A Musicians Guide to Street Busking

Are you a talented singer or musician who’d like to try making money with your talents? Many people get their start in the music business by busking. If this is the first time you’ve heard that term, musical busking is a musical performance in a public place with the intent of getting money from the crowd. Famous performers such as B.B. King, Ed Sheeran, and Jewel started their careers by busking, 1 so street busking may be the right way for you to begin your music career.

Don’t Expect Lots of Tips Right Away

The difference between begging and street busking is that you offer your talent. It may feel like people walking by without tipping don’t like your performance. Don’t take the initial lack of tips as a rejection of your talent. It’s likely not about you but about that person’s schedule – or their philosophy toward tipping buskers.

Don’t expect to make a million dollars or get discovered by a record executive an hour after you start. It may take a while for your audience to tip you. They may be in a rush to go to work or to run errands with their kids. The first time they hear you, it may not be the right time for them to tip you.

Your appearance is important if you want people to notice you. You don’t have to wear a tuxedo, but you don’t want to look like you just rolled out of bed. Match your appearance to the style of music you’re performing. If your arms and legs are covered with tattoos, consider whether you should have laser tattoo removal done before going public with your act.

Don’t Litter

Littering is a lazy and inconsiderate habit, no matter who does it. If your potential audience sees you throwing food wrappers or empty cups on the sidewalk, it could turn them off. They may be less likely to tip someone they consider inconsiderate, so take the time to dispose of trash. When setting up your space at the beginning of your day, look for the nearest public trash container.

You can bring some trash bags with you. When you pack your backpack in the morning, before coming to perform, include trash bags. You can also have wipes or hand sanitizer, tissues, band-aids, and breath mints. If you’re passing out business cards, be prepared to find some business cards tossed on the ground and be polite enough to pick them up.

Your location for street busking is vitally important. You must be near a place where crowds will pass, but keep any store entrances unblocked. Before you set up, check online or at the library to see town ordinances regarding busking in the chosen area. You should also check with a merchant in that area to see if trash collection will occur in the same location.

Be Polite

A street musician should always be polite. Not everyone is going to like your music – or your appearance. Heckling happens to even the best performers. If someone says something rude to you, a polite response from you is always best. You may never win the hecklers’ approval, but others who see the encounter may respect how you handle it.

It’s a good idea to always wear a smile because pleasant people are likelier to get a positive reaction. When people give you money or a compliment, smile and say, “Thanks.” If people want to talk to you about your music, give them a business card rather than stopping your act to talk with them. Having your business cards ready on a table near you is a good idea, so they can contact you.

There are places where you’ll need to get a permit for street busking. You can find your locality’s zoning laws regarding public performances at the library or town hall. However, there are still times you may be arrested and need the services of a criminal defense attorney. For example, a popular San Antonio hip-hop dancer named Jose Valdez was arrested in 2021 for dancing in a public place where he’d previously been allowed to dance. 3

Consider a Power Source

If the instrument you’re playing needs an amplifier – or if you want to use a microphone, you’ll need to bring your own power source. Most buskers prefer bringing portable amps. There are many small and easily portable amps you can carry with you. Some of them are small enough to place in a backpack.

Being allowed to combine street busking with a power source is another thing to check before you begin your day. Some public spaces don’t permit amplified sounds. Other places may limit the volume of your performance due to noise hazard laws. Another thing to consider when setting up is to be aware of any wires or cords near you – and keep an eye on the crowd to be sure your audience doesn’t trip on those cords.

Although some street performers may bring portable home generators, those appliances are often too heavy to transport. Many performers report being frequently asked to move their locations a few times daily, so toting a large generator may be inconvenient. Go out near the places you’re considering and talk to some experienced buskers about the types of gear they use.

Choose a Good Location

Choosing the right location is one of the most important decisions about your street busking experience. You’ll want a place with enough people passing you to improve your chances of a tip. If your town has a bus system or subway stops, those places will be busy, but they’re not typically an excellent place to choose for performing. Public transportation users are often on their way to work or necessary appointments. Therefore, those in that area aren’t as likely to stop and donate money to buskers.

Going near a tourist attraction may seem like a good idea since there will be expected crowds. However, those locations may have too many other street buskers or vendors. You’ll want to be in a popular public place, like a park or shopping mall. A site near the mall may be a good idea since the people going to malls will likely already have spending on their minds.

