I am a busker.
Busking is the art of performing live music, dance, magic, or other entertaining acts in public places to solicit tips.
Though the term "busker" is widespread in most English-speaking countries, in the USA such artists are referred to as “street performers” or “street musicians.” Buskers are usually musicians but can also be actors, clowns, gypsy tarot card readers, mimes or dancers.
There is a definite societal split in favour or against buskers, especially in North America. Some people support buskers and find it adds cultural flavour and art to our streets, making it more European and artsy. Sadly, some view busking as a lowly, hungry practice reserved for the homeless, beggars and unsuccessful performers. These are the people who push to have busking forbidden and occasionally have their way.
A few years back in Vancouver, Canada the local government was looking to forbid “busking and panhandling.” I was one angry young busker in relatively near-by Nelson, BC who found the use of “busker” and “panhandler” in the same sentence appalling. These politicians obviously overlooked that panhandling is doing nothing for money, whereas busking is hard work! With enough pressure from many outraged artists and supportive
audience members the ban was reversed.
I’m not saying all buskers are worth defending. The talentless vagrant tooting one note on a beer bottle flute for hours on end does not inspire one to fork over an entire money clip, nor does the scabby drunk abusing his ramshackle guitar on the pavement outside the liquor store.
But, strangely, even these people manage to find an audience. Some passers by will throw a few nickels there way in pity and others will even pay them to stop, as a high school friend of mine once experienced. A woman had placed $20 in her violin case and pleaded the young player to seek lessons pronto. Ouch.
On the flipside, many buskers are highly talented and respected artists who add ambience and flavour to a community street scene or park. I was in Europe one summer and experienced musicians on street corners in Germany, Italy and France who easily rivaled some of Canada’s top classical artists.
My favourite busking group on the trip was Munich, Germany’s violin, flute, oboe and bass ensemble “Tal Consort.” The group consisted of the most talented classical musicians I’ve seen in ages playing their unique arrangements of Rossini overtures. It was amazing watching virtuosos in concert outside a bank!
If the buskers in Europe were that good, I thought, then how good are their concert musicians? Well, it turned out many of these players were concert professionals out for the afternoon to make some extra cash or just to play for the fun of it. The Tal Consort has a few CDs out (I picked one up) and was out to entertain the tourists for extra practice. Other musicians are playing for exposure and waiting for their big break.
Many famous groups and superstars started their careers as buskers and moved on to further greatness. Examples include the music and acrobatics group Cirque Du Soleil, percussion sensation Stomp, comedians Bob Hope, George Burns and Robin Williams, actor Pierce Brosnan and musicians Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton, Eric Clapton, Simon and Garfunkel, Beck and Joni Mitchell.
Heck, even world-famous American violin virtuoso Joshua Bell has busked. He was part of a scientific stunt by the Washington Post to prove their idea that the general public is too busy to stop and “smell the roses” or appreciate fine music in disguise. Bell, clad in a loose long sleeved t-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap, played for under an hour in a busy metro plaza station during early morning rush hour to 1,097 commuters hurrying to get to work on time.
In the end Bell made a paltry, insulting sum of money and only a few people had stopped to listen to his music. Bell found “the awkward times," after ending a piece to silence very humbling. No recognition or applause from anyone. The concert musician also gained a whole new appreciation for the craft of busking and discovered it’s not as easy as it looks.
I’m a seasoned busker, having busked since age 16. I had played with my case open one day after school and watched the coins pour in from fellow students. My best friend and I played many locations and pieces of music and learned which combinations worked. When other kids were flipping burgers and babysitting for $4.25 an hour, we were bringing in up to $50 per hour. Our location at Save-On-Drugs paid for Christmas gifts, violin
strings and fast food burgers for the next three years.
Busking became my regular after school “job,” but also came in handy during times of a financial pinch. During a college road trip very far from home I found both my gas tank and wallet empty and made up the gas money in only 30 minutes of fiddling. Many airports on the way to visit family paid for travel snacks and six week’s busking in San Diego’s Balboa Park funded my immigration to Canada!
The days of busking taught me about performing and marketing and gave me a firm grounding in entrepreneurship. It was also great fun and valuable time with my instrument. Now, as a teacher, I continually encourage my students of all ages and skill levels to try busking. But learn the tricks to the trade and busk well.
Kids are born with dollar signs in their eyes and love the idea of making extra money, but their parents are usually more wary. I explain that busking is not earning money “on the streets,” rather the player is simply sharing their music with others and paid to practice. At these words the parent is instantly on-board. Anything to make a kid practice is a good thing.
