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Hey Boise, let’s talk about why that tip is more than a few dollars in a jar

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Leta Harris Neustaedter, Facebook
Leta Harris Neustaedter

When it comes to an evening of good company and great music, Leta Harris Neustaedter is one of Boise’s most sought-after live performers. Yes, she’s a clinical social worker, therapist and teacher; but many people know her best for wrapping an evening up in a musical bow.

Which was why it was so stunning when we recently read the following on her Facebook page:

“Played dinner music for 3 straight hours to a full restaurant. One table tipped $2. That’s it. In 3 years of playing dinner music, I’ve never had such a …… tips night.”

Neustaedter visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice about the experience and the bigger conversation about what a tip truly represents to a local artist.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. We're going to spend some time this morning talking about tipping. We always look forward to any time with Leta Harris Neustaedter -  therapist, teacher, clinical social worker…and certainly a creative force. And need I remind anyone that she is one of the best live performers in the Treasure Valley, sometimes in special performances, quite often performing in public venues. Let's bring her in. Leta, good morning to you.

LETA HARRIS NEUSTAEDTER: Good morning.

PRENTICE: I want to start things off… I have a favor. I'm going to ask you to read something that grabbed my full attention, something that you put up on social media this past weekend ….on Facebook, yes?

NEUSTAEDTER: Yes.

PRENTICE: Could you read that for me?

NEUSTAEDTER: Yes. I said “Played dinner music for three straight hours to a full restaurant. One table tipped $2. That's it. In three years of playing dinner music. I've never had such a….”blank”  tip's night.

PRENTICE: I was dumbfounded and then I couldn't stop thinking about it for the next 48 hours. But read the room for me. A pretty good evening, I'm guessing? . All of your sets are great.

NEUSTAEDTER: Thank you.

PRENTICE: So, read the room for me.

NEUSTAEDTER: Yeah. So, you know, I'm always looking at the situations and comparing and looking for patterns, you know, if it's a one off. Kind of thing. That's not something that I'm going to have a huge response to. There's ups and downs. You're going to have a bad night, you know, So. So, it's important for people to understand that I was basing this off of having been doing this for long enough. Right. You know, even on an off night, I'm at least going to have a certain number of people that will acknowledge me with a couple bucks. So, yeah, it wasn't there wasn't anything particular. There wasn't it wasn't a dead night for the restaurant. It wasn't like none of that was happening. It was a regular, bustling night with tables of laughing people and. Through the course of the shift that I play, those tables will turn over. So in a restaurant that has, whatever, 30 ish tables or whatnot. By the time I'm done, there's been at least 60 tables that have sat and listened to me. And this is just background music. I'm not doing like a concert or anything, but still I'm setting the ambiance and I can see I'm looking around the whole time. I can see people kind of move in. I mean, they, they, yeah, they're aware that I am there and playing. So, the expectations I feel are even pretty low for me. A good night if I get six or seven tips. I'll consider that a good night. So, I mean, the bar is pretty low, right? I'm talking about 60 plus tables worth. If less than 10% of them acknowledge me, I'll say, hey, all right, good for me. You know, I know that most of the people aren't going to tip. And so I feel like. It's important for people to understand that that that the expectations that most musicians have. Is not that every single person is going to tip them. And so, it's when you have that kind of a situation where. One table out of 3 hours’ worth of tables acknowledges you with a couple bucks. You know, it's just like it feels. You just. You feel invisible. I, I shouldn't speak for anybody else. For me, I felt. Invisible. I felt devalued. I felt like, should I just pack up and leave? I mean, if we don't care what we just put on the radio, then I guess because if you all don't care that there's an actual live person who's here and is. You know, crafting music to try to make your dining experience more enjoyable is constantly looking around the room to see what's the vibe? What song do I think will go over well next?  I can see that table over there. Really Like that. I have something from a similar era. Maybe they'll like that. You know, like it's like there's effort and care being put into creating this ambiance for you. And that ambiance is making your dining experience better, you know? Isn't that worth a couple bucks? And one of the things that I want to that I want to make sure that I put in, I have a really clear distinction between service industry tipping and what I'm talking about. You know, there's a lot of controversy around the service industry tipping. And I understand that that's part of the pushback that you were talking about at the beginning of the show. And that is based on this idea that there's historical inequity baked into the idea of paying a low wage. And then justifying that low wage by saying you're going to make up for it with tips. There's a real kind of have and have not distinction that gets made when people are having to rely on those tips to actually make what should just be their livable wage that they're guaranteed.

