Being an avid musician, I’ve tried my hand at busking a time or two (for those who don’t know what busking is, it’s pretty much panhandling, but less homeless). I’ve done it many times throughout the Columbia Gorge area over the course of the past two years with very mixed results. Here is a compiled list of the "Do"s and "Don't"s of busking.
Note: I have only played on the street in the Gorge, but many of these tips will apply anywhere.
01. If you don’t play guitar, you’ll make more money. Luckily for me, I’m a multi-instrumentalist, so I’ve been able to test out this theory. Let’s face it, everyone and their mother plays guitar. If I were to come up to someone playing acoustic guitar on the street, I wouldn’t even bat an eyelash as I walked away (unless the guy is the new Leo Kottke, but I highly doubt it). There’s something about seeing an instrument that’s slightly out of the ordinary that others find enticing. For example, over the course of two years I’ve probably made about $50 playing acoustic guitar, but I made more than that in three hours playing my bass and $10 playing trumpet for about 5 minutes.
02. If you play an instrument that frees your vocals, sing. It doesn’t matter how bad you sing (well, kind of). People appreciate the effort, and sometimes they won’t know what song you’re playing otherwise.
03. The weirder, the better. If you play bagpipes, six recorders at once, you’re a one-man band, sitar, or anything in between, I can guarantee that you’ll make more money than Joe Schmo over there playing Nirvana on a beat up Ibanez Acoustic. This definitely applies to the Gorge, especially Portland. Keep it weird, but not "borderline schizo" weird. Know your own limits of crazy.
04. Don’t get discouraged if people don’t pay you. The last thing you want to do is think that people didn’t pay you just to spite you. You’re probably good; I believe you. There are a lot of factors involved pertaining to why someone didn’t pay you. Maybe they’re short on cash, maybe they didn’t like it, or it could be something as simple as they didn’t notice you were there. Someone is bound to throw you a couple of bucks every once in a while.
05. Even if you don’t like popular music, learn 4 or 5 pop songs. As stupid as this sounds, it’s completely true. I am one of the many millions of people out there that hate pop music with a passion, but bear in mind, it isn’t called pop music because everyone hates it. If it makes you feel any better, learn a pop song and play it ironically, you rebel.
06. Movie and video game themes are always a plus. This speaks for itself. I made $20 playing the Super Mario Bros theme on my bass one day.
07. Remember that the amount you make is all up to you. You’ve got to play the entire time to make the maximum amount of money that you can.
08. Be heard, but not loud. If you can amp up, then by all means, do it. It’ll make it easier for people to know that you’re there. The only piece of advice I can give here is that you don’t need yourself cranked up to 11 if you’re in a place with a lot of people packed into a small area. If anything, they’ll discourage your playing because they can’t hear themselves think. Also, other people will likely be doing the same thing as you, and overpowering them will just p--ss them off.
09. Play multiple locations throughout the day. Location is everything. Ideally you can find a great place to play where a lot of people will pass you, but that isn’t always the case. If you move around, then there’s a more likely chance that someone who didn’t see you before will notice your awesome chops. Location is first come, first served. At least that’s the general rule. If you find a gem, camp on it and don’t move at all. Bearing that in mind, don’t poach other people’s spots. You wouldn’t want someone to come up to you and start playing without asking, would you?
10. Play with others if you can. Statistically, more people playing means more money in this business. If you’re in a band, try and get a band member to come down. If you don’t, maybe you’ll see someone playing a similar style as you and politely ask if you can play with them for a little while. If they deny you, oh well.
11. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. If you’re any good, people will come up to you and talk to you. That’s a given. You’ll get a ton of Brownie Points if you can chat up patrons. They may come back simply because of your personality. Also, sometimes people will come up to you because they would like to jam with you sometime. Even if you don’t like their style of music, take their number/card with a smile and let them know you’ll call them. Then actually call them.
12. Let people know visually that you want money i.e. a sign, and put out a case. I don’t know how many times I’ve had people come up to me and ask, "Are you playing for tips?" Of course I am. But, if they had to ask, it means you weren’t projecting yourself as a performer. It’s a quick fix: grab some cardboard and a sharpie and write something clever on it. Notice I said "clever", not "vulgar".
13. Stand up. I like sitting down when I play. Fact. I’m also not the tallest of guys so people usually notice my existence only when they’re right up next to me, if they even notice me at all.
14. Support other people doing the same thing. This is just a reiteration on tip 9. If you see a musician that knows what he’s doing on the performance end, but isn’t making any bucks, (maybe) send a few dollars his way when you get the chance, or steer some of your listeners over to them afterward.
15. Take lots of short breaks, not one long one. This one kind of goes with tip 7. Try and take 5 every couple of songs. If you really need to go to the bathroom, make it quick. Have food and drinks on-hand so you don’t have to go anywhere to buy anything. This also applies to tip 9.
16. Be prepared when put on the spot. People are greedy. They think you’re playing just for them and, for the most part, you’ll have to. They are also going to ask for requests. If you don’t know what song they’re talking about, tell them politely and go through the musical rolodex in your head and find one of a similar genre. Customers are always right, unless they try to give you advice. On the whole, take advice from others with grain of salt.
17. Be aware of the weather beforehand. If the weather is bad, then so will be your earnings. Know ahead of time whether or not you’re going to be playing in a monsoon; it may be a bit of a hindrance.
By Cory Becker-Warren