Street Guitar – A Beginner’s Guide To Busking
Here’s an interesting puzzle to ask yourself; what truly counts as your first ‘proper’ gig?
There’s sooooo many ways you could approach this question, starting with “what counts as ‘proper’ anyway?” Did your standout vocal performance at the primary school nativity show count? Maybe the time your parents made you strum through the first guitar tune you learned? Or perhaps a ‘proper gig’ has to involve an official venue with the crowd made up of strangers, and (most importantly) payment for your hard work? We’re going to guess that the nativity show didn’t include a fee, and the shaky rendition of “Wonderwall” that moved your mother to tears took place at home. Cute? Yes. ‘Proper gig’? We’ll let you decide…
But ‘proper’ or not, both these gigs might have felt a little scary. This is natural, since any specially staged show invokes a certain level of expectation for the audience, who then generally give the performer their fully focused and undivided attention. And that situation can feel pretty unnerving (sometimes terrifying) for rookie performers. It would just be so much easier to use your guitar skills to entertain an enormous crowd without the burden of any expectation. And even better if that crowd was willing to show their appreciation by paying you.
Where on earth could you find such an audience? Easy – just head out to the streets. Welcome to the marvellous world of busking!
The ancient art of street performance
Yes, it’s definitely an ancient art. Musicians (along with actors, dancers, acrobats, magicians, jugglers, snake charmers, fortune-tellers and basically every other kind of entertainer imaginable) have been carrying out unsolicited performances in public places, with the intention and hope of receiving public gratuities, throughout recorded history.
Busking is therefore one of the oldest jobs in the world, and would certainly have been one of the earliest methods for musicians to sell their skills and make some kind of living out of music. And not much has really changed since the days of antiquity - George Michael, Rod Stewart, Tracy Chapman, Newton Faulkner and Ed Sheeran are just a handful of famous artists who cut their live performance teeth this way.
Sounds cool! So how do I get started?
Very simply by following the boy scout motto; BE PREPARED! This is sensible advice even for planned gigs at established venues, and all the more important when venturing onto the streets with your guitar. Here’s five main points you want to consider;
Busking is generally legal throughout most of the world (and even constitutionally protected via the 1st and 14th Amendments in the USA) but always check the law before heading out of the door. Such nationwide policies that exist tend to be age-related – for example you need to be over 14 to busk in the UK, or have a consent letter signed by your guardian if you’re under 17 in Singapore.
Buskers need to focus more on the local policies – what rules are there on street performing in your chosen city, town or province? These examples show that the situation varies wildly…
- Mexico City: Busking illegal, fines and equipment seizure common. Sounds harsh.
- Munich: Busking legal so long as you audition for a 1-day licence on the morning of the day you intend to busk. New licence required the next day. Sounds annoying.
- New York: Legal on the street, although you can’t perform within 50 feet of a monument. Legal on the Subway platforms but not on the trains. Sounds fairly sensible.
- Melbourne: Busking legal and licenced, and they even have a community busking coordinator available to help you. Sounds wonderful.
- Edinburgh: Busking legal, unlicensed, largely unregulated, and actively encouraged during the annual Fringe Festival on the Royal Mile (making it the world’s biggest busker-fest). Sounds like I want to move to Scotland right now!
As with any gig, you’ll need some tunes ready to go. Although not as many as you might think – members of the moving street audience aren’t likely to be watching you for much more than 30 seconds, and some buskers scrape through with just a 2-song set-list. But the more polished you sound, the more likely you’ll be to see the coins dropping into your guitar case. So practise!
Guitar, picks and spare strings are obvious essentials, along with a fully-charged battery amplifier if you’re going electric. Snacks, drinks and any weather-appropriate clothing/kit are less obvious, but just as essential. And make sure you’re able to carry everything at once – the freedom to move at a moments notice is essential!
This is a fine balancing act between maximising your performance potential, respecting the local environment and staying comfortable. It’s a tricky element to get right, so here are some things to consider when choosing your pitch;
- Stay visible – the sooner people see you, the more time they’ll have to dig out some change.
- You want to be somewhere busy (lots of audience walking by), BUT you don’t want to be in anyone’s way (thus stopping people walk by).
- You may want to be near shops or cafes, BUT you don’t want to annoy the business owners by setting up in their doorway or making too much noise.
- Think about setting up out in the open if it’s sunny, and under some shelter if it’s raining.
- You know where the nearest available restroom is? Just saying…
- Most importantly, rely on your common sense – blocking a fire escape with your amp is just dangerous, and performing “Anarchy For The UK” outside your local government office is just ridiculous.
And once you’ve found your spot…
- Stay there for an hour at the most. You’re probably not the only street performer working, and other buskers might want to use it after you’re done, the same way you might want to use one of their pitches. Mutual respect is key.
- At the same time, no-one should be trying to bully you off your chosen spot – you’ve got as much right to be there as them. The only people allowed to move you on are police officers (who will probably have a good reason, and who you should definitely listen to!)
- Expect craziness. Remember that you’re out on the street along with many other of your fellow humans, some of whom will be mad/drunk/rude/all of the above. Don’t let these ones put you off or get you down – most professional players have encountered worse standing on a stage…
#5: Money Money Money!
Kinda the whole point of this exercise!
- An invitingly open guitar case is the traditional receptacle for any coins that come your way, so keep it fairly close in front of your chosen stage.
- It never hurts to encourage people by placing a few coins in there yourself before you start, just so the audience gets the idea!
- Make sure you say thank you (or nod your head appreciatively if you’re singing) whenever someone tips you – other passers-by tend to notice this, and one coin can turn into 5 within seconds.
- Don’t let the cash pile up too much – people might think you don’t need any more (and some thieving scumbag might decide you can spare a handful…)
But when it comes to cash collection, always remember;
- Performing for donations = busking (perfectly legal)
- Having a sign on display saying “please help this starving guitarist” = begging (not entirely legal)
- Setting up a stand and selling your CD’s = street trading (definitely not legal!)
Wrapping it up
There are genuinely few better ways of learning about what it truly means to perform live than by taking to the streets. Busking can help you learn how to work an audience, fine-tune your set-list, perhaps get you booked for a ‘proper’ gig or possibly even greater opportunities - this might be a good time to mention Ed Sheeran again!
Right, I’m off to charge my battery amp and plot a musical assault on the local town centre. So until next time…