I’ve written a bit on busking, which is basically a fancy term for “playing your songs on the street and hoping that somebody tosses you a few bucks.” It’s an exhilarating way to make money, and for many musicians, it’s kind of a necessity.
One of the articles prompted the following email:
Thank you Phil, your contribution on busking was very insightful. I may ask for advice from time to time. I am a beginner busker, I play acoustic guitar and sing. Have you found covers to be more successful than originals?
First of all, thanks to the person who sent this, and yes, I agree, I’m super insightful. Also smart, and I’m attractive, too. Also, I write better songs than the Beatles, and I’m humble.
Anyways, back to the issue on hand: should you play covers or originals when you’re on the street?
It’s easy to assume that cover songs would be better for busking, since people are more likely to listen (and give you money) if you’re playing something that they recognize. In most cases and on most streets, this is fairly true. However, it’s not quite as simple as that.
Knowing Your Audience
The first rule of performing music is knowing your audience, and this applies to busking as much as it applies to playing concert halls and dinner shows. Think of everything that you know about the streets that you play on. Are commuters walking by most of the time, people on their way to or from businesses? Are people shopping? Do you play in the “arty” parts of town? Chances are good that there’s some common thread tying together all of the people that you’re playing for, and your job is to find it.
This will inevitably affect what you play. The aforementioned commuters will enjoy hearing cover songs of pop radio stuff, especially if you present it in a unique way. A violinist playing a Beatles tune will draw at least a look (and maybe a few bucks) from business-folk. In a town shopping center, that same violinist would probably do better to play something more current, like a Lady Gaga tune–even if it’s something you don’t like, find a compelling way to present yourself and you’ll get attention.
If you’re playing in an arty part of town or a place where people are eating, they’re going to be more susceptible to original stuff, and if you’re trying to get your name out there through busking, you should concentrate almost exclusively on these areas. Don’t be shy. Tell people about the songs you’re playing, and drop in the occasional cover tune to keep them interested if your original stuff isn’t drawing a crowd.
You’ll get a better idea of crowds from busking than from almost any other venue, but only if you keep your eyes open. There’s no simple answer here. See what works, and develop the hell out of anything that doesn’t. Keep notes about what you played, and stay focused. Don’t get discouraged if you’re being ignored at first. Busking is a weird art form, but it’s beautiful, and if you stay dedicated to it, you’ll have a great playlist together within a few weeks.
If you’ve got any questions about busking or music performance, send me a message, and I’ll be glad to answer you. And again, thanks to the reader who sent the message above.