The Tip Jar Effect: How to Earn More Money When You Perform

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This post, written by Scott James, originally appeared on Echoes.

Remember the Seinfeld episode where George goes to give the guy a tip at the pizza place, but the guy doesn’t see him put it in the jar and he tries to reach in and take his money back?

It’s funny because most of us can relate to it (well, hopefully not the part about reaching back into the jar!). If we’re being totally honest, when most of us give someone a tip we want them to see us doing it. We want them to feel like they’re getting hooked up and a part of us wants to be acknowledged for making a contribution.

So what does this have to do with music? Well, do you think this might relate to selling CDs and merch at your shows? Is it possible that fans who support you would like for you to see them supporting you? I think so.

So how would we facilitate this? Well, for one, if you’re playing a bar or small venue and you can position the merch table wherever you like, why not put it as close to the stage as you can? And wherever the merch table is, make sure that that’s where you are after the show.

An artist I worked with decided to put the names of all of her fans who bought her pre-sale CD packages on her website. She also had a contest for whomever purchased the most tickets to an event and serenaded the winner at the show. A little creativity goes a long way. What other ideas can you come up with to acknowledge your fans for their support?

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  • A lot of that is mirrored when you do things such as autographing a CD, poster, etc. "After the show's over, come over to the merch table, and we'll be glad to autograph your CD or tour poster." This allows the fan to show that they're supporting you by handing you the item that they purchased either at the show, or earlier on, and you're providing them with a value added service.

    Here are other reasons why autographing materials is important, ESPECIALLY at shows. When the fan sees the CD later on, sees the autograph, they remember when they had you autograph it, and it helps create a small bond between you and the fan with that moment. They have their picture of you with them, the autographed CD, and that bond makes them a stronger fan. This is similar to the "moments" that Tom Jackson talks about.

    Lastly, while there are always creeper fans out there, most are good people, and using the autographing as a method to interact with them is a good thing. Especially if your music has a good message, this might be your moment to have an impact on that individual, or hear how you may have already made a good impact. I remember hearing one band talking about a song they had written about the detriments of drug use and getting off of them being the right thing to do, after a show this guy comes up and says something to the effect of, "I want you to know that your song was an inspiration for me getting off of drugs." Knowing these kinds of things not only forms that bond mentioned earlier, but nourishes you as well.

    Force the tip-jar to be something where they cannot accidentally not be noticed. If they want to be anonymous, they can just download your album off of iTunes, but fans want to be appreciated, just as you want to know your music is appreciated by your fans.

    • Totally. Thanks for sharing. Funny you mentioned Tom, because I was going through some DVDs last night and put one of his aside to re-watch this weekend.

  • Aliceo

    I have one fan that comes to every show that we do. I made her special T-Shirt with our album cover on the front. She gets a special recognition for her loyalty and we get additional publicity for our album every time she wears the shirt.

  • I was at Rockwood Music Hall twice this week and they have the cute waitress go around with a bucket and ask every single person in that bar to tip the music artist while they're performing; that's a sure way to get tips!

  • The tip jar isn’t the best place to make a lot of money, to be truthful, no matter where you place it. The word “tip” and the jar itself, has kind of a “dive” vibe to it, and hardly anyone will put big bucks in there (there’s the safety issue.) But, I made nearly $275 in “tips” one night, playing a tiny venue with maybe 25-30 people there max. How? I disguised it. When I booked a show at that tiny venue, that’s free for anyone, any show, but the performer collects “tips” from a jar at the end of the performance, I decided to do something different. I told my audience online that I’m playing a “secret” show, only divulging the date and time and city, and that if you want to come, you buy tickets in advance via “donation” and not to use the tip jar at the show. I let people pay whatever they thought the show was worth, in advance. Because it was a “secret”, VIP show, and space was VERY limited, (which it was), I got a lot of interest, and a lot of prepaying people. Then at the show, my CD sales and anything extra anyone felt they wanted to put, was cash in the tip jar. Another $60 there in cash, and the rest via credit card. Take my advice: People tend to pay more via credit card then cash! Collect the “tips” in advance if you can, via credit card, and ditch the cash tip jar. You’ll make way more, for sure!

  • Steven Cravis

    Great point made in this article.

  • I'm completely the opposite! I won't leave a tip if the person is looking at me. In a restaurant, I tuck the tip out of sight so there is no way the waiter or waitress sees it before I leave. I don't want my tip influencing their service…. I want their service to influence my tip. If I'm giving a tip, it's because I want to and genuinely feel a person deserves the tip…. not because I want to be seen giving money. Furthermore, if someone shoves a collection jar in my face, it turns me off completely.

  • I like to put my Tip Jar and Merch stuff close to the “stage” or wherever I’m playing in a room, but not so close that people feel like they have to get right in my face or in the “spot light” in order to tip me. I go with close but a little off to the side so bashful folks can still tip me too. I play loads of tip gigs, sometimes I do great, sometimes not. I try to focus on the music and let the tips come and go as they will. But then music is not my main source of income. I do appreciate my “fans” and let them know, even in mid song with a “Thanks!” I got to open for America this past Summer and those guys were so cool and so over themselves. They’ve been touring for 40 straight years. They stayed and signed every last CD, guitar, songbook and poster that their fans brought to the table. On the other hand I’ve had performers shake my hand without even looking at me and that always left a bad impression. Being a totally independent self produced folk musician who very rarely travels outside of the town I live in, especially in today’s music saturated world, it’s a miracle that anyone listens to my music at all, let alone likes it, so I am genuinely grateful whenever anyone tips or digs what I do and I let them know. ;~)

  • Mark Weber

    I was at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC twice this past week, and each time the cute waitress walked around with a bucket during the artist’s set and asked each bar patron if they’d like to give a tip to the artist and she collected money hand-over-fist!

