Tip the Band: The Economics of Tipping on Frenchmen Street

Tipping is, for good or bad, a major part of the current way musicians make money, and it is usually under-discussed. Recently there has been some attention paid to tip-based economies and the financial lives of folks who work in the service industry. But most of these stories look at various categories of workers in restaurants and bars. Musicians represent a particularly complicated subset that needs to be unpacked further, and MaCCNO has been working on that for the last few years.

Our research into the cultural economy of Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, a dense cluster of music venues that is home to roughly 1,000 separate gigs every month, showed that it represents a major component of many musicians’ living. Frenchmen has 13 to 15 venues (depending on how and when you count) in a two-and-a-half block area near the French Quarter. The density and general practice of venues not charging a cover means that it has become known as a place where visitors can hear music while exploring on foot, “popping in and out” of various venues. This piece looks at tipping as it played out in 2018-19, but that is only a recent snapshot. While tipping has changed somewhat over the years, including sometimes being more robust now, there are many financial factors such as rising costs of living that make it continuously more difficult for musicians to make a living. Also, it’s important to note that Frenchmen as a hotspot for tourists to hear music is only a recent chapter in its over 40 year history. Historically, it was a place where locals went to hear music, and served as an important musical incubator where local bands would play original music and sharpen their skills through regular gigs, even aside from the financial benefit.

The consensus from our interviews and research was that tips comprise 50% or more of the wages from any given Frenchmen Street bar gig, and that the wide variety in tips means that tipping makes the difference between a good, average, and bad night’s pay. Many factors contribute to this scenario, including the lack of a cover charge and general lack of a “pay floor,” tipping sometimes not being well understood by visitors (especially non-Americans), the musicians’ own abilities to solicit tips, and more.

A basic “decent” night of work on Frenchmen equals at least $100, with more than half of money coming from tips. It should be noted that this is a number that was repeated over and over in interviews, but it’s a number that hasn’t changed in a generation even as costs of living have skyrocketed, and musicians agree that baseline pay should be more (even if they’re not sure how to get there). Let’s take a five-piece band as an example and do some rough math: If five musicians each make $120, for a total of $600, then $300 is made from tips. Now, that entirely depends on the number of people in the venue, but given the foot traffic nature of Frenchmen it is fair to assume at least 80 to 100 people (some mix of locals and visitors) over the course of the three or four hour gig. So, people who tip are often tipping only a few dollars each, which is confirmed by anecdotal musicians’ observations. In other words, tipping amounts are often less than what a cover charge would be generally, because there is no standard amount or real incentive for listeners to tip well.

If each listener in this scenario gave $5 more, then every band member could make an additional $80 to $100 on that gig, which would make a huge difference when multiplied by the 1,000 monthly gigs on Frenchmen. In the MaCCNO Good Visitors Guide, we devoted an entire panel to tipping (see below), as that was one of the most common responses when we asked the community what they would like to tell visitors.

So how do musicians get tips? They inform the audience, through both direct and implied communication, that tipping is expected and appreciated. They will often walk the bucket around the room once a set or so, because there’s a strong understanding that approaching the audience can lead to more tips than just having the audience approach the bucket—a “shyness” or sense of social faux pas might contribute to listeners hesitating to approach the bucket, especially if the audience is mostly seated. The venue might have signage or at least offer a venue-owned tip bucket with a label on it, but this varies widely.

Beyond the mechanism for receiving tips, a musician’s personality, stage presence, and comfort level may or may not be well-suited to facilitating better tips. Soliciting tips is an entirely separate set of skills that musicians are assumed to master, but it is often under discussed, unappreciated, and uncelebrated. Musicians generally figure out this skill set on the job, and there’s a spectrum of musicians who are good at it or like doing it (and those who don’t). While it is often tied to being the bandleader/frontperson of the band, a band member who is notably good at it will often be designated the person to do it, because it generally leads to more money. Soliciting tips involves using a mix of humor, sales skills, psychology, and more.

Tipping gets more complicated by race and gender. The concept of tipping has deeply racist roots, as was laid out in an excellent Ford Foundation article in 2016 (“American tipping is rooted in slavery—and it still hurts workers today” ), noting that “tipping remains a favored practice in the United States, [but] it has created a system of unfair pay that disproportionately affects women and people of color.” Musicians of color talk about being acutely aware of the dynamics in getting mainly white audiences to tip, and female musicians talk about a sense of “performing femininity” as well as music.

There are many changes that can lead to musicians being more able to make a solid, stable living, reflecting the skills and hard work that they bring to the stage. We are not avoiding conversations around venues’ practices of pay, legal changes that would allow cover charges, or other pieces of the pay structure. Tipping is not necessarily the best model, but it is one that is currently deeply baked into Frenchmen’s ecosystem. If tipping—and tipping well—can be successfully established as a norm rather than an option, it would certainly be beneficial for musicians who work in the cultural economy of Frenchmen Street. We can continue to work on developing a better way to compensate musicians. In the meantime, let’s get some more money in their pockets.

The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact. This page is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY