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Piano Bar: Cashless Society: Goodbye Tip Jar!



Do any of you listen to “Marketplace” on NPR? If I’m in my car, I catch it on WBEZ at 6:30 p.m. They have an ongoing discussion on the ramifications of society going cashless and how it would affect workers and businesses.

This caught my attention.

I’m mostly teaching, writing and playing private events now, but I was a full-time piano bar entertainer all over the country and world for many years, and a good 20 percent of my income used to come from the cash tips. I sent the radio program an email saying how the lack of cash in customers’ pockets would be a disaster for people in my business.

Mark Weiser

To my surprise, I got a call from a staff producer of the show’s host, Kai Ryssdal, asking if I’d like to make a recorded statement to be played on the show. I knew they did this kind of thing (there’s a series of essays from a waitress in Nashville on her take on the economy), and was delighted to contribute my two cents.

I then shared this with a private, members-only Facebook group dedicated to piano bar entertainers. In order to keep out amateurs, agents, club owners and other people who would dilute and dampen the discussion, you have to be nominated and vetted to get in. I asked the 600 worldwide members what they thought would happen if our customers only had credit cards and no bills in their wallets.

Among the responses, it appears that this isn’t an issue anywhere except here and Canada—our colleagues in Europe and Asia, by and large, don’t get tipped, except by Americans and Canadians. I guess tipping’s a North American thing. I certainly made next to no tips when I was overseas, but was paid better by the clubs and hotels. In Tokyo, the bar staff was actually forbidden to take tips, but we certainly did and made no secret about it—there just wasn’t any tip jar.

The best response came from my friend and colleague, Mark Weiser. We “met” on the aforementioned Facebook page, and kept in touch. In 2011, when I was managing the show at Heart & Soul dueling piano bar inside the utterly insane entertainment complex at 400 N. La Salle, he stopped by while he was in town for a corporate gig. Though our playing styles are very different—I’m essentially a blues, jazz guy making money playing pop and Mark is strictly rock and pop, and a master at it—we had a great time together onstage. He’s excellent at reading the audience and transforming that information into tip jar requests. He’s been playing piano in his hometown of New York for nearly 30 years, drawing his influences mostly from Billy Joel and Elton John, but is respectful of the great saloon tradition inspired by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Short. (Some might also know Mark from his appearances on Don’t Forget the Lyrics.)

Mark also created Shake Rattle & Roll Dueling Pianos, originally a mortar and brick establishment located on Warren Street in lower Manhattan, which is now closed. It has since then evolved into the largest, free-floating movable feast of piano entertainment on the East Coast with hundreds of performances a year in over 40 different venues. Every Saturday night in the New York area Mark can be seen somewhere in one of SRRPs usually sold out dueling pianos shows.

But back to the topic of society going cashless, Weiser wrote:

“In our current economy, the crumpled dollars we carry around with us translate into the disposable expenditures that decorate our lives: the impulse magazine purchase at the supermarket checkout counter, that extra martini at happy hour, or the bonus gratuity for the service worker who goes the extra mile for you. We have come to think of our spare cash as just that—‘spare.’ In a system where all transactions are cashless, every transaction would take on the same psychic weight. The stray dollars of today, which were the loose change of yesteryear (to wit—who even carries coins anymore?), only seem to have true value when they bring that moment of bliss, like requesting a special song at the local piano bar and seeing the smile on the face of the special someone you dedicated it to. When every financial exchange, big or small, feels the same, those individuals whose livelihoods depends on these minute kindnesses will see their incomes fall. ...”

Mark further elaborated on the matter in his response:

“ … And there’s another argument as well. The act of tipping is rarely a private, anonymous one. Typically, big tippers want their largesse to be known because of the ancillary benefits of prestige and accommodation that come with it. Leaving that big tip on the counter of the coffee shop will get you a big smile and a shout out. But will the reaction be the same when you swipe your gratuity on an anonymous card reader? The emotional return will be diminished, and in time, so will the contents of the tip jar.”

From experiences on cruise gigs when there are customers who are cashless and billing everything to their rooms, we have to honor requests without getting rewarded for them. This is fine if it’s a tip request, but that is seldom the case.

But I have another theory: If tips diminish, as they certainly will with the disappearance of cash, so will the incentive for memorizing huge archives of classics for one’s repertoire. Being able to play requests help keep The Great American Songbook—and all of the other songbooks—alive. Viva la cash tips!

In addition to being a successful performer and contractor, Weiser is also an adventurous promoter. On the heels of the first all-piano convention in New Orleans this past June (see the May/June issue of CJM), Mark is producing Piano Summit 2017, the largest-ever gathering of piano bar players, dueling pianists, blues and jazz pianists, touring and tribute performers, teachers, students, club owners, agents, aspiring piano players. New York will hold this event March 13-15 next year. Partnering with iconic New York music venues, including the legendary jazz club Blue Note as well as modern blues hall BB Kings and the famed piano bar Don’t Tell Mama’s, this sprawling series will be the one-stop shop for piano aficionados, amateurs and fans. The lineup of guest lecturers and performers include luminaries and legends like 22-time Grammy Award-winner and jazz icon Chick Corea, blues keyboard master Bruce Katz, music director to the stars Seth Rudetsky, and many more.

I missed the party in New Orleans, but I’m going to this one for sure. Including programs, panels, performances and parties, this event will combine professional development, networking opportunities and a healthy dose of fun. Visit pianosummit2017.com for more or contact Mark directly at shakerattlerollpianos.com and introduce yourself. He’s a good guy to know.

Study with Mick Archer

Singers and pianists of all styles are welcome to join the class Piano Bar 101, taught by Mick Archer on Fridays 8 p.m.-9:20 p.m., at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Call for availability (773) 728-6000.

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