Throw a Fiver in the Hat

Today here at DIY High School we’re going to be talking about show economics, specifically the ‘tip jar’ model of show entry/admission.  Placing a jar or bucket or hat or other voluminous object at the door along with a sign that prompts donations is common in the DIY show community. This allows people to decide for themselves if and how much they are going to pay to enter the show.  Dissociating this entry fee from their right or prerogative to attend is the basis and emphasis of the tip jar model. Despite a person’s ability or inability to pay a cover, they are welcomed into a space. Along with that comes the assumption that the lack of financial ability of some will be balanced by the surplus in willingness of others.

This admission method puts a lot of power into the hands of the show attendees and to some extent democratizes the cost of attending a show, to the extent that the bands and other show facilitators have very little control over the total amount of funds collected at the end of the day.  It’s useful to note a few ways that a facilitator can affect the way that people approach the tip jar. For years we operated our DIY space in South Bend, IN with completely open-ended donation jar. We simply placed a sign next to the jar that said something like “donate to the bands here”.  Donations were fine, but never what I would call ‘abundant’. What I’ve noticed about house shows in other communities in our area is that a posted ‘suggested donation’ helped to communicate an expectation to the person entering the show and an implied value of the experience. High suggested donations brought a specific crowd that was willing to pay a premium for an intimate show, but made others feel unwelcome.  We’ve found a particular sweet spot by posting a suggested donation range next to our tip jar to let folks know what reasonable low end and high end donations would be while minimizing financially induced discomfort. Another decision to make that influences the effectiveness of a tip jar is whether or not to station a person next to the tip jar as a presence of accountability. Another method is to actually walk around with the tip jar and solicit donations directly, I find this to also be very effective and positive reinforcement is of paramount importance.

I’ve been writing from an assumption that the primary goal of a tip jar is to collect as much money as possible. Let’s talk about where that comes from.  A lot of shows that run under this financial structure are focused on very low overhead cost and a commitment to give most or all of the money collected at events directly to artists.  Usually these artists come and play without an agreed upon understanding of how much money they’ll make, or be guaranteed. There is a trust within the community that the people hosting or facilitating the shows will do their best to take care of the artists and get them as much money as possible. Some facilitators go as far as adding funding from other sources like grants, donations through outside channels, or straight from their own wallets and purses.  As long as facilitators and bands are operating within a trusting relationship and have given each other the benefit of the doubt that everyone is doing the best they can, things usually operate fairly smoothly. There does exist a largely unspoken tension when a venue’s ability or willingness doesn’t align with an artist’s needs or expectations.

Sometimes the understanding of what a touring artist needs financially to survive on the road differs between the points of view of the show-goer, the show facilitator, and the artist. Even with a true understanding of the utilitarian costs, the value of the art, time, and commitment of the artist can be very subjective.  In addition, some artists have a high goal of making music as their primary means of survival, some artists tour as vacation and expect to spend their own money doing so, and some largely find the involvement and building of a community to be rewarding but still need to make sure things are financially sustainable in the long run. In my experience of traveling and booking over the years, I find that this expectation is a bit of a taboo subject and that the quiet assumption is that people are going to do their best.  As soon as someone starts talking guarantees, it seems a line has been crossed and that music is no longer about art and community but it’s now about business. I’ll be the first to admit that I have rolled my eyes and been offended by bands asking for a specific amount of money, but in reality we all have to figure out a way to make this sustainable so that we don’t burn out funding where it exists and we don’t ask our favorite touring bands to run themselves into the ground.

So let’s start having these discussions. It’s almost 2019, what are the new and innovative ways that we can fund artists and still foster community and focus on inclusivity and making sure people feel welcome despite their inability to pay a door cover?  From whatever your point of view, do you have a good understanding of what it costs to travel and play music? Do you think critically about the value of a show? We’ll be exploring in the future some non-monetary ways that you can contribute to artists. Until then, see you at the show.