Busking can be a fun way to play music, get outside, and interact with people. It can also be a great way to make money. In the right location, a couple good hours of busking a day can bring in enough in tips to support you full-time. Or, it can be the perfect side hustle for musicians, magicians, and other entertainers.
Here are 10 tips you can use to make the most money possible on your next busking session!
How many buskers do you see singing with an acoustic guitar? Probably a ton. They’re possibly the most common type of busker, and that means that it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. Doubly so if you’re playing the same Beatles covers as everyone else (or, God forbid, Wonderwall).
Think differently in order to stand out from the crowd. If you can play an unusual instrument, try bringing that out rather than a guitar. Honestly, any non-guitar instrument is probably unusual enough for most people. Try learning some new material, too. 20s/30s/40s jazz standards can be winners, as can rock and blues songs from the 50s.
Novel interpretations of popular songs is also a tried-and-true technique. I once heard a saxophone quartet play a fun version of “Come On Eileen.” They did a great job and had people instantly interested because of their instrumentation (say that five times fast!). I sometimes play a version of AC/DC’s TNT on my banjo, which definitely turns some heads!
Know Your Audience
Walk around Dublin, Ireland, and you’ll see plenty of buskers. Many of them will be playing Irish tunes and singing Irish songs. They know that tourists come to Dublin from all over the world to get a taste of Irish culture. They could be playing any kind of music, but Irish music is probably the best bet, especially around touristy areas.
I know I just said to “be different,” and not to follow what everyone else is doing. But there may be a reason why everyone else is doing it. Folks in New Orleans are hoping to hear jazz. In Nashville, people will be looking for country music. You may not live in a tourist destination, but think about what people around you are listening to and engaging with.
Part of this is determining what people won’t engage with. Experimental thrash metal is probably not a crowd-pleaser, unless there’s a metal festival in town. If there are lots of kids around, parents might not appreciate the more scandalous songs in your set. Classical music can be lovely, but might not stand out well on a busy, noisy street corner.
The classic example of this is a story that always gets trotted out whenever people talk about busking. World-famous violinist Joshua Bell once played in Washington, DC’s Union Station. He made about $32 in 45 minutes during the peak morning rush. Not bad, but not even enough to buy a ticket to one of Bell’s usual performances.
Of course, most people aren’t expecting to hear Bach in a train station. Nor is it a great place to hear it. It’s noisy, and commuters usually have to be somewhere fast. Bach also isn’t recognizable to most people listening. Had Bell been playing popular movie themes, or simply shorter pieces, he may have gotten more money thrown his way.
Smile And Say Thank You
If someone puts a $20 bill in your case, thank them profusely. If someone puts a penny in your case, thank them profusely. No matter what people put in there, try to at least make eye contact. If you can, smile and say “thank you.”
People are social animals. We take our cues from the people around us. When one person puts some money in, it makes everyone watching think about doing the same. And the thing is, they don’t usually see what denomination the bill or coin is. All they see is someone putting something in your case, and your reaction. If you are gracious and thankful, they’re going to feel even better about reaching into their wallet and taking out a bill or two.
This is especially true for kids. A lot of your tips when you’re busking will come from kids. Be as nice and enthusiastic to them as you can possibly be. Besides looking like a really good person, you’ll create a cute moment for the parents and everyone around. Plus, you know, being nice to kids is part of not being a jackass in general.
Have Something To Sell
Be sure to check your local regulations on this, because some areas don’t allow it. Usually, they have restrictions on selling any kind of items, although some cities do specifically allow musicians to sell CDs. All that being said, if it’s legal, selling CDs or other things can be a great moneymaker.
It’s easy to see why. A person who just tips you may give you $1-2. If you sell a CD for $10, you’ve suddenly made 5-10 times as much money from that same person. More importantly, they now have something to remember you by. If you’re playing a gig in the area, they’ll recognize your name. If they see you playing on the street again, they’ll recognize your music. I remember one father who bought a CD of mine for his kids at a farmer’s market I used to play at. They’d come by every week after that to sit and listen, and drop a few bucks in my case. That one CD sale probably netted me $100 or more over the course of a year.
What price to sell at depends on a variety of factors. Usually, I base it off of how much each CD costs to produce. Take all of the money that you spent on your first batch of CDs, including recording, printing, production, and shipping, and divide it by the number of CDs. Add a few dollars profit until you hit a round number. $10 works well for me, and seems to be the sweet spot for album sales in general. Less is probably better if it’s only an EP. I wouldn’t go much higher than $15, since the higher price might put some people off.
Remove/Hide The Small Change
As I mentioned before, people take their cues from other people around them. This is very apparent when it comes to the tips in your busking jar. There’s no standard amount to tip a busker, so people will be subconsciously influenced by what you’ve already gotten. Having a bunch of small change in there makes it seem like everyone else is giving small change. So, in comes a shower of pennies and nickels.
It’s OK to have some small change in there, but overall, higher denomination bills/coins should be most prominent. What’s already in your case is essentially a “suggested donation” sign. Every so often, take the pocket change out so that people get the hint.
Turn The Volume Down
It seems like every busker with an amp turns into Nigel Tufnel on the streets. Yes, it’s great to be able to be heard over the noise of city life. But it’s not so great to have your eardrums blasted as you’re walking by. And it may mean the difference between stopping to have a listen and trying to walk by as fast as you can to avoid the horrific noise.
