10 Busking Tips from June Caravel (of “Busking in Australia”)

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Busking Tips for MusiciansHow to Make Money Busking

[French singer June Caravel spent the summer of 2012 Busking in Australia. She had busked 1h15 minutes in her life before she left for Sydney and vowed to tour only with what money people gave her on the street. 2 months later, she had toured the whole continent of Australia and even came back (alive !) with a miniseries documentary entitled simply « Busking in Australia » about her experience. Here she explains 10 things you should know before you start busking.]

To busk (/bʌsk/) intr.v. buskedbusk·ing, busks. To play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money.

Busking is certainly one of the best ways I know to find new fans, and to make yourself money while promoting your music and selling albums. It’s also great if you want to promote your shows and fill up time in between concerts. But there’s a few things you need to know before you start…

1. Do your research 

Yes you could set up at the corner of your street… only to be arrested by policemen 5 minutes later because a shop owner complained that you’re too loud. And what if you’re too dangerous for pedestrians having to circle around you to get to the other end of the street? What if you need a permit? What if you’re performing on private property?

For all of these questions, the easiest way is to ask another busker. And if there’s none in your city, there might be a reason… Phone your council, town hall or just google “busking in <city name>.”

Trust me, it’s better to be aware of the rules beforehand. You could be heavily fined, and you don’t want that. In France, for example, you don’t have the right to busk. Otherwise you’re considered a beggar, which is supposedly illicit. The reality is that there are a lot of buskers there too but it all depends if the authorities are nice or not with you. That’s a gamble I didn’t take for now. From experience, the info can be hard to find sometimes.

2. Avoid being loud

A lot of buskers perform unamplified because it’s a drain to transport an amplifier (and it needs to work with batteries that you need to recharge every day too) and also because in some towns you’re not even allowed to amplify your instruments (to avoid complaints of neighbours, shops, etc.).

However, performing unamplified means that you will strain your voice to make yourself heard (unless you’re an opera singer). I did busk with a small Vox Amplifier as I had no choice (nobody’s gonna hear my loop pedal if it’s not amplified). It meant I couldn’t perform in some cities (Darwin for example) but I always tried to remain reasonable in terms of loudness. If someone tells you it’s too loud, turn the volume down.

3. Prepare your repertoire with a minimum of 1 hour’s-worth of music

Busking is not something that you should improvise in the middle of the street. If you’re going to perform the same 4 songs over and over again, the shop in front of which you perform is not going to be too pleased. The passers-by who you managed to hook are gonna leave and you’re going to bore yourself. Prepare an hour minimum (1h30 / 2 hours, even better!).

4. Be good!

If you’re using busking to practice your instrument, then start busking in the middle of the woods where not a lot of people can hear you. Nobody wants to give money to someone who’s making mistakes every other note. It can be cute to do one mistake, but if you chain them invariably, it’s not so cool anymore. People will just leave and you’ll feel sorry for yourself you didn’t practice more. The world is a stage but busking is no different than other concerts. Come prepared and be good! It will take away the stress from playing in the street if you know the songs inside out.

5. Dress the part

As an artist you should understand that the image you’re projecting is hyper important. And a first impression can break or make the size of your hat at the end of the day. If you’re dressing shabby, people will take you for a beggar. You’re not a beggar. You’re showcasing your music to the world, or well, the city, you play in… Make a good impression, use your persona and dress the part!

6. Perform actively

Don’t play looking down at your instrument, only raising your head when you hear a coin falling. Perform actively, that is: standing, dancing, or sitting if you need to but always looking at people. Acknowledge your listeners. Try to get them into your music with a smile. Don’t close your eyes all the time. Engage. If you’re shy, it’s the moment to fight against your natural inclination. People may or may not respond to your smile but it’s a first step towards the other. It will also allow you to judge your environment and see if anyone’s trying to steal away from you (remember the opening scene of Once? It never happened to me but I’m pretty sure a lot of buskers experienced theft of their hard-earned cash).

June Caravel: Busking in Australia

7. Acknowledge your benefactor!

This person may be rewarding you for your voice, your song, the emotion you gave them, because you look good or because what you said made them smile or resonated with something they’re going through. Acknowledge them with a smile when you’re playing or a nod and with a thank you if you can in between songs. If you’re not in the middle of a song, don’t be shy to talk to them. They’ll appreciate it. And don’t be afraid to ask…

8. Do your marketing

… your generous donators to put their name on your mailing list. Tell them they’ll get a free track in exchange. Or have leaflets ready for them to pick up. Have banners showing your name and your website. Use this platform to show your brand (i.e. your artist name). There’s a chance people passing by several time during the day will notice and remember your name. Tell them to take pictures and post them on your Facebook page. Engage!

9. Be friendly to other buskers

Especially in big cities, there might be well established buskers or busy areas where all the buskers converge cos they know they’ll make a lot of money. For example Grafton St in Dublin or the Harbour in Sydney. Here the pitches are more disputed and you need to come early.

If your pitch is already taken, don’t hesitate to come and ask the busker in place how long he’s planning to stay and when you can come back. Otherwise go somewhere else. Always be friendly. The same chap might keep your spot for you when you come back and you should do the same for him if he asks that of you. You can even collaborate and share the revenues.

10. Choose your pitch well

This comes from experience. You should choose a place where there are a lot of passers-by but not too much (avoid rush hours), where people can sit and listen to your music, where you can be heard well (avoid places where there is work going on or other buskers 100m from you).

Sometimes picking up an unusual location can pay. Don’t go perform in the subway if you’re not licensed unless you want to be fined. My personal trick (given by another busker friend of mine before I left) was to set up on street corners where passers-by have to listen to you before they cross the street. However, it can be dangerous to be right at the corner where traffic is just behind you. So I remember being told to go somewhere else by an agent.

