There are a lot of factors that come into play when you consider how much you can earn as a busker. If there’s a good audience and nice weather then there’s more potential for a good day out. But those aren’t things you necessarily have control over. Here are 12 steps you can take to ensure you receive the maximum amount of your potential income:
1. Have an Impressive Skill
This might sound obvious, but it’s very important. It doesn’t actually matter what your skill is. You just need to be good at it. The more obscure the better. Whatever you do, it needs to capture your audience’s imagination.
I play fiddle but I do a lot of improvising and know a lot of music without needing any sheet music. Many people find this impressive because there are lots of people that play violin, but most learn in orchestra, read sheet music and play note for note. Another example could be if you’re a drummer and play to backing tracks. If you are able to twirl your drumsticks in the air a lot without losing them and stay on beat, then that’s pretty impressive.
You might not be at the level yet where you can perform everything perfectly, but a lot more people are impressed with a spot on performance and will give more money when they see or hear it.
2. Practice Makes Perfect
It is essential that you spend your spare time practicing when you aren’t out busking. In a way, you are practicing while you are busking, but it is much better to do so in the comfort of your own home so you can go over your act section by section. If you play an instrument, it’s sometimes good to go back to basics. Don’t just play the songs in your repertoire, but also practice scales and other similar exercises. For violin, I practice different types of bowing techniques and getting my fingering more in tune. If you know what you are doing, you look much more confident and professional and people will appreciate your skill even more.
3. Have Something Eye Catching
Having a nice sound is a good way to bring people over to you from a distance. But having a prop will make passers-by pay more attention to you. They might not like your music, but your instrument could be really interesting to them.
I used to just busk with a normal cheap acoustic violin, but last winter I bought a purple electric violin. There are a lot of people who have never seen an electric violin, let alone a purple one. It makes them stop and think. Usually they’ll point and comment on it, they might ask me about it, or they might want to take a picture. The more people who stop to take pictures, the more likely other people will notice you too.
I’ve also seen people dressed up in different costumes. Usually kids want to take pictures with whatever the character is and parents will tip them for the picture. There’s one guy I saw, for instance, that dressed himself up in a costume, but also had a puppet. He played background music through an amp while the puppet danced. He made loads of money from that simple act.
Being a human statue that plays a tune when someone drops money in has potential to be a good money earner. People are usually stood around the statues waiting for something to happen. This especially happens in places where you don’t normally see them. Plus it conserves your energy to only play a little bit if you are used to playing music all the time. Hey, maybe I’ll try that one day!
4. Variety is Key (And the Spice of Life)
You hit a much wider audience when you, for example, play different types of music. I used to just play Irish music, but when I added pop, oldies, and classical I started earning a lot more. Also, there are a lot of regulars that might pass by. They’ll be bored if they see the same trick or hear the same joke over and over again. You’re likely to be much more entertaining if you have lots of tricks up your sleeve. Also, the punters are much more likely to stick around and watch and listen to you for a long time if you perform lots of different things.
Recently I busked in a new city about an hour away from me. You never know what to expect when you go somewhere new. I played for about 2 hours and at the end some people came up to me and said they had been sitting on the bench behind me listening to my entire set. It surprised me that they enjoyed it so much they didn’t want to leave. In the old days (years ago) people would only stop for about a minute. Nowadays, people often sit and listen to me for a long time because I play a lot of different styles which keeps it interesting.
I’m also adding new songs to my set list all the time, so that when I go to the same cities and towns, my regulars are surprised to hear something new. Also, more people will give you money if you play something they recognise or like. When I play “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica for instance, people will drop money in because they recognise the song. Also they wouldn’t expect to see it being played on a violin. They’ve told me that otherwise they wouldn’t normally give anything. People will come up to you and tell you what songs they enjoyed so you know what works and what doesn’t. If someone says they don’t like a song, it’s best to ignore that person. Just because they don’t like it doesn’t mean other people don’t enjoy it.
Of course there are lots of buskers out there who write their own stuff and are very successful at getting lots of money. As I said earlier it doesn’t actually matter what you perform as long as you can perform it well and you are enjoying it.
5. Do What You Enjoy
I occasionally busk with other musicians and they all have different personalities. When I worked with another violinist who insisted that we played the songs he liked (but I found boring), I didn’t play as well as I could have because I wasn’t enjoying myself. When I play Irish tunes I enjoy what I play and people see it on my face and it makes them enjoy it as well. The same goes with the songs I pick. I play the songs I do because they are my favourite to listen to or to play.
Sometimes people might not necessarily like what it is you’re performing, but if you show that you really enjoy it, it can convince them to give you money. It makes others happy to see you doing something that makes you happy.
