How to Make Money Busking (Street Performing)
Latest News | March 06, 2015
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1 Put together a great act. You don't have to be great at what you do in order to busk. In fact, many would-be panhandlers (some talented, some not so much) do a little busking just to make a little extra coin. Busking is also a great way for you or yourband or troupe to practice your act and just get experience playing in front of people. If you're serious about making money, though, your act should be finely tuned and tailored to street performing. There are two basic types of street performances.
Busking, also called street performing, is the showbiz equivalent of an entry-level job. Anybody can hit the street and put on a show, but if you put on a great show you could join the ranks of famous performers--Jimmy Buffett, Bob Hope, and the founders of "Cirque du Soleil", just to name a few--who started out busking. Whether you're a musician, magician, mime, juggler,clown, or comedian, if you can entertain people, you can make money busking.
Walk-by acts are continuous performances. People walk by the performers and occasionally one or two will stop or somebody will just drop a tip in passing. Most musical acts are walk-by acts, and while it happens occasionally, most passers-by won't stay for more than a song or two at most. Still, pay attention to what you're playing when people arrive in case they stay for a while, to help avoid repeating repertoire.
Circle acts have a distinct beginning and end. The performer(s) will try to gather a crowd to watch the show. The crowd usually stands in a circle or semi-circle. The ideal circle act seems to be somewhere between 10-20 minutes long. You can perform the same act several times in an hour, as the crowd will likely be different each time. Some of the steps below will pertain more to circle acts than to walk-by acts, since walk-by acts are relatively simple--you just pick a spot and start playing, although some walk-by acts turn into circle acts.
2 Find a place to perform. The ideal busking spot, or pitch, is a fairly quiet place with plenty of foot traffic. Examples of such places include street corners, squares, pedestrian malls, farmers markets and fairs. You also need to choose a pitch that suits your act. If you're a musician, for example, setting up in front of a wall can improve your acoustics, and if you're an acrobatics troupe, you'll probably need quite a bit of open space. If you're doing a circle act, make sure there's room in front of you for the crowd.
Some places are off limits, so it's a good idea to check your local laws first or just ask someone, such as a police officer or the fair manager. Some jurisdictions prohibit busking, while some require a license or permit, some turn a blind eye, and still others actually encourage busking. In the U.S., local anti-busking laws have frequently been declared unconstitutional on the grounds of free speech, so most public property is fair game. In other countries, however, laws vary. Unless there are very strict anti-busking laws in your area, it's usually OK to just start performing on public property, as long as you're not obstructing people or otherwise creating a nuisance. If you're asked or told to leave, just leave. On private property, however, (including many open air markets and fairs) you should always get permission first.
Try to avoid getting too close to other performers. It's very bad form to directly compete for other buskers' customers, and in most cases this results in both buskers making less than they otherwise would. In some highly desirable areas, particularly tourist attractions or fairs, it may be impossible to set up at a distance from other performers. If there are a ton of passers-by, it really doesn't matter, as long as you're not actually interfering with another busker's show (i.e. by making too much noise). In some desirable areas, buskers take turns performing.
3 Set up your space. When you find a suitable pitch, prepare a stage for yourself. Get all your equipment ready so that you can move through your show quickly and effortlessly. Consider putting up a sign or, if you want to go all out, lightly decorate the area around you. If you're a musician, it's always better to stand if possible. Whatever you do, don't sit on the sidewalk--you'll look like a panhandler, not a professional.
4 Gather a crowd. Any busker likes a crowd, but for circle acts a crowd is absolutely essential. The act of getting people to notice you--the build--is a fine art in itself. Rather than just jumping into your show, start attracting attention to yourself. Musicians can do this by jamming a bit to warm up--even tuning your instrument attracts attention and builds dramatic tension. Other performers can start with some light pre-show entertainment (just start some simple juggling, for example, if you're going to put on a juggling show). As you're doing so, actively solicit passers-by. Smile, and be pleasant and engaging. Talk to people. You can say anything from the traditional "Step right up for the greatest show on earth" pitch to, "Show's starting in a minute; want to stop and watch?" You've got to be a hustler and a salesman if you want a crowd, so don't be shy. Bring your crowd in nice and close. This helps you connect with people better, allows them to hear everything you say, and ensures that your crowd isn't getting in the way of other people.
