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Old 02-27-09, 03:50 AM   #1
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Default Musicians as Street Performers

"I'm getting my act together and taking it on the road"

The title of this 1970's musical applies also to musicians who perform on the street. Impromptu music performance in public spaces, or busking is probably as old as music itself. The salary of the famous blind 17th century Dutch recorder and carillon player Jacob van Eyck was increased "on condition that he would now and then in the evening entertain the people strolling in the churchyard with the sound of his little flute". Contemporary street musicians enjoy advantages not available to van Eyck, such a portable amplification, and more people with spare coins. This article discusses street music, and to how to adapt to its unique demands.

Street music performance works differently to "circle acts", where a performers draw a crowd for a show. A busking musician instead provides a (more or less) constant performance, where passers by donate as they see fit. The average "show" lasts around 30 seconds, from when a passer by first notices the music to when they no longer hear it. Sometimes a small crowd will gather, occasionally a larger one. However the steady trickle of passing folk is the bread and butter for busking musicians. This is your audience, you should aim to please them.

The on-going passage of a seemingly indifferent public takes getting used to, especially for those accustomed to a song applause, song applause performance rhythm. More often than not silence greets the end of each song when busking. However your shifting audience may enjoy the music more than you suspect. As a busker your task is to enhance an audio space. Your music should gladden passers by, including those giving no acknowledgement or contribution.

Busking combines performance with valuable practice. New songs can be aired, new techniques attempted, new equipment trialled. I'm a harmonica player, my repertoire is mostly traditional fiddle tunes. These are challenging and require constant practice. Busking allows me to hone my repertoire. I also play solo and with bands at festivals, both local and internation. Technique developed through years of busking provides a strong foundation when musicial challenges arise in front of paying audiences. In short, busking prepares you for larger stages.

As well as practice, busking obviously generates revenue. Choosing a good busking location (or pitch) is crticial. Busking is a numbers game, the larger your audience, the more you make. However, unlike circle acts, a street musician needs on-going passing pedestrians rather than a crowd. Turnover is the key thing. Hence places where people come and go make good busking pitches. Entrances to train stations and shopping centres are worth trying. Shopping centre antrances are particularly good, as those comming in have money to spend. Also traffic noise will usually be less.

Community markets are excellent busking places, and are usually pleasant to be at. Your music sets the tone for the environment, people are less rushed and will hence sit and listen to your performance. However you may not make as much as outside shopping centres. The community market crowd will seem larger than the shopping centre one, but in term of passing bodies may not be. Also people at community markets often think you have already been paid, and hence do not contribute further (indeed some markets will pay a fee for your services).

The amount you earn also depends on the local currency. In Australia we are blessed with a two dollar coin, European buskers have the Euro coin. US buskers are less fortunate, as the largest coin is a quarter. People don't tend to leave notes. Regardless of the currency, your coin basket should be user friendly. For some years I used a wooden bowl. Then I noitced a busking colleague with a cloth draped over his coin basket, preventing thrown coins from bouncing. Motivated by the difference in his pile to mine (much smaller) I watched my contributers, and noticed the care they took not to bounce coins left in my bowl. I replaced it with a basket covered by a velvet cloth, my contributions increased immediately.

For musicians, the ingredient which turns busking income from marginal to viable is CDs. Self produced CDs are common these days, most established musicians have one. They make a big difference. Selling one CD per hour can double your busking income, you may sell many more. CD sales through traditional outlets (stores, websites) are often disappointing, regular CD turnover through busking makes a worthwhile difference.

Finally, your greatest ally. Children. Adults are usually not inclined to stop, children always will. Then they ask their parents for coins, and have a great time running up to the basket. Buskers don't mind this either. On any given day more than half the coins in my basket are put there by children. Another reason why shopping centres are better than train stations. Children often accompany their parents when shopping, less so for train rides.

If you have never tried busking, then perhaps a new audience awaits you. Go out and meet them.
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