5: PEOPLE CAN BE INCREDIBLY RUDE (BUT YOU CAN’T LET IT GET TO YOU)
I have encountered some of the rudest people I have ever met while working as a busker. I spent last winter playing in Calgary’s +15 walkway. For readers who are not from Calgary, the +15 is a series of above-ground tunnels that connect Calgary’s downtown buildings. Kind of like hamster tubes, but for businessmen.
In the +15, there is a group of teenagers who think they’re a gang. Real gangs also hang out in the +15, but they usually have better things to do than harass buskers. But not teenagers that mistakenly think they’re “tough.” When I first encountered these kids, they would shout that I sucked every single time they saw me. Eventually I learned to ignore them, so they started trying to find new ways of trying to get to me. Shouting in my face, throwing garbage into my guitar case, pretending to tip, then yelling “just kidding!” The typical things you would expect from juvenile delinquents. But I still didn’t let it get to me. I always kept my head down, disregarded their presence, and continued to play. They eventually got bored and left me alone.
Some people will try to get to you when you’re busking. No matter your skill level, there will always be hecklers. The best way to deal with it is to ignore it. They just want your reaction, so don’t give it to them. It’s a strategy that worked on bullies when you were a kid, and it still works on kids that are bullies.
4: YOU WILL HURT YOURSELF
Playing guitar all day can do a number on your body. You’re standing and playing sometimes hours at a time. Many guitarists (myself included) have a tendency to hunch over their instrument. This can lead to major back problems. It’s also easy to develop wrist issues. Even if your technique is flawless you can and will develop repetitive strain injuries from playing all day.
There is also the issue of your fingertips. I’m a fingerstyle guitarist, so I pick with my fingers. When you fingerpick for 30 hours a week, you will develop blisters; even if you already have good calluses. If you continue playing, these blisters will turn into literal holes in your fingers. This makes it extremely painful to play. I tried various methods to get around this problem. Superglue is toxic. Liquid bandaids wear out quickly. Electrical tape makes it awkward to play. I even tried something my friends referred to as “finger condoms”. Basically little latex membranes that go over your fingertips. These looked silly, and ripped quite easily. The only thing that worked was switching to banjo picks. Even then, you can still cut your fingers if they’re too tight.
Injury can be difficult to avoid while busking, but you still need to take care of yourself. Take breaks when needed. Watch your posture. Make sure to eat: playing guitar does burn small amounts of calories and it can add up if you play long enough. Be mindful of your body, and you will be in better shape physically as a busker.
3: SOMETIMES YOU MAKE NO MONEY (BUT THAT’S OKAY)
When I first started busking, I was playing outside a grocery store in my college town. In a somewhat small town like Guelph, a busker is an anomaly. People will tip you for the novelty factor alone. In real cities, busking is an oversaturated market. Busker permits are free, literally anyone can get them. A lot of buskers in Calgary cannot actually play, and as a result some audiences will automatically tune out buskers regardless of skill level. This obviously can be problematic for buskers who do possess talent. When I first started busking in Calgary, I expected it to be like Guelph. I was disappointed when it was not. On my first Calgary busk, I played for an hour. The only tip I received was a button. The second time I went out, I received only a sandwich.
I did not start earning real money until I began playing in the +15. The acoustics are great, so everyone can hear you. There are a ton of people, and most of them are oil and gas businessmen so they have money to burn. When Christmas season rolled around, everyone was in the giving spirit and I was playing finge rstyle renditions of Christmas carols. That December I made $2500 off busking. But come January, it was dead again. You were lucky to make $100 a week. Things picked up again eventually, but business was brutal for a while. So how do you survive during the slow times?
Ultimately, the most important thing to do when you’re not making money is to not think about the money. The audience can tell when a busker is only doing it for profit, and will not give it to them. Consider the slow times to be practice time. Work on new material. Improvise. Write songs. But don’t think about your earnings. If you want to make money, there are easier ways to do it than busking. You can’t make it about the cash: it’s about the art.
2: IT’S NOT A COMPETITION
The biggest misconception the general public has about buskers is that other buskers are “competition.” That’s not how it works. It’s not a competition: it’s a community. Buskers support one another. During my first few weeks in the +15, it was the other buskers who showed me the good spots to play. If a busker has been playing in the same spot for a while and another busker passes them, we usually offer our spots. It’s kind of an unwritten law.
Of course, some buskers do not abide by this etiquette. They look out for themselves, and don’t give a shit about other buskers. These buskers develop a bad reputation within the community, and miss out on opportunities. I have been offered gigs by other buskers that have heard me play. I now play in a band with a friend I met through busking Another busker even told me about a program with 97.7 FM that earned me a $500 honorarium.
Music is a very social art form, and you have to constantly be networking. Busking is no different. You never know who’s got connections or will be a future collaborator. So be friendly with everyone within the busking community.
1: IT’S MORE ABOUT MAKING PEOPLE HAPPY THAN IT IS ABOUT THE MONEY
It goes without saying that your busking audience will be strangers. They’ve never met you, and have no obligation to listen to you. If they wish, they can simply ignore you and keep walking. And some do. But some stop. They listen. Sometimes they tip you. Sometimes they don’t. But they usually smile. And that smile is worth just as much to me as the money in my case.
I’m a big fan of an Australian guitarist named Tommy Emmanuel. A few years ago, he did a TED Talk in Melbourne. One of the first things he says that he does not work in the music business: he works in the happiness business. He plays music, and it makes people happy. This is one of the central concepts behind busking.
Busking should never be about the money in your case. It’s a nice perk, of course. But it’s not why you’re doing it. You’re doing it for a genuine love of performing and making people happy. Sure, anyone in Calgary can go out and get a busking permit. But the buskers who are the most successful are the ones that put making people happy ahead of their desire for financial gain.