Question about busking etiquette

December 22, 2016 at 04:36 AM · So I went busking after getting my permit and deciding on which violin to use (went with my older secondary violin, I think it sounded fine outside). It was a good experience and I made some money but something I wasn't expecting happened and I'd like some advice for how to approach it in the future.

Less than a minute into playing at the Rockridge BART station in Berkeley someone walked up to me, closer than I'd expect, and kinda stared me down while I played. I just kept playing while being aware/cautious of him until he randomly said "Alright if you're not gonna stop, I'm gonna set up in my usual spot." Turns out he has a saxophone case on his back that I didn't notice.

So I'm kinda caught off guard and just keep playing once he leaves and forget because I don't hear him and I'm making some money. Then I hear him, and it turns out he's maybe 100 feet, facing the elevator that comes from the BART station itself, meaning not only is the sound from our instruments competing but anyone getting off of BART goes past him first.

I didn't know what to do/where else to go so I just kept playing, and people still gave me money and one person even said "thanks for drowning out the saxophone" which I thought was pretty funny. Still I'd like to avoid this, any advice on what you'd do in this situation?

Replies (31)

December 22, 2016 at 05:22 AM · I've never busked, but don't people generally have their spots staked out? I would suggest spending some time scoping out the place you want to busk to see who is there on a regular basis and where they are accustomed to setting up. Then you choose a spot that is not already claimed. If the sax player was already a regular there, then I think you were the rude one.

December 22, 2016 at 05:54 AM · Interesting, I thought it was more of a who gets there first situation. Seems hard to get a place at all then if it's reserved to regulars.

December 22, 2016 at 02:12 PM · There are written and un-written rules..

December 22, 2016 at 04:05 PM · I've never busked either, but if I did and someone indicated I had taken his spot, I would find a new spot. Maybe you aren't legally required to do so, but suppose that saxophonist had been busking in that spot for ten years? When you're a first-time guest in someone else's house, it's only polite to identify the host's chair before sitting down.

December 22, 2016 at 04:56 PM · That sax player lost his job 16 years ago.

His wife recently was turned down for her job application.

Let the guy have his usual spot, he needs the cash!



December 22, 2016 at 05:56 PM · Mary Ellen is correct. The unwritten etiquette is that you do not displace regulars from their spots. You were in the wrong.

December 22, 2016 at 06:52 PM · .. and how one is supposed to know who is a "regular"?!

In our local (and quite pathetic) subway system, there are marked spots and also annual audition (rigged to some extent).... no trouble whatsoever.

December 22, 2016 at 07:54 PM · You wouldn't know who was a regular without doing some research beforehand, but if it were me, I would err on the side of being the cool new girl. Alienating the usual suspects is no way to introduce yourself to much of anything.

December 22, 2016 at 10:11 PM · Alright that makes sense, I can see how I was in the wrong. A lot of it was me being caught off guard since he just quickly said that while I was playing and it took me a few seconds to register what he even said.

So how do you get spots then? If you're not a regular you just go to the bad spots forever or what? Seems like some ultra capitalist monopolies if you ask me ;)

Also I read some other things online that said buskers can be territorial but generally people adhere to the rule of who gets there first gets the spot. I think the take away is every place and person is different in terms of busking and I should have tried to talk to the guy, I'll admit I was too nervous to do so at the time.

December 22, 2016 at 10:41 PM · I think it's unlikely that every desirable spot is spoken for at every minute of the day. Do a little scoping out; talk to the people you see there--find out when they're there and when they're not. It's always better to be overly cautious and polite than to get a reputation for being a jerk.

December 23, 2016 at 07:51 AM · A lot of life's problems can be overcome with a friendly smile and a few kindly words. Talk to people. Be humble. Be flexible. It's suprising what a little friendly consideration can do in terms of disarming people and even gaining them as an ally. If the guy was a regular he might even be able to point you to another suitable location.

