Busking on a boat?

One day, my band earned about $300 from performing in the streets of San Francisco for a few hours. We thought that was pretty impressive, and patted ourselves on the back accordingly.

But it pales in comparison to Canadian band Headwater. They’ve earned a combined $83,000 from “busking” on a ferry system (the largest in the world) that runs between Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. And over the course of their high-seas (or high-straights) adventures, Headwater has sold more than 3,000 CDs to unsuspecting passengers-turned-fans.

How’d they do it?

I asked Headwater’s Matt Bryant a few questions about the band’s busking experience. Here is what he had to say:

Q: How did you get started “busking” on a ferry?

A: One day we were coming back from a gig in Victoria and started playing tunes to pass the time. Before we knew it, we were getting serious applause – and by the end we’d sold 70 CDs.

Obviously, we started playing on board anytime we were taking the ferry to a gig.  Eventually, we took the “middle man” out and just started playing the ferry as the gig.

We (jokingly) say, “we’re not beggars – we’re merchants.”  We’re not collecting change for playing – just playing for anyone who cares to listen and offering CD’s for sale.  I talked about it as working like a streaming site in my blog post – and I think that’s pretty accurate.  Folks get to hear tunes from a band they otherwise wouldn’t know, and have the option to purchase.  

Given the opportunity and the chance to hear the music for free, lots of people will buy it.  Lots of people will just listen, too – but that’s okay because they’ll tell their friends!

Q: Were there logistical or legal  hurdles? Did you have to get permits?

A: Technically, there were/are. But we ignored them.

We were shut down by over-zealous staff a couple of times at the very start. One poor chief steward got booed by a couple hundred people for shutting us down. We learned pretty quick how to work around it.  The secret is to be cool and friendly and to not play anything too heavy off the top.  If you rile the audience too much at the start – certain people seem to get offended and “complain to management.”  But that hasn’t happened in years.

On a side note, I sent BC Ferries my blog posting before I released it, offering them a chance to get on board with the story – no response, sadly.

Q: What’s a typical ferry-performance day like for you? Can you describe it from load-in to loud-out? How long to you play? What kind of gear do you bring?

A: 11:30 am. We meet at my place with guitar, mandolin, banjo and dobro in tow.

We drive to Tsawassen and catch the 1pm ferry to Victoria.  The 1pm sailing is a “Spirit” class ship, which have the best theatre-style seating at the front.  We have specific seats.  Also the 1pm sailing is a crew change on the Victoria side, so the crew on the run back home are totally fresh and won’t realize that we’ve been on the boat since Vancouver, have already done one set, and sold 30 albums or so.

After waiting about 30 minutes, we pull out our instruments and get tuned up, quietly.  “Old Man Lori,” a gentle tune from our first album, is our opener.  We ease into that one, and close on some pretty vocal harmonies.  People start clapping.  Now we’re in charge.

Somewhere near the middle of the set 9 or 10 tunes, we mention our CD’s.  Sometimes people flock to us then.  We’ve had 10-person-deep lineups.  Sometimes it’s a hard-sell and the CD’s don’t move until the VERY end.  When and how the sales will happen is a little unpredictable, but they happen.

After the crossing to Victoria, we take our gear up to the top deck and wait for the crew to change and the passengers from the Island to get on.  We bring lunches.  Then it’s back downstairs (to the same seats) and repeat.

The sailing back is usually full of students, who love the tunes, but mostly don’t have the cash for the albums.  Most of the sales happen in the first set; but this is a little unpredictable, too.  Sometimes the second set rocks. That’s when the sales are really good.  The way out is consistently good – the way back varies.  When they’re both good, we’re clearing a grand, for sure.

Once we’re back in Tsawassen, we get in our car (Tim’s Subaru wagon) and drive back to Vancouver – counting our profits and often laughing hysterically. “How did we just make $1500?”

That’s pretty much it.

Q: Did you ever have to deal with an unreceptive audience?

A: Only when we first started out.  A good routine took some time to develop.

We wait long enough for people to get bored before we start, then gently play a pretty song, very casually. It shouldn’t feel show’y. Wait for applause, crack a good joke – “this is the best gig we’ve ever had!” and we’re good.

We remain casual and funny – everyone relaxes and enjoys the music. At worst, they get a free show from charming, talented guys.  At best we sell upwards of 50 CDs, and make great contacts doing it.

We really worked crafting a routine of music and comedy that disarms and then charms just about any audience (read: crowd of a few hundred unsuspecting people on a boat), and its paid off.  

Q:  Do you have to alter your normal arrangements or approach to fit the ferry environment?

A: Yeah, for sure – the arrangements are scripted for the ferry. Our bass player Patrick moves over to guitar and that helps – the upright bass is too intimidating and makes it seem too much like a show, which we don’t want.  We like to do a “ramp.” We start gentle and charming and funny – and work upwards to the CD pitch just before the big show-stopper (“Freight Train” from our second record).

But our approach remains pretty much the same – read the audience’s vibe and give them what they want. Reading the crowd and calling the right tunes to get them on side and to get them to buy CDs is crucial – but for me that’s crucial at every gig.  The ferry has definitely helped us get better at it.

Q: How do you interact with the “audience” to encourage sales? And how do you display merch?

A: We crack jokes, aren’t afraid to get a little goofy, and basically just welcome people into our vibe.  People bring their kids over to sit and listen.  We chill out and take our time to tell stories or let everyone know that the “cover charge is built-in to the new fuel surcharges.”  Again – the streaming site model comes to mind here.  People get to hear new tunes and decide if they want to buy them.

Lots do.

We keep a backpack loaded with CDs, business cards and handbills for upcoming shows beside us – but really the key is to keep it relaxed, funny and casual, so we don’t make a big deal out of presenting merch.  A mention or two and people come running.

Q: Do you stock up on dramamine? And what has been the worst voyage? Best voyage?

A: The ferries here are so big and so good that I don’t even notice I’m on the water.

The best and worst voyage are one and the same.  About 10 minutes in,  the boat veered hard starboard – a distraught man had jumped overboard.  He was quickly rescued, thankfully, and taken back ashore.  It delayed things by over an hour.  People were very upset and we couldn’t tell if it was inappropriate to perform or not.  We went for it.

It turned out to be one of the best runs ever.  We really lifted peoples spirits.  Over 60 CDs sold and standing ovations given.  The captain of the ship thanked us personally and bought us dinner! 

Here’s a picture of a card written to us by a young lady on the boat this week – http://instagr.am/p/J8CgJTolC0/

Do daily commuters know all your songs now?

A: No – but we do see the same faces pretty often.  If they’ve caught on to what we’re up to, they’re being really good sports about it!


Check out Headwater’s website for more information.

Do you have an interesting busking story to share? Let us know in the comments section below.