When you set up your performance space, be sure to set everything near you, so you don’t have to worry about someone taking your belongings when your eyes are on your instruments. Although the traditional portrayal of a busker is someone with an open guitar case, you don’t have to use that setting. Some street performers bring folding patio tables to hold a tip jar and their business cards. Keep your personal belongings – especially most of your cash and credit cards, in a security belt on your waist.

Network With Business Owners

If you use the same location or area for a few weeks, you should begin talking to some of the business’ owners. You never know when a business owner will need a performer for a business or family function. If you make an acquaintance with a business owner, give them a business card; they can also refer you to friends looking for a performer.

If your locality has a business association or networking event, join. This may find you connections you can’t get in any other way. If you haven’t done so already, join online communities like LinkedIn – and see if your community has a Facebook page you can join.

You can also offer to trade services with business owners. For example, by donating some time to play at a coffee shop, you might get a free lunch and some ice or cold drinks. A massage therapist who needs spa music may trade a massage for a recording of some of your instrumental pieces. An organization raising funds for a charity may give you credit for their program in exchange for some time at their event.

Don’t Play Too Loud

Your audience will want to hear your music or your singing voice. However, people don’t want to be blasted. There’s no reason to play so loud that all your listeners will need to see a hearing aid doctor. If you’re street busking next to a store or other business, and the owner asks you to keep the volume down, respect their request.

Remember: some cities will have a noise control ordinance. Those business relationships could be very valuable in the future. Another tip is to be mindful of where you choose to perform. If you’re playing next to a church, for example, your music may disrupt the worship service – and your potential customers may not be receptive to you being interrupted by church music.

Look around as you set up and try to estimate how far away your audience will stand. Plan for your volume to reach that distance. You don’t need to play for the people two miles away. Keep your musical volume respectful, and more people will be able to enjoy it.

Don’t Escalate Confrontations

No matter how talented you are, there will be hecklers. Street busking leaves you vulnerable to those hecklers. No matter what happens, stay cheerful and polite; ignore impolite or vulgar suggestions whenever possible. You’re in a public place, so your performance is subject to their opinion.

Keep your choices of music family-friendly. You have freedom of choice and freedom of speech, but most people passing you are likely to prefer family-friendly music and could be offended by vulgar lyrics. Keep your responses neutral, polite, and pleasant – even if you’re offended at someone’s comments – or the political mottos on their T-shirts or hats. If someone attacks or hurts you, call 911, rather than retaliate.

If you or someone in the area is hurt, clear a path for the emergency responders and their first responder bags. Your performance will have to wait until the emergency has been dealt with – especially if you have been injured. If you obey the law, anyone who hurts you will be subject to personal injury laws.

Make Sure You Have the Right Permits

Street busking is legal in most of the United States, and it’s considered a form of free speech. 4 However, different places will regulate performers’ location, volume, and when and how long they can play. Some cities will require you to purchase and display a permit. To get permits in larger cities, you may be required to undergo a background check. 4

Some places require auditions to get a permit, and those auditions only occur at designated times and places each year. When you get your permit, keep it where your audience can see it. If you are arrested regarding your busking, contact a team of criminal attorneys for help.

Unfortunately, some street performers do not perform for the love of music. Some performers may be con men and use the performance to cover up a group of pickpockets or disguise another type of crime.6 This may cause some audience members to be suspicious but should not result in legal problems for you.

Avoid Playing in Cold Weather

It can be challenging to stay outside in one place during the cold weather, so performing in the cold for an extended period can be difficult. To be warm enough to perform, you can wear multiple layers of clothing and use heated gloves and shoe inserts – as hunters do. However, that may impede your freedom of movement, making it difficult to play instruments or move freely.

However, if you’re intent on street busking during cold weather, you can bring a small portable heater (with a rechargeable battery source.) You may use kiln-dried firewood in a public park to start a fire. Kiln dried firewood makes creating and maintaining a fire easier than standard wood. It also kills nearby pests and emits less smoke than standard wood. 7

Being a musical street busker can be an adventure. It can be a side hustle or launch you on a show business career. However, it’s important to note the guidelines listed above – especially regarding the legal impairments you may face. If you decide to perform, do your best – and break a leg!

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