It might seem a little surprising for a street musician or busker to have a web site. The modern perception of buskers is that they are homeless winos, feeding at the bottom of the musical food chain. Although I do enjoy my wine and making music at the bottom of the food chain, I do have a home!!!
I am a part-time musician and although I've played in coffee houses, theaters, at festivals, private parties, schools and even an ice rink, my favorite gig is playing on the street for tips. In my opinion, playing for tips is the most "sporting" way to get paid for making music and busking is always an adventure, like musical bungee jumping!
Once upon a time, before suburbs and shopping malls, many people did their shopping in busy, thriving downtown areas. Many professional musicians took advantage of the abundant foot traffic and set out tip jars while they practiced their instrument. This served both as additional income (essential for the normally unstable income of a musician), and as advertising for the evenings gigs.
In addition to the professionals, many amateur musicians played to supplement their incomes too. During economic hard times great numbers of musicians took to the streets and occasionally became a nuisance, harassing pedestrians, blocking traffic, interfering with businesses, making noise and fighting over pitches (busking locations). Many cities either discouraged the practice or outlawed it.
Eventually, when people started moving to the suburbs and built shopping malls, the abundant foot traffic in the downtown areas disappeared. At that point the only musicians playing in the decaying downtowns were the smelly, crazy and occasionally dangerous guys, who slept in cardboard boxes, under the bridge. Unfortunately, those are the guys we think of when we picture "street musicians".
However, recently many cities have recognized the value of their historic downtown areas and invested a lot of money into refurbishing them. Many have also recognized the that street musicians add a lot of local spice to the urban landscape, and are actually encouraging buskers to play there. Although many cities have some type of permit process for buskers, most are not too restrictive or expensive and are designed to limit the types of conflicts that have occurred in the past. So I believe right now is a new era of busking in the US and a great time to be a busker!
There are a lot of reasons I enjoy busking over other types of gigs. Paying gigs are nice, but I really enjoy playing when, where and what I want on a moment's notice. If I play for a couple hours on a hot summer evening and decide I would rather have a beer or two in the tavern, that's what I do! Unbelievable freedom!
Busking is also an adventure! It's like musical bungee jumping or skydiving! You are pretty sure that your talent will keep you from crashing to the ground but it's an adrenaline rush to put out a tip jar and say "what's my music worth to ya?" Instant feed back!
Another interesting aspect of busking is that there is no barrier between the entertainer and the audience. As a street musician, you are down on eye level with the audience, engaged in hand to hand combat. In most traditional gigs the stage area serves as a barrier between the audience and the entertainer and most entertainers work very hard to "connect" with their audience. Besides acting as a barrier, the stage also gives the entertainer a sense of legitimacy. Many performers feel that being on stage says "I am the entertainer and you are the audience, so pay attention to me". As a street musician, that barrier is gone and you have to earn their respect from the first note.
On the plus side, expectations of a street performer are generally pretty low, so even if you are "exceptionally adequate" you will shine. But it doesn't matter which end of the talent spectrum you inhabit, you can make some decent money if you think like a fisherman, dress decent, are personable and keep in mind the "public service" aspect of busking.
The general public enjoys colorful characters, and meeting a street musician should lift them up out of their daily routine. If you do a public service like lifting them up and entertaining them, they will reward you. I really enjoy seeing someone's face light up when they come around the corner and see this smiling, happy, old guy, decently playing a familiar tune or singing something funny. My appearance and demeanor are not threatening (they don't know me) and I lift them up. It's a public service.
1) Busking is just like fishing. Pick a good fishing spot with plenty of foot traffic and maybe an open area with some benches so people can stop if they want to. But don't expect to draw a crowd. Musicians experiencemore "drive by" tipping than other types of buskers because people just like the fact that you are adding ambience to their dreary commute. People rarely stop for more than a song or two, but don't get your panties all bunched up, because they will reward you if you lift them up.
2) Keep the volume down. Remember, you are just adding "ambience", not rocking out a stadium full of rabid fans. Too much volume will piss someone off and that's not what you're there for. Even if you are occasionally being drowned out by the subway train or traffic, people will move closer to hear you, if you look fairly civilized. So try to "soft sell" rather than beat them over the head with volume.
3) Avoid playing to "captive" audiences like outdoor cafes, bus stops, etc. No matter how good you are, music is subjective and someone will get pissed off if you force your music on them.
4) Put out a tip jar with a narrow mouth so money can be dropped in but not easily pulled out. I learned the hard way that tips left an open guitar case can often either blow or walk away. I put my tip jar in the guitar case because an open guitar case kind of prompts many people to tip.
5) I like to stand when I play. It's kind of a "dignity" thing because I don't look like a pan handler, and feel like I play and sing better standing.
6) Put out a clever or silly sign to prompt tips. Mine says:
It could improve your karma
or put a smile upon your face
but if ya like the noise I'm makin'
wont ya drop a tip into my case?
7) Keep your "rig" simple and inexpensive. An inexpensive instrument and a small battery powered PA system is easy and quick to set up. You want to be able to move fast to a better fishing spot or to avoid nasty weather. The life of a street instrument can be tough so don't take your $2000 Martin when most people can't really tell the difference between it and a $200 guitar, as long as it's in tune. An electronic tuner is also essential, because outside, the temperature is always changing.
8) Keep your head on straight. You may feel that you are the world's best musician, but the people walking by don't owe you a thing. Just reach out, give your music to the public as a gift, treat it as a public service and people will reward you for it.
I'm proud of what I do and I hope I've given you some ideas and tips you can use. I hope you get a chance to get out on the street and share your talent with others. Remember, it's about public service, not ego, and people will reward you for sharing your gifts.
I'd like to hear your comments, questions and stories so email me at:
My favorite place to busk is at farmer's markets. It's such a happy scene as people gather good food, enjoy the outdoors and hopefully groove on my happy noise. You usually have to get permission from the market manager but that's not hard because most of them love to have music. People are comfortable walking up and talking music (or whatever) and are pretty content. I'm a morning person and for me, a Saturday morning farmer's market is much better than playing to drunks in the tavern or the jittery coffee house crowd. Just my preference!
If you would like to have Sweet Tater play at your function, whether it is a Farmer's Market, a festival, a company picnic, a private party or whatever, just email me at [email protected].
I provide my own sound system, which should serve a crowd up to around 150 people. All I need is an electrical outlet!