A Complete Guide to Busking

When I visited a friend’s parents, Mr. Friend’s Dad asked me how I planned to make money starting out after college. I said that I was already earning well over minimum wage reading tarot cards on the beach. His face turned white and he said “but…you’re not planning on doing that for a living. That’s not where you want to be in twenty years.” (To be fair, he was projecting his own parental concerns–at the time his own son was happily unemployed.)

Regardless of where I want to be in twenty years, busking is a great way to make money now, as I travel. There is no set time or location, no need to apply and be interviewed. Busking is the perfect job for a nomad. If you are a traveler on a tight budget, you should look into busking as a way extend your stay or support your travel habit, especially if you are currently in a well-off area of the world.

Can you busk? If you can do anything that might go into a talent show, you can busk. I don’t even have talent-show skills, but I still usually make money when I hit the streets. If you don’t have any idea what kind of act you would be suited for, I made a list of some possible street-performance subjects at the bottom of this article, organized from least skill to most skill. Even the talentless can be a living statue, recite Shakespeare, or solicit donations by dressing in a crazy costume. The hardest and most important part is just putting yourself out there.

This guy walks around New Orleans dressed like this with a big sign on his back that says “donations pay my rent.”  And he makes enough to live off of.

Of course some days, and at some locations, you won’t make any money no matter how good your act, but you can make quite a bit in times and places you wouldn’t expect (sometimes, no matter how bad your act). Boston is notoriously bad for busking, as well as just about anywhere during the workday when there is no foot traffic. In busking there is really only one hard-and-fast rule. Location is everything. I have made more per hour than a barista just sitting on the street and plucking around on an instrument I could barely play, at peak drunk hours in a trendy, touristy, and rich part of Washington DC. A good location has three parts. High traffic, people with money, and people who aren’t in a rush. If you get really lucky you can even find a fourth component to a perfect location: people in a good (eg. tipping) mood.

It is a misconception that you need to be in a big city to make money busking. Often big cities are where you see the most competition, and where people are most blind to your requests for tips. Small towns and medium-sized cities can be great if you can find crowds of people, especially people who are bored or looking forward to something. Try in front of the local super market, at a fair or flea market, near movie theater lines, in front of churches after service, or near restaurants and bars (if you talk to the manager, they might invite you inside. You’ll give them a crowd and they’ll let you pump the audience for tips, so win-win). In any small or medium-sized city, parks and city squares are excellent places to be. If your act is kid-friendly, try near elementary schools when parents are picking up. The after-dinner bar scene is nice because drunk people are loose with money, but they can also be big jerks and idiots (and it might be a good idea not to out bring anything valuable or fragile with drunks around. Avoid the: “heh heh, cool cello bro. Let’s see if I can climb it!”).

The city square on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Too bad these guys already claimed the space.

It’s best practice to google search and see if it is legal to busk in any particular town or city. I have never done my research, and I have been kicked out, but never arrested. If a cop comes up to me I usually just say “sorry, I had no idea I couldn’t be here. Thank you for letting me know, officer. Do you know anywhere I can legally busk in this area? Also, that hat looks great on you.” Respect will get you a long way in a profession dominated (in the media at least) by drunks, druggies, and crusty gutter punks. Business owners also deserve your respect. Remember the episode of Boy Meets World where a terrible singer drives all of the customers away? No? Hmmm, I could have sworn… Anyway, business owners can and will call a noise violation on you if you get on their bad side. And don’t piss off other buskers. The busker’s code states “do not do play within earshot of another musician, and do not crowd out similar acts.” (section 3, article 8)

Looking professional will also go a long way toward getting you money and keeping you out of the pokey. Dress poorly and people will think “well, if I give them money they will probably just buy drugs,” but in a nice outfit or an act-related costume people will think, “gosh, they sure are serious about earning money this way. How very respectable. For some reason, I have an irresistable urge to give them money.” Another way to lend credibility to your act is to sell gear and CDs, pass out business cards or brochures, and use nice banners and signs to announce your act’s name. If nothing else, for god’s sake, at least find something to sit on that isn’t the urine-soaked sidewalk. Bring a stool, borrow one from a cafe, stand up, or even just sit on a towel. This advice is practical as well as hygienic: being closer to eye level forces people to acknowledge you, which increases your chance of being tipped. Also, you will be confirming everyone’s fear that you are a scary heroin addict if you sit on that nasty sidewalk.

