Here are some suggestions that I’ve accumulated in my busking experiences. Additions and contradictions welcome. For what it’s worth, my act is to stand there playing fiddle tunes – I don’t bottle (directly solicit tips) or do banter, and somebody with a more “show business” kind of act might need to do some things differently.
CHOOSING A PLACE
1. Pick a spot where you’re visible from as many directions as possible. People need time to recognize what you’re doing, decide to give you a tip, and find it in their pockets. If they can see you for a minute before they’re actually in front of you, they’re a lot more likely to give you a tip then if they suddenly come upon you hidden in a doorway and only have seconds to react.
2. Be very considerate about where you set up, so that you avoid confrontation and avoid annoying the passersby. Be sure that you are not blocking smooth traffic flow into any store, and be sure that you’re not making it difficult for wheelchairs or baby strollers to pass or get onto the curb. Also, avoid captive audiences (i.e., playing right beside a restaurant with outdoor seating).
3. One exception to what I just said about captive audiences is traffic lights – choosing intersections that have traffic lights is good, because being a briefly captive audience gives them the time they need to decide to give you a tip.
4. Stores that are out of business or closed for the weekend are often a good place to play in front of. There’s nobody there to object to you, and often there’s a doorway where you can put your backpack out of the way behind you, or a canopy to keep off the sun and rain. Don’t stand yourself too far back in their doorway though; or you won’t be visible enough.
5. When choosing a part of town to busk in, don’t necessarily rule out areas with lower traffic, because often you can still make good money there, because finding you there is a pleasant surprise, and you’re not competing with the panhandlers and other buskers the next block over or who were there yesterday. In a spot in my hometown where I consistently make excellent money, it’s not unusual for me to play a set of tunes without anyone even walking by. But when they do come along, they give me something. But on the busiest city streets, or in a market where busking is more common, a much lower percentage of passersby give me something.
6. Many cities will have a downtown core and several smaller, alternative downtowns – perhaps a district that is known as being artsy, trendy, collegy. I’ve found that the minor downtowns are generally better than the main downtowns – people are happier, it’s easier to get a corner.
7. Keep a respectful distance from other buskers, especially other musicians, but don’t necessarily let a little piped in music push you around. A number of times I’ve tried out spots that seemed perfect except for an audible radio from a nearby business, but I found that I was still able to dominate the sound waves in the immediate area, and still did fine in tips. Obviously, if the piped in music is really blaring or you’re really quiet this won’t work.
8. I’d pick a less than perfect spot in the shade over a perfect spot in the sun. The real secret to making money busking is patience and stamina – and you’ll have more patience and stamina if you’re comfortable.
9. Keeping in mind that you should not get your legal advice from Mudcat: don’t ask for permission to busk, don’t ask if it’s legal, just go ahead and do it. If someone confonts you, your line is a polite “I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I’ll be going now.” The guerrilla approach (not to be confused with the gorilla approach; leave that to the rentacops) is simple and effective and I’ve never gotten into any real trouble with it, even in places where I’ve known it was illegal. (I’ve been kicked out of lots of places, but that’s not real trouble – real trouble is being fined, arrested, or beaten up.)
The cliche that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission is true. Also, the only laws that matter are the ones that anybody cares to enforce. If you are considerate in where you play, so you’re not likely to tick anyone off, and you look good and sound good, chances are nobody will care enough to enforce the law.
If you are busking somewhere where you suspect or know it’s illegal, remember the principle that “running makes you look guilty”. So if a cop is around, just keep playing as if there’s no problem – don’t close your case or try packing up quickly. If you do, saying “I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed” will be much less believable.
10. Keeping in mind that you should not get your medical advice from Mudcat: a mild state of dehydration is your friend. Publically available washrooms aren’t always easy to find, and it sucks to have to interrupt a good busking session, possibly losing your good spot to another busker, because you have to go pee. You’ll need to have a water bottle along, but don’t overdo it.
