common knowledge to the audience. Tipping frequency on nights like these often snowballs into spectacular tip jar results.

The opposite is also true. If hardly anyone is tipping, then tipping visibility will be low and no snowballing effect will takes place.

This past Saturday at Olive Or Twist this phenomenon was on offer. My partner and I were sounding great and we were playing to an insanely busy bar. But hardly anyone was tipping. Our tip jar accrued just 14 dollars.

We split the tip money down the middle and now I’m moving to Hawaii.

FullSizeRender (1)
$14 for a four-hour gig.

Part of my exasperation comes from the fact that we’ve played far shittier to far less people but with far bigger tip jar results.

There seems to be no logic in this place.

This Saturday, however, illustrated that the parameters of the relationship between me and the audience was not clear and that not enough people were visibly tipping me to begin the herd instinct.

The common knowledge and the mutual benefit of tipping was lost on everyone.


I try to be understanding when it comes to tipping. I know that many don’t consider a musician’s tip jar to be a problem worth looking into. I agree, for the most part.

But here’s the thing: if musician tipping increased, then things would be better for everyone involved.

The musicians would get a little bit more money and the listeners would get a little bit more ambiance value. Both parties would win and civilization would improve one notch through the collaborative behavior of strangers.

Rock and roll would never die.

8 thoughts on “Tipping a Musician

Add yours

  1. “…when I refuses your requests, play too loud, or engage in pointless noodling…” That’s kind of our thing. So fun!

    Great post!! We are in agreement. Except, I will barely occasionally tip a busker. I agree that it’s generally annoying, but sometimes they can really be at a reasonable volume, kicking more ass than I ever have on any stage.

  2. There was a guy busking with an out of tune banjo by Space Art Gallery on Friday night, it was so bad it was funny, but I didn’t tip him because he wasn’t actually trying to be funny, he was very serious indeed.

    1. Out of tune banjos are my busking tool of choice. How did his out of tune banjo make you feel? Would you’ve been inclined to tip if he was any good? Did his out of tune jamming subtract from your well being in any way?

  3. I really like the busker guy who’s usually playing the sax near Heinz Hall. I always try to tip him if I have cash because he’s excellent and he makes me smile. And generally I tip everyone in every situation because I used to work for tips and it sucks. A dollar gained is worth more than a dollar lost.

    P.S. I have mad love for Ze Frank.

  4. Should you ask for a tip? I have seen acts sing a “please tip the band” comedy type song (Pete and Wayne in Key West come to mind). I have used this method on one occasion successfully. I need to explore it further though. I keep my CDs in the tip bucket. “I’d like to CALL ATTENTION TO THE TIP JAR if you want a CD or a sticker – THE TIP JAR is the key to your good karma for the night…” I have heard people jokingly say their dog was sick and needed an operation. Another (Michael McCloud) says, “the CDs are $15 but the price is negotiable – If you haven’t taken advantage of anyone yet today, please allow me to be the first.” I know some players like to be wallpaper but you CAN engage the audience. Not right for every situation (Restaurant dinner crowd). I hate playing for tips – I am more likely to be wanking if their is no money coming in which spirals into no tips which leads to more wanking…

  5. Yeah, whether or not to ask for a tip is fuzzy territory. I like your comedy suggestion, laughter lubricates everything. You’re also right about the shittyness of playing only for tips. It ends up being a wank to noodle space time continuum. Thanks a lot for reading, man.

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