December 23, 2016 at 12:40 PM · Wow... unwritten rules. It's quite sad to read almost all the opinions here. The street is a public place, no one has "his/her" spot. Saying to someone "Hey, that's where I play, that's my spot, go anywhere else" is what being rude means. In my opinion, incredibly rude and also delusional. We're talking about street here, no one owns it, so deal with it. The one that arrives first, stays, period. Now a jerk move would be to play close to another musician so you invade suddenly his music. Then yeah, he/she was there first, go anywhere else where you don't interfere with other musicians. Apparently, the other guy did it, so you're defending a rude person here.

You want to guarantee yourself a public place?

Well then you first got to realize you're not special.

You know that amazing Starbucks shop in that very famous venue?

Well, that ain't free, it's much more expensive to have a shop there than to have it in a lost street. Buy yourself a local or shop, that's what you do if you want a guaranteed place to play.

December 23, 2016 at 05:30 PM · And your experience with busking is...?

I spend every summer in Boulder, CO, where there are many buskers on Pearl Street Mall every day. For quite a few, busking is their livelihood. Everyone knows where to find the famous ones (Zip Code Man, a contortionist, etc); they always set up in the same place. I can't imagine anyone dashing to get those spots first and refusing to move, and doing so would be regarded as rude by both buskers and spectators.

December 23, 2016 at 06:00 PM · Do you have to experience killing a person in order to have an opinion about assassin's or terrorists?

What in heavens?

If that's so, it's a mafia. The street is not owened by that famous violinist, contortionist, pianist or whatever. I can't even understand how many of you think a piece of street is, by the powers of God, reserved to a special snowflake artist that thinks somehow he/she has earned that spot. You go out and look for a nice spot to show your art, and in any way you can ever think a spot is yours. It's just... what's wrong with you?

December 23, 2016 at 06:22 PM · I'm not sure who you are arguing with, Tim. Mary Ellen and other posters are trying to give advice that will be practical for the poster, who is specifically looking for the advice regarding the norms of busking, rather than the official rules.

Since Miles already got a permit, and since Miles is looking to exist in society, he is trying to get along with people and not risk that someone who is easily provoked gets in his face or starts something. I don't think he came here to argue the merits of the informal system by which buskers coexist.

I'm not here to melt your unique worldview, but what insight are you offering? I think it's obvious to the poster that he can stand on a street without having to pay a tribute.

December 23, 2016 at 07:36 PM · I'm arguing with the crazy people that say that a piece of street is reserved by the powers of Jesus to a specific artist. You can't melt my worldview since I didn't expressed it. My unique and only point is that the street is not owned by anyone, and if you go to a spot to show your art, no one can tell you to move because that's "his/her" special place.

What do you think you are, a king or something?

I don't care what unwritten rules some people may think exist in the streets, that's simply a rule of authoritarianism and total robbery. What I always use is my brain, not unwritten rules and established BS, and my brain tells me since the street is not property of anyone, you can find any spot where you don't disturb at that very moment anyone, and you can play there all the time you want. Period. Given this point, my brain also tells me that it's not nice to interfere with the music of other musician, it's not kind, it's not nice. So although I know the street is not owned by anyone, I know that you can't just go literally anywhere and annoy other musicians that were there before you. Useless unwritten rules... what this world needs is people thinking by themselves, using their brain in each situation and stop obeying stupid rules.

In the world of busking there are always mafias that think that's "their territory": it happens with sex workers, artists... M.A.F.I.A.S. The least thing I'm gonna do is defend those mafias and their stupid rules.

Apparently and sadly, I seem to be the only one here in this post that don't like territory mafias. That's sad.

December 23, 2016 at 09:56 PM · I think your tone is unwarrantedly hostile, Tim.

For Miles:

"Unwritten rules" are etiquette, by the way. Nothing forces you to obey them, but there are always implicit social penalties for not following norms.

