17 Tips For Street Performers

This article summarizes tips to use when playing on the street for money.

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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

38 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    supersac
    once while busking a little girl ask me to play a hana montana song she was really happy and sang along and she gave me a lollipop she girls mother gave me 50 bucks best day ever dont ask why i know that song
    JFrankParnell
    learn Freebird. Then when some ***** shouts it out, you can be all impressive by actually knowing it. Once my band busked to make money to buy the 8 track tape we were going to record on the next day. We made $40 and a cake. True story.
    godisasniper
    Totally agreed. I busk in Cambridge, MA outside of Harvard University, and I think every point is totally true, and I've experienced almost every single one personally. Learning to have a thick skin, but take criticism, is vital IMHO. My first year, I was bad, and people let me know. I was really discouraged, but I pushed onwards and now I would consider myself at least decent. Also, I would suggest learning some slightly more off-the-beaten path covers. Nothing makes people happier (and thus more likely to tip) than hearing a favorite song unexpectedly. Everyone expects that Adele cover, but a cover of something more obscure out of her back catalog might be more ear catching to a fan of hers. One more thing: if Chris Martin from Coldplay is walking by, for christs sake don't try covering a Coldplay song. You will **** up and embarrass yourself. I know from experience...
    titoskins
    Another really great tip for buskers is to always bring some change with you to throw in your case so it looks like people have already stopped by to give you money. People are sheep and might not feel comfortable being the first person to give you some change.
    GlacierMan
    Put up ansign saying "This isn't a bass, I just couldn't afford the other strings!"
    thkoby
    When I was 16, my friend and I played Sweet Jane for about 3 hours with a sign at our feet saying "Family Killed By Ninjas; Need Money For Kung-Fu Lessons." A cop came by and told us we had to get rid of the sign, because it was apparently illegal to both busk and "beg" for change. We still made about $35 -- although it was probably because of the sign.
    RetroGunslinger
    I reckon the main thing that determines how much money you make is just what the people are like in that city. I mean in Belfast Ive seen some pretty great buskers but they never get any money, a couple of my mates have done it with one singer, 2 acoustic guitarists and a guy on one of them drumbox things and they made virtually nothing. The only people that make any money are the romanian violumpet player, an old slide player and once a guy drew a good crowd playing shred solos on an ibanez.
    MoonBoots432
    I busk in the Minnesota area, and I have never once played a cover song. I play originals, and I make more money by the hour than I do at my regular job (Although, not for 8 hours straight like at my regular job). One of the important things is to play with passion, and I find that easier to do when I wrote the song.
    Faeringman
    While I appreciate most of the tips in this thread, and I am glad that the initial post triggered it, I really do have to make a couple of comments here to the original poster. First of all, re your definition of busking ("it's pretty much panhandling, but less homeless")... Buskers are not panhandlers (although some are, indeed, homeless). The greatest challenge that street performers are up against is being lumped in with beggars, resulting in legal restraints and generally not being respected. Second, I would NOT agree with "by all means" amp if you can. Unwanted noise is one of the things that gets obnoxious musicians complained about and hence all street musicians lumped in as annoyances. Also, it is part of busking courtesy not to outplay your pitch. (Pitch: a place or area in which you perform.) Be loud enough to be heard by passers by, but not so loud as to compete with your another performer down the street or around the corner. On a personal note, while I understand that your emphasis was on the value of novelty, your comment that you would just walk away from a person playing guitar on the street without a second thought...(and pardon me for calling a spade a spade, but I invite you to reflect on the comment) you may be an extremely talented player, but you do not describe the actions of a brother in song. If someone is putting himself or herself out for the music, for God's sake give them the courtesy of fifteen seconds and respect for the guts and passion to be adding to the music. As I said, thanks for putting the intention of support out there, but I would encourage you to spend a few minutes in reverent research and reflection before carelessly pontificating about a phenomenon and community which made up of those who are putting themselves out with their music in many cases (obviously not yours) not for a lark but for for reasons ranging from the beauty of song to hunger and a choice not to beg.
    godisasniper
    titoskins wrote: Another really great tip for buskers is to always bring some change with you to throw in your case so it looks like people have already stopped by to give you money. People are sheep and might not feel comfortable being the first person to give you some change.
    Cannot stress this enough. The times when I forget to bring a buck or two to put in the bin, are the ones where I don't make much for the first hour.
    Icarus Lives
    Knowing how to deal with hecklers is important too. I've been hastled by all sorts of nasty folks when I'm out busking. You just have to ignore them and keep playing guys. Just sing and they'll go away.
    Campbell2727
    i play mandolin with a sign that says "need money for a hair cut" (being a typical UG fan boy i have long ish hair). works a treat
    I Have no Soul
    ^ I agree with this wholeheartedly. I didn't mention it in my article because no one really cares out here where I live, but in bigger places like NYC or big cities in California, you need an Entertainers Work Permit to play.
    I Have no Soul
    After re-reading the posts to this article, I will happily revise this. Mind you, when I wrote this I was 20 and busking in a high-tourist community in Oregon that was really relaxed when it came to street performers. As a now 24 year-old, I have some new knowledge.
    I Have no Soul
