Working The Tip Jar

A friend and I did a show last week at a coffeeshop and forgot to put out a tip jar. I mean, we completely forgot. I was pretty upset because I'd violated one of my own personal Rules Of Performing: don't forget the tip jar.

It might not seem like a big deal, but to many performers slugging it out in non-traditional venues, the tip jar is King. While I'm hardly a master of the art, here are a few things I've learned about persuading people to put money in your hat, bell jar or guitar case.

Check the house rules. Some venues discourage asking patrons for tips, and some places (especially outdoor public areas) ban the practice outright. Find out in advance before you end up in an awkward situation.

Locate your tip jar wisely. Look for a place that's well-lighted, close enough to keep an eye on it and in the path of foot traffic. Avoid putting your tip jar at the edge of the stage, or where people have to come uncomfortably close to you. Some people will be too self-conscious to approach if they feel they're being watched or interrupting your performance. (That generally applies to CD and merch tables, too.)

Call attention. Make sure you tell the audience that you're playing for tips and that their generosity is appreciated. Don't assume they just know. Believe it or not, I've seen a marked increase in donations at shows where I've made an effort to point out the location of the tip jar.

Not sure what to say or when to say it? Then you need to...

Write "hat lines" into your setlist. I got this tip directly from Hobbit. A hat line is a rehearsed or improvised quip, a bit of banter that signals to the audience: we're going to ask for money now. A hat line can be as straightfaced or silly as you like; the key is to write it into your setlist so you don't forget! Do this enough times and it'll become second nature.

One I've gotten a lot of mileage from: "I appreciate your support; all proceeds go directly into my gas tank."

If need be, pass the hat. (Note: this is why they're called "hat lines.") Sometimes, a stationary jar gathers no coin, or something like that. Get that sucker moving; ask someone to start it circulating around the room, or get a fan to make the rounds.

Like singing or playing an instrument, working a tip jar is a learned skill, one that I'm always refining, rehearsing and occasionally failing at. Sometimes it means the difference between going home empty-handed and going home with a little something extra for your efforts.