Another way to lend credibility to your act is to paint your guitar and stand on your head.

While we are on the topic of signage, sometimes you need to find a way to suggest donations if your act is unusual or if a lot of people are enjoying without contributing. I often work as a tarot-reader, and most people who approach me have never paid for anything like this before. They have no idea what it should cost. In Florida I tripled my tips when I started using a transparent tip-jar which I seeded with a ten and a five. I only got prayed for and preached to once or twice. Then I moved to Hippieville, Oregon (Ok, it was Ashland). Hippies don’t pray for you (they love the occult and the subconscious and shit), but they also don’t understand that people need money to do things like eat. In two hours I was tipped: a bundle of sage, a (non-special) brownie, a promise to “smoke me up someday later,” a half piece of pizza, two dollars, and several big fat wads of “gosh thanks!” Now I don’t mind when people take my Free Tarot sign at face value. I usually enjoy giving a few free readings each day, and they are usually to the most interesting people. But I can’t buy jack with a bundle of sage, and I can’t read EVERYONE for free. So I painted a sign that says: Suggested donation $3-15, and in my first hour I had made $35. One person tipped me a cool $20 for a five minute interaction (of course as she did it she said “oh, I don’t go to the doctor, tarot is my medicine.” Also, she had a baby with her, and I wondered if tarot is the baby’s medicine, too. Yikes.)

Yeah, yeah, but how do you ACTUALLY get people to pay you? You need to seed. In your visible tip jar, front 2 to 4 tips-worth (a reasonable sized tip for your act). Reading tarot, this means $15, playing guitar this means $3-$7. On the other hand, keep your jar from overflowing. It should be empty enough that it looks like a single person’s tip will make a difference.

Most importantly, engage your audience. Eye contact, smiling, and nodding at passersby lets them know that you see them listening. People love tipping someone who looks friendly and approachable. If your act can work in any talking, make sure you are loud and hilarious. The better mood you can put people in, the more likely they are to pay you for your pains. Crowds are more likely to gather if you can work in an audience-participation segment, and chances are higher that everyone watching will tip (except maybe the person you embarrassed by calling onstage).

This musical saw player offered to give me a quick lesson. I tipped him a ton. I’m not the world’s best musical saw player, but now I am not the worst, either.

Finally, the more unique your act is, the more people will pay, even if your act isn’t very good. Be unique; I can’t stress this enough. But I’ll try: BE UNIQUE. If you want to play an instrument, play loud and weird bagpipes, accordion, a one-man-band-suit, didgeridoo, hammer dulcimer, bowed psaltery, the saw, or water-filled crystal glasses. Even if you are not very good (yet), you will be earning more than the average corner guitarist, hands down. Draw attention by dressing in a crazy costume. The crazier, the better. Try busking in places that aren’t saturated with your chosen niche, eg, there are plenty of tarot-readers in New Orleans but none in Jacksonville, FL, therefore I make more money in Jacksonville. Weird and conspicuous acts like fire spinning will have you spinning all the way to the bank.

This picture doesn’t show that this glass player had a crowd of 30 or 40 people circled around him.

With some practice and some time to hone your act you can make a good amount of money in a short amount of time, yet most buskers aren’t financially secure. It is hard to put yourself out there. It really is. It is hard to place yourself in the most conspicuous spots so that the maximum number of people can walk by pretending that you don’t exist. It is hard to make yourself go to work at the most fun times to not be working. It can be really enjoyable at times, but you don’t know what kind of day you are about to have when you walk out the door. When you are your own boss it is really easy to say “I’ll just check my facebook one more time before I leave,” or “it’s too cold today,” or “I didn’t make any money yesterday, why bother today?” Plus most amateur buskers make enough to get by on and then pack it in (myself included–what can I say, I’m lazy).  On a good day, that means only working for a few hours but also only making enough money to scrape by on. (Also, what a terrible strategy! I should be working extra long on good days, and packing it in early on days when no one is out).

