Performing to an appreciative audience doesn’t always mean having to pitch a venue, schedule a gig, and pimp it far and wide. In fact, many skilled and experienced musicians choose to take their tunes to the streets, playing to informal audiences at train platforms, thoroughfares, and parks everywhere.
Busking — a.k.a. street performing — can be a great way to hone your performance skills, bring your music to fresh ears, promote your shows and CDs, and earn some cash at the same time. But there are barriers to overcome, including knowing the law and overcoming the fear of performing in such an intimate and unfamiliar setting. Here are some tips from experienced buskers to help you make your own street performances successful.
Watch other street performers
“When I was just getting started busking, I would learn by watching jugglers and magicians in Seattle’s Pike Place Market,” says Greg Pattillo, a beatboxing flautist and YouTube star with two decades of busking experience under his belt. “I used to take notes on how they would get a crowd, pass a hat for tips, and so on.”
Observing strategies used by experienced street performers can help you know how to adapt to any performance situation and make your own public show a success. “Do other street performers announce each song or just play straight through? Do they make eye contact with their listeners? Does their repertoire change depending on who’s there and what’s going on?” asks Pattillo. “Keep these things in mind and, when it’s your turn, try different approaches out and see what works for you. Which of these strategies gets people to open their wallets?”
Know what’s legal
When you decide to busk, the last thing you want is to have your spellbinding street performance interrupted by a ticket-wielding police officer. A quick internet search should give you a good idea of what’s legal when it comes to public performances in any given community, and a call to a local police precinct or town hall won’t hurt either. Be sure to ask not only about performing publicly, but about accepting tips or donations, and selling CDs, as well. (Ed note: See the links below for some resources to check out for legal info).
When it comes to laws, every community is different, says Charith Premawardhana, a violist who busked extensively for two years while a conservatory student. “I had a friend get a ticket for busking in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, for example, but if you’re unamplified, you can play pretty much anywhere else in the city,” he says.
Natalie Gelman, a singer, songwriter and native New Yorker, has nearly a decade of busking experience. She has received only one ticket during her career. “Generally, the cops will respect what you’re doing as long as you’re not making too much of a crowd, and if you’re respectful of them as well,” she says.
Whether you’re playing in a train station or local park, the less gear you have to lug, the better — especially if you have to relocate on the fly due to rain, law enforcement, or any other number of factors outside of your control.
Pattillo prefers the ease of a completely acoustic performance, while Gelman brings a minimalist gear setup to her busking dates. “I use a small, self-contained Roland Cube Street amp that’s powered by rechargeable batteries,” says Gelman. “I can go out at least three times on one charge, but I always carry back-up batteries as well.”
Experiment with times and locations
There’s no magic formula by which to choose the ideal spot and schedule for your busking forays, so observation, trial and error, and word of mouth are good paths to follow.
Much of your choice when it comes to venue will depend on the character of your performance, and on your personality as a performer. As a flautist who prefers playing acoustically, Pattillo prefers spots that are relatively quiet, but still get a lot of foot traffic. For her part, Gelman seeks out areas frequented by tourists. “Travelers are a lot more loose than people who are from whatever town you’re in,” she says. “They have more free time to stop and listen and they’re more open to whatever’s coming into their world.”
Safety is also a concern, and Gelman recommends busking in an area that is both well lit and provides you with a solid wall, statue, fountain, pillar or other structure behind you.
When it comes to timing, again, observing your local environment and asking around can give you an idea of when to strike. When playing classical music in San Francisco train stations, Premawardhana preferred early and late rush hours for maximum foot traffic; in New York City, Pattillo recommends between 10 AM and 2 PM in order to intercept music-friendly parents and babies, as well as the post-dinner rush when tipsy New Yorkers jump from one bar to another.
Choose a diverse repertoire that you connect with
Regardless of whether you’re playing gutbucket blues or bossa nova, make sure that your material of choice excites you. “I probably differ from about 90-percent of buskers in that I perform nearly all of my own music,” says Gelman. “That’s how I sell CDs. I connect most strongly to my own songs and people connect to that and respond to that in turn.”
