How I Make $50 an Hour (or More) on Tips

The following tips come from singer-songwriter Jennifer Sullivan, a serious gigging musician in Nashville.

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.)

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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.

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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).

18 Responses

    • Paul Resnikoff

      This is helpful to musicians, who are by default in the digital music industry but also perform, release physical, and do other ‘non-digital’ things like sell merchandise at shows. Draw a boundary and you really limit the possibilities.

  1. Mike Vial

    Great tips, Jennifer! This topic is so important for new musicians playing the bar/restaurant scene.

    While it’s acceptable in Nashville to walk around the room with the tip jar, musicians won’t be able to do that in most regions. In the Midwest, restaurant owners will not allow for that! That’s an action that will ensure a musician will not get asked back to play.

    However, I recommend musicians bring their own stool and tip jar, and leave it pretty close to the microphone or stage area so you can acknowledge with a smile or nod when someone leaves a tip. People are more likely to tip you if they will get acknowledged by the performer for doing so.

    I’d also advise musicians to be considerate to some restaurant owners that might not appreciate hearing the request for tips in the microphone. When I got my start playing at a restaurant in my early twenties, I didn’t know what to say between songs, so I’d often say the cliche, “Don’t forget to tip your bartender and musician!”

    The legendary owner came up to me and said, “Don’t say that. Everyone knows to tip! Let’s keep it classy.” It was an important lesson to find a more unique voice between songs. Again, I recognize the rules on Broadway are different. On Broadway, you have to work that tip jar with a voice full of sound and fury, for the folks bar hop and it’s the only income being made. It’s important for new musicians to recognize the different rules implied for different gigs.

    Still, the fact remains, the tip jar is essential to surviving the bar/restaurant scene, anywhere. One local legend, a longtime performer in Detroit, Benny Jet, told me that if someone requests a song you don’t know, make other suggestions in that style or era. Ask the person’s name before they walk away, and give them a shout out at the end of the song.

    Folks asking for “happy birthday” requests gets old, so I’ll play a drinking song in the same key after 20 seconds of “happy birthday” and mention my favorite drink the bartender makes after the song. Treat every opportunity as a way to be unique.

    Thanks for sharing your tips. Break a leg at the gigs!

  2. r u srs

    Great tips, Jennifer! I think you missed the most important one: “be a pretty woman.”

    I’ll bet you could sit there making fart noises and make the same money, but only as a pretty woman!

      • Mike Vial

        These misogynistic comments are another example demonstrating how women have to fight sexism in most corners of the music industry. These trolls (probably one person) need to reread Jessica Hopper’s thread on Twitter. Disgusted.

        • beta playa

          Mike Vial,

          Leaving aside your transparent “if I defend her honor she may notice me” gambit, I’d like to point out that the sexism you decry, if it actually exists, is beneficial to this beautiful young woman. The halo effect is real and pervasive, and while I’d never expect someone in her position to admit as much, nobody wishes they were less attractive and making less money.

          The point made is valid: one way to increase your tips is to do whatever is within your ability to be more attractive.

    • Wha?

      Hey Paul! I just got an idea: What if you stopped posting complete bullshit “articles”? then maybe folks wouldn’t feel it’s “par for the course,” or worse – feel compelled – to be assholes in the comments.

      Just throwing that out there.

      Mike Vial: Don’t try to tag all of us with the mysogonist card, here. The critiques about appearance being a necessary component to ANY performer’s success here are valid, just as they would be if this article had been written by some hunky guy who talked about how much money he was able to make. Some would reasonably assume that at least part of that result was due to appearance.

      Here however, the article was written by a WOMAN – who clearly (and rightly) trades on the advantage of her appearance – about HER success. Just because the subject being discussed is a female here, in particular, doesn’t mean that the commenters don’t hold and/or wouldn’t announce the same views about a male.

      • Wha?

        For a number of reasons, just some of which are:

        1) As others have aptly pointed out, it’s an article written by an attractive woman about how she makes tips/how much she makes in tips, which completely glosses over the important point that being an attractive woman is a significant factor in her program. It’s like Manute Bol writing an article about “How to Shoot Baskets” and never once acknowledging that the task is quite different for him, than it is for 5’4″ tall guys.

        2) Beyond the painful attempt to avoid they key “be pretty” factor, all of the other “tips” are incredibly obvious and basic. “Be funny and engaging”? “Know a lot of songs to cover”? Holy crap. Thanks, SOOOOO much, for these little-known, insider tricks to being a well-received performer.

        3) The site is “Digital Music News” and the article has absolutely ZERO relevance to the digital music industry. Despite Paul’s ridiculous attempts to imply some tenuous relevance, the article doesn’t address anything about being in the digital music business, at all. She said nothing about trying to get her music on streaming services or download services or any experiences with them. Indeed, she apparently is ONLY a live performer. About the best connection you can get between her, this article and digital music is the fact that she sells CDs which are, technically, a digital format.

        Just a complete and utter bullshit “article,” from virtually any perspective.

  3. Me

    As soon as I started reading I thought, how convenient that the girl who makes a lot of tips looks like a model. And then I read the comments and everyone else was thinking the same thing apparently lol. Want to impress me…show me an average looking guy who does this well on tips. He’s the one whose advice would have some merit. And I bet most of the people putting tips in his jar aren’t slipping their phone number in with it. I’ve seen the reactions completely untalented attractive girls get at open mics and shows for years and it’s the same in every city in the country. Looks equals attention and money. And talent isn’t even part of that equation unfortunately. I want to hear how all the normal looking guys and girls make tips…wait I’ll tell you, work really hard for years, learn you instrument and how to work a crowd, perform flawlessy, and then watch the next gorgeous girl come up who only knows three chords and sings out of tune get 1000 percent more than you. Sad but true.

  4. Anne Roos

    So this begs the question about whether it is proper to ask for tips when I am playing harp in a fine dining establishment. I don’t think so, and the manager would let me go if I made such an announcement about tips. I’m totally in agreement with your other suggestions.

  5. NashVegas

    Uh, “serious gigging musicians” in Nashville? I lived and gigged in Nashville. You have no performance dates on your website. You played Tootsies on the upper stage once? The Basement once? Was that the new talent night where 8 people get 2 songs each? Really?

  6. r u srs

    Follow up: did publishing this “article” get anybody here a date with the author?

  7. Wow

    I’ve reread this article several times to see what I missed… In no way does the contributor mention physical appearance. She promotes characteristics like humility, charm, humor, and confidence. Looks like her mother taught her to value some important qualities – unlike those who have attempted to reduce her to “a pretty face” and strip her of any talent and education she may have.

    A few good points… If the author’s website only states what you posted, NashVegas, then her website needs to be updated. I’m sure she will take note. I also thought Mike Vial made a great contribution about the etiquette of tipping in different areas of the country… I found that very interesting. Anne Roos, your audience is far different than the audience described in the article’s introduction. The contributor also plays the harp and no – she would not ask for tips while performing in that capacity.