Busk A Move – A Guide to Busking

Although busking can sometimes seem like begging, particularly if the busker is terrible at whatBusking Guide he/she does, it normally is far from. It can be a great way to spend an afternoon in a city where there might not be much worth doing. So why not try and make enough to cover your accommodation, or at least a few drinks.

The first step to busking is to have “a thing you do”, that thing could be to juggle, play guitar, sing, play spoons or eat glass. Whatever it is, it may be enough to make it in the cutthroat industry that is busking. But before you grab a piece of cement and commence your busking attempts, lets go through the basics.

Location, Location, Location.

Like any small business, the location you setup “shop” can have a strong impact on how many people see you, which in turn, determines how much you’re going to make. Keep in mind, certain places to busk are illegal, or certainly frowned upon. (Setting up shop outside an abortion clinic=bad. Setting up shop in a downtown city square=good) Avoid being too close to other buskers, they may be better at the “thing they do” and could possibly steal your potential clients. Or, if they are slightly deranged, they may feel you’re stepping on their turf, which may end in a Busk Off, and if you’re new to to the game, you’ll probably lose.

Setup Shop

Finding somewhere with good lighting will cause more people to see you, which in turn may fill your hat a little quicker. It also keeps people from tripping over you and your stuff.  You don’t want some Yuppie to kick your guitar case causing all your hard work to spill down a drain. Trust me. Once you’ve got your spot picked out, you’ll need a container, a hat, your guitar case, or something that you can keep your earnings in. As lame as it may sound, tossing in a couple of your own dollars into your case can benefit you. Some people will think “Someone else thought he/she didn’t suck, I think I might do the same. After all, I dig this song.” But having too much can have the opposite effect. “What a bunch of suckers giving their money away, look at him, he’s got enough to feed himself for two days. And what’s with this song? Sucks to the mega…”

Play for the masses

Just because you’re a huge fan of slipknot, or some other rhetorical screamo band, does not mean other people are. So stick with the classics and play what everyone really wants to hear. “Wonderwall”, “Knockin’ On Heavens Doors”, perhaps some ACDC. If you’re doing a decent rendition of the song, some people may stop. Once you have 3 or 4 people stopped and listening, you officially have them eating out of your hand. Now reel them in further, and finish them.

Pay up!Busk How To

A good finishing move can determine whether you’re going to get some guys coffee change, or his lunch money. Go for the lunch money. He may have been planning on having a steak for lunch. So once you’ve finished the song that seduced those people in, be sure to tell one or two of them a little about yourself. Speaking to the masses while busking lets people sneak off, because they figure “someone else is listening too”. Single one or two of them out, aim for the ones that look like they’d be having that steak. Speak loud enough to those people that others can hear your plight. “I actually just do this on my days off when I’m not working at the Childrens Hospital”. Don’t turn into a chatty Kathy though, or a sob, if you lose their attention, you lose their money. On to the next song.

Plan a decent playlist

On occasions where people are actually listening to you, you don’t want to be scratching your head thinking “What could I play next?” – Have it written on your hand, a piece of paper, or on the back of your guitar. Find a consistent flow between songs. You may have heard of the 80/20 rule in business. The same applies here. Have 80% of your songs geared towards the majority (ie covers from the last 25 years that people will recognize immediately) – Then fill the remaining 20% with songs you enjoy playing or hearing. If you get a crowd on your 20%, stick with it. It might bring in some money.

Be grateful, not dead

If someone tosses in a couple quarters, don’t snap on them. It may have been all they had. I once saw a busker lose it on someone for throwing in less than he expected, and he lost it. He scared away all his potential clients. Needless to say he may have been one of those deranged buskers, or maybe he was just itching for a drug fix. Either way, he was rude. Be polite. Even if you look like a bum, or smell like one, if you’ve got a kind heart and a gracious smile, people may show compassion and be willing to give. A polite “Thank you sir” or “Thank you ma’am” is all it takes. You are providing your clients with a product, and that product is music (or whatever you do) along with a Warm Fuzzy Feeling. Without a “thank you” you are only giving away the thing you do. People will give again if they get the warm fuzzies. You may not ever see that money, but fellow buskers may. Share the love.

There isn’t much of a science to busking, just get out there, make some noise, be friendly. Talk to locals if possible, or other buskers. Ask them for tips. Ask them what the best corners are or which stores won’t chase you away with a broom. Remember to have fun with it. As soon as it starts feeling like work, then it might be time to quit. After all, you’re traveling to avoid that, n’est pas?

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7 Responses to “Busk A Move – A Guide to Busking”

  1. Daniel
    July 17, 2009 at 6:21 pm #

    “Be grateful, not dead” — nice! Love buskers, and support them when I can. Also dig heading to Buskerfests in places like Dundas and Halifax—and I think that Victoria might have one as well. Love the supporting indie music. Thanks for the post, Corbin. Agree that the buskers who engage the audience, without being over-the-top (unless they’re meant to be) are the ones who enjoy the most success. Wish I had a talent for busing. Unfortunately, blogging isn’t considered to be one.

  2. Inge
    July 21, 2009 at 8:31 pm #

    Is it really that simple? Just go stand somewhere? I think here in the Netherlands it’s even illegal if you don’t have special permission, but in Canada it is allowed?

    • Corbin
      July 27, 2009 at 2:37 am #

      @Inge – It really is that simple, it’s a bit of a hit and a miss though. City by-laws determine whether or not it’s illegal. Some cities (Edmonton comes to mind) make it neccessary to have a “Street Performers Lisence” – Unfortunately I have no idea how much that is. Most police officers will give you a warning before handing out a fine. Most places in Canada allow it though, so long as you’re not disrupting everyday life.

      • Alisa Amor
        April 5, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

        Corbin, could you tell me if the laws in Canada are the same for people selling their art in the street? My friend would like to paint on the streets and sell his work, but he is Mexican and doesn’t want to travel to Canada to be told he can’t work. Here is what he does.
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT99zcWGZzk
        Any guidance on finding a good and legal spot would be much appreciated.! Thanks for your blog!-Alisa

  3. Inge
    September 3, 2009 at 10:03 pm #

    Thanks for your reply Corbin (bit late, I know). Sounds like fun to try at least :)

    • Corbin
      September 11, 2009 at 5:15 pm #

      @Inge – Haha, definitely worth a try. Might not make much, but you’ll probably meet some fun people. I’ll be busking over in the Maritimes within a matter of weeks. Can’t wait!

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