After roughly 10 years of busking I still get slightly nervous each time I set myself up to busk in a new location. Some places feel like they were built just for me while others have a way of making me feel totally invisible to the world. If that’s ever happened to you, don’t take it personally until you’ve tried a few other locations. In this article I’m going to share the differences I’ve discovered between busking outside cafes, grocery stores, nightclubs and more.
Before you read on, please note that I am a piano accordionist and what is true for me might be totally different for a balloon artist, street dancer, electric guitarist etc. If you are a busker who has had difference experiences from me then I would love to hear about it in the comments. Either way, I hope you learn something from this.
Is it better to busk in a busy location?
I want to start by discussing an assumption I made about busking before I started. I’d heard success stories of buskers making hundreds of dollars by the hour by performing in streets with a lot of foot traffic. From this I assumed that more people = more money. It made sense that by planting myself on the street in a big city would give me maximum exposure and thus greater tips. After testing this theory in multiple cities, I have discovered that this is not necessarily true (for me). Let’s start with my experience in Australia.
After a year of successful busking in Geelong on my accordion I was excited to get my Melbourne busking permit and play for crowds of tourists. I thought for sure I’d make double the money and make the 1 hour commute totally worth it. I was completely disappointed. The first time I went busking in Melbourne I made about $15AUD in an hour compared to my $60AUD average in Geelong. I made two more attempts, trying different parts of the city each time, before giving up and never busking in Melbourne again. The crowds of people were definitely there in Melbourne but they just weren’t tipping me with the same frequency that people in Geelong were. There is certainly no lack of buskers in Melbourne, which makes me think that it must be working for some people. Further down we’ll discuss potential reasons why it did not work for me.
As for here in the US, I’ve seen the same kind of pattern when it comes to big city versus small town busking. Since moving to North Carolina I’ve busked in the state’s capital Raleigh multiple times and experienced disappointing results. Just like it is in Melbourne, lunch hour in Raleigh is full of people passing in every direction however very few of these people would stop to tip me. A much smaller community 70 miles south of Raleigh called Southern Pines proved to be significantly more lucrative even though far fewer people would pass me. It seems that there is much more than just foot traffic to consider when selecting your prime busking location. Consider the observations made by The Washington Post in their famous 2007 busking experiment.
The Washington Post published an interesting article about an experiment in which Grammy award-winning violinist Joshua Bell busked in a D.C Metro subway. In the entire 43 minutes of his performance, 1,097 people passed him by, with only 27 actually tipping him. That’s 2%! He received a total of $32USD in tips, a tiny fraction of the money he made three days earlier performing the same repertoire at a concert. This is really the only evidence you need that context/location is everything and to not take bad busking days personally! You can read the original article here or skip to the YouTube video here.
Also check out NYC bass player Adam Neely’s video about the challenges of busking in the city for the first time. Click here to see how it went for him.
So, why is this the case?
I’ve thought long and hard about why my busking doesn’t seem to be compatible with cities. Here’s a summary of my thoughts:
Cities are loud
When I busked in Melbourne, I was competing with big city noises such as trams on the road behind me, pop music blaring from a nearby smoothie bar, groups of people chattering etc. My acoustic accordion simply could not compete with the noise. People had to be directly in front of me to hear my music and that was usually just 5 seconds; merely a glimpse. In a quieter location, my music trails down the street and reaches people’s ears before they even see me. If I ever tried busking in the city again, I would certainly bring portable amplification.
Competition with other buskers
In the streets surrounding Bourke Street, Melbourne, it’s not uncommon to see a busker on every corner. Even as an accordionist, my music is far from unique as on two of the three occasions I busked in Melbourne, other accordionists were playing tunes I recognized from my own busking repertoire. In Raleigh I was challenged by another busker who set himself up ACROSS THE ROAD from me and drowned out my music with his saxophone. After confronting him and being ignored, I had no choice but to pack up and leave.
I am sure that eventually all these buskers become background noise for the people passing by and it takes much more for a busker to stand out. Maybe by the time a passerby hears and sees you playing, they’ve already tipped a bunch of buskers. People have to draw the line somewhere.
Herd mentality is the notion that people can be subconsciously influenced to behave a certain way based on the behaviours of their peers. I do believe that when a crowd of people are walking by a busker, it is much more likely that they will continue walking ahead than be the first to stop.
Tourists vs Locals
I think there is an important distinction between the people that populate a big tourism hub and the people that populate a small town community.
Tourists expect to be entertained in a big city and take it all as part of the experience of travelling. In their eyes you are a cool feature of the city, but they’re moving on to a new city next week and will probably never come back here and see you again. You’re just one memory of their big adventure. I’ve had a big group of tourists take individual selfies with me and then leave less than a dollar. On the other hand, small communities are made up of people who are delighted to receive free art in the place that they call home. By tipping you they are not just showing their gratitude in the moment but encouraging you to return. It’s the place they live, so they care more about showing their appreciation. These are the places where I receive comments such as “please come back!” and “keep this up!”
