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From teenagers strumming guitars in their bedrooms to studio executives in Hollywood, a lot of people are trying to figure out how to make money from online videos. The video sharing site Vimeo introduced a new feature yesterday, with time-tested history in the real world.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports on its virtual tip jar.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Vimeo thinks it's offering the online version of what I did this morning on my way to work.

JOHN WHELAN: Would you like it for here or to go?

SYDELL: To go.

I don't have to tip but I come to this coffee shop a lot, so I reach in my pocket and I drop a little money in the tip jar. I'm not alone. Barista John Whelan says they do really well on tips here. But for an artist on the street it could be a different story.

On the corner of Fourth and Market Street in San Francisco, there is this three-piece band playing for this afternoon's commuters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYDELL: Brian Compton is playing a worn electric bass with rainbow colored strings. He's been a musician for 20 years.

BRIAN COMPTON: How often do we get a tip?

SYDELL: What percentage of people do you think actually, like...

COMPTON: Less than point-1, probably.

SYDELL: But if Compton took a video of this performance and put it on Vimeo, Kerry Trainor, the company's CEO, says he might do better.

KERRY TRAINOR: There's a lot more people on Vimeo than there are on your average street, you know, across the USA. So...

SYDELL: Now, if someone watches a video and likes it, there's a button labeled Tip Jar. Hit the button and you can pay anywhere from 99 cents to 500 bucks, if you like the video. This isn't the first time someone has tried to get tips online. And Trainor says people are more open to it now. Like, think about how popular Kickstarter is, where people contribute to artists who are trying to finish a project.

TRAINOR: That relationship of directly connecting and supporting with a creator is something that we really feel like has just caught a lot of steam on the Internet.

SYDELL: The much larger video site YouTube lets artists make money by running ads along with their work. YouTube has over 800 million unique visitors a month versus Vimeo's 17 million. But Vimeo has always been a little classier. From its beginning it was geared more toward professionals.

But taking it back to the street, musician Brian Compton is skeptical about the virtual tip jar.

COMPTON: You're not connecting directly with the customers. You're going through some Web designer and some corporate whatever, to get them to get to you - whether it's a penny or a dollar.

SYDELL: And Vimeo is taking a 15 percent cut.

How much do you usually make?

COMPTON: Enough for dinner.

SYDELL: At a good restaurant?

COMPTON: It's food. It's just food, regular food.

SYDELL: So for artists who only make video, there is no option to play on the street, so a few of them might be able to do their equivalent of singing for their supper online.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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