I´ve busked in a lot of different cities and a lot of different countries: From Vancouver to Japan, Toronto to Milan, Germany and even a little in Valencia when I first arrived in Spain. And the one thing that will come as no surprise is that the name of the game is the same as with any kind of business that depends on foot traffic…LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION.
I´ve done my share of busking around the world and I´ve found there are places where it just doesn´t make sense to busk, and other surprisingly excellent situations. Usually big cities are the place to be since your quirky anonymity and talent can lead to lots of tips…in smaller cities or different countries, you may be competing with local homeless people and the image of you in the eyes of the passerby isn´t that much higher than the competition. In some cities it is illegal to busk and in others you can audition for a license and the “street performer number” you need to display while set up in those special areas of the city reserved for buskers.
So it all really depends where you are.
I´ve played in just about every situation and the experience has given me some pretty unique encounters and chance meetings with strange people.
- One time in Vancouver a guy dropped a 50 dollar bill in my guitar case because I happened to be playing RAMBLE ON (Led Zeppelin) as he was walking by – it was his favorite song and I made his day.
- Once in Munich I made 100 dollars in 1 hour busking in the train station waiting for a train. I found out later it wasn´t legal to busk there…but I got lucky. (Ahhh, the good old days when nice German people would toss away a 5 mark coin like it was almost worthless 😉 )
- Once in Liverpool, busking outside THE CAVERN, the owner of the bar came upstairs and invited us to come down into the club and play some Beatles songs on the stage….epic!
- One time in Florence I had a spontaneous jam with some Italian dude walking by me with his electric guitar and mini amp in his hand. He just sat down and started playing along with me for about 2 hours.
- A man once gave me his business card (he dropped it in my guitar case). The card had a strange graphic of a skeleton and a tree, a phone number, and the line: Finder of Unusual Things
- Then there were all those times working the “Liquor Store” shift in Victoria on Vancouver Island…all the local buskers would take 2 hour shifts in front of the local “Liquor Store” (In Canada, alcohol is tightly regulated by the govt. so you can only buy beer and spirits in special stores…usually called “The Beer Store” and “The Liquor Store” since we Canadians are either not very creative or really fucking funny). The first person to show up in the morning would make the” schedule” and then add to it as other buskers arrived in sequence. It was decent pay if you didn´t mind the odd beer instead of a coin in the guitar case.
Some Low Points:
- Unknowingly busking in countries/cities where the economy is crap (right now that´s everywhere right?) or where busking is not customary and spending the whole day singing your voice raw for nothing. (It´s not your fault man…you´re awesome….it´s just these people have other things to spend their money on, and they are looking at you funny because it´s kinda weird to see a guy singing in the street.)
- Getting dragged into the police station in Firenze Italy for busking without a permit during a festival.
- Freezing my fingers off more times than I can count.
- Being broke because even at this meager level…the music industry still sucks.
- But none of these “high” and “low” points can describe what it´s like when you genuinely capture a person´s attention and then watch it all happen in real time. That guy waking along the other side of the street, minding his own business, turns in your direction, crosses the street, and then hangs out for 7 min before dropping a token of appreciation in your guitar case…he leaves with a smile on his face and you know you just made a real connection and human impact with your music. THAT is probably the main thing busking gives back to you that you can´t get playing in any other venue…a way for you to filter through the crowds and see who you are really touching with your music.
Still, the one uniting factor from all these times and experiences was that the location had to be right. That Liquor Store gig worked so well because, well, people are drunks and seem to buy booze all day long. So as a busker, this means TRAFFIC which usually means a good location. A perfect example of this is a British girl I once knew in Japan who would go to the same Tokyo subway stop each day and play for just two hours…she usually made around 300 euros per day! Everybody else I knew there made their living teaching English…but not her.
OVERALL, I´d say it´s a great experience and you meet a lot of people and learn a bunch of useful skills (like how to fix a broken guitar string on the fly since you don´t have an extra and you gotta keep busking) and can make a few bucks in the process. But however much fun busking is, it has been a while since I last did it and there´s probably a good reason for that too.
Nowadays I spend most of my musical energy on DAZE OF DAWN and I like to think that what I bring to the practices and concerts comes from all the times I spent, paying my dues, playing my guitar and singing on the streets of the world.
By Klyde – Daze of Dawn