As more club owners shift to cover bands, DJs and karaoke nights, the idea of busking--the popular term for the vigorous strumming of a guitar--begins to sound more attractive. The romantic image of guitar troubadour against the world has inspired stars like the Clash--whose May 1985 busking tour of northern Britain and Scotland remains legendary--and the Pixies' Black Francis. For up-and-comers, busking offers a low-key chance to learn their craft, without the pressures of ticket sales. However, the busking lifestyle offers its own particular challenges. Dealing with them is the margin between success and failure.
- Skill level:
- Moderately Challenging
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Things you need
- Acoustic guitar
- Drums (if performing as a one-man band)
- Electric guitar or keyboard
- Guitar capo
- Self-produced compact disc
- Tip can, jar or sign (to aid in collecting money)
Study the areas you plan to busk. In cities and college towns, the central business district or downtown area is the logical starting point, one that deeper-pocketed professionals are more likely to frequent. If that option is not possible, think creatively where large crowds are likely to gather. If that means hopping a subway to train, or strumming among the celebrants at a college football tailgate party, do not hesitate to try it.
Avoid tying yourself down to one spot--competitors inevitably spring up as word gets around. This is especially true in big cities, where you may be among many rivals trying their luck, or lumped in with beggars. Choose carefully where you stand, to avoid being drowned out by passing traffic. Timing is everything, as well. Obviously, weekends tend to work best--but a crowded lunchtime outside the local cafe may be just as lucrative, depending on the situation.
Keep set-up and warm-up times short, or you may lose people breaking their routine to hear you play. Tune guitars as far in advance as possible; the same goes for saxophones and other horns, if those are your favoured instruments. Pack essential items in a small overnight bag so you can whip them out after claiming a spot. Make decisions with practicality in mind--if using a capo, clamp it on your guitar for several songs, to avoid constant switching back and forth.
Keep your playing area clear and uncluttered. Display tip cans, hats or jars in a prominent place--such as by your guitar case. Posting a sign near an open guitar or saxophone case works well, too. Regardless of the method, you want people to know why you are playing, or else the effort is defeated before you even start.
Prepare to play a preponderance of non-originals--as people prefer songs they already know. The trick lies in finding enough creative rearrangement room to make the song your own. Bands like the Three Dog Night and the Temptations have built whole careers around this quality, which will enable you to stand out among the crowd, and fill your hat or tip jar more expeditiously.
Keep shows sharp and focused at all times. Remember that experience creates entertainment value, which is the key factor in persuading people to plunk money into your tip jar, or buy your self-produced CD. Good performers leave audiences wanting to hear more, not thankful their show is finally over. Twenty to 30 minutes is an ideal benchmark, but can obviously be extended for a receptive crowd.
Rotate setlists and song choices to keep the act fresh. Alternate keys and tunings. Rearrange better-known staples into a medley, or change genres completely--a rockabilly take on a Destiny's Child hit may get more attention than sitting down with a guitar and harmonica, proffering Bob Dylan's greatest '60s hits. Today's audience has more options to hear music than ever before, so going the extra mile--even in a largely non-original framework--is the best way to reach them.
Never seem needy for approval, which may backfire and earn an audience's contempt. Pay attention to nonverbal signals--if people start rolling their eyes, or shifting in place as they stand, cut your losses and try something else. If the crowd seems responsive, never fade into the woodwork. As a busker, you are a critical part of the street atmosphere, so make the most of an opportunity to imprint a colourful song or arrangement on it.
Working the Crowd
Tips and warnings
- Always have something to sell, such as a CD of your own originals or live performances. You will make more money and have a chance to build your career by slipping in a couple of original selections to help promote it.
- Learn as many songs as possible.
- Strive for an original presentation. Consider working with another musician, or recruiting an attractive-looking assistant to help pass the hat after performances.
- Dress smartly, even if you play in casual clothes. There is a fine line between busking and begging, but a scruffy appearance may provide sufficient grounds for someone to avoid giving anything.
- Make sure to fill out and pay the relevant federal, state and local taxes. This will spare a lot of aggravation later.
- Keep cool if hecklers pop up.
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