Playing an instrument is pretty much an inherently social activity, at least if you want to go anywhere professional with it. There are lots of norms that you can violate -- whether busking or in other arenas of musical activity -- but if you do, there's a significant chance that they'll come back to bite you later. When in doubt, smile and be gracious.

The street-busking community is not isolated from the broader classical music community, and if there's one thing pro musicians do, it's gossip. Being a jerk to a busker -- whether or not it's "justified" -- can mean that some day down the line, it's mentioned that you're the jerk who couldn't respect the etiquette at such-and-such-a-place, and you won't get the gig that you might have otherwise been invited to play. If that happens, you'll never know it. If you tend to be bullheaded in this way, you'll find that you're just quietly left out of stuff and you'll wonder why you're a skilled player who just can't seem to catch a break.

Applies to whatever gigging you're doing too, by the way. There will be plenty of times that the "rules" don't require you to do X, Y, or Z, and you might be able to get ahead for the moment by violating the social norms. Don't do it. You don't want a reputation for being the guy who's hard to get along with. There are more than enough good players, and it's not hard to decide not to hire the jerk even if he's a great violinist.

December 23, 2016 at 10:36 PM · Thanks everyone for the replies, this is an interesting topic. I have to say I'm surprised that so many people are saying I was the rude one/in the wrong (I'm not offended or anything, I was sincerely asking for advice and I appreciate the advice given).

From my point of view, someone walked up to me and expected me to stop for him, from my point of view for no reason, and when I didn't he quickly said he's gonna go somewhere else and left before I had time to process what happened and respond, and then he sets up nearby, seemingly purposefully blocking off a group of people that would pass by me and plays. He didn't ask me to stop or respect any unwritten laws/traditions, he didn't suggest I go somewhere else, he didn't ask when I would be done, etc etc. And then I'm expected to pack up and leave or ask for/look for a worse spot.

Now, if I see him again I will suck it up and apologize and try to have a conversation with him in the interest of artists being friendly and not competitive/hostile to each other. But it seems like this kind of person actively works against an ideal environment where artists can share what they love in an environment that is otherwise bleak/uninteresting (at least musically/artistically).

I get that some people do this for a living, which can take away from the ideal artistic aspect of street performance and maybe I'm looking at it through rose-tinted glasses. It just seems weird to me that newer people expected to practically pay tribute to the veteran buskers simply because they're regulars, when it may or may not be deserved.

I guess what I'm saying is in an otherwise very orderly/bureaucratic society, I was hoping for street performance to be a bastion of art where anyone can do what they want in the name of sharing art. I know I'm taking this too seriously, but it's interesting to think about!

December 24, 2016 at 12:21 AM · And I find insulting and offensive the ideas exposed here that it's OK to have mafias in the streets that decide if someone can or can not show his/her art in a specific area. That really is hostile, not my tone, which is barely important.

I know this topic very well because in my city there're always problems with street artists, almost all the time with the ones that dress like cartoons. Last year I read a new about street bullying, it was exactly this scenario. There was a peruvian family (like 4 or 5 members, adults) that dressed like minions, Disney's characters... in an area. They were a lot of days in that area, and one day, 2 ecuadorians went to that area dressed like pirates or something. Well, after 2 days of threats and insults, the 5 peruvians beat the hell out of the ecuadorians, saying don't ever come back to their area. THEIR AREA. That's what happens when an "unwritten law" is accepted by all artsits in the street, you get mafias, literally. They even appeared in the news for 2-3 days. The ecuadorians said there was a peruvian mafia that was behind all of that. If you wanted to perform without troubles in that area, you had to pay them. Just like shops in Italy. And I find quite disturbing that some people here defend this idea that some portion of street belongs to someone, and behind that there are always mafias. Sex workers are dealing and suffering this every single night, and it's very sad that there are people that say it's OK to follow these kind of rules.

