A New, Locally Developed App Is Bringing Back the Musician's Tip Jar for the Virtual Age | Music Feature | Indy Week
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A New, Locally Developed App Is Bringing Back the Musician's Tip Jar for the Virtual Age 

Last year, when working musician Mark Willms and entrepreneur Bob Riedlinger were traveling together with friends in Vancouver, Willms began to reminisce about the tip jar that sat atop his piano when he played bar gigs.

"Basically, the dad would send little Jimmy across the room with the ten dollar bill," Riedlinger says. "And Mark said, 'They feel a little bit dirty and I feel a little bit dirty. It's just an awkward way to exchange money.'"

But by the end of the night, Mark would go home with a pocket full of Washingtons and Lincolns, even the occasional Hamilton or Jackson. These days, a musician's tip jar is less common. Most people don't carry cash, and the custom has fallen out of habit, he thinks. But those tips could be a vital source of income for many live musicians.

Inspired by the tips of yore, Willms and Riedlinger developed the LiveLifeLIVE app as an alternative way to pay live musicians during a performance, like the tip jar used to.

"But we don't like to use the word tip," Riedlinger corrects. "These are fans supporting artists."

Riedlinger and Willms, childhood friends who grew up just south of Toronto, Canada, have known each other since they were ten and eleven years old, respectively. Riedlinger has lived in Raleigh for more than twenty years, while Willms lives in Kitchener, Ontario in Canada.

Willms is the quintessential working musician. He has worked on movies like Lost in Translation, toured with country bands across the United States, and performed as a jazz pianist for audiences abroad. He estimates that he's performed for at least one million people over the span of his career.

But an accomplished résumé, as many musicians can testify, rarely translates to steady short-term income, much less long-term financial stability. Willms, for example, says his income from music has been stagnant since the seventies, which he largely attributes to the internet and its consequent tectonic shifts in the music industry.

The internet is a double-edged sword: It's democratizing in its ability to grow access to musicians and their music unlike ever before, but it's also deeply corporatizing as that access is filtered through social media and streaming platforms, often negatively affecting an individual artist's earnings. A new report by the banking and financial corporation Citigroup detailed that music was a $43 billion industry in 2017, with artists taking home twelve percent of that sum.

Once reliable revenue models, like album sales, are no longer reliable; artists have had to turn to new ways to support their work. And though the artist percentage reported by Citigroup is higher than in years past, artists still struggle for their fair cut of an increasingly smaller pie.

In this landscape, different attempts have been made to direct revenue towards artists. Bandcamp's user-friendly model gives artists a way to sell their music and other merchandise online directly to fans, allowing them to adjust their pricing easily and taking a 10- to 15-percent cut. New subscription-based streaming platforms, like TIDAL, tried to incentivize artists to join their allegiances, promising better pay for artists and higher quality audio and exclusive content for listeners. But titans like Spotify and Apple Music still rule the day with over 45 million monthly users each, though musicians earn fractions of a penny for each individual stream.

Even offline, artists are struggling. Venues take a cut of a band's ticket revenues to cover their own operating costs, and when a show is sparsely attended, that can mean a band leaves with a paltry sum (if anything). For touring musicians, particularly those playing small clubs, they are lucky to break even on a tour, much less to churn any sort of profit. As labels have smaller coffers to foot the bill for robust tours, artists are shouldering those expenses themselves.

"What I really underestimated is how financially tight it is for musicians," Riedlinger says. "There's a crisis of performing arts at the local level."

The LiveLifeLIVE app is a modest solution: Audiences can support musicians live and in concert, anonymously, by digitally sending them money and feedback. And they can even make customized requests, like for an artist to play a particular song. Ninety percent of the contributions will go directly to the artist, with the remaining ten percent going to credit card processing fees and the LiveLifeLIVE company.

During a show, you can check in on the app through the venue and support the artist directly. And artists can create customizable buttons asking listeners for specific feedback, like what to name a newly written song.

"This app is the Swiss Army knife of musical enjoyment," Willms says.

Willms and Riedlinger are rolling the app out, beginning in Raleigh. They've worked with venues like Imurj, The Pour House, and Deep South, promoting the app to bands and audiences who frequent there. According to Riedlinger, the first band who used LiveLifeLIVE for a show made a respectable $250 from the app in one show. However, the app's search function turns up nothing in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Durham, undermining their supposed claim of super utility.

Even so, LiveLifeLIVE's founders maintain that they're looking out for artists, offering another possible revenue stream for small acts.

"What we're trying to do is connect people directly to their artists," Riedlinger elaborated. "We want to give [fans] an option to say, 'I can make a difference in the music business. I am going to help my favorite artists; I am going to help a friend; I am going to help a total stranger playing in this bar because I've had a really good time,'" Riedlinger says. "And we hope this will balance the powers, to direct the revenue streams back to the artist."

Now, it's just a matter of getting those fans to pony up in the first place.

music@indyweek.com

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