Here are some observations I’ve made about the different locations I’ve busked at.
Busking for guests seated outside a cafe, or anywhere else that people gather to sit, is an opportunity to catch people when they are able to be still and enjoy your music for more than just 30 seconds in passing. If they have enjoyed your music for the entire duration of their meal they might show a bit more gratitude and give you a greater-than-average tip. This has been my experience busking outside a crepe cafe and bakery in Southern Pines. I have often found myself busking for just one or two people enjoying their morning coffee, but they tip me as much as 10 individuals just passing by.
Before you perform for a seated audience, ensure you have a decently long list of repertoire so you are not repeating the same songs and frustrating everyone. Also judge if you are on business property or the public sidewalk and ask permission from the business where necessary. This is also a good time to check the regulations of the permit you have obtained for this location. Some will have specific measurements for how close to a business you are permitted to busk. Lastly, (obviously) don’t play if the cafe already has music playing over their speaker system. If you do it right, the venue may even invite you to play inside. This has happened to me multiple times but I have declined as in each instance they have offered me less money than I make busking outside.
I have always found outside of grocery stores to be one of the best locations to busk. Customers listen to your music while their groceries are being rung up and bagged which is usually a mundane routine task. You are able to make it interesting by giving customers something to look at and listen to. I always get comments from people telling me that I made their shopping experience more enjoyable. On Christmas Eve in 2014 I was able to make $200AUD outside a grocery store.
Be aware that sometimes in order to get close enough to the store you have to play on the store’s private property so don’t be offended if they ask you to leave. I have only been asked to leave the front of a grocery store (or anywhere) once. I had been successfully busking there for months before but apparently due to an incident with someone selling raffle tickets, all buskers/charity collectors were banned. These locations tend to be popular so sometimes they’re hard to secure and people who behave inappropriately can ruin the reputation for all buskers.
Below is a video taken on that wonderful Christmas Eve!
Banks and ATMs
In Australia I set myself outside of two banks and an ATM, not strategically but simply because there was a lot of foot traffic in that area. It turned out working really well because people would line up to use the ATM and listen to my music while they waited. Similarly to the grocery store, these people showed gratitude for having some free entertainment that made the wait a little more interesting.
Nightclubs can be extremely lucrative if you are willing to take the safety risk and can wake yourself up at a ridiculous hour in the morning. When I was 19 years old I decided to try busking outside a nightclub. It took me a long time to muster the courage and for safety I dragged a male friend out to act as ‘security’. I started up at 3am as this is closing time when everyone leaves at once. It was a 20 minute whirlwind of drunk people taking selfies with me and dumping all their cash in my case. I had to return a few credit cards and attempted to return a $50 bill to a young man who refused to take it back. By 3:20am everyone was gone and I left with $150AUD. I did it one more time and made closer to $100AUD. It’s something I’ll probably do again in the future but definitely only with some kind of ‘security’. If you are considering this, please be safe!
I’m not sure what these are called in the US, but in Australia this is where people buy the newspaper, lottery tickets, cigarettes and snacks. I had a lot of success playing outside one of these in Geelong as people would toss me their change on the way out. On a Saturday or Sunday morning, this would add up very quickly.
Catching pedestrians while they are waiting to cross the road is another good opportunity to share your music for more than a quick few seconds. I have not found these locations to be the most lucrative of all, but the money was always worth it when I did it in Geelong. Not so much in Raleigh and Melbourne… Despite there being a lot more people, they all seemed eager to just cross the road ASAP.
Inside a business venue
Playing for tips inside a venue is hands down the WORST place I’ve ever tried to make money… I have only accepted one job like this and I’ll never do it again. It was a Sunday afternoon in the grounds of a brewery on their ‘market day’. I agreed to play for 3 hours for a case of beer and a small retainer. All the market vendors were making money from brewery patrons buying their hand knitted toys, fancy origami, and pottery. But as for me, almost everyone just walked on by. If this was my first time busking, it would have been completely demoralising. I played for three hours outside in the middle of the Australian summer and made $13AUD in tips. I wanted to leave but I had made a commitment to this venue and I didn’t want to tarnish my reputation by backing out. I know that I’m not the only busker to have had this experience and I think it comes down to the fact that people assume that a musician inside a venue is being paid. Keep this in mind if you are ever offered an opportunity like this.
Some other things to consider
If you have to buy a train ticket, then a tram ticket, then ride a bus to get to your busking location, do the math to make sure it’s worth it.
Change it up for exposure
Once you’ve found that one perfect busking spot, I recommend switching it up simply for exposure. I rotated 4 busking locations in my hometown in Australia even though some were less lucrative than others. It was worth it to me because in each spot I booked gigs with people that would not have discovered me otherwise. Many people have a daily routine that does not vary much, so if you never change up your routine you might never cross paths.
Okay friends, that’s all I have to share! Go out there and be brave! Let me know if any of this information helps you. I’m also interested to know how your experiences compare with mine so please share them with me in the comments.
Bye for now,