File Under: Booking and Performing Live, Making Money with Music

Performing your music in public for donations, or "busking", is not for everyone, but if you do or are thinking of doing it, it can pay off. In fact, busking today can generate income, interest, and grow your following more today than those who busked in the past. The key is to leverage all the tools available to you today. In fact, with today's technology, there are ways to get paid beyond having passersby toss coins in a guitar case, including selling your digital music directly to them (no CDs!). Given what's available today, it's an option worth exploring for any musician.

Performing music in public is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Because of this, many cities and towns allow street performers as a historic custom. However, that doesn't mean it's not regulated. Each municipality can handle street performers differently. This means there's quite a lot of rules to follow including licenses, ordinances, and restrictions.

We've got eleven tips on playing in the street, so we'll be breaking up the article into two installments. This week we'll focus on how to set up and next week we'll share ways to take your busking to the next level to boost your income and grow your following.

So, let's start with these five steps first:

1. Obtain a Street Performer License

Each municipality has its own rules on street performances. You'll need to make sure you're compliant and obtain a license if required. Usually this means paying a fee. Some will even require you to audition to make sure you meet a certain level of talent before getting a license. Of course, obtaining a license isn't necessarily straightforward: in our hometown of Chicago, you need a separate license for playing in the street than you do for playing in the subway (where you need to contact the Chicago Transit Authority and Metropolitan Transportation Authority directly). If you want to perform in both the streets and the train stations, you'll need both. See Chicago's Street Performer Fact Sheet as an example of how cities regulate busking.

Since licenses cost money, we suggest making this known while you're performing. For instance, with a sign next to the actual license. Some musicians have had a random person donate enough money to pay off the license once they knew how much the musician had paid the city for the privilege to entertain them.

2. Create a space to perform.

Part of setting the mood for your music includes creating a space on the street to perform in. An inexpensive rug can create the same psychological effect of performing on a stage. So can blocking out a small area with your amp, a small table, and instument cases. This shows passersby you're there "on stage" to entertain them. It should be welcoming, and should also help you get more tips and support.

3. Create a sign or hang a poster to market yourself.

Having a sign or poster gives people walking by more information about you and the music you create. You can promote multiple things: upcoming shows, your mailing list, your website and social presences they can check out or follow, your merch, and more. Your goal should be to get far more than a tip out of the audience walking by. Since you're a digital musician, your goal is to pull people back into your digital world so they remain connected. You don't want your performance to be temporary or ephemeral. Since most people have smartphones, use this to your advantage: add QR codes, Spotify codes, snap codes, and your Twitter ID to your posters and signs so it's easy for them to visit your website, social media profile, and music online. Every performance can turn listeners into followers and fans. Make it simple for them to do so by just displaying the info they'd want to ask you for. 

Also, if you have a patronage site, such as Patreon, you should also promote that too. And, lastly, if your music is available to stream, you can promote that as well since sites like Apple Music and Spotify do generate some royalties. That said, since you're live, you'll more likely want to push for selling your music directly. (And, don't forget it's here where you'll also want to include #1 above about the license you purchased!)

4. Have the right equipment.

Regardless of the instrument you play or gear you have, when it comes to busking, you'll want it portable, easy to set up and carry, water-proof, and amplify. This includes a PA for your voice if you sing, especially if you're competing against a traffic, train, or subway. Of course, public streets don't normally have power outlets, so having battery-powered equipment is wise. A roller suitcase or backpack is a must. If you plan this right, you can setup and teardown quickly if the weather or circumstances require it.

5. Set out a tip jar or donation box (and seed it!)

Naturally, the most important thing is to put out a tip jar. It can be an actual jar if you'd like, but it's usually better to have something large, like a guitar case or box, so people can easily toss money into it from a distance and protects paper dollars from blowing away. Always seed your tip jar or donation box. Put in a $20 dollar bill or two, which are the most common bill people have in their pockets thanks to ATMs. You'll want them to think it's perfectly normal to pull one out and throw it in rather than to try to make change.

Now that we got you setup, next week we're going to share a lot of clever ideas and ways to boost your income and grow your fan base. So check in next week where we'll talk about the Ten Foot/Five Foot rule, using mobile apps or text to accept tips, selling albums and merch, and more.


#playinglive #busking #audiencebuilding

Photo credit: Pascal Subtil