6. Put Your All Into Your Performance
I enjoy playing Irish music, but I don’t always feel like putting all my effort into my playing because it’s draining. Yet if I want to make more money, that’s what I have to do. If I just played the notes without adding any feeling into it, I don’t draw people’s attention. It makes people stop and look when you play your heart out, because it puts an emotion in the listener. Music can give people goose bumps if it’s done well. Even if you aren’t necessarily playing something technically difficult, people will think you are really good if you play with a lot of effort and emotion. It’s the same with other kinds of acts. If the performer isn’t putting all of their focus into their performance, they won’t earn as much money.
nearby. Also, it’s best to be as far away from other buskers as possible. Competition hurts your business. (Although, if you are already in town it’s not necessarily cost effective to immediately go to another town if you see other buskers already set up).
Decide the best place for your act. If you need audience participation, then you need lots of space. If you are playing music, it’s best to set up in front of a café where people are seated outside. Otherwise find a spot where there are a lot of people walking by and you won’t block anybody’s path.
It’s important to walk around and become aware of your surroundings before you can even consider setting up.
8. Timing is Important
You’ll make a lot more money on a Saturday than you will on a weekday. That doesn’t mean you can’t make decent money throughout the week though. It’s best to play during meal times when there are a lot of people walking around. Another good time, in some places, is when people are coming out of work and rushing to their cars or to the trains. Also during certain events you’ll get a lot of footfall. Just make sure you get there early enough so you are set up and ready to go when the people do show up (I sometimes struggle with this since I like to have a lie in every so often!).
9. Make Sure You Can Be Heard
For musicians, it’s important to have the right equipment for the location you’re in. If you turn up in Trafalgar Square with a little Roland Cube, the sound will just disappear into thin air. You need a proper £1000 amp to play in big places like that. Likewise, if you just play an acoustic instrument in a small town, you will be invisible to the majority of people. If you aren’t loud enough people won’t notice you and they won’t give you money. But refer to point number 1 before doing this. If you are talented enough, then you won’t have to worry about being a nuisance because people will enjoy your music and will want you to turn up the volume. Just make sure you don’t point your amp directly into the doorway of any shops!
10. If You’re New to Busking, Start Out Small
There is a slight learning curve when it comes to busking. If you immediately try to go and compete with the big fish and you have no idea what you’re doing, then you might struggle. Unless there’s another busker nice enough to tell you the rules and etiquette, you are bound to make an error of judgement and end up not earning very much. I knew someone who went busking for the first time in 20 years and went straight to London. He had a tiny amp and someone in the queue in Trafalgar square was nice enough to let him use their amp. The guy I knew showed up absolutely clueless about how it all worked, he just wanted to play his instrument. But he was lucky that someone showed him what to do. He also made a fortune that day.
Not everyone is that lucky though. It's best to make your own luck. Instead of turning up to a main square in a major metropolitan city for the first time ever, it might be better to go somewhere a bit smaller for the first couple of times to get used to it. That way you’ll have a better idea of what to expect, what works and what doesn’t, and what kind of equipment for the performance you are trying to achieve. Once you have all of that figured out, you’ll be more able to perform with full confidence.
11. Be Approachable
If you stand there with a grumpy face that makes children cry, you’re not likely to make very much money. You don’t need to be smiling all the time, but just look approachable. If you’re overly aggressive or angry it really puts people off from coming anywhere near you (unless it’s part of your act and people understand that). People can be judgemental as well. When you are performing in public you have to keep in mind what kind if image you want to present to the world. While it’s important not to necessarily care what people think of you, you don’t want everyone thinking that you are a rude jerk. You’ll scare everyone away and they won’t want to give you anything!
12. Perform Alone
This is another obvious one, but necessary to consider. If you perform with other people then you have to split the earnings unless the others don’t want to take any. If you have enough talent to be able to pull your own weight, then you don’t need to perform with anyone else. If you are considering performing with someone, you’ll need to test the grounds. Go out by yourself sometimes and with the group other times. If you try the same or similar locations and same days of the week it should be easy to compare your earnings.
Some people might end up earning more as a duo or a group rather than going it alone. But their acts are usually something unique that requires two or more people. There isn’t always an advantage to having more performers in a group. I still go out busking with other people occasionally because it adds variety. But the majority of the times I go out, I’m alone and I usually earn the most then.
I’m sure there are many more tips out there, but from my experience and observations these 12 tips are the key to earning more busking money. Keep in mind that following these tips doesn’t always guarantee a large sum of money coming your way. It varies from place to place. It’s also important that you’re busking in places where people recognise that they should tip you. However, you should hopefully be able to improve your busking game by trying some of these out.
Do you have any more tips to add? Have you successfully tried any of these tips? Let me know in the 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.