December 24, 2016 at 01:18 AM · A long time ago, my mother had a medical summer internship of some sort in London, for which she ended up letting a flat in Shepherd's Market. That's a nice little corner of Mayfair which has always had some nice shops and pubs in a network of side streets, but which was also a high-end red light district. Anyway, a college pal of hers-- quite proper and distinguished, later a dean at Wellesley and a president of another good college-- who was doing her PhD in London visited her. While she was in the process of trying to find the correct turn in this rabbit warren of streets, she was approached by a streetwalker who said "move along, Dearie. This is MY district."

December 24, 2016 at 02:35 AM · Miles - For the record, I don't think you were rude. Your reaction was quite normal for the odd circumstances, and the fact you are posting the question here demonstrates that you are a reasonable person.

Tim - So you have a problem with people expressing their opinions because you believe their opinions endorse 'mafia on the streets'. Yet you seem to have no problem behaving like 'mafia' toward others in this forum. That's not rational.

Take a pill sir.

December 24, 2016 at 02:45 AM · In Russia, the street music scene actually is controlled by the mafia. I learned that when I tried to make busking in St. Petersburg my Fulbright project. I quickly found a new project.

Anyway, what we're talking about has nothing to do with the mafia. It's just simple courtesy. One time, I went to a pub session in Chicago and unknowingly sat in the host's chair. Fortunately, the regulars let me know about before he got there. (He heckled me anyway, but that's beside the point.) Now, I certainly could have let them know that it's a free country and my beer money is just as good as the host-of-twenty-years' beer money and that I would be sitting wherever I pleased in that establishment. But not only would that have made me a complete jerk, I would have also shot myself in the foot for any Irish session in Chicago, guaranteed. Because I am neither a boor nor a masochist, I quickly apologized and found a different chair.

December 24, 2016 at 03:04 AM · I also agree that Miles wasn't rude, at least not intentionally. These kinds of things aren't always immediately obvious. He's been open to the feedback, which I greatly respect!

December 24, 2016 at 04:07 AM · Leif, there are people here defending that some portions of street are reserved to a special snowflake, that somehow thinks that he/she has the right to take as his/her property that spot and impose his/her rules. Even if someone asks nicely if you could move and leave his/her spot, it's an indecent question, it's like asking nicely for a kiss in the lips. No, you don't do that. Just don't. Who do you think you are to make other people move from public places? Do you think you are the king of the streets or something?

If you don't obey him and don't move, you probably get in trouble. Now that's the definition of mafia: you don't pay me, then you're gonna face attacks and threats.

Oh, and in what way am I acting like a mafia? What in heavens are you talking about?

Yeah, I do believe, but most important, I do know that their opinions endorse the perfect infrastructure for mafias. If you respect that stupid rule of "I've played here before and somehow that makes me the owner of this spot", you're done. Mafias act like a public area is "their territory", just like their homes, and they impose their own rules. You don't obey, you die. I'm telling you, I've seen it in my own city, there was, and there is, a peruvian mafia that controls an area of the city. If you want to perform there, you pay them. If you don't pay them, they beat you. It's the same concept, those jerks (I'm being extremely nice) think that's their territory, if you invade it, they attack you, which happen to be exactly what's being said here, but with nicer words + unicorns. If you don't follow the stupid rules, face the consequences. Some musicians will play louder and close to you, because you invaded his territory, other can break your instrument, beat you up... And here, some are respecting that behavior of thinking a public place is owned by a musician, and you better obey him/her and move, or face the consequences.

Now, Sarah, I don't know how St. Petersburg works, but you just said it. You had to find something else, do you think that's OK?

I answer it, NO, hell no. But here's the thing, the problem is not the mafia alone, it's that their idea that a district is owned by them is accepted by all of you.

What we are talking is exactly street mafia, people that think the street is their property, that's exactly what we're talking about. Courtesy is find out that where you were gonna play is already taken, and move to another spot. That's what a nice person would do, that's what you're supposed to do, that's what I'm defending.

