Busking hones your chops for every aspect of a live show and the skills you need to make it successful, especially for an independent musician just starting out.
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Looking for a great spot to busk is just like booking a tour and it involves researching venues, the time of the week, the city and routing so you wind up with a gig at a genre appropriate venue on a night people are likely to come out.
First, research the city’s rules around street performing. Then watch and talk to other buskers and study what seems to work for them. Generally, a good space is centrally located with lots of continuous foot traffic and a captive audience.
However, not every spot is good all day every day. Notice what is around the location – is it a blue-collar crowd where you should play during their lunch hour, near a college where afternoons might be better or a hip part of town where late evening is okay? Time and location also depends on the kind of person you are. If you’re a mellow acoustic performer, late evening might actually be a great fit as people wind down from the day. I kept a journal with the location, weekday, time of day and details on CD sales, tips, and overall success to see where my time was best spent.
Whether you’re playing a live show or busking, respect is the golden rule. Give your respect to the other performers, the space you’re in and the audience listening to you.
Develop relationships with other buskers – you could even collaborate and book a show or tour together. They may let you know about a new spot or help in any number of ways. Busking can feel insular and a lot of times you may even hear from family and friends that they don’t understand what you’re doing but you can find support amongst other street performers.
Respect for your performance space is about being present. I keep my performance area neat and simple. If there is trash around or if someone leaves something after listening to me, I’ll break between songs and throw it away. It’s distracting to me and it takes away from the focus I’m trying to create for the audience.
You need to give the audience something worth looking at too. Dress up like you would for a live show and give people an idea of what they are going to be hearing from you by how you look. Your signage and merchandize setup should also be displayed simply and clearly. Bringing t-shirts and free posters always gets too complicated. Keep it easy for people to make a decision on how to support you so that they will.
Show up warmed up and ready to go with an attitude of gratitude to give your audience respect. Make sure all your equipment is in working order before you leave and bring spares of what you can in your equipment – most often batteries! When you’re busking the audience you’re performing for owes you nothing. You invaded their world and you have to respect their space too.
Set an intention to really open your heart and give love to the people listening to you – it will completely make a difference in how well you do. That connection is the deep reason for making music and it keeps you going for the long haul.
I like to chat with the audience between songs. Doing that gives me a chance to introduce myself, announce my shows, CDs and email sign up.
Throw in some cover songs too, especially if you put your unique take on them. Performing a cover song gives your audience a break from so much information. A well-known cover gives people a chance to just listen to you, the performer, because they already have enough information in their memory about the song. That context will help them connect to you personally and decide they like you enough to keep listening to an original next.
The last thing I want to say is don’t be shy to ask for help. At my bigger shows I usually have a friend helping and it’s the same when I’m busking in a busy location. The audience might have questions, need to make change or is too scared to walk up to me directly. They know other people are watching me and think they will be in the way or watched when they come up to me. Hiring a nice friend to help them will usually pay for itself in CD sales, tips and more connections.
Have fun and enjoy busking! It gives you a chance to develop a fan base and hone your chops as a musician. You may even find you prefer it!
Check out Natalie’s latest EP Streetlamp Musician, available on iTunes and Amazon. For info about Natalie Gelman, go to NatalieGelman.com.