Let’s start with the very basic question, “What is Busking?” Busking, simply put, is performing in public for tips and gratuities. My first experience busking was when I was about 17 or so. I was on a trip with no real direction or destination in mind, and wound up in New York staying with a friend. One day, I was in the middle of a college campus, playing guitar on a bench with my guitar case out and open on the ground, just killing time waiting for my friend to get out of class. Out of nowhere, a stranger walked by and dropped some change into my guitar case and just kept walking. My immediate reaction was to stop him and say, “Hey! I’m not a begger!” But before I could, I realized that I might actually be able to make some cash while on my road trip playing guitar on the street. Unwittingly, that guy changed my life, and for the better! I decided to give it a try and before I knew what was really happening, I traveled from New York to Massachusetts, and then onto New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, before heading back to Ohio. I stayed with friends, friends of friends, newly made friends, slept in my car and on the beach. I played guitar and sang on streets, in bars, at house parties, on college campuses, and really anywhere anyone wouldn’t kick me out or would give me a stage to perform on! I left on that road trip with a mere $200 in my pocket, looking to visit a friend in New York, but I wound up extending it from a weeklong trip to nearly two months and coming home with an extra $600 in my pocket after everything was said and done. I funded my entire trip simply by playing guitar and singing in public. And I wasn’t even all that good at the time…
So, I guess you could say I know a little bit about busking! I’ve been doing it for nearly 11 years now. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means, I don’t busk as my sole source of income. But busking has helped me pay bills, fund an adventure to Burning Man, and is currently one of the many methods of income I am using to get to our next travel destination! I’ve learned a whole lot about it along the way and a lot of my friends ask me about it quite often. Keep in mind, busking is not just for musicians. While this article is going to speak mostly to my experience busking (playing guitar and singing), I have met buskers who do all kinds of things; magicians, human statues, celebrity impersonators, comedians, story tellers, poets, circus artists, flow artists, live painters, artists who do everything from 1 minute drawings to caricatures, robot acts, dancers, and so many more. The list is never ending! So if you’ve ever thought about busking, or rather performing in a public space for tips, then have some tips from my experience about how to do it successfully! Feel free to ask any questions you may have too!
Dress For Success!!
Like any other performance art, what you do affects the community at large as these sorts of arts are often largely misunderstood. We are not bums, hobos, or any other name that are otherwise deemed “unsavory” by society in general. That’s not to say, you can’t be homeless and be a busker. And if you are, there’s nothing wrong with that! But what I am saying is to try to look professional, or in character (depending on your act)! Remember, you’re performing for free in hopes that folks will tip you or otherwise pay you with connections, networking, favors, or whatever else it is that they can offer you. If you don’t look the part, then there’s a good chance you might be judged by some folks. The last thing you want is someone yelling at you, “HEY DUDE! GET A JOB! I know you’re just going to take this money and use it on drugs.” It’s the sad truth of the world we live in today. Is it right? No. By no means is it right... But it’s the truth of our current reality. If you’re out busking and someone perceives you as ‘unworthy’ then they won’t give you the time of day, yet alone tip you.
Cater to Your Audience!
By this, I mean that you need to cater to your audience. Say you’re a musician and a young couple are walking by in their Sunday bests… Do you, A) shred out Raining Blood by Slayer or do you B) play some Jack Johnson? To those of you who comically said “A!” Well hardee-har-har. While I do believe that being yourself is great and that you should express yourself however you want – that way you’ll attract like minded individuals and those who like the same things you do; this article is about how to maximize your tips. Of course they might dig Slayer. But they’re likely going to tip you for something along the lines of the Beatles, Jack Johnson, etc. Something they can dance a little to as they walk by, that’s light on their ears and brightens their day. As another example, if you see some Baby Boomers about to walk past? Try playing some classic rock! Pink Floyd, George Therogood, etc. If you’re playing Daft Punk, they’re likely not going to tip you as they probably don’t know the song, and it’s not going to brighten their day. If you’re a magician, are you going to do that one trick you have which sprays fake blood on the audience for a group of kids? I mean yeah…You could, sure! It might even be funny… to you! But will their parents tip you? I highly doubt it…
Read your audience and cater your act to what you think will best suit them. While a human statue flipping people the bird is perfectly acceptable and well welcomed at a place like Bourbon St in New Orleans, it wouldn’t go so well in Orlando near the City Walk (a very family friendly place). I really learned this lesson while I was busking near a big concert in Downtown Atlanta. Garth Brooks was playing a few blocks down the road to my right, and to my left Muse was playing another few blocks down the road. I put myself right near the train station in between the two concerts. To maximize my tips, I had to constantly switch playing covers as different groups of people walked by. I busked in that same spot for two days, each about 3-5 hours a day, and made just shy of $600. Had I been playing original songs, or songs neither crowd liked, I bet I would have barely made $100.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Practice. Yeah, some people are great at what they do naturally. But the majority of us aren’t. I used to really be into magic tricks, specifically card trips. To a point where when I still lived in Columbus Ohio, I would sometimes do magic tricks outside of bars as a busking routine. Mostly just for a free drink. Admittedly, I choose bars because drunk folks are easier to trick than sober folks. But one trick I used to do that would amaze people is the one where a card seems to disappear out of my hand into thin air and then reappear. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I spent in front of a mirror practicing over and over again, trying to get this trick to look even remotely real. Literally weeks of obsessive practice in all of my free time. But once I got it, I got it! When performing the trick, it would blow people away. They literally would sometimes literally run away around the corner of the building, only to come back yelling, “DO IT AGAIN!” It was a real crowd pleaser!
