We’ve all seen street musicians providing background music for bustling city-goers. We might’ve felt sorry for them as we hurried by, or stopped dead in our tracks to acknowledge their musical prowess.
But have you ever stopped to think about why they’re performing there and what exactly goes into busking? To answer these questions, I reached out to a handful of musicians who’ve been around the block—literally. And I was surprised by what I learned. It turns out there’s a lot more to street performing than just propping your guitar case open next to a tip sign.
1. Don’t Mind the Pompous Passersby
Street performing is a commendable act of bravery, but some people look down on it, thinking buskers are underprivileged. Those people don’t matter, but for your own sake it’s important to know how to deal with them.
Los Angeles–based guitarist and singer-songwriter Segun Oluwadele was looking for a job he could easily manage while juggling his studies at USC, and tried street performing. He soon noticed unfounded reactions from spectators. “People think that a street performer is someone down on his luck,” Oluwadele says. “It’s a weird connotation, but it’s changed in L.A. over a period of time due to the number of street performers who have made a name for themselves.”
Plus, if street performing were uncool, U2 wouldn’t have agreed to a goose bump–inducing performance set up by Jimmy Fallon at New York’s 42nd Street subway station in 2015. So if you’re faced with someone aloof, remember that how a person treats you says more about them than it does about you.
2. Know Your Local Laws
Laws and permit applications vary by location and by type of performance, so your best bet is to visit your local city office or website to learn the exact legal requirements.
In some places, like New York subway stations, a permit alone won’t suffice. Katherine Slingluff, whose band Paper Anniversary plays in subway corridors, says, “There’s an assumption that you can set up and play anywhere. But in the more heavily trafficked subway stations, you have to get a particular permit and go through an audition process.” Paper Anniversary auditioned through Music Under New York, one of the MTA’s arts programs. “We now have the opportunity to play as much as we want in different subway stations,” Slingluff says.
Not all cities are as rigorous as New York when it comes to vetting buskers. For instance, Santa Monica, California, doesn’t hold auditions but does require a permit. It’s fairly simple to get one, but you still have to follow rules like rotating locations and playing a certain number of feet away from businesses and other performers. That said, wherever you work, don’t risk getting kicked to the curb. With laws and permits, it’s always best to play by the rules instead of by ear.
3. Use Street-Friendly Gear
A power outlet is a rare commodity on the street—and lugging heavy gear can put a damper on your mojo—so you have to prepare accordingly. “Roland makes a lot of things specifically for street performers,” says Oluwadele. “The Micro Cube and Cube Street are portable and battery-operated.”
For PA needs, L.A.-based singer-songwriter Katie Ferrara swears by the Mackie FreePlay, a lightweight all-in-one system with AC or battery operation. “If you sing as part of your act, I also recommend the AirTurn goSTAND,” says Ferrara. “It’s a collapsible microphone/tablet stand that folds into a backpack that helped me tremendously when I was busking throughout Europe.”
4. Embrace the Hustle
While on some days you can get lucky and rake in hundreds for a few hours of street performing, there might be nights where you’ll only bring home six bucks. But there’s help out there.
Chuck Gullo, president and CEO of Music from the Streets, founded the organization to create a launching pad for street musicians while raising awareness about the issue of homelessness. A former vice president of A&M records, Gullo says, “When I was starting this company, the music industry was at a point where the A&R departments were more about signing artists with their eyes than their ears. Music unites people like nothing else, and homelessness is not a sexy topic. Why not let music be the driving force?”
Music from the Streets has an advisory committee of industry heavyweights and a large group of celebrity endorsers. It’s a valuable resource for street performers seeking a spotlight, or for people wanting to support the cause.
5. Go with the Flow
Mark Goffeney, a guitarist who went from playing in the streets of San Diego, California, to touring with the seminal Latin American rock band Maná, says it’s critical to be able to switch your act in a split second.
“The people who don’t do well street performing are those who have a set list and try to play the song exactly right from beginning to end,” Goffeney observes. “Have no set list and play what works for the people that you’re around. If you’re playing a song that you love and nobody is stopping, let it go. Be smart enough to start playing a Maná song when you see a group of Spanish speakers passing by!”
In other words, know your audience.
To build energy, Goffeney recommends feeding off the moments you catch a spectator giving you a glance. “There’s a look of intrigue that comes across their face, and it’s golden,” Goffeney says. “They light up, their disposition changes, and it’s very addictive when what you’re doing is enticing enough to make a person stop and listen.”
So at the end of your performance, whether your guitar case is brimming with bills or not, make sure to enjoy the ultimate thrill of busking—that soul-nourishing double take you get from a stranger who stopped because of your music.
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