Why you should try busking: Yes, even you!

November 20 | Guest post by Lydia de Leeuw
banjo2
Photo courtesy of CC BY 2.0)

Earlier this year, I took a singer-songwriter course at a local cultural institute, to improve my songwriting. Our tutor, singer-songwriter Rupert Blackman, encouraged us to play in public as much as possible. Go to open mics, play family parties, play for your friends until they beg you to stop, and also: busk.

I had never really considered busking before, but a few post-class sessions with my coursemates lit a spark within me, and now I am addicted.

I'm not here to give you busking tips though; I haven't got nearly enough experience for that yet. No, in the spirit of my ukulele and bad art post, I just want to explain to you why busking is AWESOME, and why you should consider doing it if you play an instrument (or have other performance skills).

It's fun

I enjoy playing my ukulele and singing songs, whether they're my own or cover versions (I do a very quirky Wannabe). Doing those things on the street doesn't change the inherent fun-ness, and fun is always my number one motivation for playing. Though the streets do add some other factors…

You connect with people

Sure, there are jerks out there who will sneer. But you'd be surprised by how outnumbered they are by the people who enjoy your presence! And it's not just the people that give money — so many passers by just give me a smile, or a thumbs up, or a thanks. Kids, especially, are fascinated by buskers, and they are often adorable. It's amazing to think I might have brightened the day of some passing strangers, if even just a little. And that, in turn, brightens my day.

You (usually) make money

I am lucky; I am not dependent on busking for my income. I work two jobs already. But I do admit — the fact that this is a hobby that brings in money, rather than costing it, is certainly a pro. It's not a steady income in any way; the weather, the number of people on the streets, the location, and my performance all influence the amount of coins that get put in my little money bowl. But in my experience, I almost always make something — even if it's just fifty cents. I generally just treat the money as a bonus for doing something I enjoy (see also point one about fun) — that way, I'm never disappointed if I don't make much.

It's flexible

Is the weather nice? Do I have an hour or two to spare? I just grab my uke and go! This spot not working? Dark clouds building up overhead? I'm out of here in two seconds as well. I've done busking sessions that were ten minutes long and sessions that were two hours long. I'm not tied to any schedule, I'm not required to be anywhere, and I can play whatever the hell I want (though, depending on the rules in your city, you can be required to leave or move).

You get more confident

Busking isn't always easy — especially if you're inexperienced. It can be pretty daunting to thrust yourself into public attention. The first time I tried busking solo, I was so nervous that all the chords and lyrics I thought I knew by heart just fell out of my head. I made mistakes, the mistakes left me flustered and embarrassed, and that led to more mistakes… I packed up again within minutes. But trust me; it gets better. At some point you realize that you won't get laughed or booed off the sidewalk. That in fact, some people like hearing you! That's a huge confidence boost.

You get used to the awkwardness of starting a song from complete silence in front of unsuspecting strangers, you learn to soldier on when nobody seems interested, and to gauge your audience's reaction to know what does and doesn't work. And those are life skills you can use outside of busking too!

It can lead to things

My tutor's singer-songwriter career took off when he got spotted by a famous Dutch singer while he was busking. She bought his cd, and asked him to open up for her on her next tour. Okay, the tour was subsequently cancelled, but it did open a lot of doors for him. He got signed to a record label, has appeared on the biggest talk show on Dutch television and released a fairly successful album.

That confidence boost I mentioned above? It helped me to approach my favourite artist of all time, Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean, after a show of hers. With my ukulele in hand, I asked her if I could play her one of my songs. And not only did she listen to and like my song, she let me play it on stage with her the next night, and asked for the lyrics so she could sing backing vocals! I don't know if I would've had the guts for that without busking. But now I not only dared to ask her, but I also managed to get up on that stage and perform with a heroine, without dying a thousand nervous deaths.

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  1. Man, this is so cool! I'm not musically inclined and can't play a single instrument, but I love hearing and seeing street performance when I'm out and about. Keep on playing, party people!

    7 agree
  2. I love busking and hearing other musicians who are busking! However, a word of caution, especially for those in the US – not every city or state allows busking. Make sure you know it's legal before you head out there.

    5 agree
    • Also in Canada. I believe the city I live in (Waterloo) requires a license to busk. The license costs something like $100, I think monthly. (Although I could be wrong… I've never busked, I've just heard about it from others, and remember thinking it was crazy).

      • My city charges a $40/day permit for street performing – which I discovered when I was considering face-painting. πŸ™ (I didn't necessarily want to do it to make money, just because I enjoy it. With the pressure of "I have to at least make $40", I decided not to do it.)

