Have you ever thought about getting into street performing?
I have good news for you – it isn’t very hard to get started, and so long as you play by the rules, you shouldn’t run into any problems.
If you put time and effort into developing your set list, and play at the right places at the right times, you can even draw a good crowd and earn good tips from your audience.
Busking can even help you fill the cracks in your performance schedule, or supplement your earnings when you don’t have any other prospects on the radar.
Here are some tips to help you get started in busking.
Prepare Your Set List
You can’t expect to succeed at busking and street performing without a killer set list.
But don’t let that scare you off. Busking is generally low-pressure, and it will give you the opportunity to test out different things before you settle on a format that works. I would encourage experimentation.
Busking is a great way to gain experience as a musician. It will teach you a lot about what people like, and how to get and keep their attention. It can be hard work, especially if you’re new to it, but it’s worth the effort – you’ll learn to earn more tips and maybe even make new converts out of onlookers. They might end up buying your album or coming to your next show if they like what you’re doing.
A good set list is typically comprised of a mix of originals and covers, though this is not a set-in-stone rule. At times, you might favor originals over covers, and the opposite can also work.
I’ll talk more about song choices in a moment, and there are some important things to keep in mind, but generally some stylistic diversity is an asset. Try varying up tempos, rhythms, and genres to keep the crowd’s interest.
Here are a few other things you should know about putting together and performing your set list:
Memorize The Music
The first time I tried my hand at street performing, I brought a binder full of music with me. I found out relatively quickly that this doesn’t work.
For one, the wind can blow your pages all over the place. So much for reading off your sheet music!
Two, it’s not practical. Although you could bring a music stand with you, this makes it harder to pack up and move to different locations. I’ll be talking more about this later, but your local regulations may prohibit you from staying in a single busking stop for longer than 30 to 60 minutes, so this is something you must keep in mind. You may end up having to move around quite a bit.
Three, if your head is stuck in your sheet music or lead sheets, it’s going to be harder to interact and engage with people. This doesn’t make for a great street performance. If you can sing, singing should probably be a part of your performance too – not just playing an instrument.
Take the time to memorize the music you’re planning to play. At first, it’s okay if you end up repeating the same 30 to 60 minute sets over and over, because most people won’t be sticking around to listen to you for longer periods anyway. But you might want to learn more music over the long haul.
Choose The Right Songs
As you’re probably starting to see, this is easier said than done. There are no rules against performing original music, and in fact, it often makes up a good portion of my busking set lists. But that’s also because I’ve performed my music a lot and I have a good sense of what people like and respond to.
I think you can guess that you should have a good selection of covers as well. While it can be good to learn the latest top 40 hits, this music may only appeal to teenyboppers. A good cross-section of interest, at least right now, lies in 90s music.
Some call the 90s the last good decade of music. It was also before the independent music scene started blowing up and music started becoming more abundant in supply. You’ll also notice that a lot of people in their 20s and 30s grew up with this music, and even those in their 40s are relatively familiar with 90s hits.
It’s also a good idea to think about your audience. Do they primarily listen to country, rock, or pop? What do people listen to in your locality? If you’re not sure, you could always be prepared with a mix of genres.
Some good artists and bands to consider are: Matchbox Twenty, Green Day, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Oasis, Weezer, U2, Beck, Goo Goo Dolls, Incubus, Third Eye Blind, Lenny Kravitz, Collective Soul, and so on.
Keep It Family Friendly
I’ll be talking more about rules and regulations in a moment. But one of the things you may want to think about before you go any further is to ensure your set list is family friendly.
If you aren’t sure what this means, let me spell it out for you – the lyrical content shouldn’t contain an excessive number of curses or questionable themes (violence, sexuality, racism, discrimination, and so on).
Your set list should consist of songs that kids, teens, and adults can all appreciate. After all, kids love music, and that’s something you’ll notice while you’re out playing. Even if adults don’t pay attention, if their kids do, they have no choice but to go where their kids are.
I know, you might be a big fan of Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, or maybe even black metal. But if you want to play music by these kinds of acts, choose songs that aren’t likely to offend people. You don’t want to be pulled aside by the police while you’re having a great time playing for bystanders.
Get Your Busking License Or Permit
Busking regulations or guidelines don’t just vary on a national or state level. They can be different on the municipal level – one town or city to the next!
I know you’re raring to go, but take some time and do your research. This could save you many headaches later. If your town or city has a website, that’s a good place to start. If this doesn’t yield any results, then you’ll want to try the city hall or local office.
Don’t be surprised if this process is less intuitive and convenient than it should be. When I wanted to start busking, there wasn’t a lot of information available in a city of a million people! It took a lot of digging to figure out what I needed to do.
Depending on the town or city, they may not have any rules at all. This would leave you at the mercy of the local parks, buildings, places of businesses, and authorities to figure out what they’ll let you get away with.
Most established towns and cities, however, should have information about busking on their website or at their office.
A few years back, I went on a mini tour of British Columbia (a province in Canada) with Jonathan Ferguson. At one town, we just walked into the local office and got our permits. It was hassle-free.
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