    ^ I agree with this wholeheartedly. I didn't mention it in my article because no one really cares out here where I live, but in bigger places like NYC or big cities in California, you need an Entertainers Work Permit to play.
    Whoops, sorry... a Busking Permit.
    JB95
    titoskins wrote: Another really great tip for buskers is to always bring some change with you to throw in your case so it looks like people have already stopped by to give you money. People are sheep and might not feel comfortable being the first person to give you some change.
    Or even better, get someone you know to give you money and cheer on you while there is many people around. If you have a large group of friends with money you gave them they can do that and people will probably do the same.
    Danjo's Guitar
    This is a very good article. I saw some guys busking the other day, a bassist and a violin, and we ended up giving them a bunch of money because they were really cool. They were mostly doing coldplay, but some other stuff too. I asked if they could do some chili peppers, and the guy said he'd learn Under The Bridge for me next time. I know I'll never see him again, but it was still cool.
    scottiewalton
    By all means, revise and make this great post even better! Thanks for all the advise. I am going to give busking a shot here in Columbus, OH. Not many buskers there in the downtown area and just found out you don't need a permit! Thanks again for the info and inspiration.
    Char2000
    Can't believe no one mentioned the cops. Make sure you have at least permission to play where you're at. Especially at a beach, mall, or restaurant. Just ask the owner.
    tezhowes
    A great set of 'commandments', great input in the replies, especially Faeringman. Lately, I've been having as much success with simply playing Spanish-sounding instrumentals; non-musician listeners seem to respond to it as though, well, I'm better than I actually am, ha! The only other thing I feel worth adding is that to some extent, I target certain 'demographics', somewhat based on when I think they were in their formative 'teen' years. An old couple, a Beatles tune. A gen x'er, a bit of the Clash. If I'm busking near an Irish themed tavern (one of my common pitches), some Waterboys, Billy Bragg, Luka Bloom, Ralph McTell, etc. (I'm in a small city in eastern Canada). Cheers and good wishes to all the commenters.
    theused101
    i like it man way to be honest and refrain from sain dickhead ish remarks. fighting the good fight
    CPDmusic
    ^ That IS NOT the quote I quoted, UG! It was the one about playing Freebird on request! CLICKING FAIL
    venom1stas
    I remember there was a kid playing in a shopping centre on his brand new strat and marshall amp. The note he put up said "Help me get fees for music institute"
    Elderer
    Id like to play my Strat amped up(beatifull Strat) but Im worried that it might be huge turn off-its electric thus expensive. So I must rich...thats what they will think.
    Dory77
    Great article. Some friends of mine used to go busking quite regularly, and in Canberra a lot of people busk, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights along the street near a bunch of night clubs. They made well over $100 bucks in a couple of hours, because there were so many drunks chucking in a couple of bucks. I wouldn't advise doing this alone though, there are a lot of hecklers (because everyone's drunk) and if you're a girl, a lot of willing suitors.
    CPDmusic
    Icarus Lives wrote: Knowing how to deal with hecklers is important too. I've been hastled by all sorts of nasty folks when I'm out busking. You just have to ignore them and keep playing guys. Just sing and they'll go away.
    I've always wanted to do that with my band, so if anyone shouts it, we can just be like "okay". Also, on the note of busking with unusual instruments, get a Hang (if you can, because they're apparently hard as hell to get your hands on). They're beautiful instruments, and most people don't even know they exist. ...But then again, if you've got 5 grand to blow on a Hang, you probably don't need to busk anyways
    MarkoakaNiggaK
    Also playing electric doesn't apply to the point wherenobody want's to hear a guitar. Just play some stuff from Joe Cocker or Garry Moore and you are going to be flowing over with cash. Those songs are easy to sing but transcribing some piano parts on Cocker songs may proove difficult.
    Matty_839
    RetroGunslinger wrote: I reckon the main thing that determines how much money you make is just what the people are like in that city. I mean in Belfast Ive seen some pretty great buskers but they never get any money, a couple of my mates have done it with one singer, 2 acoustic guitarists and a guy on one of them drumbox things and they made virtually nothing. The only people that make any money are the romanian violumpet player, an old slide player and once a guy drew a good crowd playing shred solos on an ibanez.
    Yeeeooooo up the hoods!
    Indo_Musician
    DAMN!,I like your tips,I play guitar all the time,but suddenly a few weeks ago something in my head tell me "dont be a monoton musician",so now I learn all instrument,I wanna be multi-Instrumentalist...just like you
    DaddyAxeMaster
    I recently became homeless. I'm in the street right now as I type this on an old beat up laptop that someone was kind enough to give me. I'm using it at lowes for the free wifi. I live in nj close to philly. I'm just wondering if anyone could help me out with tips on where I can go to busk, make money and get off the street.
    thomas.fleissne
    Check out www.sonicpipeamps.com for the perfect bass or guitar busking amps. The E-4 for bass and the E-3 for guitar and harmonica.
    iwin31
    Adding some type of percussion definitely helps, usually doubles the money from my experience
    booboomonsnter6
    I'm considering entering a busking comp and I was going to sing while playing guitar but now after reading tip 1 I'm going to play the ukelele. I have found a couple of pop songs that have the ukelele in them so I'm going to give it a shot.
    godisasniper
    Elderer wrote: Id like to play my Strat amped up(beatifull Strat) but Im worried that it might be huge turn off-its electric thus expensive. So I must rich...thats what they will think.
    You'll be fine. You wouldn't believe the sorts of amazing instruments I see guys here playing with - I'm performing with my beater Squier Jagmaster but I've seen guys with gorgeous American Strats and old Gibsons and the like.