I also maintain that busking is not just a means of generating income, though it is a great perk. Many performers use busking as a means to conquer “stage fright.” Get out in the public and play. Even if you are just a beginner, adults included, you need to face your fear of playing music in front of people and do it.
Unlike a stage, where the spotlight is literally on the player, a busker is just off to the side and, as in Bell’s case, ignored. This is great for players who aren’t out to get a lot of attention and just get used to playing around other people. Beginners can remain low profile and unnoticed. But if you’re looking to get more exposure and money you need a good location with lots of people.
Start by researching if your town or city has a bylaw or regulations regarding busking. Many places now require buskers purchase a license as quality control, believing that vagrants and lousy musicians won’t want to fork out the eighty bucks. The park I played had a system to allow only so many buskers in the park at once. We drew numbers from a hat. If you didn’t get the right number you couldn’t busk that day. Cutthroat
Choose your location wisely. Corners are great since many people will pass from all directions, but not at a corner with a bus stop. Busses are very noisy and block the view for potential listeners across the street. Parks, plazas and tourist traps are also excellent, though you may face competition from other buskers. Despite all the musicians you see in front of the liquor store, it’s a bad place to play. Half the clientele is drunk or needs the cash to get drunk and it’s just not a safe place for someone with an expensive instrument to be hanging out.
An entrance to a shopping mall or toy store on Christmas Eve, though ideal locations, may not be permitted. Remember to check with the managers of the businesses you are near will allow your music. I’ve never been asked to leave or arrested owing to my asking permission beforehand. Yes, my record is clean! I’ve even been hired a few times by towns seeking to have high-class buskers in their towns. They pay on top of tips and no laws are being bent or broken.
Bell had a great location, an entrance to a plaza with loads of people. But he was there at the entirely wrong time of day. His audience didn’t have time to stop and listen; their jobs were at stake! Those who could watch a few minutes were eyeing their watches, their minds on their schedules and day ahead and not fully enjoying the concert.
Lunchtime, from 11am to 2pm, is ideal for busking. Moms and tots are out for errands before naptime, tourists are exploring and looking for things to spend money on and retired people are out for a midday stroll.
Those with regular jobs still have the time constraint of a lunch break, but it is far more time than they allow themselves to get to work in the morning! After all, who wants to get to work early! Lunch crowds have spare change from their purchases jingling in their pockets, are feeling happy and dozy from their meals and eager to enjoy a bit of distraction before returning to the job.
These people want to be entertained. So don’t bore them with tunes they don’t know and keep your repertoire simple. I realize this will come across as if I’ve sold out, but the popular songs and pieces are popular for a reason. If the listener can hum along it’s a winner. Fast fiddle music and Mozart have been my winning selections for years. Occacionally I break from my set and play “Danny Boy” for an older couple or a fun kiddy tune for a group of youngsters.
Many buskers use the venue as a place to practice new material on a neutral audience. Sure, Old Granny loves your songs, but what will the general public think? Learn what works for the average person and don’t keep the repertoire too fancy.
I have to be careful to preach music selection to a master such as Bell, but as an experienced busker I am convinced he was not playing the right music for the venue or the audience. Most of those people were not concertgoers who pay $200 to see him from the back of a theatre. They were average, working-class citizens who watch American Idol and have a Britney Spears ring tone.
A handful of people did recognize his mastery in the pieces he played and two people even recognized Bell, one having seen him earlier in concert. These were obviously classical music lovers. The other 1,050 people may have found the music too dry or lofty to appreciate. If he’d played a rousing Irish jig set or upbeat Mozart concerto I am sure he would have received better reception and tips. Save Bach’s dark and moody “Chaconne” for the concert hall.
When selecting your pieces also consider that subtleties in the music will not be heard. Busking is “trial by backfire;” a test for musicians literally competing against cars backfiring and other loud, city noises. The challenge of struggling being heard helps us learn to produce big tone, volume and power in our playing.
As a successful busker you must produce heartfelt, inspired music on a loud street corner with delivery trucks coming and going, horns honking, car stereos blaring and noxious bus fumes. You have to play above these distractions and put on a concert, even when you’re playing a moving nocturne while a whooping car alarm competes for the airwaves.
If you can, select a location in front of a large building with nice acoustic properties facing another large building across the street. If positioned in the right place your sound will echo against the other building and you’ll project several blocks away and attract an audience. Open spaces are harder to project sound and require more energy to be heard.