People 500 feet away from you won’t give you tips no matter how good your busking is. They physically can’t do it. Why blast your music so loud that they can hear it? Especially when doing so makes standing near your amplifier (you know, where your tip jar is) unpleasant.
Take a look around, and figure out your space. Think realistically about how far away your audience will be standing. Then, try to keep your volume at a level that will be heard comfortably from that distance. Both your audience and the rest of the people on the street will thank you.
This also brings up a broader point that every busker should keep in mind. Many cities across the world have come up with regulations for busking. Sometimes it’s a permit process, sometimes it’s just a volume or amplification restriction, sometimes it’s an outright ban. The reason that these regulations come into effect is because some people think that buskers are a nuisance. Now, I probably don’t have to tell you that you won’t make any money if busking is banned in your city. So be a good citizen busker, and keep the volume down to manageable levels.
Prepare And Play To Your Strengths
I hear unprepared buskers all the time. They play songs they don’t really know or can’t really play. They play instruments that they don’t really know what to do with. Heck, I’ve done it myself. It can be fun to experiment, but it won’t necessarily make you money.
You have to be brutally honest with yourself if you’re going to go busking. You certainly don’t have to have the voice of Freddie Mercury or the guitar skills of Jimi Hendrix to take to a street corner. There’s a fine line between busker and nuisance, though, and you don’t want to be on the wrong side.
When you’re practicing, consider recording yourself. Listen back with a critical ear. Or, if you have someone whose opinion you trust and value, ask them to listen a bit. You’ll find that some things work and some things don’t. Maybe your voice works well for the blues but not for pop songs. Or, you’ve got a low voice but you’re trying to sing up high. Maybe your guitar playing is spot on, but the foot percussion you’ve set up just isn’t working.
Take all of this into consideration, and work to create the best version of your performance that you can. If you need to, practice the stuff you’re not as good at, or drop it altogether. Any amount of time you spend not sounding great is time that you’re not earning as much as you could be. Putting your strongest foot forward while busking is key to making more money.
Talk To Other Buskers
Buskers are a strange bunch. Some are gruff and territorial, others are as friendly as can be. It might be daunting at first, but other buskers are your best resource for tips and tricks.
Be sure to be polite when you approach another busker. If they’re working, you’re taking up valuable time by chatting to them. Throw some money in their case/jar as a goodwill gesture. Give them a compliment about their playing or act. Then, ask about whatever you’d like to know. Try to get to the point quickly, so you don’t take up a ton of their time. If they don’t want to talk, that’s OK. In my experience, it’s about 50-50. The ones who do like to chat, though, have given me some incredible tips that have helped my busking a lot.
There’s also the chance that you might hit it off with one of your fellow buskers, leading me to my next tip…
This is a little tricky, because it won’t always get you more money. Remember, you’ll have to split your takings! However, there can be clear benefits to collaborating with a fellow musician.
As I mentioned above, being honest with yourself is important. Another performer can help cover up some holes in your skillset. If you’re a great guitarist but not a great singer, find someone with a good set of pipes. Then, rather than having two OK shows, you’ve got one great one.
This is especially true if you play an instrument designed to be played in a group. A trombone player in a small jazz group or brass band will probably make more money than they will solo. A solo bass player may not get much attention, but paired with a guitarist or saxophone player you’ve got a fun duo.
Collaborating can also help fight fatigue. You can take a backseat for a bit of a rest every so often. Trading off taking the lead will help keep you playing longer, and make your set sound fresher. Eventually, even though you’re splitting your takings, you’ll probably find that you’re each making more than you did separately.
I was once in a bar in Nashville, listening to one of the city’s ubiquitous cover bands. Seemingly every bar on Broadway has live music, and the musicians are usually top-notch. They play for tips, and the best ones can make quite a bit of cash over the course of their set.
This band was excellent. They were tight, technically brilliant, and the singer had an incredible voice. The problem was, he looked like he wanted to kill himself and take everyone in the bar out with him. The rest of the band ranged from disinterested to similarly suicidal. Needless to say, I didn’t see a ton of tips flowing into their bucket.
If you want to make money as a street entertainer, you need to be entertaining. That starts with you. Get out there and have a good time! Crack jokes, keep it loose, and interact with your audience. If you’re having fun, they’ll have fun. And people having fun tend to be fairly generous.
Bonus Tip: Fake It
Maybe you’re not having fun. Or maybe you really don’t have a clue what you’re doing. Maybe you can’t stand busking and hate everyone who walks by and just really, really, really need the money.
The good news is that people can’t read minds. Whatever is going on inside your head can stay right there. Put on your biggest smile, puff your chest out, and get on with it. A little bit of confidence goes a long way. Even if you’re not that great, not feeling good, not enjoying yourself, etc., your audience will engage with you if you just make it look like you’re doing great.
One of my music teachers used to use the movie Titanic as an example of this. What the audience sees with the lovely state rooms, the elegant first class cabins, and the ten course dinners. They don’t see the massive engines, the crew shoveling coal, or the kitchen staff working frantically to cook, plate, and serve everything.
The great news is that, if you start putting up a good façade, you may end up believing it yourself. You may not think you have the confidence or the chops to get out there and put on a good show. The only way to know for sure is to get out there and do it anyway. Eventually, those insecurities will melt away, and you’ll be left with the confidence you were “faking” all along.
Oh, and a bunch of money. See you on the streets!