This city calls itself the “live music capital of the world.” Austin’s world-class musicians, many of whom can be seen almost any night of the week, made that title possible. While the city and its venues are getting fatter on that pie, the musicians settle for crumbs.
I don’t know if Austin music fans here or abroad know this, but when a sign says “No Cover” it doesn’t mean that the venue is paying the musicians and is generously providing free entertainment. It means that musicians are being paid close to nothing and are expected to earn their pay by donations from patrons in a famous “tip jar” [see "Playback: Tip Jar Etiquette
," Music, July 4, 2014]. That “tip jar” has become as famous to Austin musicians as “live music capital” has to Austin.
I am a three-decade-plus Austin singer-songwriter with many qualifying credentials. I recently played a well-known North Austin honky-tonk. My band was promised a $100 guarantee. (Terrible, I know.) The owner claimed that although that amount is low, her staff are aggressive tip jar passers and bands do great. We drew a full house. The famous “staff” never once passed the tip jar. I paid my band out of my pocket. I earned nothing for my work. The bar made out like bandits.
When I inquired about the lack of “tip jar passing” at the end of the night I was rudely explained by the bartender that, “If you were any good people would have tipped anyway.” Later the owner informed me that 650 bands have played there before and never complained.
Well, I’m complaining now. I hope my voice is heard. I believe I am not alone. That the very hallmark that gives Austin its famous claim have to rely on the whim and insult of bar staff, can’t afford to live in this city, need to be “helped” by HAAM and SIMS, have to work almost every night in order to make ends meet, have to rely on tips for income – is just not right. This is how it really should read: “live music capital of the world … and most of its hardworking musicians live in poverty.”