Chris McSweeney speaks from personal experience about what it’s like to be a busker. He did not love it.
Early on in my second year at Uni – for reasons that were totally my fault – I ran completely out of money. For days, my diet had consisted solely of Tesco-brand Bourbon creams, apples, and the occasional plate of plain spaghetti. Rather than face the music and ask my parents for an emergency hand-out, I utilised the only skill I had which could be packaged and sold to the public at a moment’s notice: singing slightly strained acoustic pop-rock covers in the street. Here are five things I learned during this unfortunate episode;
1. People will hate you if you are anything less than ‘noticeably good’.
When I went out and stood miserably beside Boots with no amplifier, no microphone, no spare strings and no plan, I awkwardly began playing through some well-known stuff that I knew off the top of my head. Despite the initial sensation of embarrassment when you realise you’ve finally sunken to this level, you quickly learn that an overwhelming majority of people passing by don’t register your presence at all. Roughly 5% of that figure will noticeably disapprove of you, and an even smaller number will throw you some coinage (but then again, that could be just me – I was pretty shit).
Oh-so predictably for a millennial pop-punk tosser such as myself, I wheeled out my bashy-yet-functional cover of Mr. Brightside once or twice during the three or four hours I was on the street. I was tragically aware of how cliché I was coming off to anyone with even the vaguest concept of what makes a good busker, but that awareness did nothing at all to stop some hipster guy passing by to shoot me the most intense disapproving sneer that he was capable of.
I mean, seriously: this sneer was so powerful that he must’ve taken a few seconds to charge it up on his approach. I was slightly blinded and dizzy for a second or two afterwards, and frankly it nearly derailed my whole mediocre performance.
2. Children are awesome
As is often made evident by the success of Justin Bieber, children are pretty easily impressed. I have no idea what the fascination is, but it doesn’t matter if you’re great or terrible: children will be transfixed by your performance and will beg their parents for money to throw at you.
During my one-day career as a garden-variety busker, something close to 60% of my total earnings came from inexplicably impressed kids under the age of 12. The first pair of doe-eyed infants to approach me came with 5 pence each – it was then a serious challenge not to shoot a “Thanks, but fuck you” look at their parents. However, the next pair came with 50p each, which melted my icy heart as that contribution alone equated to up to 3 days’ worth of plain-spaghetti breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
My advice is to busk on a day during a school holiday or on a weekend. Unfortunately, you’ll find that many people better than you would’ve had the same idea, so get there early and try not to be too blatantly outshone.
3. Adapt your setlist
As an average pleb on the street, I’m far more likely to give money to someone who’s playing a good cover of a song that I like. Just recently I gave some pocket change and an approving nod to a guy as I went past because he had the audacity to do a cover of “Beer” by Reel Big Fish at lunch time on a Wednesday.
However, quality is also important, as I’ll often ignore buskers who change up the pace of good songs to make them more “soulful”. Taking an up-tempo party anthem and trying to turn it into a warbly pop-ballad so you can dick around with the vocals and try and show of your “range” will only bore and annoy people. You want good, fun, and well-known songs that will make people notice you. On that note, the next busker I hear droning through “Ain’t No Sunshine” is getting a firm kick in the groin.
Admittedly it’s almost impossible to gauge, but at one point I was lucky enough to score a contribution from a nice lady stood nearby on the strength of a last-minute choice of song. Judging by her appearance, she was a late-30s working person, so I started playing “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac (I only know the first verse and chorus). Upon realising what it was, she came with a quid and I felt pretty fucking smug about myself.
4. It’s only one step above begging…
…so don’t do it for your ego. If you feel that you are a talented performer and wish to share your gift with the masses, approach some pubs, clubs and open mic nights and get yourself some shows. At the end of the day, the public don’t care how well you do your cover of “Iris”, and you’ll find a much more welcoming audience at a pre-arranged gig in a cosy venue. There are lots of them. Google is a thing.
You’re also saturating the market for professional buskers (usually the ones who have amplifiers, talent, an album to sell or all of the above) and desperate morons (like I was) who need the pounds and pennies to buy their next packet of delicious Bourbon creams.
At the end of the day, musical performance at the bottom level is mostly uninteresting as far as the average person is concerned. It’s sad but true, but no one is having as much fun as the performer, so don’t expect a warm welcome from anyone when you demand their attention in the street (you don’t deserve it anyway).
5. Do it properly or don’t bother (unless you really are desperate)
Within a few cold, miserable hours of trying to think of songs to play (and playing them poorly), I made about £11.40 and broke two strings. At that point I figured I could either blow a couple of quid on new strings and keep going, or quit while I was ahead and go home. To the undeniable benefit of the public, I went home.
On the way back, I passed a rather talented young lady with some good equipment, a pretty voice and a fat pile of pound coins in her guitar case, which was fair play as far as I was concerned.
While I felt pretty down on myself for sucking so hard and not quite catching the imagination of the masses, it was a definite win – I made a precious tenner when all other avenues of revenue had been exhausted (or carefully side-stepped around, lest I be told by a grown-up what a fucking idiot I was). After that, I made the swift decision to get a job and never busk again. Speaking in my capacity as a below average performer who did it for 200 minutes or so, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it.
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