Are you a street performer? Many musicians consider street performing, or busking, to be off-limits to serious musicians. That’s a serious mistake, especially with the lack of regular venues for performances due to Covid 19 closures and rules about public gatherings. Busking in public can be a great way to earn some money until the live performance industry gets back to normal. It can also be an excellent way to hone your playing skills and improve your ability to entertain a crowd.
It’s true that busking has a different set of requirements than playing in concert halls or other live music venues, but if you prepare your repertoire, equipment, and attitude for public street performances, you may find that street performances are a lot of fun and pay well, too. Here’s some general information about busking to get you started on the road to a successful busking career.
Consider Musical Instrument Rentals
Many first-time buskers don’t have the appropriate musical instruments or other equipment for street performances. Musicians who are accustomed to working in nightclubs and bars buy equipment that’s great for certain size rooms. They’re used to reliable electricity and easy access for their gear. When you’re a street performer, you have to be prepared to be out in the elements. You have to be able to travel light. If your musical instrument is too delicate or expensive to risk on a street corner or a subway, it’s smart to purchase another for busking. It’s also possible to look into musical instrument rentals for your busking “daily driver.” In short, you might want to save your vintage Les Paul for the studio, and get something more useful and less expensive to play when you’re out and about.
Of course your musical instrument rentals might only be part of your gear. If you normally haul a 50-pound amplifier in and set it up in a nightclub hours before your club date, you might have a hard time playing in places that aren’t designed for public performances. Traveling light is the key. You might also want to leave your Fender Twin at home, and buy or rent a lightweight combo amp for busking. Electricity isn’t handy everywhere, either, so you might want to consider only acoustic performances when you’re outside, or use battery-powered gear if possible.
Work On Your Set List
Many musical performers craft their set lists to appeal to a certain segment of the population. Their performances are staged at an enclosed venue and advertised to patrons who are likely to respond well to the songs. Busking isn’t like that. Not only is the audience made up of all sorts of people, the audience is constantly changing throughout the performance. To get over, you’re going to have to have a wider selection of material than you’re accustomed to.
The good news? You don’t have to figure it all out in advance. Busking is a fairly low-pressure job. You can try all sorts of things to see what entertains the most people, and discard the tunes that fall flat. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to gauge your potential audience in advance. You can make some educated guesses on what folks might like depending on where you expect to play. A crowd in a subway heading to work is bound to be different than shoppers in a pedestrian mall on a weekend or holiday. Make your best guess in advance, and then tailor your set list based on your experience.
Be Careful With Original Material
Part of your education in street performing is understanding that it’s a different kind of gig. If you’re accustomed to performing your own music, you might be disappointed when passersby ignore you. You only have a few moments to attract attention from a moving crowd. The easiest way to catch their ear and get them to linger is to play something familiar. Even if you’re an accomplished composer, it’s smart to mix in recognizable standards or current hits to grab an audience quickly.
When you’re new to busking, you might not be used to playing without music in front of you. Sheet music isn’t practical for street performances, however. There are several reasons why a binder full of music doesn’t work. First, you’re probably going to be playing outdoors. Anyone who has played in a marching band can tell you that keeping your music in front of you while the wind blows is nearly impossible. The lighting for busking can be quite variable, too. It’s too hard to read music while playing in public.
Secondly, you should be making eye contact with your audience. Busking is more interactive than other performances. It’s important to stay engaged with the crowd to keep them from wandering off. If you ignore them, they’re very likely to ignore you right back. Lastly, busking often means moving around at a moment’s notice. If you’re lugging too much stuff, you can’t easily move to a new spot when crowds get scarce.
So, memorize your set list. Don’t worry, if you’re not used to learning a lot of tunes by heart. Busking will help you learn to memorize music. Also, since the crowd is constantly being replenished with new listeners, you might be able to have a much shorter set list than you normally do. You can play the same half-hour or hour’s-worth of tunes over an over again for different people.
Don’t Be Edgy
You’re going to be entertaining a wide variety of people. That means you should keep your patter and your song selections family-friendly. Avoid songs glorifying violence or sex, and steer clear of edgy or controversial topics. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to be able to entertain everyone. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t appeal to the widest audience possible.
You Might Need a Permit
There are plenty of places to play where you can just open up a guitar case and start singing. However, let’s face it: if you want a sizable audience, you’re going to have to set up shop where a substantial number of people are passing by. That means you’re going to be in public places in cities, for the most part. Most cities and towns have regulations about public performances like busking, and it’s smart to follow them to the letter. Musicians can be a cantankerous bunch, but you might find that having busking rules is a blessing. In small towns where busking isn’t regulated, it can be up to local businesses or police to decide what’s OK and what’s not. Sometimes it’s better to know in advance what’s allowed than to rely on the judgment of a few grumpy strangers.
A Few Common Rules
Rules for public performance vary widely, but here are a few that are common to many cities and towns:
- Volume: Some places don’t allow amplification of any kind. Others allow small amps. In any case, playing loud is likely to get you into trouble no matter where you are. Again, you can rely on musical instrument rentals for gear if all you have is a Marshall stack.
- Age: Busking is considered a freelance occupation in some places, so you might have to be over 18 to perform in public.
- Registering: Some places issue busking IDs. Those don’t generally entitle you to play any time, anywhere. You might have to check in before you start, and name the time and place you’ll be entertaining the public.
- Material: The first indication you’ve crossed a line for bad taste might be delivered by a police officer. It might be smarter to rage against the machine on club dates, not on the corner.
- Selling Stuff: Rules vary about how you get paid when busking. Almost anywhere will allow you to collect tips. Some places don’t like big displays of other merchandise like t-shirts.
- No Orchestras, Please: Many cities and towns enjoy a varied diet of entertainment on their street corners. Whether you play steel drums or the guitar, you’ll probably be welcome most everywhere. The size of your combo might become a problem, however. Some places limit the number of people in a single group of buskers. Sorry, ska bands.
If you’re new to busking, you might try performing to a few people at a time until you hone your craft. However, smart buskers know that there’s no money in sparse crowds. If you plan ahead, you can pinpoint locations and days on the calendar with the most potential for full tip jars and lots of applause. If you need smaller, lighter, or more roadworthy equipment, rely on musical instrument rentals until you get all your gear in order.
In general, buskers don’t bother with working commuters. They’re in a hurry and not in a festive mood. Smart street performers favor holidays and weekends, and set up shop where happy people enjoying leisure pursuits travel in droves. Sporting events, festivals, and big shopping days are great opportunities for buskers.