Street performance (also known as busking) is a great way to make quick cash and practice performing in front of people, but it’s not for everyone. Many young people try it just to see what it’s like, some people do it for party money, and there are some serious musicians that do it as a living. I’ve been a serious street musician for about five years. It’s not all I do, but it is a big part of what I do.
As the Fiddle Examiner, it may seem a little vain to do an article about myself, but it’s not all about me. I want to give you an idea what it’s like to be a full-time musician. I’m going to tell you about my experiences as well as that of other street performers that I’ve known.
The word “busk” simply means to perform on the street for tips. As for the history of the word, Webster says it is “probably from Italian buscare to procure, gain, from Spanish buscar to look for. First Known Use: 1857”. Buskers are often musicians, magicians, jugglers, mimes, celebrity look-alikes, and dancers, but can be just about any form of entertainment. There is a good documentary called Confessions of a Superhero about people who dress as superheroes and celebrities and pose for tips on the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. Look it up on Hulu or YouTube. The average tourist often assumes that buskers are no more than crazy, homeless beggars. Yes, some street performers are displaced and struggling, but this is not always the case. People with full-time jobs often do it for fun, or as an escape from their mundane lifestyles. Many professional musicians have been known to perform on the street as a way to practice their skills or for publicity. Some famous professional musicians that have been seen busking include, Joshua Bell, Rod Stewart, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, and George Burns. Cirque du Soleil began as two street performers.
There are many pros and cons to busking. Some of the pros include the fact that you are your own boss and therefore you can set your owns hours. You are an entrepreneur. Another nice thing about street performance is that you perform for tips which means you get paid in cash and you don’t have to pay taxes on your earnings. However, if you live in the United States and busking is your only source of income, you must report something to the IRS. I keep an Excel spreadsheet of my earnings. The cons to being a street performer relate to your personality. You must be able to deal with rude and drunk people. You must check your local laws regarding street performance. Some cities require you to get a permit, but many cities don’t require ant type of license. I’ve known some buskers that actually received tickets from the police because they were performing without a permit, or they were performing in an area where busking is not permitted. I’ve talked to some savvy buskers that say they perform for short periods of time at risky spots such as subway entrances, and then run when they see police. Private property and subway stations are two places where you can get fined for busking. Most of the time, performing on a sidewalk is safe unless the city has blocked the sidewalk for a special event. Another con to busking is the fact that it is not a reliable source of income. There is no paycheck or health benefits for buskers. You never know how much, or how, little you will make on a daily basis.
So you want to know how to be a successful busker? I’ll share with you some things I’ve learned over the years. In a nutshell, be talented, be good, be different. One of the most successful buskers I personally know is Jamey Turner. He plays a homemade glass organ consisting of about thirty glasses filled with water. The size of the glasses range from large enough to hold a goldfish to a very small shot glass. He wets his fingers and gently rubs the glasses to produce musical notes. He gets some incredible sounds out of those glasses. Not only does he perform on the waterfront in Alexandria, VA, he has also toured the world and appeared on the Tonight Show. I’ve talked to him many times. He is very open and friendly. I’ve learned a lot from watching him perform. He always has a crowd. There are a few things about him that I have observed that make him so popular. One is obviously his glass harp. It’s so different and novel that it attracts crowds. What makes him so successful is that he can keep the crowd. He likes to tell stories about his instrument and the music he plays. He plays a range of music from classical favorites to folk, and movie themes. He will play Ode to Joy, then play the Star Wars theme, then he might play some folk tune. He is also known to play folk tunes from cultures all over the world. This gets him gigs at prestigious venues and corporate events. He also does a show where he plays his clarinet and a set of wrenches.
I have watched many street performers with a guitar, or flute, trumpet, saxophone, or some sort of homemade instrument play, but they usually don’t last long. Why? It is usually because they make a lot of noise, but they don’t really play music. One of the reasons I’ve been successful at busking is the fact that I try to learn as many songs and styles as I can. I learned that from Jamey Turner. I also know my instrument very well. I have a good ear, and a good memory. I try my best to play any request that people throw out. If I can play it on the spot, it usually earns me a dollar…or more.
Location, location, location! You’ve heard real estate agents say this. Location also has bearing on how well you will do as a busker. Most people assume that if you play on a busy sidewalk on Friday night you will make more tips. That has not always been the case for me. Because I play the violin, and I like to play classical music and love songs, my best audience is couples that sit on park benches on Sunday evenings. I played in front of a lingerie shop for a few months. This can be good and bad. They ladies at the shop loved me because I attracted customers. People would tip me because they like the contrast of church music by Bach and Schubert against an adult toy store. People also love to take pictures of me with the mannequin behind me. I eventually stopped playing in front of this shop because the manager told me one day that the owner suddenly decided he didn’t like buskers in front of his shop. I thought this was strange, but I didn’t argue and I haven’t been back ever since. I have actually had some shop and restaurant owners ask me to play in front of their place of business. That’s a good feeling.
Once, while I was playing on the waterfront outside the Chart House restaurant, I was approached by a guy that handed me a $50 bill and asked me to serenade him and his girlfriend as they sat on park bench and looked at the river. I love those types of people! I often have people tip me and ask me to play Happy Birthday for a friend or relative. I also often have people approach me and ask me to play a song while they pop the question and get engaged. Engagements are fun to watch, and they also often require you to play a special request so you must be ready for anything!
