A Magpie’s Guide to Busking

[Busking is street performing]

I first busked about seven years ago, in NYC subways with my friends. But I’ve only been busking with any real frequency for about the last four years. From time to time, it’s been my main or only source of income.

Of course, since I was usually living in squats and eating out of dumpsters, I didn’t need much money. Regardless, these are some of the things I’ve learned. Nothing particularly groundbreaking, but this is my advice:

Location:

I’ve read and heard a lot of busking advice that is, mostly, “watch to see where people busk and then busk there.” And basically, my advice is to ignore this advice. If people are used to seeing musicians (or panhandlers) in a given location, they’re less likely to give you money.

Now, if you’re a “circle” performer, where you need to gather a crowd (for skits, acts, or specific songs), then you might need to go to the big townsquare where everyone competes for the busking glory.

I busk walk-by crowds. Any place with a lot of foot traffic is a good place for me. College towns and towns with solid shopping districts work pretty well. But finding a good spot has less to do with where other people busk. There’s this thing about dispersed responsibility… if the crowds are huge, everyone thinks someone else is going to tip you and they can just listen (or walk by) without donating.

It’s kind of like hitchhiking: it’s sometimes just as easy to hitch on back roads where one car passes every minute or so than on busier roads, because on the back highways, people are going to actually pay attention to you.

I like to stand in front of empty storefronts or blank walls. Busking works better when you’re not annoying some storeowner, and you’ll be less paranoid.

Songs:

The other main piece of advice that people always give that I always ignore is the idea that you have to play cover songs. Yes, in many situations you’ll make more money playing covers, but I do alright without them and I take pride in playing mostly my own work. Also, busking is about setting a mood onto an environment. And short, pop songs, by their nature, don’t let anyone fall into the trance of the music.

Playing for walkby crowds is like casting a spell. The less I start and stop, the better. I just try to find something fluid, with a lot of variation, and play it for a long time. You want someone to hear you as they walk up and walk past you without breaking the mood.

It’s amazing how much you can change the amount of money you get by responding to the mood of the street and by well, casting a spell.

It might behoove you to learn happy birthday, however. I don’t play it; I just sing happy birthday to fit the melody of whatever I’m playing.

The Man:

When The Man comes to Keep You Down it’s usually best to just let him run you off. Often, if you’re polite, you can get a ton of information out of them about where you can busk, what time you’ve got to stop, that sort of thing.

One thing that works well is to tell whoever it is that you talked to someone else who said it was okay. (disclaimer: in the USA, it’s illegal to lie to cops. It’s a hard lie to catch someone in, though.) If you tell a person in authority that another person in authority told you you could busk, they are much less likely to arrest or harass you.

What’s really frustrating is when you know the police (or, more often, security guards) are even legally wrong, and that you really can be wherever you are. It’s still, sadly, best to fuck off when they tell you to.

Etc.:

I personally suggest not letting your friends hang out with you when you’re busking. There are exceptions to this, but having crusties sitting against the wall where you’re playing (or worse, hanging out directly in front and blocking the sidewalk) makes people a lot less likely to tip. That said, if your friends stand a bit in front and are acting like a respectful audience, sometimes it encourages other people to stop and listen. Personally, I mostly just play instrumental, but if I can get a crowd (even a sort of fake crowd like my friends) then I’ll start singing and either scare everyone off or make a good bit more money. If you’re traveling however, your partner hanging out isn’t really a problem: people see you as a traveling couple and are interested in supporting you.

Play for drunks, wherever you can find them. Drunk people are stupid and will give you more money than they should. Street festivals are good for this, as are, of course, bars. In a college town, play thursday, friday, and saturday nights. Art walks, when all the galleries in a district have openings with free booze, are good nights. The biggest worry, if you play a loud instrument, is getting noise complaints for playing at night. I’ve personally yet to be fined or arrested though.

If you can get away with it, sell your CD or other handicrafts out of your case. This is more likely to draw police ire than just playing (since it isn’t as likely to be considered free speech), but it significantly increases your income.

Always seed your case with money. The first dollar is much harder to make than the following ones. Also, if you use change as your seed money, you’ll get more change than bills, so I seed with a dollar bill. Elsewhere in the world they’ve got coins worth a buck or two in common circulation, and then coins are more okay.

Make eye contact and smile. Dance if you’ve got the energy. Make it clear that you’re having a good time. This is hard for me sometimes, but it makes a huge difference. Definitely make eye contact with little kids when they stare at you, then look at their parents. If there’s a magic trick I know, it’s this.

Don’t set up near other musicians. Nothing is more aggravating than someone setting up right across or down the street from you. Sometimes, if you’re new to a town, it’s best to let the regulars have their spots even if you beat them to it. Usually they’ll be able to suggest somewhere else, and usually being nice to people pays off.

When you’ve got a lot of money in your case, take some of it out. I take out large bills too (although not in front of the person who tipped them). If people think you’ve made enough money they might not give you more.

When it’s windy, stack coins on top of the bills in between songs. Few things are worse than chasing bills down the street as they blow away.

You want a pretty large thing to put money into, particularly if you’re kinda scary looking like I am. When I played concertina, I used a 5-gallon bucket. It was perfect because people didn’t have to get near me or lean down; they could just drop money in. Instrument cases work well too, of course.

You can do okay in the snow. Wear as much clothing as your instrument allows you (for example, with my accordion I can’t wear a heavy coat, and I can wear a fingerless glove on my right hand but not my left and still play). Stop and warm your hands between songs. People appreciate that you’re still out there. Plus, the ambiance can be just awesome if you do it right.

Hell, ambiance is what it’s about for me, more than it’s about money. Playing sad songs for the drunks wandering home, under a lamp by the canals… that’s better than good money.

I haven’t seen it in America, but in Europe a few times I’ve caught people taking money from my case. Stand up for yourself. I had a mob of young teenagers (probably 10 of them) surround me and dance and laugh and then try to take several euro from my case and I just yelled at them to put it back and they did. Another time a man placed a penny down and took a two-euro coin, and I told him to give it back and he did. Standing up for yourself comes more naturally to people who’ve been homeless, who’ve been on the streets in one way or another, but it really is important. And usually, it works.

On the other hand, it sucks to stare at your case and be paranoid about money.

On a bad-but-not-terrible day I’ll make about $5-7 an hour. On an average day maybe I’ll make $10-15 an hour. If I’ve got a CD to sell I can make twice that, and if I’ve got a drunk crowd or it’s a festival or something, I can make $40.

3 thoughts on “A Magpie’s Guide to Busking”

  1. Mag-
    You gotta basic play-list, or a representative CD? Just curious.
    I think two things when I hear accordion:
    “Lady of Spain” and assorted sea shanties. Call it my un-cultural bias.

  2. Ive been dreaming about busking as of late, but I live in a suburb with an exceptionly small downtown area, with near none if any foot traffic. Because of this ive been passively collaborating with some friends about how to bring more culture to the downtown area… any suggestions?

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