Essentially what I’m getting at here is that whatever you plan to go do as your act, do it well. And if you’re not very good at it yet, still go out and do it. But keep practicing. The better you are, the more impressive you are, the more tips you will get. People will tip for talent if you really get them to!
Display a Sign!
One thing I have learned in all of my years as a human being is that you must ask for what you want in life. Ask for the sale. Ask for tips. And if your local law (we’ll get into that later) forbids you from directly asking, then suggest it. I don’t busk without a sign on my collection bin. It typically says something along the lines of this, “Hey there! My name is Bobby Taylor, I am currently trying to raise funds for [XYZ Reason]! If you like what you hear, please consider donating whatever you have. Any little bit helps! If you’d like to learn more about me, visit my website at www.BobbyTaylorAdventures.com!” And that’s quite literally it. Sometimes I’ll even get pictures or videos sent to me that folks have taken while I was busking. Sometimes I’ll get emails saying they loved my performance but didn’t have cash to donate at that time and asking when and where I’ll be next. And when I busk without a sign, I’ve noticed that I only make about 20% of what I make with a sign.
It’s crazy how simple this is and how much more it capitalizes on getting more tips. A sign is another way to captures people’s attention and gives them a reason to stand there for a moment and actually see what I’m doing instead of just walking past and ignoring me. And if they do walk past and ignore me, that’s fine, no big deal. But if you want to make more tips while busking, give a friendly sign a try! If you want to do your own experiment, try busking with and without a sign. See which does better for you.
Seed Your Collection Bin!
In most cases/acts, people don’t actually want to get very close to you. For the pedestrian walking by, what you’re doing is a novel form of entertainment. So with that in mind, keep your collection bin a solid 2-4 feet from your act. That way, people can just stop for a second, drop a dollar in, and keep going if they so please. Depending on your act, some people may want to get pictures with you or otherwise. But as a musician, keeping your bin a little far away from you gives people a little bit of autonomy. Also, this should really go without saying, but put your collection bin IN FRONT OF YOU. I can’t tell you how many acts I’ve seen sitting next to their collection bin, or they may have it behind them, or in the worst of cases – in between their legs. Yes. You read that right. Nobody wants to reach in between your legs to give you a dollar while you’re busking… Okay, well, some people might, I guess. But you probably shouldn’t be taking tips from those people to begin with. Keep a reasonable distance from you collection bin and you’ll notice that you’ll collect more tips.
Plan for the Best, Prepare for the Worst!
Whatever it is you do, have backup tools and supplies so that you can keep going should something go wrong. Unfortunately, this is another lesson I have learned the hard way. I was outside of a large local music festival busking at night when I broke a string. I was a solid 35 minute drive from home (where I had my supplies), and had already made about $30 in my first hour. Up until then, it was shaping up to be a really good night. So not wanting to call it a night yet, I called a local music store that was a few blocks away! But they were closed. And being that it was after 10pm, so were all the other stores that I called. So I kept playing anyways, but it was difficult to keep my instrument in tune, and it was difficult to play many of the songs I choose to play. I had to improvise to make certain chords and to play certain songs, and I kept getting hung up on it. Although I powered my way through, if I had broken another string, I would have been done. I had never even thought to bring backup strings until I needed one. After that, I bring strings and all kinds of things with me. I just neatly tuck them behind my collection bin (along with a bottle of water to keep my hydrated) and leave them there in case I need them. Whatever you act may be, bring spare stuff and backup stuff. If you’re a magician who does up close card tricks, bring a spare deck of cards. You’re a circus artist who juggles? Bring extra things to juggle. All it takes is for someone to run off with one thing, for you to drop or damage it your gear, etc. and then your act is over. On a good night when the tips are flowing, this is a worst case scenario. So bring backup. You never know when you may need it! Below is a shot of my entire setup, it's pretty simple right? But it has literally everything I need!