Within her own material, Gelman chooses material that may be bluesier, more rocking, or quieter depending on the vibe she gets from her listeners of the moment. Pattillo also emphasizes diversity: “Old ladies and young kids are going to like different kinds of music, so play one type of music to draw the old lady in, and while she’s watching, play another piece of music that brings the kids in. Once you have a crowd, the crowd brings more people in, just by itself.”
Pattillo often goes a step further, playing songs in tempo with people walking by in order to grab their attention. “You need to find a way to get into people’s heads subconsciously,” he says. “If you can get them to even look at you, that’s the first step towards drawing a crowd.”
Above all else, try different selections and see what draws audience attention. “We experimented with Mozart and Beethoven classic quartet music, but that tended to not work as well for earning money as popular classical standards like Pachelbel’s Canon,” says Premawardhana. “If people hear something that they know and love, they’ll generally stop and put bucks in.”
Whether you have post cards, a sign, or a banner, make sure you have something for people to read while they watch you, says Pattillo. “Signs are how I grab people’s attention,” adds Gelman. “And there’s the added bonus that if people take photos and videos of me and they end up on YouTube, then my name is there in the video.”
Gelman further advocates putting your personality into your physical busking setup. “I’ve seen people put out little carpets and set up tables to put their stuff on,” she says. “I used to have a sign that said, ‘take a card for good karma.’ You can have fun with it.”
Beyond signage and postcards, having a CD to sell is important, even if the recording isn’t professional, says Pattillo. “Sometimes people want to take a bit of that experience home with them, so be sure to give them the option to buy something they can hold on to.”
Go with the flow
“When you busk, don’t take yourself too seriously,” advises Gelman. “Honor that what you’re doing is unpredictable and subjective to your audience, more than at any other place. If you can tune into that energy, you’re going to have a much easier time.”
Part in parcel with that philosophy is focusing not just on making money, but on connecting to the audience, spreading your name, and generally growing as a musician and a performer. “I always saw busking both as an opportunity to practice and to perform,” says Premawardhana. “Singing or playing an instrument is like flying an airplane. The more flight hours you can put in, the better.”
Pattillo agrees, pointing out that busking can give you valuable experience in front of a crowd, even if you don’t earn a cent doing it. “I practice a lot in the practice room, but the second you have eyes on you, it changes the entire experience of performing,” he says.
Pattillo also sees busking as a prime opportunity to develop new material. He recently wrote a commissioned work for beatbox flute over a month of busking dates in the New York subway. “I brought a recorder to each show, practiced different ideas, and took note of what ideas worked and when people paid,” he says. “After each performance, I worked on the piece, re-memorized it, and tried it again the next time.”
Give, and expect, respect
Since busking isn’t generally as regulated as a club gig, it’s important to be aware of your fellow street performers. That means showing up early to claim prime busking locations, being friendly and respectful towards others busking musicians, and standing up for yourself when you need to.
“There’s a fine line between being respectful to other people and being able to push back when someone’s being a little disrespectful to you,” Pattillo says. “Set yourself up in a place where you’re not going to get in the way of other people busking. But that being said, I’ve set up in the New York subway before and had two loud hand drummers plop down 50 feet away. You have to have the confidence to walk over there and ask them to please respect you.”
Manage fear and have fun
“The first time I went to busk in New York City, I was 28 and had 14 years of busking experience already,” says Pattillo. “But I was still terrified that I would mess up and that somebody would punch me in the face!” He plunged onward, though, and after breaking the ice, his trepidation vanished. “The only way to get over the fear is just to do it.”
“There’s something really special and sacred about street performers,” continues Gelman. “You’re bringing music to people who don’t normally get to hear it. Try making jokes, or doing whatever you can to get people out of their shells. Just keep connecting and having fun.”
Michael Gallant writes, produces, sings, and plays keyboards for the indie rock band Aurical. He is also the founder of Gallant Music, a custom content and music creation firm based out of New York City. For more, visit auricalmusic.com and gallantmusic.com.
“How To Get a Street Performer Permit” at www.ehow.com.
Street Arts & Buskers Advocates – A good general resource with a whole section with various court decisions related to busking.
Zen of Busking
City of Chicago’s official site – specific to Chicago, but gives an example of the requirements for busking in a city.