There are many venues—such as small clubs and restaurants—that will allow musicians to book a set and entertain diners or drinkers for free, and then ‘pass the hat’ after their session. Performing in public places, such as on the street or in subways, for gratuities or “busking,” is another way to make money from live performance.
(In fact, New York City has a special program that allows musicians to busk legally. Performers can audition for “Music Under New York (MUNY),” an official program that sets up schedules of performances and locations for MUNY members.)
The following tips come from singer-songwriter Jennifer Sullivan, a serious gigging musician in New York.
I make an average of $50/hour in tips at [venue] gigs. (I’ve never busked, so this only applies to live club performances.) The longer the gig (4 hours is typical for me now) and more frequent (I perform about 5 gigs a week) the better!
Here’s a few ways I maximize my tips.
1. You can’t expect people to come up and give you a tip. Don’t be afraid to ask for it!
For example, “Thank you guys so much for being such a great audience! I’m going to come around and shake hands, see if you guys have any requests, and pass around this tip jug. This is how I/we make a living on Broadway, so if you like what you’re hearing, please show your support and leave a tip, and if you don’t like what you’re hearing, put some love in the jug anyway and I’ll take some lessons!” Usually makes people laugh.
2. Be funny and sincere.
If people are being rude/awkward, just make them give you a high five at least and maybe you’ll at least brighten their day. People remember things like that, and don’t take it personally. Move on to your next fan. Which brings me to…
3. Make new fans, and make more money.
It’s important when starting out to use these unpaid gigs as opportunities to make fans. Have an email list, have business cards ready, and make demos of your music. If you have CDs, always take them with you when you pass the hat. People are more likely to buy things they can touch and see. I sell mine for $5, and I notice people end up buying a couple extra to share with their friends. I definitely make extra income at gigs by selling CDs, and people have something to take away with them.
4. Having a CLEAR tip jar is key!
Make your own with a gourd or a huge champagne glass or regular old bucket, decorate it, write TIPS on it. Make sure your tip jar is very clear and right in front of the stage, maybe on a stool. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH WORKING FOR TIPS. I even ask for tips at my paid gigs, why not? It helps you make a lot more money, and as indie musicians, we need as much as we can get! But don’t be desperate. Be charming, funny, and confident.
5. Last but not least, the MORE songs you know, the better chance you will make good tips.
Be humble – if you’re starting out and want people to hear your songs, that’s great and all; but if you want to be a professional musician, you MUST be a good entertainer. And that means playing cover songs and requests. Know your audience and play to THEM in order to make the most tips. I ask for $20 per request. Know what songs work well with your original repertoire, and know your venue. Cover songs and sing-alongs are a great way to make fans AND tips!
Top image by H.L.I.T., licensed via flickr under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Attribution Generic (CC by 2.0 Generic).