PRENTICE: And so, can I jump in there? I guess the common thread between the two, though, is respect and it is acknowledgment of what you have given to me. And I respect it and appreciate it.

NEUSTAEDTER: Yes. And what you are hitting on is exactly my perspective of it, which is part of why, to me, it's a separate issue from the service industry where the tip is kind of more of a requirement in order for that person to actually make a proper wage. And so I can see why there's so much controversy around tipping when that gets brought into it. What I wish is that we had a cleaner, that everybody made the solid wage they were supposed to make, that the tipping was not about making up for a low wage, that the tipping was purely what you just said, which is a way to just show extra appreciation or extra respect. I hear you. I see you. You contributed to my experience just now. Thank you for that. That that is what the tip should be.

PRENTICE: It's so interesting that as we emerge from the pandemic, I think more than a few of us talked ourselves into thinking, oh, gosh, “I really miss the live experience.”

NEUSTAEDTER: Right?

PRENTICE: And then and then all of a sudden, it's like the pandemic never happened. Right? There's at least a link missing in this.

NEUSTAEDTER: That's exactly right. I mean, we and that's part of what's so frustrating about it. Like, people will say there's this appreciation for life, you know, And here's another thing I got to tell you, Joy, and I know that I'm you know, people are going to be sliding into my DMS with all kinds of arguments. But, you know, I see people spend so much money going to a concert. You know, there's a number of concerts I wanted to see this summer, but I couldn't afford those ticket prices. But I see my my social media feed is flooded with people spending all of this money to go to these concerts, go to these concerts, go to these concerts because they love live music. They love live music. They love live music. And then they actually see local live musicians somewhere and walk right by. So you love live music and you're willing to drop a whole bunch of money for a ticket if it's, you know, some artists that you'd probably be underbidder. But if it's a local musician who's providing musical soundscape for your evening, that's not something that you value or, you know, I mean, it's just a real it's like you can't drop three bucks in their tip jar, but you can spend $75 on a ticket. You know what? Yeah.

PRENTICE: So, can I guess that you keep on keepin’ on?

NEUSTAEDTER: I keep on keeping on, but I keep on keeping on while also educating, because to me, the problem isn't going to be fixed by. Teaching musicians how to cope with not being acknowledged for their work. You know, the solution. I mean, that's part of it. That's part of the coping strategy of knowing like sometimes people aren't going to acknowledge you and make sure that you still feel good about what you're doing and that you still tap into the love you have for it. Knowing that there's going to be another time when somebody's going to come over and be like, Thank you so much for playing that song. That was my mom's favorite song, and it meant so much for me to hear, you know, And that's going to charge your batteries again. But it's key for the public to be more aware, you know, for them to be paying attention to. Oh, yeah, did I just walk by that table, that person who'd been playing music the whole time I was eating dinner and I didn't even think about it. You know, it's like I think it's just a there's a mindfulness and there's a way we take things for granted. And that to me is the key is to constantly be reminding people don't take live music for granted. We are putting a bunch of time and effort into it, and even if it's just background music, the amount of care and time that we are usually putting into crafting what we're playing and how well we're playing it in order to just provide a soundscape that you might just as easily tune out. Like it's a lot. There's a lot that goes into it and. We know what it felt like in the pandemic for that to go away.

PRENTICE: Leta Harris Neustaedter, thank you for reminding us that that tip jar means much more than what's in it, what ends up in it at the end of the evening. There's so much to that.

NEUSTAEDTER: There is. And I will just throw in there. You know, music. Music is about heart and about emotion and about joy. And, you know, it's an emotional thing. And musicians are putting emotion into the music they're playing, even if there's no words and there's no this. Like you can't perform music without opening up your soul. And so to be doing that on a stage where people are listening to you but nobody is acknowledging you, you know that that's rough. That's a hard ask to ask people to continue to do that. And if it doesn't take every single person to acknowledge you, but even if just a couple people acknowledge you, that can shift a musician's whole night.

PRENTICE: Well, I'm going to invite our listeners to weigh in on this, too.. I'd be remiss if I didn't thank you and remind our listeners that you're also a member of our Community Advisory Board. And for that, I thank you. But most importantly for right now, keep on keepin’ on. Leta Harris Neustaedter, thanks.

NEUSTAEDTER: I appreciate it.

PRENTICE: And tanks for giving me some time this morning.

NEUSTAEDTER: Absolutely. I always enjoy my conversations with you, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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