Although I have made a lot of money on Friday and Saturday nights, I usually like to stay home on those nights simply because the streets are filled with tourists and noisy drunk people. These people are often demanding, but don’t tip. Sometimes I will move to a more quiet part of the street and make better tips. During weekend days, tourists will often take a picture of me and keep walking (especially if I’m wearing my tailcoat). I hate that. It makes me feel like I’ve been raped. I also worry about where my picture may turn up somewhere on the web. Sometimes I will turn my back to a tourist that just walks up to me with a camera pointed at me. Sometimes they get the hint, but other times they will just stand there and wait until I turn around again. Yes, tourists can be that rude and inconsiderate. On the other hand, there have been amateur and professional photographers that have taken pictures of me and actually sent me the pictures. Serious photographers will usually ask and tip. I have had my picture in the newspaper a few times. I’ve also been on the evening news, one New Year’s Eve, after a team of reporters and cameramen came down King Street in Alexandria, VA.
That’s another thing. Buskers do well in the summer months, but you can also make money in the winter…if you can handle the cold weather. I’ve done really well on Christmas Eve playing carols on the street. I’ve also done very well on New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. If you are going to busk in the winter, dress warm and use synthetic strings on your instrument. They tend to stay in tune longer. I use Dominant strings on the violin I play on the streets. It rarely goes out of tune. The only problem I’ve had is playing late at night when dew sets in. No matter how much rosin I use, my bow just slips around on the strings.
What do you wear when busking? As I said before, people often assume you are homeless because you are playing music on the street. I talked to an older guy who played guitar in a bluegrass street band and he complained that people asked him if he was homeless. You should dress casual, but nice. I often mix street clothes with my tailcoat when I’m busking. This works great at night, but during the day I’ve noticed that people in general don’t take me seriously. As I said earlier, they just take pictures and don’t really listen to my music. They don’t tip either. I once saw a dancer performing on the street. He had a great costume. He looked like the Tin Man from The Wiz movie. He even had face paint. He did a break dance routine. I liked him, but unfortunately people were taking pictures and not tipping. He even had a sign that said “Please ask or tip before taking a picture” and he would point to it when people tried to take pictures of him. I tipped him and talked to him for a few minutes. He was a really nice guy. I wanted to see him do well.
Another way to get better crowds, and increase your tips, is to play as a duo or a group. I have seen bluegrass bands that do very well on the street. I have even sat in with some of them and shared the tips. I used to have a duo with a lady that sings and plays the Celtic harp. We did very well for a while, but eventually we decided that we did just as well performing alone.
Young people, in general, do very well as buskers. People love to watch cute kids play music. I know a young guy that plays the trumpet on the street and does very well. His name is Geoff Gallante. He was about ten years old when I first met him. He must be in his early teens at the time of this writing. He also plays in jazz bands and has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles. Groups of teens doing Irish step dancing draw big crowds too. I have had people of all ages stop and dance while I play. This often attracts a crowd.
One last thing I want to talk about is tipping. Never ask for tips. Some people will set up a sign saying that they are struggling college students or that they are between jobs hoping that people will feel sorry for them and tip more. I don’t believe in this. If people like you, they will tip. I have regular people that come by and tip me, sometimes before I have begun to play! Tips range from a penny to a $100 dollar bill. It is very difficult to predict. You can go for an hour with no tips, then suddenly your tip jar will begin to fill rapidly. Don’t be offended if someone drops a penny in your case or tip jar. Kids often do this. Just thank them politely. I prefer to use a tip jar rather than an open case because I don’t want to pick coins out of my case and dollar bills tend to blow away. I keep a fair amount of coins in my tip jar to weight it down. This keeps it from blowing over and it also deters thieves from picking it up and running off with it. I’ve seen guitar players with piles of cash in their open guitar cases. These guys usually sing folk and classic rock songs, and they do it very well.
I have had people ask me for change. I have had people drop jewelry and foreign money in my tip jar. People, and local businesses, give me food and drinks. I have even had people offer to tip if I can play a certain song. I put my CDs next to my tip jar. Sometimes people buy them but, in general, people would rather tip. I’ve noticed my tips go up when I stopped using a music stand. People are impressed if you can play a request on the spot with no sheet music. Also, tips can be better after the sun goes down, at least for me.
Busking can be competitive. Performers often fight over prime spots. Most buskers try go set up early in the day and stay in one spot as late as midnight. This is the best way to maximize your earnings. I’ve known some seasoned performers to lie to newbies by telling them that they need a permit when a permit is not necessary in order to make them leave and reduce competition. I’ve seen some performers try to drown out the competition by being loud. Being loud doesn’t always mean that you are good. Police and local businesses will ask you to leave if you are too loud or annoying pedestrians. Amplifiers are often against the rules for street performance. You don’t have to be loud to attract a crowd. Be respectful of other performers and don’t set up too close. Regular performers in any given town will usually know all of the other performers and they usually have their own spots. If you are new to a location, be careful of taking somebody’s spot. They will likely approach you and ask how long you intend to play. They may even try other tactics to make you leave. Be careful.
So there you have it. I’ve revealed some trade secrets to busking. I hope you find my information useful if you plan to busk. If you are reading this because you don’t perform and are just curious, then I hope this will make you a more respectful spectator.