Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Buskers Survival Guide Part 3 - Tips For Busking

Busking is an incredible experience, incredible that you go from high to low so fast and never know when things will turn.  You play for an hour and make pennies, start to lose heart and think of quitting and then a wave of drops come and fill you with a new  energy.  What is it that makes a successful busker?  Is there a formula and a way to know you can make a good return for your time and energy each day.   The answer is yes and no, you can certainly do things to make sure you make something, but the only certain thing about busking is the uncertainty.

I have come to understand that it is a percentage of many things.  The song you are singing, the people passing by, the spot, the time of day, the day of the week, how you’re feeling, the sound of the place and yourself, many things.  But that would make up only around 50% because the other 50% goes to uncertainty.   You just never can truly tell.  I have been singing my heart out in beautiful sunshine at times, with a real good sound with good passing traffic and made nothing and no one bats an eyelid.  Even though I think I am playing the best in my life, it still isn’t enough to trigger a drop.  Then you can be playing and still getting warmed up, not really feeling it and people are filming and dropping lots of coins in your hat.

You can think that you have to play songs everybody knows, but that isn’t always the case.  Of course there are some that I have found that pay for themselves, I must owe Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan a few quid for singing ‘Wish You Were Here’ and Like A Rolling Stone’ so much, but if you are singing an unknown song or one of your own with all your heart and passion that can also trigger just as much drops.  As long as you are really giving something in the performance it’s what can draw people in.  The accordionist who has ‘My Way’ on a loop and plays with no heart or love or passion will only ever make charitable pennies.  But you can really bring life to your surroundings by singing with passion.

Eye contact is another good thing to maintain.  If you are on the streets singing away with your eyes closed, people don’t come as near.  You have made your space that people steer away from.  It can still get drops, but it seems like you are playing for yourself rather than the streets.  Some of the biggest drops I have had is when I have been singing to the people passing by.  Songs like Working Class Hero which contain wise words are always appreciated when it’s sung to them with heart.  You engage them to feel a part of the music.  They would normally walk past, but you look them in the eye as you are singing and connect with them, and of course they are obliged to drop a quid or 2 in. 

The weather is a strange one to understand.  I have gone out on a sunny day, played good sunshine songs and made relatively little.  I have gone out on a grey pissing down Friday night and made 100 quid in 2 hours!  Do people feel more appreciative of street music when the skies are grey?  Perhaps.  I think it could be down to being upstaged.  If there is something nearby that is taking the focus off you playing music in the streets, then you are second fiddle and wont make hardly any as much.  Maybe you can be upstaged by the sun.

Another example of being ‘upstaged’ is when I was in Amsterdam; I was playing on my favourite bridge, singing ‘me’ heart out like you do, when a group of transvestites came to do a photo shoot not far away from me.  Already the people walking past are noticing the trannys in drag rather than the singer songwriter singing a sad song on a street corner.   I went out the other day, feeling good about a nice busk.  There was a great 3 piece band close to my normal pitch playing sunshine rock n roll and funk.  They looked the part and sounded great.  I couldn’t compete with that. They had a crowd round them and had to empty their case 5 times.  They had a bass, Cajon drum, guitar and the 3 vocals.  It was a true show, and that is what any street musician should aspire to.  Its good to have your favourite spots and sing and do your thing on your own, and you will get by good with it.  But creating a show that draws a crowd is how you make the step up to making a very good living from your music.  

That is the next step from the singer songwriter – Make a show!  If you can start to draw a crowd, the laws of the universe make that crowd grow, and your hat full.  What is it that you can do to make this show?  Look the part, look like a cool musician who has just made a normal street corner into his own stage.  Even playing with another person adds a big chunk to this. 2 acoustics and vocals can have a very strong presence.  The money you make is probably about the same once it is split between the people, but it is much more fun to play with more people.

Persistence pays!  Just when you are thinking of giving up, give it an extra half hour and it will turn.  You can be playing for an hour making slow pennies and then all of a sudden there is a turn and the drops will flow in.  You never know when this will be, so just when you are thinking of giving up, go that extra little bit and the universe rewards it.  Don’t feel down hearted if the drops are slow.  Keep strong and just know that the tide will turn and that will give you the energy to go an extra hour or two.  The best fuel for a busker to keep going is a steady drop rate.  If you’re making good money you don’t wanna stop.  If you are hardly making anything it becomes harder, but always give it an extra half hour and see what happens.

Serve yourself!  Don’t try and play to please the people around you, please yourself by playing songs you are feeling more, and that’s what people will connect with.  If you are really enjoying playing the song and giving it your all, regardless of what song it is people will connect with that.  Though, it is crazy how many people ask for ‘Wonderwall’ on a Friday and Saturday night.  They just wanna sing their heart out with you to that song.  So it’s worth learning because if there is a crowd it is guaranteed they will all drop quids in as they sing away.  Plus it always feels good when you can play whatever song someone requests.  But don’t ever doubt yourself when you are playing what you want.  If you try to please the hundreds of people walking past, you will fail.  You can’t please everyone!  So just please yourself, and play what you love with confidence.

Singing in the rain.  I have had my best days when it is pissing down with rain.  Find a sheltered spot and see how people really appreciate it more.  Most buskers think the rain will make them make nothing, but that is far from it.  Also, there is less competition in the rain.  Most buskers stay home, but you get out find your sheltered spot and see how full your hat becomes.  I actually make more during the Winter season than the summer.  People respect the fact you are out there and still doing it in bitter cold and wind.  Though, the wind is the hardest of the conditions to play in.  You can’t win against the wind.  It will blow your hat over, drown your sound and do whatever it wants to do. 

Busking has not just made me a much better musician, it has also taught me a lot about life and made me a much stronger person.  The things to remember are just to believe in yourself, a nervous busker does not fare well.  Be strong and command your space, make eye contact, sing with all you got, learn lots of new songs and never give up, no matter how slow things are, it will always turn.  Do not have any expectations about money, be happy with what you got and only aim to enjoy yourself and the songs.  That way; whatever you make is a bonus.  If you get frustrated by not making enough much money, then you are expecting to make too much money, be happy with what you get and the real reward is enjoying playing your music to hundreds of different people every day

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  1. Thanks for your sharing. I came across your blog as I'm heading to Liverpool to busk there on my 65th birthday later this month. I was born there and moved to Ireland when I was 18 and it's just about my first visit since.

    I've been loving busking since I first stepped out of my bath to sing in public - 18 years ago.

    One of the things that inspires me most is the kids who will pass by with their parents and drag the parents back and make them notice something different. We can learn a lot from our kids.

  2. Love your articles and love your music - it inspires me even more to play even more :)

    Love from Manna Mundow

  3. Thanks for sharing this article.
    I am a busker too and agree with pretty much everything you have said.
    Gives me inspiration and support, so keep it up and keep striving for that time when you attract a crowd of people and you're having to stop to empty your case!

    All the best



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