    • I was wondering about this. I do play several instruments and I'm a singer-songwriter (I'm literally working on my MFA in songwriting right now), but I keep hearing stories of people who are asked to stop by the police or something, so I've never actually tried playing on the street for money– although I've wanted to. But I'm concerned about the legality of it. (I live in Silicon Valley.)

      My acapella group does do Christmas caroling at the local mall, but we choose an outdoor mall because I believe you need a permit to be performing in the enclosed indoor malls. I don't know where to find this information, though.

      • I'd start by poking around on the internet β€” see if there's anything on buskers in your city's bylaws or municipal code. Alternatively, if you ever see a street performer, ask them what it took to get there.

        3 agree
        • Well, after searching Google like crazy, I've discovered… absolutely nothing. I can't find a single article on any laws that may be effective in my area. Lots of "hey is busking legal in San Jose?" but no answers. Fail, internet!

          • Hey, I know this post was from 2 years ago so I'm wondering if you ever got an answer? I just moved to downtown San Jose, CA and I am trying to get the same question answered. Any help would be very much appreciated!!

            –Scott

    • That's definitely a good point! I didn't include it in the article because I wanted to focus on the upsides of busking, not the tips and tricks.

      I guess I'm lucky to live in a city where you can get a permit really easily – it's free and you don't have to audition or anything, and it lasts for a year. I've never even been asked to show my permit while busking.

  3. Just keep in mind that some cities/states/provinces/municipalities, have bylaws concerning busking. At least some parts of Vancouver, BC, require a permit before performing, as far as I'm aware at least.
    And I could be wrong, but I think I've heard that some areas even require you to pass an audition first… But like I said. I could be wrong.
    Personally, if I was even slightly musically inclined, I would go for it! There's always someone playing somewhere in Vancouver, and it makes visiting downtown that much more interesting. πŸ™‚

    3 agree
  4. I love love love busking!

    I started doing it when I was 15, and in three months, raised $5000 to pay for a trip to Australia, to sing in the Sydney Opera House with my school Jazz Band.

    I don't do it so much now, because I live in a big city with stupid rules about busking, but every time I go home for the holidays, my sisters and I manage to make enough to pay for all our Christmas Shopping, which is great πŸ™‚

    5 agree
  5. My city used to be awesome for busking, but a few years ago, the merchants got pissy claiming the street performers were taking money away from legitimate businesses. Now it's pretty much illegal except for the places that don't have any people in them anyways. It just makes me sad. I used to love watching. Now that I have a skill (contact staff) I can't go out without the cops shitting it down.

  6. I used to keep tap shoes in my car in case I ever needed to make a few bucks. Never did it, but I think it prevented car breakdowns.

    2 agree
    • I would do this if I could pack a floor as well– no way am I taking my tap shoes out on concrete! Haha

  7. Inspirational! I need a little more income, and this would be the perfect way to do it!

    1 agrees
  8. I know Chicago has an annual Buskers license, along with specific restrictions about hours and locations. I got the information from the City Clerks office – the same place you go for your all your other city licenses. Also check into street fairs and other festival style events. I am a Storyteller and I'll often hook up with other outdoor events. I get covered under their license, get the crowds drawn in by their advertising, and so forth. The smaller ones only charge a small fee (like $10), although the larger ones can go as high as $50. But that's usually for an entire weekend, and I've never failed to make it back by lunchtime on Saturday. Most of them are pretty easy going and will come by to collect the fee after you've had a chance to earn it.

    1 agrees
  9. I have considered busking, but I only sing and can't play any instrument. Is it possible to busk unaccompanied? I have have relative pitch so once I know a song I have no problem with picking.

    • It's definitely possible, though perhaps a bit unusual. You could always try picking up an instrument (the ukulele is cheap and easy to learn πŸ˜‰ ) or finding musicians in your area to busk together.

      • Thanks. I will consider the ukulele. I think when people are playing some sort of instrument they draw a bit more attention to themselves πŸ™‚

  10. I do not have any amazing talent, but one time a few friends and I sat in front of Target and sang Christmas carols. After twenty minutes we were asked to leave, because some people complained, but some people loved it! One guy even gave us a quarter. And I can definitely say it was a fun confidence boost!

  11. Hello Lydia, some good information in this post.
    The girl in the picture is playing the banjo. A 5 String banjo. This is nothing like a ukelele.
    Surely, if you are going to go out busking, then, knowing what instrument you are playing would be pretty important. Going out busking, for the first time, not knowing what your instrument is called, must take nerves of steel.
    Otherwise, a pretty handy post.

    • Hi Vince. Don't worry, I'm well aware of what instrument I play (unlike some passers by, I might add). The girl in the picture is not me. The photo is just to illustrate the general practice of busking.

      1 agrees

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