[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. busked, busk·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).
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!