This is where guitar players boast how their amp will do all the work for them. Unfortunately many cities and towns have bylaws against amplified busking. This isn’t to say it can’t be done. In 1998 I was hired to play electric violin in a summer street festival. I had to write a letter to city council to receive permission to use an amplifier and was granted permission only for the duration of the festival and with the understanding that I limit the decibel level.
I saw several performers in Europe who played along with tiny radios or amps small as a lunch box as their accompaniment. They had preprogrammed back-up parts to their music to make their solo performance more like a group. A guitarist in Florence played to a bossa beat and a cellist in Rome was serenading with a synth orchestra. And the players didn’t have to split their earnings with a band!
Even without an amp, you may need a cart to carry your instrument and other gear. A small grocery cart will fit all the things you need in one trip since leaving your Strad on the curb while you go back to your car for your music is a bad idea.
In fact, leave the music behind and don’t use a music stand if you can help it. Not only does it block the audience’s view of you and your instrument, but sadly it implies to the general public that you are not as accomplished a musician since you “need the notes” to play. Memorizing your music allows you to make eye contact with your audience. When you look them in the eye you have engaged them and they are more likely to appreciate you and your music and leave a tip.
Unless you have bad breath or green teeth, smile at your audience. This makes all the difference. If you ignore your audience they will ignore you. Nod or say “thanks” when they leave a tip and display a tasteful sign by your tip jar or case that thanks them for their patronage. Your cart should carry a short folding table to place your jar or case on so it’s not on the ground. Anything you can do to show you are not playing down on the street is helpful.
My high school friend and I tried fundraising and busking at the same time, hoping to double our income! The plan backfired! Many listeners, as they were placing a dollar bill in the case, saw our handwritten sign advertising the $1 chocolates, reached over to the chocolate box and took one. We were serenading our chocolate customers for free and made less money.
The lesson learned was “Don’t sell something at the same time.” If you have CDs to sell, place a sign in your case saying “CDs Available separately for $20.”
Business cards are a good idea as well. Just keep them away from the money so people can’t pretend to be taking a card or tip you when they are really skimming your cash! Don’t let too many bills pile up in your case. They can blow away and may be further invitation for theft. As George Burns, veteran busker, said, “Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats.”
Children should never busk alone. A parent or older sibling should be close by. Female buskers of all ages should take extra caution in where they play, what they wear and whom they are with. As a young busker I wore the occasional low-cut top or short skirt. A fellow and older busker (incidentally, a psychic) once warned me not to expose too much skin and to play near shops or groups of people. Thankfully, nothing has ever happened to me over the years, but I caution my young female students especially when they are going out busking.
Instrumentalists, especially string players, should also bring an umbrella to can fasten to the cart to protect their instruments from the elements. Not all locations have awnings and you shouldn’t count on the weatherman. Don’t bother busking in the rain. It doesn't matter how good you are since who wants to watch a performance in the rain?
The best way to keep the tips flowing is to keep on playing. Don’t pause between songs. You stop and you lose your audience. Try to keep conversations with passers-by short, even if they loved your music and want to know your life story. No one will pay you just to stand there and do nothing, unless you are a “living statue” whose act is to dress up and remain motionless for hours at a time. Thank your chatty customer and encourage her to stay and listen. Having several people gathered around listening will attract further listeners, and more tips.
Take breaks and eat only when the crowds die down. I learned to pack a lunch, snack and water so I didn’t blow my earnings on food. Eat then get back to music. You should stick around a couple hours so if you prefer to sit pack a folding chair or stool rather than sitting on the ground or standing for hours. Yes, it may be hours before you make decent money.
But hang in there; some days are better than others. Holidays tend to pay well and I made $200 on Christmas Eve 1994 and $400 on Father’s Day, 1997.
Even on days when I hardly made any money (my average was $50 after a couple hours) I found it a great learning experience. Heck, I was still getting paid to practice! And I became a far more confident performer as a result of it.
So the next time you see a busker, throw a buck or euro or pound their way. I admit I never used to tip buskers but after busking myself have made a priority of keeping spare change in my pocket so I can contribute.
After all, it wouldn’t be Paris without romantic accordion music on the Seine, or Venice without tenors singing arias in gondolas by moonlight, or the liquor store without the shoeless old wacko and his wrecked guitar!
Rhiannon operates Fiddleheads Violin Studio. Her award winning violin business services many elated instrument customers from Canada, the USA, the UK, Europe and Asia. http://www.fiddleheads.caTweet
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