Let’s face it, busking isn’t for everyone. There’s a slight stigma around it and it takes guts to go out there on the street and perform before hundreds of strangers. I love busking, but you can’t avoid the negative that accompanies the positive. It’s not all roses, unicorns, and glitter. But I think these problems are very much first world problems. People who are used to nice, clean, quiet environments can relate to these issues. This will be a rare chance for you to see me complain and share the unhappy moments I’ve experienced (or witnessed). So let’s be real and talk about the downsides to busking regularly:
Britain is especially known for unpredictable weather. You can look at the weather report and see that it’s supposed to be partly cloudy that day. Then you get to your busking spot, set up, and suddenly it starts pouring down with rain. Then you have to go hide until it stops. Or you go out knowing that it is currently raining and you are just crossing your fingers hoping it will stop by the time you get there. And don’t get me started on the winter months. Sometimes it’s so cold I can’t feel my fingers, especially because they keep touching the metal strings of my violin. But I have to keep going because there are lots of people out giving me money.
Bad weather means less customers and that equals less income. But cloudy days are the best for busking because you won’t overheat in the sun. If you play an instrument, the weather can affect that too. Violins don’t do too well in the sun or rain. There are some indoor busking spots, but usually they’re quite competitive (e.g. London Underground). So most buskers will be performing outside, enduring all sorts of weather. It can be unpleasant.
Being out in the public means you encounter all sorts of rubbish flying around you. Sometimes dirt and leaves being to build up in your case, sometimes people spill coffee in your case (without apologising), sometimes a dog will pee right next to your stuff, the street is not the most hygienic place to be. Your equipment touches the ground that people have been walking on and trapesing faecal matter and god knows what else across. And then when you finish, you put your instrument case or bag on your back or you strap it to your trolley. Then you go to put your equipment inside your car or bring it on public transport, then it goes in your home and all the germs come with you. Yuck.
And it’s easy to start feeling miserable when all you want to do is just sit down and relax but you also want to play and earn some money. I’ll use this picture again as an example. It was another time when I was extremely tired from dragging my equipment everywhere. It’s a bit tougher when you take public transport, like in this instance when I took the train to London. Let me tell you, that bag gets 10x heavier when you have to lift it up several flights of stairs!
I know this might not annoy some people, but bugs, bug me. I don’t like feeling spiders crawling on my face or spinning a web around my arm. I swear some of them just come flying directly at me from about 30 feet away. They must think I look like a good spot to collect some insects. It’s also very distracting when I see one dangling down from my bow or crawling around my fiddle. And I certainly get the occasional thunderflies swarming around me (or landing on me and making me itch), or bees, or wasps, that suddenly think it’s a good idea to make a beeline for my face. (People get a good laugh watching me do a funny dance to avoid getting stung.)
I don’t like bugs. I know they’re good for the planet and I avoid killing them at all costs, but I just prefer them not to be biting, stinging, or crawling on me. I’m sure some of you can relate!
5. Inconvenient Timings
If you work a normal 9-5, you get a lunch break sometime between 12 and 2 normally. However, if you’re busking, those are the ideal times to be out performing. If you’re used to eating around midday, then it can be a bit awkward. You either have to change your normal mealtime or eat while you set up. It’s the same with evenings. While people are out having their dinner, that’s the best time to perform for them. Living the unconventional life means being a bit inconvenienced as well.
6. There Are Some Crazy People Out There
When you go busking, you can meet some interesting characters, let’s put it that way. These are the types of people you certainly wouldn’t have met in any other situation. Some of these people like to get in your personal space, try to take your money, shout abuse at you, and generally don’t know how to behave in polite society. Safety is an issue that any busker has to take into account, especially young women. It's not like you can run away when these people approach you. You learn to be diplomatic in waving them away, and if you're lucky a police officer will see and move them on for you.
7. Coins Are Heavy
Of course every busker is grateful for all the coins that get dropped into their case because that’s their income. The more coins the better! But if you compare that with having money directly deposited into your account from a conventional job where someone hires you, it can be a disadvantage.
Lugging lots and lots of coins (like hundreds of pounds worth some days) is difficult because you are already carrying your equipment and they are an additional thing to weigh you down. Plus, the main issue is that you need to be aware of people who are watching you who might try to mug you. When you are heavy laden with stuff, you can’t easily run away from someone (or a group of people) who wants to beat you up and take all your money. It's dangerous out there. That's why I do what I can to make sure I don't have to much on me at once. It's the safest way to be.
8. It Can Be Exhausting
It takes a toll on your body to perform for hours at a time. A person who isn’t careful to take care of themselves and get enough rest can easily wear themselves out if they busk regularly. This is especially true if you put a lot of effort into your performance and put on a good show. It’s easy to forget to take a break and relax a little. Another thing is if you are doing booked performances as well. You can suddenly find yourself being extremely tired from trying to do too much at once.
9. It Can Be Disheartening
Sometimes you could be out there pouring your heart and soul into your performance. There could be perfect weather, lots of people, and everything is just right. But people are just ignoring you, and you aren’t making very much money at all. It can be disappointing to go through those moments, and they can often lead to people giving up. You have to keep faith in yourself. It’s important to know your ability and what you are capable of earning. Having a positive outlook is the best way for people to realise that they only need to go where they’re appreciated.
10. People Don’t Understand Your Career Choice
People often ask me what I am doing with my life. It’s usually perfect strangers that want to know. They ask me if I’m a student, if I play in an orchestra, what do I do? They don’t seem to get it that street performance is a full time job in itself and that it can be a rewarding career. They just see it as a hobby or something nice to do every so often.
Sometimes they say ‘no offense, but my daughter is in the (insert top symphony orchestras here)’, and I just have to take a deep breath and let it go. You know if someone says ‘no offense’ they are about to say something offensive. I’m just thinking - ok, good for her, that’s nice, but I don’t want to be in an orchestra? I’m happy being my own boss and playing what I want to play and how I want to play it. People are going to judge and that’s just a part of life. I just let them say what they're going to say and move on.
So that’s it for the downsides. My normal posts will be more positive than this one, but I think it’s important to also be clear and honest about the reality of this busking life. What are your thoughts? Does this list surprise you? Have you experienced these problems yourself? Add your comments below!
Serena Smith is an American British violinist and fiddle player. I play full time as a street musician in addition to the live gigs I perform with several bands.