Today I wanted to write about my audience. Whether I like it or not, their comments, likes and dislikes feed into the type of music I perform on the street. Some buskers prefer to only play what they like and hope that someone else will like it too. They do it purely for love, not money and that’s fine. I, however, prefer to get an income from busking so in this case it’s important for me to read my audience and think about what might encourage them to tip something.
People come from all walks of life. Old, young, tattoos and piercings, prim and proper, happy, sad, everyone has their own tastes and the moment they pass you on the street they could be in any kind of a mood. A musician sets the atmosphere around them. They can play something exciting, melancholy, angry etc. With other types of acts I find that they are usually only able to create one mood. For instance, one act might be comedic, another might create awe, and another could just be entertaining. I think this is what makes music special. In a film, when you hear a certain type of music you can tell something bad is about to happen. Or something good might have just happened. Musicians have the ability to create moods within other people. So it’s important that musicians pay attention to the people that walk by them if they want to earn decent money. This is my experience with creating an audience.
When I used to play just Irish music, I usually played it very cheerfully. There are some slower tunes I would add to break it up a bit. However, people threw the most money in when I played loud and fast. I suppose because it’s more impressive to them. Many different types of people tipped me but the majority of my income came from parents whose children begged them to stop walking and watch or to put money in. I started busking with someone else last year who insisted on playing particular songs (mostly oldies). His main focus was to get the attention of older people because in his eyes they had more money so were likely to give the most. I didn’t particularly like the songs he picked, and for me it’s really important to like what I play. So when I went off on my own I had a different goal in mind. Attract everyone from all age groups. I incorporate some songs by the same artists that he picked, but only the ones I like. Additionally I play some more modern stuff which also gets people’s attention.
Sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of which songs make more money because it’s not an exact science. Sometimes I could play Pachelbel’s Canon for 5 mins and make £6 in that time. Other times I might not make anything. Sometimes the same happens if I play Nothing Else Matters. I usually pay attention to who is walking by when I decide on a piece of music. If there are a lot of kids I’ll skip the Canon and play something more upbeat because kids usually like to jump around and dance to the music. Even when I play some Irish tunes I get some teenagers jokingly doing a few steps, then they come back and drop some money in my case.
You don’t get to choose your audience when busking, but you can certainly make a good impression on a lot of folks.
Apart from that it’s really difficult to judge what sort of music people might like on a particular day. Sometimes I’ll be playing the Canon and some tough looking guys will come by and drop money in and say that sounds really beautiful. That surprises me because I sometimes think only little old ladies will like it. It just shows you that you can never truly tell what people will enjoy. I usually have to test a few songs in the beginning of my set. If I find a song that works, then I start playing other stuff that is similar. For instance I sometimes start with some Irish jigs and suddenly I’ll get a few people swarming around me saying they love it. So I’ll continue to play more tunes for a while before I switch to something else. Basically I end up playing whatever I feel like playing within certain parameters.
Occasionally people request certain songs and sometimes I happen to have it on my set list, other times not. I have a very good ear so occasionally I can figure out how to play it on the spot. This always makes people happy and certain drop in a few coins. One time in Lincoln at the top of the hill, a lady said her son really liked 7 Years by Lukas Graham. I couldn’t even remember how it went so asked her to hum it. From that I worked out how to play the chorus and played that for them. However, I don’t particularly like that song and don’t think it would be that popular so I haven’t bothered to add it to my set list.
Other times if it’s something that I think other people will like too, I’ll learn it properly and sort out backing music for it. For instance, once in Newark this guy asked me to play the Game of Thrones theme. I had learned it from the sheet music months before but couldn’t quite remember how to play it so I had to disappoint him. However, I do like that one and figured others would too. So I added it to my repertoire and it’s become really popular. That guy saw me a few weeks ago in Lincoln and heard me play it and was impressed that I’d taken the time to learn it.
I’ve noticed that some buskers don’t look at their audience at all. I think partly because they are so focused on what they are doing. However, I’ve been performing long enough to be able to play and focus my attention on my audience at the same time. I think smiling with eye contact is important, because it shows the person that you noticed them and it’s another way to connect with that person. Also you can tell if they are enjoying what you are doing. I also watch people’s feet and hands if they are sitting down. People can’t help but tap along if they like what they hear. Or they could just have a bored look on their face and then I know that I need to change styles. Sometimes people will do a funny dance as well. Yesterday morning I was playing a tango and some old guy (who was pushing another old guy in a wheelchair) suddenly lifted his leg up behind him as if he were about to dance the tango. It made me chuckle and he chuckled as well while he passed by. I also get a lot of thumbs up and smiles from people who haven’t given money. Occasionally they do come back and drop something in.
Music is its own form of communication. There are times when I go somewhere to busk (like a market), I set up, play, then pack up and leave when I earned enough money… all without having spoken to anyone. Yet somehow I leave feeling like I’ve had a conversation with all the people around me. It’s a very eerie feeling. Other times I do end up actually speaking to a lot of people around me. They ask me all sorts of questions, sometimes they tell me which specific songs they liked. It’s all helpful for me in trying to understand my audience. Sometimes people will tell me that a certain song has brought up a nice memory or that they were feeling gloomy and I cheered them up. Sometimes people excitedly want to take a picture with me. I just think ok, don’t know why you’d want a picture with me, but ok! At least that definitely tells me they are enjoying my music.
You don’t get to choose your audience when busking...
but you can certainly make a good impression on a lot of folks. I aim to set the mood and brighten people’s day in any way I can when I go out to play. That’s the best thing any busker can do. In my next post I'll expand on what type of music is in my set list.
What are your thoughts and experiences? Are you a busker with different ideas on how to gather an audience? Of course this is from the perspective of a walk by performance so people with circle performances will have different views. Please leave your questions and comments in the comment section below!
I am 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.