Editors note: This is a guest post by Mark Sandusky (center). He and his bandmate Kendra Moriah (right) comprise the musical duo “The Dirty Little Blondes”. The man on the left is not usually part of their act.
I glance around nervously. This corner looks good – plenty of people, no police. Here’s where I’ll post up for the next hour, playing music for strangers who may or may not want to hear me. In other words, I’ll be busking.
I’d be lying if I told you it’s not about the money — it’s San Francisco and I have to make rent — but it’s not all about the money. It’s also about lifting people’s heads up from their phones, and opening their eyes and ears to the physical space around them. It’s about giving folks that quick fix, which slows down their pace, deletes their destination, and brings them into the moment.
And, when I succeed in doing that, they drop a dollar into my case.
A Guitar Case Study: All in the Timing
An open guitar case on the street: the international symbol for busking
To busk means to play music or otherwise perform in a public space for donations. As street performers, our craft is judged by the amount of money dropped into a box at our feet, and yet to us it feels like art in its purest form.
My shtick is a male/female musical duo, Dirty Little Blondes, and recently we’ve taken our act to the streets. It’s been incredibly rewarding on a number of levels, however, this article focuses on the economics of busking. Below are the results of our first 10 busking sessions, which took place in San Francisco during the month of January 2015.
Session 1: Friday, 3-5pm, $42
Session 2: Friday, 8-9pm, $117
Session 3: Saturday, 1-2pm, $37
Session 4: Monday, 12-2pm, $3
Session 5: Friday. 8-9pm, $63
Session 6: Sunday (Monday Holiday), 5-6pm, $61
Session 7: Sunday (Monday Holiday), 8-9pm, $57
Session 8: Friday, 8-10pm, $98
Session 9: Saturday, 6-6:30pm, $2
Session 10: Saturday, 9-10pm, $52
During our first 10 busking sessions we spent 12.5 hours playing music and made $532. Our duo was making $42.55 an hour, meaning I was making $21.22 an hour.
$21.22 an hour is not a bad gig, but I am hesitant to say I could live off of busking alone. I definitely wouldn’t want to, and probably physically couldn’t, play enough hours to live comfortably in San Francisco solely from busking.
It’s also not as if I can walk out on the street and make $21.22 an hour whenever I want. That hourly rate is skewed: we quickly learned to target the hours when we suspected it would be ‘worth it’ to busk. The big numbers all came between the hours of 5pm and 10pm on days before weekends or holidays. Even out of those 10 prime hours, we could only comfortably play 6 of them (3 a day) before our voices, fingers, and general energy level started to break down.
Time your busks wisely! Profits can vary widely from day to day, hour to hour. Our low for a Friday night was $98 for two hours of performance. Our high for two hours of performance on a Monday afternoon was $3. This was also our low, because we never busked on another Monday afternoon. We made the most money in between 5pm and 10pm, on evenings before weekends or holidays. Our understanding is that money drops best when people are feeling tipsy, but before they’re actually drunk.
Busking is a business in which you need to work smarter, not harder. My advice is you should aim to merely supplement your income. Especially if you’re just getting started, don’t burn yourself out trying to make a living.
Ok, Maybe Not All in the Timing
Dirty Little Blondes, playing on a stage, inside
On the streets, musical tastes and styles vary. Holding all else constant, some acts might have made a lot more than ours, and some a lot less. You may love us or hate us — I’ll let you decide — but there is one unbiased comment I would like to make regarding our act: it is practiced. We are paid to put on the same act at legitimate venues, and we play concerts people buy tickets to. I state this to illustrate two points:
1: The numbers may not look the same if you and a buddy grab a guitar and head out to play some songs that you both ‘kind of know the words to,’ even if it is during prime time, and in a good location. If you plan to busk, treat the street corner like a legitimate venue. Not only will a well rehearsed performance gain you more tips, it will help the reputation of buskers everywhere — making us all more tips in the long run.
2: A lot of very reputable acts play on the street. As a listener, don’t immediately write an artist off simply because they’re out on the streets. Occasionally a major headliner — like Bruce Springsteen, Manu Chao, Arcade Fire, or Neil Young — will take to the streets for the love of the game. But you’re more likely to encounter undiscovered talent. Tracy Chapman, Rodrigo y Gabriela, B.B. King and Rod Stewart all busked early on in their careers.
On the street, except for in extreme circumstances, reputation rarely plays a part. You’re almost always performing as an unknown. The downside to this is that people don’t expect you to be good, and they’re very likely to just keep walking. The upside to this is that its a level playing field. It doesn’t matter who your agent is, or whether you have a record deal: if you can win someone over in the brief window of time they’re in earshot, they’re yours.
