I’m going to let you in on a little secret… It takes a lot of hard work to become a success at busking. Ok, maybe that’s not what you wanted to hear, but don’t worry; it gets easier with lots of time and patience. The key is treating it as a business and not a hobby. Instead of thinking, ‘oh it’s Saturday, maybe I’ll do a bit of busking while I’m out,’ you actually plan and prepare for everything. You own the business and the key product is your talent. This doesn’t mean you start registering yourself at Companies House and opening a business bank account. But you do have to take it seriously. You will need to produce something that you believe in. And you have to supply something that’s in demand. Here are some things I learned along the way which could help you to become a successful street performer:
want to do a puppet show, then you need to buy the mini stage… and the puppets… and maybe have a way to play some music. If you want to be a storm trooper, then you might have to spend £1000 getting a proper costume. If you play an instrument like me, you’ll need an amplifier and an instrument that can be plugged in. You’ll also need microphones if you are singing.
It’s hard spending this kind of money, I know. But, if you are really serious about it, you just have to suck it up and pay for what you need. It helps if you keep reminding yourself that you will earn a lot more money much faster with that equipment than without.
Do what you are passionate about, give it your all, and the money will come eventually.
I did this when I was considering getting my electric violin and amp. I used to go out with just my acoustic fiddle but I noticed that other people were earning much more than me because they had better quality instruments and equipment. I was nervous about spending lots of money I didn’t have, but I took the plunge anyway. And I’m glad I did because I saw the benefit right away when I got my amp. Later when I got my purple violin it just added to the appeal of my act. You have to think about what’s best for you and what you want to achieve. Don’t waste money on something that isn’t essential for your act or necessary to enhance it. For example, if you’re like me and just plan on playing in local towns and not in Trafalgar square every day, then a £250 amp might suit you rather than a £1000 amp (even though the sound quality will be astronomically better with a better quality amp). Every piece of equipment should play an important part depending on what your act is. To be successful, you also need to keep costs down.
Make a Plan
You need to make a sort of business plan where you decide how much you want to spend on equipment, transportation costs, etc. You should also think about how much you are likely to earn. It might help to initially keep a spreadsheet of how much you are spending and earning. This will help make you aware of any adjustments you might need to make. For instance, you might decide to stay closer to home to cut down transportation costs, or you might try performing in a new town to earn more money.
It’s important that you make sure you keep things in perspective at all times. Earnings aren’t guaranteed so you will need to be realistic about how much you will make over a long period of time. For instance, say you make £200 in an hour in one place, don’t expect to make the same amount every time you go there. It’s easy to get excited when you suddenly earn a lot but you have to remember that certain conditions were met in order to make that happen. Find out from other buskers in the area how much they make throughout the year for similar acts. That will tell you if your plan is worth doing.
Do you have a full time job already? You might need to find a way to go busking outside of those hours if you can, but it will take you more time to establish yourself in the community. If you have a lot of family obligations, then busking full time might not be for you. I only have my own bills to pay for and debts to worry about. So if things go sour it only affects me. There is a level of risk involved with busking, so you have to take that into account when considering how seriously you want to do it. If you do want to busk full time, it is important to have a monthly goal for earnings. In the summer, this number will usually be higher than other times of the year.
One thing I like to do is have a minimum amount I need to earn each day to reach my goal. Some days I have to play longer than others to get the same amount, but the goal is always to earn my minimum. You have to keep in mind that you can’t expect anything. You might have some days where you won’t get anything at all and those days will be total write offs. Just remember that it’s ok because you might make up for it on another day.
Also, don’t make it only about money. Do what you are passionate about, give it your all, and the money will come eventually. If you focus only on how much you can make in a day, you might start to put a monetary value on your worth which can take you down an unhealthy path. Make sure your personality shines through whatever you are doing.
Know Your Worth
Having said that, sometimes people will ask you to do things for free. Does a business make money if they give all their products away for free? No. When you are busking you are playing for tips, so I don’t see that as playing for free. But there are members of the public which I think do see it that way. I’ve made the mistake of playing at a couple of free events in the past. One occasion happened about 6 months ago. One of the student clubs from the local university was running an event and wanted me to play at it. They’d seen me busking and said I’d be perfect for their event, but it was not paid. Even though I wasn’t totally happy about it, I agreed thinking I might get some exposure out of it based on what they described.
