The last french fry has been eaten, the final chords strummed on the guitar: an evening of dining and live music in Madison is coming to close.

As you recline back into your chair and glance at the bill, you feel a slight jolt as you notice an additional line on the bill: "live music tip."

A tip for the the band, situated right underneath the well-established waitstaff tip on your bill, may be coming to some Madison establishments, as the practice makes headlines and spurs social media debates around the country.

It would be a welcome change, according to some local music industry insiders. Others claim the practice only perpetuates the inherent problems with a tip-centric culture.

“I think Madison needs to create a culture where music is valued and musicians are paid for the time and effort they put into providing entertainment,” said Evan Murdock, a local Americana artist.

A Philadelphia Magazine story is at center of the live music tip debate. The story documents one local establishment's solution to consumers skirting cover charges.

Cover charges are just one way that venues pay performers. Others include guaranteed flat fees, splitting profits or telling performers to rely on circulating of their own tip jars.

Several Madison bars and restaurants never charge a cover on live music performance nights, including Mickey’s Tavern, 1524 Williamson St., Alchemy Café, 1980 Atwood Ave., and Tip Top Tavern, 601 North St.

Generally, musicians aren't fans of the no-cover strategy.

“Just the tip is okay, I guess, but we’d rather get the full wad,” joked Karl Christenson, also known as Diaper Daniels of the notoriously tongue-in-cheek rock band Cribsh-tter.

(At least their answer was in character, right?)

"I think it's important that venues charge a cover and work out what kind of compensation musicians deserve for providing their talent and drawing customers into said venue," agreed Madison folk singer-songwriter Anna Vogelzang.

According to Tip Top owner Ben Altschul, avoiding a cover, or asking for a “suggested donation” instead, is intended to be less exclusive, and more welcoming to customers who may not have sought out live music on their own.

"I'm glad we don't charge a cover, so people don't walk away," agreed Mickey's Tavern booker Elizabeth Granby. 

“We pay musicians as much as we can, responsibility, so we can maintain a sustainable business,” Altschul said. “We do our best that way. However, it really does take full community support.”

For establishments like Mickey's, Tip Top and Alchemy, which aren't primarily music venues, levying an additional, required charge like a cover — or, indeed, encouraging a tip forcefully by including a line for it on the bill — can be tricky, from a marketing perspective.

“We offer music, but it is not our sole purpose like it might be at a jazz club,” said Alchemy owner Michael Randall. “So we would never want to make customers feel like they must leave a tip, especially if they came to Alchemy for another reason, such a late evening meal or a beer."

Weighing in from outside the bar and restaurant scene, High Noon Saloon owner Cathy Dethmers said she thinks the "live music tip" line on a bill is a good one.

"I think it's definitely worth trying in venues where the shows are free to the public, where bands are playing for tips, or for a small guarantee from the venue," she said. "The supplement of additional tips on credit cards can make a big difference to how much money the band walks away with."

Cribsh-tter's Christenson agreed.

“If a patron just has to add a band tip to a line item on a bill, that’s logistically and emotionally easier than pulling out paper bills and tossing them into a tip jar,” he said.

Local folk artist Nick Brown holds a similar view: writing a tip onto a check is less intimidating and taxing for customers than walking up to a tip jar.

“I think people are hesitant to walk up in front of the stage to put a dollar or two into the jar," he said. "They get into the lights a little bit and some people might not like that."

However, Murdock disagreed with all of the above, sharing a view that tips, even those facilitated by a line on a check rather than a jar on a stage, perpetuate a culture where “musicians are expected to scrape by on the largess of largely disinterested audience members.”

“There's a movement afoot to remove tipping for servers from the restaurant experience, because servers are professionals who work hard for a living, and deserve to get paid for that regardless of the whims of their patrons,” he said, referencing a recent, widely-circulated New York Times opinion piece. “I'd hate to see the live music industry go in the opposite direction.”

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.