Location, Location, Location
Busking in San Francisco’s Mission District
You’re bringing the show to the people, not the people to the show, so you have to seek out neighborhoods where your music fits in. Part of this has to do with style: If you’re a funk band with horns and a drummer, it’s probably best if you play in a young, bustling part of town. If you’re a string quartet, set up near a strip of swanky wine bars.
But no matter your style, if you want to play more than a few times a week you’ll need more than one spot. We’ve definitely discovered a few favorite spots that reward our style of music best, and although it’s tempting, we can’t play those spots every time or we’ll overstay our welcome. Playing on the street, the moving foot traffic is your audience, but the shops and apartments fixed within your sound radius are your hosts. Subject local employees and residents to the same show too many times and they’ll tell you (or tell the police to tell you) to get lost.
Once you’ve identified a good neighborhood, you want to pick a spot that is busy but not too loud. How you position yourself is also important. If you block foot traffic, you’ll likely be shut down. If you play where people can pass you by too easily, they’ll never even notice you.
We’ve found that the best location is a well-trafficked corner that has a cross walk sign for each direction in which people may walk. You’re not forcing anyone to stop and listen, but they do have to stop when the red hand says. During that 20 second mandatory pause, it’s on you to win them over.
Playing on the street, we can never predict who we’re playing to and how we’ll be received. The profiles of listeners, donors, and haters runs the gamut, but the majority of pedestrians either smile and nod and keep walking, or don’t acknowledge our existence at all.
Even some people who donate don’t even look up from their phones when they do it. It’s like they’re fulfilling a daily good deed quota. Other people seem surprised, maybe even offended, that we’re soliciting donations on the street despite the fact that we appear to have showered within the past 24 hours.
Then there are the people who actually engage. They’re in the minority, but boy do we appreciate them. Children stare wide-eyed, couples dance, singles sit and watch quietly for 20 minutes and then walk away. There are the sincere thank-yous and the silent drops of 10, 20 and even 50 dollar bills into our tip box.
Our popularity varies a lot, even within a single session. One minute we’ll have a crowd and money will be flying in. The next minute we could safely sing our social security numbers because no one is paying attention. When it is going great it’s more profitable and more exhilarating than any of our organized shows. When it is going poorly, well, we remember that we’re bringing music to our audience’s turf. No one asked us to play, so we can’t get upset if they don’t want to listen.
UK busker Beatfox getting shut down by the police
We play with a very small battery-powered amp. In most places, playing with amplification is illegal if you’re soliciting money, but the rules around busking are pretty murky. Rather than citing laws and ordinances, I am simply going to tell you what I’ve learned from experience. (Note: This has been my experience as a member of the “Dirty Little Blondes.” As our name suggests we are caucasian and blonde. Ideally, the justice system is consistent regardless of race or physical appearance, but the reality is usually much more complicated. Please take our case as a single example rather than an overarching generalization.)
Some cops have driven by slowly and glared, but, luckily for us, many have been very nice. One cop sat for a good 30 minutes enjoying the show and then left. Another cop shut us down almost immediately — but only with a verbal warning. He told us good-naturedly, “You can keep playing but you have to turn off the amplification and close the tip box. Technically I could write you up for a misdemeanor, but I’d never do that unless you were being blatantly disrespectful and disobedient.”
Sometimes you may actually want a cop around. Beyond the increased chance of a noise complaint, there is a reason we haven’t played past 10pm: San Francisco streets are filled with all sorts of characters. While we’ve never felt threatened by anyone when out busking, we’ve definitely felt distracted and annoyed.
Drunk people like music, and 99% of the time that is a good thing, but 1% of the time they like it a bit too much. With no barriers or security between you and the audience, you often find yourself overwhelmed trying to sing, answer questions, slap hands, play the guitar, and catch the drunk guy falling into your mic stand, all at the same time. While most people are still respectfully enjoying the show, it only takes one guy (or girl) to ruin it for everyone.
You can only smell the whiskey on someone’s breath for so long, as they continue to request a cover you don’t know and try to hug you in the middle of each song. We’ve had folks with out-of-tune guitars and screaming voices come up and join us on our original songs, completely disregarding the way we wrote them. Sometimes, someone wants to stand 6 inches away from us and rant about Las Vegas until finally we tell them we’re heading there now and find a new place to play.
The Dirty Little Blondes hit the road
Some day, I do hope to head to Las Vegas and play in a big fancy arena. Like a lot of artists, I dream of making it big — but I still plan on busking when I do. Because despite this article’s focus on the economics of busking, busking is also about inspiring smiles, disrupting mundanity, and reminding us all of the music in the moment. If I’m able to do that and make a little extra cash, well, that’s music to my ears.