I was given dinner but of course no money. It was basically an open mic night with a theme. There were a few other performers and the whole evening wasn’t very well organised because other people were late and they didn’t keep to the schedule. Overall I felt like I really wasted my time being there. The people who attended the event were never going to hire me for any paying gigs. Even though it was filmed, I never saw the footage anywhere, and they didn’t thank me for coming or do any sort of follow up. I didn’t enjoy being there either because for me, when I’m performing, it is work. There was a lot of waiting around and that’s my valuable time that I’ll never get back. Your time is valuable too.
When you perform for free, people don’t appreciate what you are providing for them. In my opinion, it cheapens your brand. It makes people think, why should I pay for something I can get for free? Also, there is the old phrase “you get what you pay for”. If people don’t need to pay anything for you, they might think that you aren’t any good at what you do. Also, why book yourself in for a free event when you could leave the time available to be booked for a paid gig? It’s up to you to tell people what you’re worth.
It’s for this reason that I’ll never play at open mic nights and other unpaid solo gigs. I get asked a lot but always politely decline. I play at Irish music sessions because I enjoy being there. I’m not there to try to earn money or get exposure or anything. I just enjoy playing great music with like-minded people. I know some street performers who go out thinking every time they open their case they need to be earning money. It’s not such a hard and fast rule for me. It’s important to know where you draw the line for your situation.
The first thing I did when I started busking more seriously was to create an official Facebook page for my music. This is because people were always asking me how they could get in touch and wanted information on when and where I’ll be busking next. Facebook is a free and easy way to get an online presence but you can also create a website or use another forum. For me, I’ve found it very helpful to have a separate music page so people who are only interested in my music can be updated on that alone and not any of the other stuff I might post on my personal page. Just like a business, it’s best to keep it separate from your personal life.
I also made makeshift business cards before I decided on my official cards. Performing on the street is a great way to self-advertise for private events. It’s important that people can easily contact you for bookings. It doesn’t look good if you’re fumbling around in your bag looking for a pen and scrap of paper when they ask for your phone number.
You need to decide if you want to work alone or as a group. You also need to think about what kind of help you might need. For instance, you might want someone to take professional pictures of you to put on your Facebook page or website. You also want videos of your act to go online. Think about doing this as part of the investment into your business as well.
Support can also come from the community. Talk to people in nearby shops, stallholders at markets and people advertising on the street (e.g. charity workers or people holding up signs for restaurants). Be considerate towards them and treat them with respect and they will also support you. Sometimes if you’re looking for a place to busk or they know about special opportunities, they will happily help you out.
You need to find out the best locations for busking and also the best times to go. In the UK there are a lot of market towns, so you have to investigate which days the markets are on. As I mentioned previously in 12 Ways to Earn Serious Cash While Busking (no. 7 on the list), there is a lot to consider regarding location. For instance, there are rules and regulations to follow in some cities. Another thing is some towns are richer than others so you are likely to earn more in those places.
You also have to think about competition. If you are very unique or have a better performance than most other street performers, then you don’t have to worry too much about competition because as long as people see you first, you will still earn a lot. However, if you are just starting out, it may be best to go places where you don’t have to compete with anyone.
Just Try It
It takes a bit of experimentation to find out what works and what doesn’t. You just have to go out there and try different things. If it goes wrong or you don’t make anything when you first have a go, don’t worry about it too much. The people who saw you won’t care or remember (unless they filmed it) and you’ll probably never see them again anyway. What’s important is that you learn from your mistakes and make it better next time.
One thing to keep in mind when you do go out (especially if you busk full time), is that it's best to go as early in the day as possible (when people will be around). For instance, if I go to certain cities on market day I need to be there set up and playing at 10 am when the buses come in. If you don't have someone standing over you, telling you when you have to be at work (like in a conventional 9-5), it can be easy to be a bit lax with timings. However, if you think that it is a business, not a hobby, it'll be easier to give yourself rules to stick by. There is a lot of advice out there on how not to procrastinate or get up early. I don't think any of that really works. In my opinion, the answer is drive. If you have a purpose and are self driven then it's easy to get up, go out and do what you love.
Bringing it all together
Once everything is set up, you have your regular repertoire (which you continuously improve), you know the best places to go, and you are earning a steady income, it gets much easier to continue with your business. Since it is up to you what you want to achieve as a street performer, you decide when you are successful. Treating it as a business will help you achieve your busking goals.
Are you thinking about busking and found these tips helpful? Are you a regular busker with any tips of your own to add? Write about it in the comments 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.