5 Keep your crowd interested. Make each new segment of your act more amazing than the one before it. If you're performing tricks of some sort, start with a relatively simple one and move on to progressively more difficult ones until you get to the grand finale. If you're playing music, keep your songs upbeat to get the crowd into it (you can try sad or slow songs, but it's usually the fast, happy ones that get the tips). Move quickly from one trick or song to the next--everything should be ready beforehand to make sure setup time is minimal, and while you are setting up you should be talking to the audience--preferably making them laugh.
6 Interact with your audience. Some of the most successful street shows are 1 part dazzling skills to 2 (or more) parts comedy. People may have seen it all, but they'll still watch you if you can make them laugh, and comedy will put them in a good mood--atipping mood. Even if you're not being funny, go out of your way to interact with your audience. Talk to people, respond to comments or questions, tell stories or relate interesting facts about what you're doing.
7 Build audience participation into your act. Audience participation is always a crowd pleaser. Ask for volunteers and have them come up and help you with a trick or two. It's OK--some might say expected--that you embarrass the volunteerplayfully, as people love to watch other people be a little uncomfortable, as long as no feelings are hurt and it's all in fun. Kids especially like to volunteer, and their cuteness is pure gold for you.
8 Collect tips. Walk-by acts generally just leave a tip jar or open instrument case in front of them. It can help to have an interesting or attractive tip jar--hats are fine, but pretty baskets, pots, or unusual containers can be more inviting--especially to kids! Circle acts, however, perform for up to 20 minutes or more and usually collect tips only at the end of the act, so it's important to be assertive and creative in order to get properly compensated.
Deliver your hat line before the grand finale. A hat line is something you say to get people to give you tips. You say it before your finale because people will want to stick around to see the most exciting of the show. If you say it after the show's done, people will start walking away. There are plenty of good hat lines, but in general you want to tell people that you're working for their tips, and you want to ask them how much your show is worth to them. People may not know how much they should tip, so you should tell them. Consider suggesting they tip fives or tens; you can illustrate the value of your show by comparing it to the price of a magazine, a sandwich, or a movie. Once you deliver your hat line, make sure your grand finale is absolutely fantastic.
Pass the hat. Well, it doesn't have to be a hat, and you don't necessarily have to pass it, but you must have something in which to collect your tips. Thank the audience after the grand finale, and immediately get your "hat" out and work the crowd. Hold it out and let people drop money in. Be friendly, and joke around with the audience by using some additional short hat lines ("Please give generously. I could be out robbing houses... yours, for example" is a classic). If you have an assistant, he or she can begin passing the hat toward the end of the finale. A pretty assistant who smiles and makes eye contact saying something like "Won't you please contribute a little something for the performer?" can easily double the contributions.
9 Sell "merch." You can add a second income stream by offering products for sale at your performances. If you're a musician, sell your CD or t-shirts. Other performers can also sell t-shirts or other souvenirs. Display your merchandise prominently, and clearly post the price.
10 Keep track of your results. If you plan on busking often, keep a record of different places you've tried, the days and times of day you performed, and how much you made. One show generally won't give you much of an indication of how good a particular spot is, but over time you can figure out which spots are best, on what days, and at what times. You're essentially running a small business, and the better your record keeping, the better you can maximize your profits.
11 Learn from your experiences. If a trick or joke doesn't go over well, change it or get rid of it. If certain songs tend to bring in more money than others, play them, and others like them, more. Pay attention to your audience and try to make sure they're entertained at all times. If they're not, you've got to change something.