Get Stuck in Traffic!
Say you want to go busking at the big “LOCAL SUPER FESTIVAL” but it costs $20 for parking nearby. And say you go busking, only to get kicked out, and you only make $10 before you get kicked out. Well… really, you lost $10 then, and that’s only counting immediate costs of getting there and such. If you really want to get into the full cost accounting of thing, consider your gas, your actual time, and any other costs associated with going out busking. Essentially what I’m trying to say here is that, make sure it’s worth it for you to go out and busk! Sometimes, when I’m just feeling bored, I’ll go busking. Not for the tips, not for the money, but because I like playing for people and I like meeting people to. Some of the people I have met while busking have turned into long time friends. I’ve met strangers who have offered me jobs, informed me or local events or even given me free tickets to things. So make sure to consider why you’re going out and going busking. Some of the greatest tips you’ll receive aren’t money…
Research Your Local Laws!! (Possibly the most important tip here)
One of the biggest and most important tips I can give you is to know your laws inside and out. Here in Atlanta GA, you must follow these specific laws. “You cannot block or stop the flow of pedestrian traffic. You may not use amplified sound (As in electronic speakers. Acoustic amplification is fine, such as horns, vocals, guitars, etc.). You may not perform on private property without permission from the owner of said property. You do not need a permit to perform in public in Atlanta. You may not sell anything without a permit (such as CD’s) or specifically ask for money – this is panhandling. (I get around this last one with a suggestion to donate and never ask anyone explicitly for cash)” And that’s really about it. But here’s the catch! Busking laws vary from state to state, city to city, even county to county. That being said, most places don’t have specific laws around busking. But places where it’s pretty popular, such as New York, New Orleans, or Las Vegas, there’s lots of laws. Sometimes, even entire departments of law dedicated to managing the art of busking in their city. So with that said, in some places, you are required to have a busking permit or face fines or jail. Some places even have ‘designated zones or spots’ that buskers are allowed to perform in and nowhere else are they allowed to perform. Some places even pay their buskers an hourly wage! Other places even give you a specific schedule, like a regular employer would. It all depends on the place and their laws surrounding busking. So all of that being said, do your research and learn your local laws.
And here’s the kicker, specifically to those of us busking in places where there really isn’t very much oversight, rules, or regulations regarding busking… just because you know your laws, doesn’t mean your local law enforcement officers know the law. Ironic ,right? A personal bit of advice, if an officer asks or tells you to stop performing where you are, just do it. Move somewhere else. Possibly even call it a night and go home if they’re overly aggressive. While you may be technically right and on the right side of the law, abiding by all laws set forth, personally I don’t really think it’s worth fighting the ticket(s), possibly spending time in jail (for things like resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, causing a public nuisance, etc) or possibly even risking your personal health and safety. Remember, you’re performing in public for tips and gratuities; it’s not that big of a deal. Your actions as a busker also affect how the general community at large view buskers. So while you may be in the legal right, understand that if you’re just doing this as I do this, it’s not worth being assaulted by an officer, getting fined, or possibly thrown in jail. You’re really not going to make many good tips in jail…
Some of My Favorite Busking Acts!
So as I mentioned before, you can do anything as a busker! Here are some videos of my favorite acts I've seen over the years! Some novel, some amazing, but they're all great!!
There's really so many of them, but so that I won't just completely fill this post with YouTube Videos, a video of Kylie and I in Las Vegas exploring the Freemont Experience! Full of buskers!!
And that's it! Be sure to follow along on our adventures on Instagram or Facebook and if you have any questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to reach out below!!
Until next time internet land!
Just your average, not so average, guy! Here you can follow my travels, learn to travel yourself, check out some cool photography, and otherwise follow along as I explore my interests from performance arts to traveling to philosophy and more!
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