The "Mechanics" of Busking, Part 2
A while back I described and showed photos of the gear I use when I go “busking”. By definition, busking is the act of playing in a public place and soliciting money therefor. While this is technically correct, it misses the point. From my point of view, busking is the act of performing in a public space for the purpose of creating an impromptu audience to listen and/or appreciate the busker’s performance. Whether you receive compensation in the form of money is completely up to the audience you create. For those that have participated in one, busking to mu mind can best be analogized to participating in a “showcase” where you are the only performer.
The “Why” of Busking
I find busking, as distinct from gigging, can be highly enjoyable and educational for the emerging artist. Why? First, by planting yourself and beginning to perform, people will become attracted to your performance and become a temporary audience for you. This helps the emerging artist discover which songs or musical pieces attract the most attention and helps with the development of a set list for future use. Remember, unlike a gig, where you will likely come to a venue with an established audience, a busking performance the audience members come to you. Secondly, because it is an impromptu performance, audience members expectations may be less demanding and, knowing this, you the performer will be more relaxed and willing to take chances such as trying out new music or a new approach to existing musical repertoire. The experience allows you, the emerging artist, to figure which style of music a cross-section of people will respond most positively to, and adjust your style accordingly. Think of the audience of a busking performance as a kind of “focus group” of sorts.
The “Where” of Busking
Taking these principles in mind, the next major issue is where, when and how to go about busking. A friend of mine likes to point out to me that Tracy Chapman was supposedly discovered by her busking in an underground subway or “T” station, but he says this more as a joke than as a serious recommendation. So here are some of my considerations in choosing a location to busk. First, since most busking will be done during warmer weather (really, who likes to play in the freezing cold, not to mention the effect upon the instrument!), I look for a location that will be shady and comfortable for me. While I’m sure that some people like to perform standing up with a guitar strap, I happen to prefer sitting down. So I look for a bench in a shady area where I can set up my busking rig in a relatively compact location. I find that public parks are great for this, so I tend to busk on a bench beneath a stately elm tree with my battery powered acoustic amp planted next to me so I can adjust it as needed.
Secondly, it is important to place your rig in an area where people may naturally congregate and will be able to leisurely enjoy your performance. I like to set up near the location where tour buses and school buses will take on passengers. Some of my best audiences have been those people waiting for their tour bus to arrive.
This raises my third point, ambience of the chosen location. While performing at an underground subway station may have interesting acoustics and protection from the weather, the whine of the trains coming and going combined with the highly focused nature of people wanting to get to where they’re wanting to go may make for a less than ideal location to busk, leaving aside that there may be licensing requirements from the municipality you have to contend with in such a location. I therefore prefer “open-air” locales to perform, even though there will be occasional traffic noise to deal with, although a good busking gear set up can compensate for the traffic noise Ideally, you should set up in a place that is comfortable for you and where people may tend to congregate in a locale where a potential audience would be comfortable listening for a little while.
The “When” of Busking
Once you decide the “where” of your “one-man guerrilla showcase”, the next question is “when” to do it. Not all times are auspicious for garnering an audience. I find that the early afternoon when people are out and about for lunch or the time before when tour buses are coming for their passengers and people are congregating early are prime times for gaining people’s attention. You should try to avoid times when and places where other performances (whether municipally sponsored or otherwise) are going on: the last thing you need is the cacophony and audience confusion that comes with conflicting performances within earshot of each other.
The “How” of Busking
Lastly, is the “how” of busking. As those who have read part 1 of this particular subject, I bring a small battery-powered acoustic amp, a battery-powered condenser mike and a mike stand with me for sound reinforcement. Start with a strong song that has an upbeat tempo to grab people’s attention and which is loud enough to overcome any ambient noise, but not so loud to be overwhelming to the listener. Make sure that you bring a water bottle with you to hydrate your throat between songs. Additionally, I like to leave open my guitar case with a sign that says that “donations and words of encouragement and support are greatly appreciated”. The real listeners will get the message. A word about money. From my perspective, the relatively small amount money you receive as donations from the “flash mob” audience you create by busking can be, in some ways, more meaningful to me than the relatively larger sums I have received from gigs. Unlike a gig where you may get a fixed sum from a venue of a percentage of the door, the busking audience is compensating you specifically for the value of your performance. Although I have had surprising days when I might garner more than $50 in donations for an hour’s performance (ironically received from school kids that really enjoyed my guitar work!), its the smaller sums from people who appear down on their luck and whose lives I have touched that I feel most grateful for. That’s because it is tangible proof that my music is truly valuable and appreciated. So don’t judge the quality of the performance by the amount of money you receive; rather, judge it by the type of person that ostensibly pays the most that they have on hand.
Busking may not make you a millionaire as a musician, but it is a great way to practice your performance skills, test out new music and take risks that you might not do on a stage. It helps build confidence in yourself and your music and should be a regular part of your performance/practice regime.
Yours in DADGAD,