So do as I say, not as I do. If you devote some time to your act, If you get yourself out there and persevere, you can really make enough to live on, or at least enough to support your traveling habit.

So now you are ready to busk, but what busking activities can previously-talentless you participate in? Here are some options, sorted by skill level necessary to hit the road (lowest to highest), along with discipline-specific tips.

SKILL LEVEL 1–Minor investment of time, money, or skill to start performing*

Puppeteer: I saw a great marionette puppet dance in Seattle. They guy had clearly choreographed it extensively, for maximum humor. He had a bucket full of tips, but the act involved no specialized skills except a sense of rhythm and a boom-box for musical accompaniment. Bonus points: make little marionettes out of egg-cartons and sell them to fascinated kids for $5 each.

For the price of some solo-cups and crepe paper you could triple your tips. Instructions for the dragon puppet here.

Living Statue: Granted, this takes a lot of self-discipline, but it doesn’t take a lot of practice. You don’t practice sitting still to become a living statue, you just don some metallic face-paint and go out there. Check online for costume ideas; for a simple but short-lived costume just roll in brown mud. You can also put a sign by your feet that says “$1 to move me, $2 to pick your pose” or something like that.

Walking whacky costume: The doing doesn’t take any skill, but the costume-making does. The bigger and crazier the costume, the better. This only really works well for big cities or festivals. You aren’t going to be getting donations for your cool stormtrooper costume standing outside the local piggly-wiggly supermarket. And don’t try the elementary school, you might give kids nightmares or get yourself escorted away.

Balloon Animal tying: this act consists of four components: 1) whacky or clown costume, 2) bicycle pump, 3) bag of balloons, and 4) spoiled children (hey, my parents never bought me a balloon animal when I was little!). Spend fifteen minutes learning how to tie four or five different hats and animals, and you’ve got yourself a job. (ps, this is another good act for a suggested donation sign.)

Face painting or henna art: similar to balloon tying, except you need at least two chairs and you probably don’t need a wacky costume.

Hair braiding: Don’t do this. Don’t even try. It is stupid, but you have to go to cosmetology school for two years in order to legally braid hair. Because it can be life-threatening if you do it wrong? Anyway, hairdressers defend their turf pretty forcefully. You could actually go to jail for braiding hair. Actually.

Awesome animal tricks!: You don’t really need to be the one with talent here. You do have to be the one with a lot of time and patience and a smart, obedient, adorable animal at your disposal. You might even be able to get away with non-tricks if you are funny enough.

Recitation: can you memorize Shakespeare, Caroll, or Joyce. Can you yell them at the top of your lungs for a few hours to a mostly-uncaring crowd without severe loss of self-esteem? Congratulations, you have the makings of a performer.

Fire spinning/glowsticking: You don’t have to be particularly good at this to draw gasps from the crowd. If you want to get good you can devote a lot of time, but for your first show you only have to spend a few hours or days practicing. I suggest using LED poi rather than actual fire, since the late-night crowd is usually drunk and clumsy.

Dangerous, but awesome. And people probably tip better for real fire. [credit]


SKILL LEVEL 2-Some talent or practice necessary to start*

Poet for Rent: You need a typewriter for this one. I don’t know why, but people will only dig this act if you have a typewriter. Just be prepared to come up with 30 shitty poems in 2 hours. If you are a real poet and not just an out-of-work English major, you should take pictures of the poems you write in case some of them are pure gold, or at least something that can be polished into pure gold. Suggested donation sign FOR SURE with this one.

Artist for Hire: If you are making little tiny line drawings of a famous monument, be sure to set up with a big elaborate easel right in the path of passing tourists. It doesn’t matter that you don’t need a paint-splattered frock or a full easel to ink a 3”x3” line drawing. And make sure to sell prints glued to matte board, displayed on another easel. If you are doing caricatures, you will be spending a long time with each person, so you might have to institute a pay-first rule. Also, caricatures are HARD.

Mime: I have no idea what this entails. I suggest you check out youtube for some act ideas. Mimic what you see, add your own stuff, and make sure it is funny.

