Why pay for something you can get free? A Golden Belt busker on the 20 buck tip

Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham.
Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham.

I first noticed the little guy in the middle of a song. I was busking in the lobby of Golden Belt, Building 3, when he walked past me as I sat on a bench, and he deposited cash into the little box I use to collect tips or merch payments when I can’t chat with patrons directly.

I use that word ‘patrons’ intentionally, because that’s the reality of the arts economy. With creative work now shared freely via streaming services and other Internet platforms, consumers can curate their own tastes with or without compensating the artists who feed them.

This boy couldn’t have been any more than 6 years old. I can’t be sure, but I suspect he’s the one who delivered a $20 bill to my tip jar, which made up the bulk of my tips for the evening. (Downtown Durham, Inc., pays a flat $75 fee for musicians to play for two hours).

If I'm right, somebody is teaching that child about the symbiotic relationship between creators and consumers.

Somebody is teaching him that if you want to keep things – like musicians, arts venues, public radio, or maybe affordable housing – you’ll probably have to act against your own immediate financial self-interest and toward a greater good and a long-term vision.

A healthy, sustainable economy happens when everybody has gifts to offer and everybody has something to gain. Among its opposites is gentrification, forcing people out, whether people of color, or artists, or small businesses, or loud drummers in Central Park.

Whoever gave him that Jackson could have found thousands upon thousands of other ways to spend the money. But they thought supporting a singer-guitarist providing background music for a Third Friday gallery crawl was a worthwhile cause.

What’s really interesting to me about this is that nobody would confuse this exchange as a sort of fee-for-service. Plenty of people would pay $20 to hear a concert from an artist they know and love. But that’s not what was happening here. Nobody lingered to listen to me play for more than a song or two. They were there to see paintings, sculptures, to catch up with friends, talk to the artists.

Little toddlers and their dads would come and dance nearby for awhile, and then go off in search of snacks. Passers-by would smile at me or share an encouraging word as they went on their way. It’s hard to see what any one person got from me, such that he or she would decide to offer a tip.

What they got, collectively, was having an artist practicing his craft as a part of the fabric of the experience. What they got was belonging to a community that puts a value on the mere existence of artists in its midst.

I’ll admit, this is an abstract, nebulous value. And, yet, I think it’s an indispensable one.

In the capitalist economic model of exchange, patronizing me actually violates the patron’s own economic self-interest, at least in the moment. Why would you pay for something that you can take for free?

Because, otherwise, you might lose it, that’s why.

I was heartened to hear Danielle Caverly, the woman who cuts my hair, talk about the CD collection in her car: She bought it all from artists at their live concerts. She wanted to know what was the best way to buy my music, the method that would pay me the most. (In case you’re wondering, it’s almost always like she does, directly from the artist at shows or via their own websites).

At some point, we all have to take responsibility to ensure that skilled culture-makers can keep making the culture we consume. It’s been beautiful and heartbreaking to watch The Cave in Chapel Hill transfer from one set of dedicated owners to the next, to the next, all the while knowing that it’s their sacrifice that keeps it going, that it’s unlikely to sustain itself as a viable business unless more patrons love it and its artists the way its owners have loved it.

Just like patrons stepped up to the tune of $80,000 to save The Pinhook from a surprise tax bill and just like many of us buy books at Regulator or Letters even though they’re usually cheaper on Amazon, you have to patronize the people whose work you want to remain. Ultimately, that’s a self-interested investment in the fabric of our community, though it may seem selfless and altruistic in the short term.

My puny patron didn’t have much to gain from tipping me $20, nor from bringing me a plate of cookies, cheese puffs and pistachios from the snack table toward the end of my set. But he – or his guardians that night – wanted to be part of a community where artists share art and where consumers support them doing it.

Jesse James DeConto is a songwriter and journalist in Durham. Contact him at jesse@pinkertonraid.com.