Reason For Performing
I’ve mentioned this in another blog post. Some people busk because they want to practice certain songs, some play for their own entertainment, and some do it to make money. While I do enjoy what I do (I’d pick standing out in the sun and fresh air over a stuffy office sat at a computer any day), my main goal with busking is to earn money. It’s my main source of income all year round. Because of that, this post is mainly focused on how to make a good set list for earning cash. People who busk for their own enjoyment will just play whatever they feel like playing at that moment. There is more to think about if you want to earn money with your music.
Finding Out Which Songs Earn Money
My current set list is a mixture of songs I picked up from other buskers and songs that I already know and like. I found out I could earn money with these songs through trial and error. Every city is different with their preferences. In some places I have people shouting at me to play some Irish tunes if I’m playing songs (those people have probably heard me play before). In other places they prefer gentler classical pieces. Sometimes when I start busking somewhere and I’m not making money right away, I have to try a song from each different genre I have to find one that works. Then I know to play similar stuff.
In my list I have pop, rock, folk, bluegrass, country, classical, reggae versions of some songs, cha cha, jazz, metal, oldies, and maybe a few more. I think I have my bases covered, but I’m always trying to add more styles. It keeps things exciting. Honestly I don’t think the average busker needs so many options. Some buskers are known for a certain style and they make it work for them. I just prefer being able to play lots of different types of music. It works especially well when I go to markets because the people there have to sit there and listen to me all day. They have told me they like my taste in music and enjoy the variety. They get a bit bored with other musicians who just play the same stuff all day long. So this works to my advantage.
What Makes You Happy?
So, the first thing I like to do when trying to create a set list is to think about what makes me happy. Since I’m the one who has to play these songs over and over again, I need to make sure I’m going to enjoy what I’m playing. I think it’s important for all buskers to consider this whether or not they do it to earn money. This is easy when you are playing solo, but if you are playing in a group, you don’t always get a choice. There’s usually some compromising that has to happen. In the past I’ve ended up playing some songs I’ve really hated because other people wanted to play it. Sure I could come up with my own part and play it well, but my heart wasn’t fully in it. As a result I wasn’t playing to my full potential. It’s much more difficult to earn money if you aren’t pouring your heart and soul into what you play.
What Is Easiest To Play?
Sometimes I come up with these wacky ideas of playing songs I really love to listen to but they are very difficult to play on violin. If it’s not easy to play, then it won’t be very impressive if you can’t pull it off. So I always go for things I can play again and again without putting in too much effort, but sound good every time. The most important thing is what kind of sound you produce. If other people like it, that’s all that matters. You’re likely to get the same £1 coin for something really difficult vs something really easy that sounds fantastic. Why stress yourself out more than you need to?
What Genres Are Popular?
Lastly I wanted to talk about genres. I’ve listed most of the genres I play above. In certain countries (and in certain regions within those countries) there are distinct genres of music that will be more popular than others. For instance, if you live somewhere where people listen to a lot of country music, and you can play that genre with a twist, people will appreciate you for it. But if you try that somewhere else where country music is not so popular, your audience will not understand the nuances of what you have played. So it’s important to think of the age of your audience and your location. If you are playing somewhere where there are a lot of older people, it might be best to play something that will help them reminisce about the past.
So… what do you think? How important is the repertoire for a musician busking on the street? Will people give money no matter what you play as long as you’re good? Write your thoughts 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.