Dancer: I would never have the guts to do this, but if you can dance well enough and you have a boom-box, more power to you. Breakdancing is a popular tip-bringer, but two person acts can be lucrative too. Just don’t dance like this and expect anyone to pay you.

Fortune teller: My cup of tea. Get yourself a deck of cards, bag of runes, medicine wheel, I-ching, or whatever floats your boat. All of these systems work by using very vague and archetypal language to speak about situations that every person finds themselves in at some point. You’ve got to memorize the meanings first, as it looks pretty lame to be flipping through the book when you are trying to appear mystical, and then you’ve got to figure out how to speak of them so that people can see their own lives in the cards (runes, etc). This isn’t cheating. Most people already know what kind of future they are headed toward but are unwilling to admit it. Fortune-tellers give people permission to face what they already know to be in their future, and a venue to discuss their hopes and concerns to a perfect stranger. It is like a ten minute therapy session, and you should be compensated accordingly. Make it classy: I bring a card table, a cloth, two chairs, a sign, and I always dress in flow-y colorful clothing. Don’t be afraid to suggest a donation in a place where tarot is well-known, but in places (like the South) where people have never heard of it, you will lure in far more curious customers with a Free Tarot sign.

Ah, the ancient and mystical art of the cootie-catcher. This one was embroidered by my great grandmother, before she left the old country. Now, please, pick a color. [credit]


Musician: A lot of room for growth, but you don’t have to be that good starting out. Why not practice on the street instead of in your room, and make a chunk of change for your trouble? Remember, the weirder and more complicated the instrument, the more tips you will receive. Make SURE not to drown out other buskers. Otherwise, be as loud as you can.

SKILL LEVEL 3–High skill: if you make a mistake you could get injured or, even worse, you won’t get tipped.

I don’t know anything about these types of acts, because I have no real skills. They are, in no particular order: Magician, rope walker, sword or fire swallower, juggler, and acrobat. Good luck if you want to do these acts. If you already know how, I’ve very impressed. I will totally tip you next time I see you on a sidewalk. You deserve it. Acting also makes this list because it is hard to gather a crowd and you have to memorise lines, rehearse with a troupe, etc. You can’t just go out and do it on your own.

And then there is Skill Level 4: impossible for us mere mortals to even aspire for. [credit]


*I’m not saying you CAN’T develop great and inimitable skill in these disciplines. I’m just saying that a beginner is more likely to get tips/not injure themselves in these disciplines than in tight-rope walking, for instance. People still pay you if you pop a balloon, but you flub a magic trick and the crowd disperses and no one looks back. And just imagine the carnage if the trick was cutting a woman in half.

5 Comments

  1. Kevin says:

    That’s a pretty good overview. I think a lot of people don’t know just how much money you can make from busking. I would add that I don’t think you’d make anything much in really poor countries.

    A good trick with balloon flowers is make a heap near a night club and put them in a big plastic bag. Then go around the corner and sell them to the people in the night club line. It works real well late on a Friday/Saturday night and you usually get a fiver for just one. Of course, it pays to know the law as usual…

  2. Lesley-Anne says:

    I’ve just started busking poetry… hadn’t thought of the typewriter idea… I’m going to think on that. Even if it’s a prop, it could be a draw. Any thoughts on inoffensive yet compelling tip jars?

    • dirtyv6 says:

      My friend’s favorite tip collection device is a pan, a pun on panhandling. I like top hats, you feel great sweeping off your top hat and panning it around the crowd. For tarot reading I use a glass jar, because people have no idea how much something like that should cost. And then I seed the glass jar with 5, 10, and $20 bills. Otherwise people only give me a handful of change for a solid fifteen-twenty minutes of personal counseling. But when I read tarot, I never mention money, I just display the tip jar on the table. I think if you were busking poetry, the glass jar would work well also, because people have great difficulty valuing poetry and would very susceptible to suggestion.

  3. Mike Slone says:

    Fantastic article.

    I find playing traditional folk music on an old Harmony archtop does well with tourists. The trope is familiar enough for comfort but uncommon enough for entertainment. And it helps to be likable.

    I have got to try poet-for-hire. That is pure gold.

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