Music Venue Stirs Controversy By Letting Customers Add Tips for Live Music

Some say it's a great idea. Others aren't so sure.

Left: A receipt from Chris' Jazz Cafe / Right: Longtime Philly saxophonist Victor North, who cautiously calls the tipping policy "a worthy experiment."

Left: A receipt from Chris’ Jazz Cafe / Right: Longtime Philly saxophonist Victor North, who cautiously calls the tipping policy “a worthy experiment.”

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about tipping, first with prolific restaurateur Danny Meyer — he of Shake Shack fame — declaring that he was abolishing tipping at his New York City restaurants, and then with a compelling New York Times op-ed that connects tipping to race and flat out declares that “tipping is wrong.” Normally, tipping controversies erupt around the food industry, but now we’ve learned of one brewing in Philadelphia’s music scene, thanks to Center City music venue Chris’ Jazz Cafe.

On October 8th, the Sansom Street jazz club, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, instituted a new policy allowing patrons to add a “live music tip” to their check at the end of the night. And as far as we know, it’s a new concept for Philadelphia, save for the old tip jar on the piano concept, of course.

Bar manager John Jordan raised the idea at a staff meeting (he had seen a photo of a similar check somewhere on Facebook), and owner Mark DeNinno decided to implement it immediately. In addition to simply allowing customers to leave a gratuity for a band that they like, DeNinno is also using the tipping option to combat the frequent problem of people who simply will not pay a cover.

“Some people come here and refuse to pay a $5 cover,” says DeNinno, who adds that in the first week, over $500 in live music tips were left by customers. “This way, we tell them to have a seat, and when they’re ready to go, they can choose to leave something at the end.”

Now, it is probably important to note here that while all of those tips will go directly to the musicians in many cases, in some cases, they will not.

Here’s how it works. Stay with me for a minute.

If a person has paid the cover in advance and they leave a live music tip, the band gets the full tip.

But if they refuse to pay the cover and then they leave a tip, it can go one of two ways. If the deal for the show is a door split, as is the case with most of the mid-week shows (commonly, the band gets 70% of door sales while the house takes 30%), then the tip is divided according to those same percentages.

On the other hand, if the deal for the show is a flat fee and the door sales haven’t hit that mark yet, the amount left on the live music tip line goes to the venue until the house recoups the remainder of what it must pay the band at the end of the night. But, again, only if the customer wouldn’t pay a cover.

“The most expensive seat in a restaurant like this is the empty one,” says DeNinno, explaining that if a prospective patron turns around and walks out upon hearing that there’s a cover, then neither Chris’ nor the musicians have a chance of seeing any money from that person.

“I love it,” says pianist James Santangelo, who leads the late night jazz jam at Chris’ every Saturday. And why wouldn’t he love it? “This past Saturday, we got our full guaranteed fee that we’re very happy with, but we also got about $200 in tips.”

Philadelphia saxophonist Victor North has been a fixture at Chris’ and the Philadelphia jazz scene at large for over 20 years. (Like Santangelo, he gets a guaranteed flat rate for his shows.) He calls the new live music tipping policy “a worthy experiment.” The way North sees it, Philadelphians are notorious for griping about paying covers.

“They’ll stop at the door when they find out about a cover, and they really have to think about it, unless it was their intention to go to see the band in the first place,” he says. “But Philadelphians do tend to tip fairly well. So I see this as a great option for the city as we are.”

North laments that musicians have been having a harder and harder time getting paid to begin with but also points out that dedicated Philadelphia jazz clubs have almost dwindled into non-existence. In other words, if you want to play jazz in Philadelphia, you don’t have a ton of options.

“The tips are a good idea,” he says. “As long as it doesn’t — and I don’t think it was intended to — replace the idea of paying musicians who get a guaranteed amount of money.”

But not everyone is in favor of the idea.

I spoke with one disapproving local jazz musician, who asked us not to use his name for fear of losing gigs at Chris’. (Again, few options for jazz players in this city.) He’s played gigs there for a split of the door, and at shows like that, it’s not uncommon for only a handful of people to show up.

So if you’re a four-piece band with a $10 cover, and only 20 people pay that cover, your payout at the end of the night based on a 70/30 split is just $140, to be divided among the players. For the club to take 30-percent of the live music tips left by those who don’t want to pay a cover seems unfair to him. “I already feel like I’m being robbed,” he says. Still, he takes the gigs — and remember, if a customer walks out the door without paying a cover, his band would get zero from that person.

Philadelphia musician Anthony Tidd is the Creative Music Program Director for the Kimmel Center as well as a frequent customer at Chris’. While he has issues with tipping, he doesn’t take aim at Chris’ itself.

“The problem is not Chris’ Jazz Cafe,” he insisted last week in comments on a Facebook post about the live music tips. “Clubs are always going to do whatever they can to make money and increase profit. The problem is the art culture of Philly. One cannot talk about how great a city is for Art, and then say that there are almost no venues that support said Art. If Philly was a city that truly appreciated art, then some of the world’s greatest jazz musicians would [not have just] one jazz venue to choose from.”

As for the tips, he thinks tipping musicians in general is “insulting.”

“To me, the entire concept of tipping is backwards and has no place in what is supposed to be Philly’s last surviving jazz venue,” he wrote in a subsequent post. “Professional musicians, of a level high enough to be hired in the first place, should not have to play for tips. People tip because they know that the server or bartender cannot survive on what the restaurant is paying them. Period! In other words, the restaurant passes on the cost of service (having a staff) to the customer. Then if the customer doesn’t want to tip, they get bitched out by the staff for being stingy, when the staff should really be looking at the owner who is underpaying them by at least 20%. Including this for musicians is not a positive move……It’s insulting.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Anthony Tidd’s comments about tipping musicians.