Over the last few weeks, Vancouver, Canada has hosted athletes from all over the world for the Winter Olympics. But did you know that Vancouver has also been hosting musicians from all over the world? Yup, street performers have traveled from far and wide for one reason and one reason only: to busk on the sometimes-sunny Vancouver streets, and cash in on the magnanimity of Olympic tourists.
Why would someone fly across Canada, the U.S. or even Europe to busk at the Olympics? Because if you’re in the right place at the right time, a savvy, talented musician can make as much as $1000.00 a day.*
Don’t Just Have a Talent, Have an Act
Unfortunately, in many people’s minds, there’s a fine line between busker and beggar. To busk successfully, a musician has to separate herself from the crowd with an act. To stand out, she must:
- Rock an instrument other than the guitar.
- Always stand up to perform. No one’s going to shower her in money for sitting on her ass.
- Wear a costume. In a competitive busking environment, a girl playing the harp in an angel costume, or a guy playing the violin dressed as Darth Vadar, is going to earn points just for style.
- Dress up. If she’s not a costume-wearer, she must rock a suit, a dress, bright red shoes, or anything to send the message: I am not a homeless person!**
- Have a gimmick: bring a pet, offer passersby a songbook to pick requests from, or even set up a card table with merch for sale – anything that makes you look like a pro is good!
- Use a small PA. If no one can hear you before they’re standing right in front of you, then no one’s going to pay up. Like at a bar or club, you’re working to create atmosphere as much as anything.
Make Friends With the City
Most successful buskers have a close relationship with the city or cities that they work in. If a busker comes into a new area looking to perform, but she doesn’t know the ropes, she could end up with problems: misunderstandings, fights, or even fines can wreck a workday. Here’s how to avoid trouble:
- Check out local ordinances on street performing. These are usually available online. Every city has different rules. Some places are free-for-all, others require artists to buy a license, which can cost from $5 to $100 bucks a month!
- Find out where buskers can play.
- Some areas are restricted by the city, to buskers with special additional licensing.
- Some cities require buskers to audition for spots once a year.
- And then, of course, there’s the busker code: don’t go taking the spot that old Harmonica Jimmy’s been playing for the last twenty years. It’s just bad manners.
- Get to know the local homeless. She may not be one of them, but they are her competition. A smart performer has to figure out how to talk them out of her area, or find a new, less crowded spot in which to perform.
Location! Location! Location!
It might seem crazy for a city, or a local busking community, to have such strict rules about who can busk where, but the fact is that where and when our little busking phenom perform plays an enormous role in her ability to pull in cash.*** Prime times and locations are:
- Major city squares and intersections. A smarty-pants artist makes sure she’s getting traffic from all directions.
- Public transit. Perform to a captive audience. Literally.
- Tourist centers: harbors, markets, bar and restaurant areas, and cultural meccas of all kinds.
- Special events (for example, the 2010 winter Olympics) mean tons of tourists, tons of cash flow, and an undercurrent of desperate need to have a good time. Make people feel like they’ve paid to be in a place where important and special things are going down. Happy people shell out.
- Late-night after bar crowds. It’s intense and a bit dangerous, but a busker cannot do better than to head out around 2:00am and play to those drunken masses.****
It’ll take some false starts and routine tweaking, but it won’t be long before a talented musician starts to rake in some seriously livable cash as a busker. And while hitting the streets might sound a bit ghetto, it’s actually a great way to meet other musicians, and even club owners looking for acts. Huge names as diverse as Eric Clapton and Jewel got their starts busking for change on the streets. And thanks to the power of the interwebs, these days, some buskers are even planning world tours around events like the summer festival season, and of course, the Olympics.
*Busking is always a gamble. You could also end up making $3.00 a day!
**Not that there’s anything wrong with being homeless, but people are way more likely to pay you for what it looks like other people are already paying you for.
***Bonus tip: Don’t play when there’s no one around to listen. Busking can mean long days, so save your fingers for the crowds!
**** If you can play his favorite song, no one on the planet Earth is likelier to slip you a $20.00 than a guy stepping out of a club after eight drinks and six failed attempts at hooking up.