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Takin' It to the Streets: Busking

busk (bÅ­sk) intr.v. busked, busk•ing, busks. The practice of performing in public places for gratuities.

As long as there have been streets, there have been street performers. Busking has been a part of every major culture in the world since antiquity. In ancient Egypt and Greece, people entertained and passed the hat for donations. During the Middle Ages in Europe, troubadours were the personal street performers of the aristocrats, while minstrels and jongleurs brought joy to the general public. For many musicians, street performance was the most common means of employment before the advent of recording and personal electronics.

Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Jimmy Buffet, and Kaki King, just to name a few, all began their careers playing out in the streets and in subways. Busking is a great way to attract new fans, try out new music, and perhaps make some money in the process. But before you grab your guitar and head for the nearest street corner, there are a few things you need to know.

Do your research.

As a busker, you need to know the law. You don't want to set up on some street only to be confronted by a policeman five minutes into your act because a shop owner complained. You don't want to pose a danger to pedestrians who have to circle around you to get to the other end of the street. You don't want to find yourself performing on private property, or get caught without a permit where one is required.

It's better to be aware of the rules beforehand than to be prosecuted for panhandling. Some places are off limits to buskers, so it's a good idea to check your local laws first. Legal permits are required in some municipalities, while others turn a blind eye or even encourage busking. Even with a permit, many locations are still illegal to perform in. Some sidewalks are actually on private property for instance, and you can be arrested for trespassing and/or disturbing the peace. And don't busk right outside where a lot of people live. They might not find it so charming.

The easiest way to deal with the uncertainty of where you can and cannot busk is to ask another busker. You can also phone your council, town hall, or Google "busking in (city name)". And it's not only polite to ask the shops you are performing near for their permission to do so, but it's also smart. That way they won't have a leg to stand on should they start to complain.

Location, location, location.

You want to choose your "pitch," or the place where you perform, wisely. The ideal busking pitch is a fairly quiet place with plenty of foot traffic, like street corners, squares, pedestrian malls, farmers' markets, and fairs. If you can find a spot with lots of foot traffic, the tips will come. You should choose a place where there are a lot of passersby, but not too much traffic that you are swallowed up in it. You want a place where you can be heard well, and where people can hang around and listen to your music. It goes without saying to avoid places where there is construction work going on, or a spot that is too close to another busker, or anywhere that poses a danger to passersby, like a corner where people are trying to cross a street.

In addition to experimenting with places to busk, you also want to play around with times. Playing at night can be tricky as you don't want to disturb people living nearby. There are also far more people out and about at night who may've been imbibing far too many pitchers of beer. On the other hand, playing at night could net you a super hat, so do yourself a favor and experiment.

Pack light and keep the volume down.

Many buskers forego performing with an amplifier for the sake of convenience. You have to be able to carry your gear around easily as you may have to walk some distance to your busking spot. Not only that, but amplifiers require electricity, and with no place to plug in, you will have to work with batteries that need to recharge. There are also some towns where you're not allowed to amplify your instruments to help minimize complaints of nearby shops, neighbors, etc. Learn to perform your music with minimal setup. Strip it down to the basics. Guitar and voice? Great!

But unamplified busking will have you thrashing your instrument and straining your voice just to be heard, right? Well, not necessarily. There really is no need to be loud. You should aim to be heard within about a 33-foot radius. Anything louder may discourage listeners to come close and will put you at risk for complaints from local shopkeepers, not to mention the hit your tips will take if people feel compelled to keep a safe distance from you.

Prepare a meaty repertoire.

If you're going to perform the same handful of songs over and over and over again throughout the entirety of a day, the shops around where you perform aren't going to be too pleased. The passersby who you manage to hook are going to leave, and you're going to bore yourself to death. Prepare an hour's worth of music minimum.

Cover songs go over better than original music in most cases, and variety is key. Play songs from different time periods and even genres to help keep your audience interested. A 60-year-old man will most likely not be familiar with your cover of a Taylor Swift song. People are more likely to leave you a tip—and will sometimes tip more—if you are playing songs they enjoy. And do keep your songs upbeat to get the crowd into it. Brooding, melancholic songs may be perfect for a smoky club, but buskers gather the best crowds when they play material that puts listeners in a good mood. If certain songs tend to bring in more money than others, play them, and others like them, more often.

Be good at what you do.

Busking is a great way to hone your act and get experience playing in front of people. This doesn't mean that you should use it to practice your instrument. Nobody wants to give money to someone who's making mistake after mistake. Playing a wrong note here and there is human and can be overlooked, but too many of them are painful to hear and will drive people off. Busking is no different than performing on a stage. Be professional. Come prepared and know your songs inside and out, forwards and backwards.

Dress for success.

First impressions are hard to shake. As an artist, understand that the image you are projecting is crucial to your success as a busker. A poor first impression can kill your take at day's end. If you take dressing comfortably to the level of shabby, people will mistake you for a beggar. You are not a beggar. You're a musician showcasing your music to the world, or at least the city you are playing in. Dress the part.

Engage your listeners.

No matter how enraptured you may be with your own playing, don't keep your eyes closed all the time, and don't play looking down at your instrument, only raising your head when you hear a coin fall. You need to be looking at people and acknowledging your listeners. You want to engage them by actively performing. Stand, dance, and by all means smile to help draw them in.

If you're shy and can't get through a performance with your eyes open, remember this: many a busker has experienced theft of their hard-earned cash. With your eyes closed, you aren't aware of your environment, which makes it easy for someone to steal from you. That ought to help open your eyes.

Acknowledge your benefactors.

It is a common courtesy to thank those who help you out, be it monetarily or otherwise. Acknowledge your listeners, and especially those who drop a coin or bill into your guitar case, hat, or whatever it is you are using to collect tips. Smile or nod at them when you're in the middle of a song, and thank them if you can in between songs. And don't be too shy to talk to them. They will appreciate it.

And speaking of tips, before you start busking for the day, "seed" your case or hat by putting some money in there to kick things off. Include denominations you're looking for and are likely to get (coins and dollar bills) as a subtle suggestion to people walking by. Once your audience sees the money, they will be encouraged to add more to it.

Market yourself.

You can add a second income stream to your busking by offering products for sale at your performances. If you are a musician, sell t-shirts and have CDs of your music available for purchase. Display your merchandise prominently, and clearly post the price. Encourage your listeners to put their name on your mailing list. Have flyers promoting your next gig at the ready. Have banners displaying your name and website. Use this platform for a little self-promotion.

Treat your fellow buskers with respect.

You will find that most buskers look out for one another, and that there is often a great sense of community among street performers. There can at times though be fierce competition for a particular pitch. If your pitch is already taken, don't hesitate to come and ask the busker in place how long he's planning to stay and when you can come back. Otherwise go somewhere else. Always be friendly. The same guy might keep your spot for you when you come back, and you should do the same for him if he asks. Share the public space. Don't hog the best spots, and give your fellow busker plenty of room. It is very bad form to directly compete for other buskers' customers, and in most cases this results in both buskers making less than they otherwise would. Remember, you're all in this together.

Be aware.

Always be watchful for thieves. Never leave your tips, props, or instrument unattended for even a moment, and try to watch people carefully if you pass a hat. Also be mindful of beggars, who are known to congregate around buskers and try to sponge off their talent. Even worse, some beggars will harass the busker or passersby. Deal with this situation as you see fit, but in general, avoid confrontation, especially with drunken panhandlers or groups.

These are just a few tips to help get you started down the busking trail. Busking is a great way to do what you love while earning some extra cash, so have fun with it. Your enthusiasm will be contagious.

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