We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside bales of deep-discounted Easter candy is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on buskers, tipping and etiquette.
Holly R. writes via email: “How much of a tip is good for the street-side musician with a cup at his feet? What about for one playing in a bar?”
Tipping is customary for good service.
You’ve seen the signs that read, “Tipping is customary for good service,” right? The same is true for good music — as is the converse argument that you’re under no obligation to tip just anyone standing behind an open guitar case. Like any subset of humanity, street musicians can perform badly, or behave badly, and you’re not obligated to tip them just because they have instruments in their hands. (I used to work on a busy street frequented by a guy I called “The Lone Bagpiper Of Death,” who wheezed away at a volume no closed window could dampen; I’d sooner tip someone for keying my car.)
That said, assuming you like what you hear, there’s a handful of fair baseline settings to keep in the back of your mind — say, a splash of change if you’re walking by, a couple bucks if you stick around and watch, and $5 if a band is passing a tip jar in a club. But music is about as subjective as art forms get, and performers, performances and settings vary too widely for hard-and-fast rules.
First, there’s a massive difference between an audience trying to get from Point A to Point B and one that’s made a deliberate choice to settle in and be entertained. If you’ve stopped on the street to take in a song or two, I’d consider walking away without tipping to be a breach of etiquette, though I’m sure others would disagree. If you’re in a bar and a band you enjoy is working for tips? Then think of the tip jar the way you’d think of a cover charge — with the added benefit of knowing that your contribution is going directly to a band’s food and gas budget. Was the show worth $5 or $10? Then by all means, throw it in. The same goes for experiences in which you feel transformed or invigorated by a street performance.
In my experience as a music lover, few cultural exchanges top the thrill of stumbling across an amazing artist no one knows. When you’re lucky enough for that to happen, baseline tips go out the window — if you can afford it, go nuts! Because as a metric gauging performance quality, tips aren’t just money. They’re also a way of formalizing and cementing your status as a fan, as well as encouragement to keep going, which may well be what great young musicians need most. If they’re between songs and you’re not interrupting anything, you can never go wrong leaving a tip and a compliment.
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