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Davis, California

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Stay Tuned: Here’s a tip

So, you’ve decided to make a few bucks on the side as a street musician? Well how can you call yourself a musician when you’ve sold your artistic integrity to material desires? Only joking.

Making money on the streets (as unappealing as that might sound) can be an excellent way to take in some extra cash for something you love to do. First off though, let’s discuss the difference between earning tips and getting a salary.You might choose to put out a tip jar, but unlike deciding to get a job, this is by no means a guarantee at earning money. Even if you’re good. Even if you’re brilliant.

In 2007, a violinist played in a Washington DC metro. He played for 43 minutes and made $32 and 17 cents. Not bad one might think. Not bad until one is informed that the violinist was Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso playing a $3.5 million violin, no less. His tickets usually sell for around a hundred or more. He has filled some of the most prestigious symphony halls in the world but on the streets, in street clothes, with only his music to validate his name, the public has deemed him to be worth just over $32.

If you’re interested in making the big bucks, you have been sorely misinformed as to what it means to play on the streets. No one has ever referred to street musicianship as profitable — or if they did they meant it in a spiritual, touchy-feely way, not in the “pay the rent” or “buy food” sense of the word.

So you might not be making bank here, but why not make a dollar or two while you’re sharing your talent? You can be your own boss! You can buy yourself a hard-earned candy bar on the way home! And this is all exciting and wonderful as long as you remember one imperative truth: The money does not make the musician.

Don’t let anyone convince you that you are worth $32 and 17 cents, or $5, or nothing. It simply isn’t an accurate way to measure your musical talent. It’s hard to quantify whether you’ve added joy to an atmosphere or created a fleeting moment of peace for someone walking by. It is regrettably easy, however, to count how many dollars have been thrown into your case.

If you can’t separate the value of money from the value of art (which is admittedly incredibly hard to do as the artist) then it might be best to just sidestep the whole mess and leave the tip hat on your head.

Keep in mind though, that there are some selfless reasons to consider playing for money. Believe it or not, some people are more comfortable when you have a jar or a case open for tips — it means that they can deduce their own role in the whole equation. Nothing is more uncomfortable than turning someone down when they offer you money or them having to interrupt you because they couldn’t find the tip jar.

I once had a man walk up to me with a smile and a five-dollar bill after I finished a song. I thanked him and looked around awkwardly for my bag or guitar case. In that moment, driven by some logic-crippling attack of social anxiety, he wadded up the five and shoved it into the hole of my guitar. He smiled again as if pleased with his problem solving abilities and then sauntered away with a friendly wave.

I don’t know if this was an act of impatience or a rather aggressive attempt at humor but it took me a few slow, embarrassing minutes to fish out the crumpled cash. Since then I always make sure to take money graciously and without hesitance, lest I let some other stranger leave me and my guitar feeling strangely violated.

Money is a complicated matter, even when we don’t want it to be. It can turn sex into prostitution, lying fanatics into politicians and art into a commodity. We all want to say that we are bigger than money. Hell, if there was a world where we bargained with love, music and cable, you know I’d be the first to sign up. But unfortunately we live here on earth and money is important to us. Which is all fine, as long as we realize that there are things of far greater significance.

To share music and not money with ELLY OLTERSDORF, contact her at eroltersdorf@ucdavis.edu


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