11. Coins dropped into your case from a height will sometimes bounce right out again. So take a quick look around the ground for stray coins when you’re leaving, and don’t put your case down beside a sewer grate (yes, learned the hard way). And while you’re at it, don’t put your case down anywhere you see a lot of pigeon droppings (no, not learned the hard way).
>12. People will ask about lessons, so if you don’t teach, consider carrying the phone number of your friend who does.
13. Be an opportunistic bastard. If Johnny Cash dies, get out there and play his hits. If the Blue Jays are in the Stanley Cup finals, wear something that implies you care.
14. Exploit children. If someone with a baby or toddler is stopped near you, play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. If it’s a young child, ask if they have a favourite song – they’ll probably say “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” If it’s a medium child accompanied by an adult and looking interested, consider offering to let them try your instrument (personally I always keep one hand on the fiddle while letting a kid try, and I take a peek at the cleanliness of their hands first).
Being kid-friendly has three advantages. One, it makes you more interesting to the kids and their parents, and kids and parents are often your best customers. Two, it will attract the attention of unrelated passersby who want to watch the cute kid dance or try to play fiddle. Three, it makes you feel like a bit of a folk missionary, giving the kids a chance to hear and try live acoustic music.
15. It’s very common for someone to pass you once then give you a tip on a the way back, once they’ve had more time to think about or have gotten change at the store. What this means for you is that every time you start busking, you start with a slow stretch when everybody is a first-time passer. And every time you stop busking, you lose tips from the people who would have given you something on the way back. So, try to start and stop less often: i.e., if you’re going to play for three hours in a day, you’ll probably do better in two 90 minute shifts and three 60 minute shifts. Also, don’t be in a rush to leave the spot when you’re tired of playing. Have your break nearby. It’s happened to me many times that people have approached me with a tip in the fifteen minutes after I stopped playing, saying, “I heard you earlier.” On the other hand, sometimes people will say, “I’ll get you on the way back”, and sometimes they do, but don’t make any decisions based on these promises.
16. If there are people stopped when you finish a tune, ask if they have a request. Even if you only know the chorus, or ear the song out with some trial and error, people appreciate your making an attempt at their requests.
17. Salt your case (put some of your own money in) with the kind of currency you want to attract. Peer pressure is a powerful force; people will look to other’s example to see if they should give you a tip, and if so, how much. I’ve also noticed that tips often come in clumps – I go for ten minutes without a tip, then four people give me something within in the space 30 seconds. I suspect this is peer pressure; seeing the first person lets the others know that it’s the thing to do.
18. If there’s an alternative to money that you’d be happy to receive, consider salting your case with it too (subway tokens, Canadian Tire money, even food if you’re in a market). Some people enjoy giving a concrete gift instead of money, and some people may suspect that you’ll just buy drugs if they give you money. Often people will offer a cigarette, but if you smoke, I don’t recommend putting cigarettes in the case to give people the idea, as it will likely drive away other customers.
19. Sometimes, people steal from buskers. There’s not really much you can do about it except minimize your losses by limiting how much money you let collect in your case. Do not chase a thief – to do so is to turn a non-violent encounter into a potentially violent one, and what are you going to do anyway, with a fragile and valuable instrument in your hands? Also, consider that criminals sometimes work in teams – someone who grabs some money may just be trying to distract you so his buddy can steal your whole case, or your backpack or spare instrument.
20. This is more of a long term strategy – but remember that busking depends on a publicly-owned, pedestrian-oriented scene. So do your shopping at businesses with downtown storefronts instead of malls or box stores where there’s no public space or no pedestrians, and help keep downtowns alive! Also, I think it’s good manners and good public relations to give your business to stores that you busk in front of, if practical.
21. Maybe this should have been tip number one: keep the faith. I know that many people have a lot of stage fright related busking (more so than playing gigs, it seems sometimes), and you will have good days and bad days and occasionally some encounters that aren’t so nice. Keep at it!