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.
In most cases, you will need to get a standard busking ID. This permit should either be low-cost or free, but you’ll probably need to head down to a recreation customer service center, leisure center or equivalent to obtain it. If they have an online application form, you could print it out and fill it out in advance, but I wouldn’t submit it via email or fax. Your best bet to get it processed quickly is to go down in person.
Depending on the type of ID you require, you may need to get a Police Information Check or the equivalent and pay a higher fee. I can attest to the fact that this isn’t exactly fun, and it can be time-consuming, but if this is what’s required of you in your town, then you should do it.
Observe The Rules
Busking guidelines often include items like:
- Age requirements. Typically, you’ll need to be 18 and up to become a street performer.
- Material. Is your music family appropriate? It should be, because you never know who’s going to be passing you on the street corner.
- Amplification and volume. Some localities allow you to use small amps. Others don’t. Find out before hauling out your Marshall stack to the nearest park. Generally, you’ll need to keep your volume at a reasonable level.
- Merchandise. Where I live, they allow you to sell your merchandise or display it in your case. Find out if this is something they encourage or discourage in your locality.
- Location. Maximum performance times can vary. Find out how long you’re allowed to stay in one spot. Also, find out where specifically you’re permitted to busk.
- Checking in. The city may require you to check in with them before you begin busking (via phone) by letting them know where you’re performing. You may also need to verify your busking ID.
- Group size. Your city may have rules connected to the number of buskers that can perform together. If you’re planning to perform with band mates or collaborators, you may only require one license. Unless you’re performing alone, find out if there are any rules connected to group size.
This is just a small sample of guidelines that are likely to be in place. Find out what the rules are in your town and observe them. This will help you avoid issues with the authorities or other competing buskers who might not be following the rules themselves.
Plan Well & Perform Strategically
Some people just like to busk recreationally. It gives them a chance to get outside, practice their music, connect with people, and maybe earn a few tips. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But if you want to make more tips and play to more people, you’ll want to think strategically about when and where to play. Let me put it this way. You could play to a few dozen people every week, or you could be seen by thousands of people on a single weekend! Which is smarter from a career standpoint?
Smart buskers know they can make more tips on weekends, around special events and major concerts, festivals, and so on.
This isn’t to say they’ll let you busk at events or on festival grounds. But what about just outside these locations? There could be some opportunities there.
Naturally, there could be other buskers competing for spots in popular locations or during well-attended events. So, you may want to show up to your spot earlier rather than later to get a head start.
Planning well also includes observing guidelines and regulations, as we already talked about. Generally, it takes very little time to study up and ensure you’re abiding by the law, so don’t bypass this step.
Hone Your Craft
Once you’ve got all your paperwork in order and you’ve started performing, the only thing left to do is get better at what you do.
The best kind of practice is live performance. There are so many things that can go wrong or just feel different when you’re out playing for people instead of practicing in your basement. But as with anything else, practice leads to improvement. Experience is the best teacher.
You may not be the best performer at first, but you’ll improve relatively quickly if you keep an eye on how the audience is responding to your music. Adjust your performance based on what people connect with.
Have fun. Busking doesn’t need to be a business, and nor is it. There are plenty of better ways of making money if that’s your goal. Street performing can certainly help fill the nooks and crannies in your performance schedule, and you might even get some great tips at times.
But because your success is contingent on a variety of factors outside your control, not the least of which is weather, you can’t reliably make the same amount of money every time, or even secure the same busking spots.
It’s best to enjoy busking in your spare time.