Also, moments are crucial. Playing at night can be tricky if you’re too loud or if you’re surrounded by drunkards. If you’re ok with it, go ahead; it could bring you a super hat. In any case, experiment with places and times.

Now off you go and don’t forget the essential: have fun performing. If you do, others will see it, you will have a good time and they too and at the end of the day, that’s what matters most. Much more than the size of your hat!

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  • Eli

    Nice. I make WAY more money busking than playing shows.

  • shana

    this will be such a help, busking is my only way of making money ^_^

  • Brad

    Busked for the first time last night with the band my friends and I just started. What an experience! We had a big crowd there for a while. We played for over 2 hours and only made 15 bucks, but that's the thing: it's not about the money for us, it's about the feeling you give people when they see someone doing something great with their talent (and for free!). What an amazing feeling it was.

    • Where did you busk? Was it a touristy area? If you can find a spot with lots of touristy foot traffic, the tips will come! I found a spot in San Fran once where we were able to make about $300 in an hour and a half.

      @ChrisRobley

  • John Luck

    Am planning to start busking in November. After being diagnosed with cancer two years ago, and having always wanted to do something musical, I took up the violin / fiddle.

    So for the last year and a half I've been practicing 'every' day for at least 2 hours, sometimes 4. I have a teacher that I see from time to time just to keep me on track and to give me the occasional 'reality check' 🙂

    I'm a very late starter at 63 years but it would seem that I have at least a little talent am able to learn a tune by ear.

    Its the beginning of August now, so a little more practice to smooth over the rough spots, and then,look out people, here I come 🙂

    BTW……I live in a 'very' touristy area

    Cheers
    John

    • Nice going. Have you scouted out the good busking spots yet?

      @ChrisRobley

    • Bob

      I hope you’re still busking, John. I started busking last year at the age of 78 and I am really having fun with it. And making a pretty good income, too.

      Bob

  • Ruben

    Another tip is to use a QR code to collect donations from a service like ScanDonate.com. More and more buskers and musicians are starting to use QR codes to connect with their audience and it works fairly well!

  • Lehua Gray

    But busking tip number 11 should be to choose the right busking method. Not everyone who busks is a musician, and some people can make a lot more money one-on-one as a poet for hire or fortune teller, depending on temperament. I found a run-down of busking types (puppeteer, mime, dancer, etc) here: http://dirtyvagrant.com/a-complete-guide-to-busking/, I think I’m going to be a fire-spinner!

  • Nice. Thanks for sharing that link.

    @ChrisRobley

  • I used to tour in a hardcore band; we struggled on tour 90% of the time, but my buddies were in a bluegrass band were making a killing busking on tour!

    I’m currently recording my debut solo pop/trip-hop cd, and i wanna start busking and doing busking tours! I think ive got all the background knowledge now, i guess just have to get out and give it my first try!

    thanks for the help. i’m gonna put all the pieces together and see how i do!

  • Let us know how it goes!

    @ChrisRobley

  • Igor Abdo Aguilar

    I’ve been busking for a bit more of a year, although the town i currently live in, busking is almost considered begging to “popular” belief. I love to do it, helps me get an extra money and my country is in a economic crisis, but i still get some.
    Although the tip for dressing accordingly i’ll take into account now. Most of the other ones i’ve been doing from the start apart from other buskers ( i’m the only one in my town… ). But these tips are really good!

  • Excellent tips! Thanks 😉

    x

  • Shane Buzza

    I started busking again today in the valley and I was enjoying it quite a lot until some asshole came over stating that the milk crate I was sitting on belonged to him ( because when you grab a milk crate from wherever and then leave it discarded somewhere overnight….that’s your milk crate?) So I offered it back, he didn’t want it and that’s where it started , he heard that I was playing some of metallicas early stuff and asked if I was “punk rock” and explained that there’s people out there who perform a particular service called guitar teachers and what they do (Yeah I know I was a fucking guitar teacher) and continued with some rabble “some people they can play but they can’t get over their stage fright ” OMG I’m trying to play and do my thing okay? I’m in the middle of a bloody song I don’t mind talking to people at all but this is insane buddy you’re just being a dick now and Then he proceeded to outdick himself by sitting down 30cm from me and started playing Voodoo Chile, I just thought “hey I’ll jam with the guy” coz uh why the Fuck else would he be rude enough to insult me insult my taste of music based on one song he heard 10 seconds of insult my abilities on the guitar and I’ve been playing for about 13 years then be a total dick and steal my spot, he proceeded to add little licks and fancy flourishes to his version of the Jimi Hendrix classic ensuring that it was a one man one guitar special so I left and he just stayed there in the only area that’s really left to busk in now days and completely fucked my day , people like that make me want to sit at home on my bed just being angry at the world While my guitar gathers dust in the corner

  • Jarod Mcmanus

    im 18, and have been playing the acoustic guitar for only eight months. I’m looking for ways to spice up my love of playing music. So i figured ill try Busking, i haven’t started yet and am looking and researching on any advice Buskers might have. Like how many songs should i know for performances? is there a suggested age to do it at? is there anything legal that i should look at before Busking? and anything of the sorts, if anyone can give me any tips or information, id be grateful, email me if your willing, so i can ask more questions as they come, thank you…… jarodmcmanus@gmail.com

  • Hey Jarod,

    Every town and location will have different laws/regulations. I’d recommend doing some research and asking around specific to the location. If you find a good spot where no one else is playing, I’d say just feel it out — time wise. I’ve played in one spot for 3-4 hours before. If someone else is waiting their turn to busk in the same location, maybe 1-2 hours and then give it up to them. Kinda all depends on the local custom.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Nicholas Vernola

    I am thinking about it, but haven’t worked up the nerve yet.