About the pub story, yeah, you're supposed to do what you did, not because it was right, but because you had no option. You had no option because some delusional guy thinks he is superior to the rest of the clients. He is the complete jerk in the first place, and you can't be a jerk if you don't obey a jerk's instruction.

Let's say you enter into a restaurant and Justin Bieber (whatever XD) says: hey, that's my chair, take another one.

Since you don't want any trouble, you would obey as fast as you can, not because it'd be nice or sweet, but because a moron left you no other option. It's what we have to do to deal with fools.

December 24, 2016 at 04:42 PM · Okay...

December 24, 2016 at 06:31 PM · In any situation where people are dependent on each other's good will, it pays to be observant of the unwritten rules even if one's behavior is legalistically within the bounds. If a new busker sets up in an old-timer's spot, sure, the newby is not required by any law to move assuming the street is public and the proper permits have been acquired. But neither is the old-timer prevented from setting up ten meters away with a very loud instrument, and wrecking the newcomer's show. One could argue that the old-timer is being a jerk, but by what standard? Not by the written rules, only by the unwritten ones--the very same ones that most of us are suggesting it would be wise for the OP to respect.

On a very slightly related tangent, I do a fair amount of contracting for local churches, and if someone comes across as hostile or aggressively confrontational in social settings, I avoid hiring that person no matter how fine a musician he/she may be. Most people don't want to work with abrasive personalities. As I have said to more than one student: winning a job may be talent but keeping a job is much more about how you treat other people.

December 24, 2016 at 07:22 PM · So, as you have said, treating people like if one piece of street is yours and you think you have the right to reclaim YOUR spot and ban artists from "your land" is what does NOT keep a job. That's not nice and it will never be nice, no matter how many people think it's OK for some artists to appropriate a piece of public street for their personal business. And as I've already said, these kind of "rules" are the perfect infrastructure for mafias to pop up.

December 24, 2016 at 11:05 PM · Tim - re: 'mafia'. Taking offence to other people's opinions with such fervor as you are makes it seem very much as if you are trying to 'strong arm' people into your perspective. As much as you are upset by people who think they own a physical location in a public space, and I don't disagree with you on that, you are coming off very similarly in this public 'location'. You're coming off confrontational, not unlike the fellow who thought he owned the spot Miles was using. That's what I was referring to.

There's lots of room here for everyone's opinions, including those we may not entirely agree with.

From my perspective, I'm reminded of a saying that 'all things are lawful, though not all things are advantageous'. Which is what Sarah was getting at. Just because we have the right to do something, doesn't mean it's in our best interest. That applies on the street, and in this forum.

December 24, 2016 at 11:39 PM · Follow up!

I was busking earlier today and around an hour in the sax guy came back and set up without me even noticing. I put away my instrument and talked to him, first letting him know that I didn't mean to offend him or anything and that I was sorry if I made a conflict etc etc, being friendly.

I also told him I was confused and caught off guard when he went up to me the other day and that I didn't realize he had a saxophone, and he actually apologized to me for that. We had a brief conversation and exchanged names and he complimented my playing, so all in all he was a friendly guy.

He let me know he had been playing there for 20 years just practicing in public and he usually doesn't get much money, but around this time people who've seen him all year round give him 20s. He also said that my playing wasn't bothering him and he wouldn't mind if I keep playing there, just that he likes to talk to people to figure out what the situation will be.

I ended up not playing more because I had some last minute Christmas shopping to do around the area and I still didn't like the idea of competing for sound, it doesn't seem good for people walking by because they might think it's more malicious than it actually is.

So the take-away is I definitely should have just talked to him the other day! He wasn't territorial or anything, although he does seem to be one of the less serious buskers despite playing pretty much every day.

December 26, 2016 at 07:58 PM · that's the Christmas spirit!!

December 26, 2016 at 08:58 PM · Miles - Nice! That's a great outcome.

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