  • Dennis Derby

    Being a busker, I hope people will throw me a few coins. Sometimes, I have had my money picked up by passers by who then ran away with it. Not just men but also a woman once!! Now, I never leave much down there on my guitar case else it gets pinched.

  • Lyndsey Price

    I have yet to get any compensation for all the free performances I gave at "open mics" and I spent on car fare and tolls. I should have had a tip jar, but I wasn't doing a gig. Once a bartender was kind enough to offer me a free drink after my performance. It's my own fault, for having such low self esteem that I didn't want to ask. Well, now I ask. I charge the max for my downloads and my CD's. If you don't want it, don't buy it.

  • I have paid very close attention to my tip jar and merch table over the years, and I have seen that minor changes can make pretty impressive results! I am a single, "one man band" and my style is very personable, rather than distant. My merch table is ALWAYS in very clear view when I am onstage, and I can see when someone approaches my table. I have studied body language of people when they come to my table, and I can usually tell when someone wants to be acknowledged, or when they would rather not have attention drawn to them, and I tailor my responce accordingly. Sometimes a simple nod and a smile will do, sometimes a quick "thank you" slipped in betweeen the verses of the song that I am doing works, or sometimes I will go all out and make up funny lyrics on the spot, making the tipper the focal point for a few seconds. A real winner is when I am playing an all ages gig, and somebody sends thier little kid to put a dollar in my tip jar. Parents love it when their kids are the center of attention, and other parents pick up on that, and want THEIR kids to get the attention! I like little kids anyway, so I always make a big deal out of it when that happens. Funny thing……all it takes is for one parent, or better yet, grandparent to send their kid up with a tip, and pretty soon everyone wants to do it. I have seen an extra $50 in my profits on a 4 hour gig when this happens.
    Something else I have done that pretty much doubled my income from my merch table….always have something very obvious that people can take for free! My merch table profits doubled when I started doing this. Most people feel uncomfortable if they think that people watch them go to a merch table where they are expected to buy something, and then don't, so they don't even go to your table at all. I promote my merch table as a place to sign up for my mailing list, where you can get a free download of a song from my next CD as a thank you for signing up. I also offer business cards, free download cards, free bio, free schedule of upcoming shows……the fact that they can also buy CD's or other merch is so obvious that I seldom point it out. The result is that now people feel comfortable approaching my merch table because they just need a business card because "I have a friend who has a club that might want to hire you" or "I already have your CD but I want to let my sister know about you, and I'm sure she'll want to buy a CD". It is almost amazing how many people will come to my merch table, take something for free, make a comment similar to what I just mentioned, and 5 minutes later come back and buy a CD.
    About the only time that I really promote my merch table as a place to buy something is when tips, sales, and mailing list sign ups are really slow. I keep a set of "50% off" sale cards in my merch table case, and if sales are not happening, I pull out the 50% off cards and promote the hell out of it. After every third or fourth song I announce that CD's are half price, as long as you sign up for my mailing list too. The last time I did this, I sold out of CD's in an hour and a half, and I got people on a back order list to buy CD's, and I also got a lot of mailing list sign ups. I usually sell my CD's for $10 each, and they cost me about $1 each to produce, so I still made $4 profit from each sale, where before the 50% off sale I was making nothing. I even had people who already had my CD's buy more just because they were on sale!

  • Loretta Simonet

    What does anyone think about putting a smaller tip jar on EACH table, say in a coffeehouse? I know some performers swear by it. It seems if you don't have anyone one to pass the tip jar around, some people are too shy to come up and put something in it. But if there's a cup or jar right on there table….

  • Interesting theory. I have found it never works for me though. In fact when i keep my merch table next to the stage, it hurts my CD sales. When i keep my merch table in the back of room and/or by the venue entrance, it gives people the chance to look over my cd/business cards/other merch while i play. So they dont feel like someone is staring at them. They have the liberty to just "Check it out."

    Greg Parke (below) is right on the money. People often feel obligated to buy something when they're at your table. So make it more about signing up for the mailing list.

  • danhylton

    Busking is a hard life! I busk about 2-3 times a year – that's all my heart can take. Eventually, I need to retreat to the confines of a dedicated performance spot where people are there specifically for the music and, hopefully, for my music in particular.

    • Yeah. You definitely need a thick skin sometimes. But really — people are just trying to get to work, get to lunch, get home. They're not REALLY ignoring you. They're just living their life. That's why it's extra exciting when an enthusiastic crowd does form! You know they're really paying attention.

      • danhylton

        Oh, I get that people have places to be. And if I ever forget it, I remember the famous Joshua Bell violin experiment. Are you getting too much in a comfort zone? Are there things you can do to engage people from a starting point of zero? Finding answers to those questions are why it’s fun to still go out and put myself through the ringer, from time to time.