Amanda Palmer, a musician who has been called the “DIY Queen”, and whose rise through the Indie music industry has inspired countless musicians has this to say about busking in her book “The Art of Asking”:
I highly recommend street performing over attending a conservatory to any musician, especially if they’re going into rock and roll: it wears your ego down to stubbly little nubs and give you performance balls of steel.
Street performers occupy performance spaces that don’t come with permission or validation from anyone. If you can navigate the fear, the vulnerability, and the self doubt that comes with putting yourself on display (in some cases more literally than others) then you’ll be rewarded with the magic of finding your audience – your people – in the midst of strangers. Through years of busking I’ve found that following 3 cardinal rules kept me not only performing longer, but making true connections and garnering more tips and income.
Rule 1: Don’t be LOUD
This is numero uno for any street performer that uses music or sound in their act. You will be occupying public space and although it is your first amendment right to be there, most prime busking spots are in crowded areas with city sound ordinances. The local police force will not know what they are. Never think they will. If you know what they are that’s great, you MIGHT have a sticking point to plead your case. So the better way of calculating your volume is – what is the ambient decibel level? On a busy street it’ll likely be between 60db and 85db. If you have a volume knob, set it so that you’re about 20db higher than the ambient sound level about 2-5 feet from your sound source. That should make it about 10db higher than the sound level about 5-10ft away – a perfect listening volume for your audience. Wondering how to tell the decibel level? There’s an app for that! Most smartphones should have a basic way of measuring decibels. You can also buy a decibel meter for pretty cheap. High volume or obnoxious noises will get you asked to leave faster than anything else so you must have control of your sound.
Rule 2: Don’t be in the way
Again, this seems slightly obvious but takes finesse. The most common interpretation is – don’t be in the flow of traffic. While this is true, it also doesn’t quite get at the magnitude of how street performers can be perceived as “in the way”. We occupy a very strange space between professional artists (which we are) and vagabond panhandlers. Because no one is paying for a ticket or even asking to see live art on the street there can be discomfort or even hostility on the part of an audience if they feel like they are being “taken for a ride” or become part of a performance they didn’t ask to be included in – and even more incensed if they feel like they are obligated to pay for it. On the flip side, many people are charmed and fascinated by the presence of art at an unexpected time and place and will happily put in a dollar or two if the experience makes them feel good. Having a large audience makes a street performer feel on top of the world. BUT, rule #2 also applies to your audience. If your crowd is blocking the sidewalk it’s your job as the performer to manage them. Draw them in, alert them to people trying to walk behind them, take a moment to ask for tips or pass the hat so there is a break point where they move on. This will keep your audience happy and fresh and will draw in new people, rather than irritating them.
Rule 3: Don’t suck
This is by far THE most important rule. When you’re street performing you are on a stage. You are in fact, on a stage with an audience of people who don’t give two hoots about you. There is leeway to try new ideas (I use street performing as “practice time” all the time) but you’re still on display. Sucking in public is just bad for business. But not sucking applies to more than just your art. If your attitude sucks, it’s even worse. I’ve seen performers who are combative with EVERYONE, their audience, local store owners, the COPS. There is definitely a place and time to stand up for yourself and your rights as a performer but those times are usually best handled by saying “Ok, AND” not “I deserve”. I’ve been in plenty of spaces across the country that had oodles of regulations and permit hoops. If I’m asked to leave I usually request more information about the local rules and permits. Sometimes I’ve been able to come back simply because I wasn’t a jerk about turning down my amp when it was requested. Don’t suck, either work with people or find a different spot to perform.
So there you have it! 3 rules that I’ve found are my best tool as a street performer. I know this doesn’t say anything about performance strategies but trust me, if you work on being a performer who can fit into multiple spaces gracefully, you’ll have the time and ability to figure out your best strategies for enticing people to tip you. If you have questions about busking or would like to add tips please do so in the comments!
For the Pinners: