The first time I busked, I was 12 years old. I was a nerdy, fat kid playing the flute at the local markets in an Australian hippy town. In all fairness, I was actually pretty good.
Fast forward twelve years to my next busking experience. I was sitting on the ground in front of a grocery store in a New Zealand hippy town drumming on my finely selected array of pots, pans, and jars (plus a cool metal grate I’d found). Beside me stood a Japanese hippy jamming on guitar, dancing and singing with an enormous smile.
Our day’s mission? Raise $50 for weed. We were highly successful.
I’m of the opinion that if you’re someone who has ever looked at a busker and thought: I wish I could do that – then you should absolutely go for it. I mean, hell, you’re a traveller and isn’t that what we’re all about? Having new experiences and facing our fears.
With this busking guide in hand, I can get you pumped and jamming. I’m going to run you through every tip and secret I’ve learnt since busking that day in New Zealand and onwards across Asia. And then, once you have a handle on the craft, you can go write your own bloody awesome gipsy stories.
Why Go Busking?
Busking is an absolutely kickass thing to do while travelling. That Japanese hippy… yeah, we became best friends. We travelled the entirety of New Zealand together jamming out, busking in the streets, and mostly covering the expenses of our (albeit very crusty) lifestyle.
It is absolutely possible to cover a lot of your travel costs by busking. Consider it another tool in the budget backpackers utility belt.
Not only that, but we met so many awesome people. There’s no stage or lighting or sound guy; it’s just you, face-to-face, with anyone and everyone. And when you’re living out of your backpack, free to go anywhere and do anything, you end up on some pretty fantastic adventures.
That is why you should go busking: because it’s an adventure and you’re an adventurer.
Table of Contents
What Does ‘Busking’ Mean?
At its most basic form, the meaning of busking is the act of performing in public places for tips: money, food, drink, cigarettes, a joint… you get the idea.
‘Buskers’ come under a lot of names: buskers, street performers, artisti di strada (artist of the street in Italian). If we’re talking historically then they’ve been called skomorokh (Russian), troubadour (French), chindon’ya (Japanese). That’s my point: busking isn’t some quirky isolated incident of the 20th and 21st century.
For as long as musicians could pick up an instrument and play for tips in the street, they were doing it. Busking has played a historical role in every world culture dating right back to… all the way back!
These days, street performances extend well past street musicians. Any entertaining talent that people might chuck you 50c for is used: circus tricks, dance, escapists, puppeteers, pretending to be a statue. It’s a real long list.
Busking, Travel and the Deep Wonderful Labyrinth that is Ethics and Moral Philosophy
Right, so here is where it gets sticky: some people frown on busking. Some people view it as glorified begging; ‘get a real job’ type shit. Some people don’t like the idea of travellers – particularly backpackers from first-world countries – busking to fund their lifestyle.
I, respectfully, insist that that is a big ol’ crock of shit. Busking is awesome and everyone should be free to do it without judgement. You know why?
Because you’re not getting paid for it.
It’s a donation service; no one owes you a damn thing. The business model is as follows: I stand in the street performing and IF you feel like dropping me a tip, you will. The only difference between sitting on a park bench playing the guitar and sitting on a park bench busking with a guitar is that there’s a hat there to throw coins in.
This isn’t the international busking mafia invading the streets of Southeast Asia, flipping food carts and kicking homeless people for a piece of turf. It’s a street performance for lunch money. And there is also something here that is way closer to my heart than lunch money…
Busking makes people happy.
You know what I’ve never had happen to me busking across Asia: someone walking up to me and telling me to stop because I’m white and privileged. You know what I have had happen?
- People singing and dancing in the street.
- Kids coming up to play with my instrument.
- SELFIES! So man goddamn selfies.
- Other musicians joining me for a jam.
Busking brings joy to people. It brings entertainment and music to the streets. It makes people smile.
If you get rid of busking then you’ve just reduced the collective amount of smiles on the planet… and that makes you a buttface.
How to Busk and Not Be a Knob
All that said, not all buskers are saints; some can be right tossers. As a traveller (and doubly so as a busker) not being a knob is important. There are a few easy guidelines to follow to not be a tosser:
- DON’T ASK FOR MONEY: This is the big one. If you want to sell merch or CDs or write a sign explaining what you’re doing: that’s no problem. But don’t accost people. You chose to be there in a public place; people will pay you or they won’t.
- Mind your space: This means no blocking public thoroughfares, respectable noise levels (i.e. no amps blaring ‘Enter Sandman’ outside war memorials) and keeping everything safe… looking at you, fire-dancers.
- Keep it PG: Again, it’s a public space so keep it family-friendly: no cussing or cabaret.
- If you’re asked to move along, do it: Mileage varies depending on your rights and the busking laws but, generally speaking, if you’re asked to move along don’t spit the dummy. You won’t look like a defiant rebel; you’ll look like an adult-sized human throwing a child-sized temper tantrum. Take it on the chin and go find a new spot.
- Stay friendly with the street merchants: Etiquette to other buskers is super important but I’m also talking everyone else who makes their living on the streets – food carts, street stalls, ice-cream guys. Usually, these folks are overjoyed to have some entertainment to liven up their day and pull in customers but, again, be mindful and respectful.
- Leave no trace: Pick up your rubbish; it ain’t hard.
Ok, so now that you have the rundown of busking, it’s time to hit the streets, right? Wrong! Look at yourself! Your clothes are normal; your instrument is normal; the money receptacle is normal… you normie!
You’re going busking! The aim of the game is drawing as much attention to yourself as possible. You’re an artisti di strada, remember? Artists have standards so have a busking setup that reflects those standards!
The Outfit – Prepare to Be Glamorous
First, you have to look the part. It’s up to you what that part is but don’t be afraid to go big. If you’re a classy card shark, grab yourself a tux jacket and bowtie; if you’re a retro guitarist maybe some bellbottom jeans and frills.
Ok, look, flamboyant extravagance might not be your jam but it’s important to find an outfit that projects the image you want even if it’s just something sharp and casual. It’s not just quirky busker shit; there are very good reasons for this:
- If you look like you don’t care about being there, why should anyone else care?
- When you put those clothes on, you’re a busker and you’re going to work. It’s a mindset thing; put yourself in the mindset.
You may just be a ‘street performer’ but that’s a load: you’re a performer! You’re there to make money and entertain people. If you didn’t want to do both those things then you wouldn’t be there. You’re a professional so look the part!
The Busking Station
I’m calling this the busking station cause it sounds dope and I like it. Here’s a familiar image: a busker jamming on his guitar; his case is laid out in front of him with money and his CDs and there is a cardboard sign reading “CDs: $10?”. That’s his station.
Your Station is going to be a reflection of you as a performer. As my Japanese friend always says: “We must make beautiful.”
When we did our busking in the street, we laid his guitar case out with patterned fabrics and stones, feathers, and treasures that we’d found in our journey. We were supported by my furry little tiger toy, Jerry (because I’m a massive dork), who sat holding our sign that simply read “Music Is Good”. And there we were dressed as bloody hippies with awesome hats – just our regular attire.
That might sound silly but here’s the thing: that busking setup told a story. A story of two travelling musicians on a journey to spread music. And that story made us a lot of friends.
Your station is going to be yours to create and it is something you will refine over time as your busking style develops. There are a few key places to get right though:
- The money receptacle – Alright, yeah, it’s a bit of a dumb name but this is the place the money goes and is super important; it must be beautiful! Pretty it up with whatever shows your flair. It doesn’t matter what it is – a hat or guitar case or retro suitcase – just make sure it’s really really obvious that money goes in here.
- A sign – Signs are personal and a great way to connect with your audience – just get your spelling right! Spin it however you want; funny busking signs can work just as well as an honest life story. A friend of mine used to busk in Byron Bay with a sign that read “I ran out of weed” and he did perfectly well for himself.
- Personalise your busking equipment – Whatever that may be – instrument, juggling clubs, yoga mat – make it… yup… beautiful! Paint it or cover it in stickers and glitter – doesn’t matter! Just tell your story.
This is everything else – your gear. Your busking equipment is going to vary hugely depending on your act but here are a few pointers:
- Your props, your toys, your instruments – you can’t be a street musician without a busker guitar!
- Anything that could break or be lost: bring spares! This means guitar strings, balls for the jugglers, or cards for the magicians.
- Battery powered amps, microphones, and speakers are fantastic for boosting you above the noise of the city but just note that it’s not uncommon for restrictions to be placed on busking with amplification equipment.
- Water, snacks, a thermos of tea, enough ciggies… whatever you need to keep your energy at peak performance. But definitely lots of water.
- Protection from the elements; I’m talking a hat and sunscreen, or beanies and scarves. You’ll most likely be busking outside in the street – dress appropriately.
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How to Busk – The 101
Alright, so now it’s just about time to grab your money receptacle. Consider this your full-scope busking guide.
Busking Ideas – What’s Your Party Trick?
“I can’t busk, I’m not good enough”.
You shut your dirty mouth, swine! You’re amazing and don’t ever put yourself down like that! There’s only one way to get better at something.
Here’s an anecdote: There’s a man who used to busk outside the Woolworths shopping centre opposite Town Hall in Sydney. His act? He put on really saucy music and danced an intoxicated, sloppy, erotic dance complete with lamppost grinding and crotch grabbing.
He was not particularly talented and he definitely wasn’t ever going to be a famous busker or dancer but he sure as hell pulled in crowds.
Busking is not about being good. Busking is about pulling people away from the chaos in their own lives and giving them something to smile about for 10+ seconds. Being given a couple of bucks is just a bonus.
So here’s a list of ideas that are definitely busking appropriate:
- Street musician, street singing and street percussion. Seriously, the pots/pans/bucket drum kit is a massive draw.
- Martial arts/ninja stuff/acrobatics (head and handstands too). Anything body-related is excellent.
- Miming and clowning
- Circus tricks/juggling/fire and flow dance
- Puppet shows
- Partner acts allow for whole new levels of creativity too eg. a comedy duo.
- Dressing up in extravagant outfits and engaging crowds.
- Soccerball juggling tricks
This is hardly a complete list but is really just meant to inspire you. If you’ve got some talent you thought was completely unmarketable, there’s a good chance you can earn some cash from it out on the streets busking.
Twists on an existing concept are awesome too. I met a man in Queenstown who would have his dog join him in acoustic covers – as in literally join in with him. A singing dog is definitely a winning busking idea.
Busking Licences and Laws
This is extremely subject to change. In most places in the world, laws for busking and street performances are handled at a local authority level. This means those rules change as frequently as from one town to the next. Your best option is simply to google the area.
It is not uncommon, particularly in the West, to need to register to get a busking licence or permit. Registration is either done online or at some local government-y building and sometimes there will be a fee but usually no more than what can be earned back with an hour of your session.
If information on the local busking laws cannot be outright sourced (which is common in countries where busking is a rarity) then just go for it. Set up station and do your thing; if someone stops you then just be respectful, apologetic, and stop. As a foreigner, you’ll rarely face anything harsher than a stern look.
BUT (and this is a big but) be warned that busking can fall into grey area with Tourist Visa restrictions since you are technically earning money. Some countries are chill; some are not – let common sense lead the way. I wouldn’t bat an eyelid over busting out my uke in most places in India but in Malaysia… hahah, nooooooo. It always helps to ask the locals for info.
Picking Your Pitch
So, the truth about busking is that all the meticulous planning in the world sometimes doesn’t really help. It’s like hitchhiking in that respect. Sometimes, it’s better to not overplan it, drop your station, and just charge it.
Asking yourself constantly “How much should I be making as a busker?” is going to drive you loopy. Earnings are not a good marker of success, but it can be a good indicator of the quality of your pitch (busking spot). Over time, you’ll get better at understanding pitches and also learning that sometimes they can subvert expectations.
There are two main things that affect a pitch’s quality:
I have a story. When I was busking in Arambol (Goa) I experimented with multiple pitches around town. I quickly discovered who was paying out the most and it wasn’t the whiteys on the expensive side of town.
Not only were Indians dropping the most rupees, but they were also taking the time to stop and enjoy the music and speak with me. Most of these guys weren’t local either. They were also tourists on holidays away from their homes; homes way off the tourist trail that didn’t have a regular flow of weird-looking singing white dudes dropping by for a quick busk.
It’s a matter of demographics. In my experience, locals and domestic tourists are usually your best audience. International travellers tend to have the mindset of… well… broke backpackers.
It’s also a matter of letting demographics go. You never know when the wealthy family will invite the busker over for dinner or the local dealer for the Nigerian mafia is going to drop some cash in your hat. Let people surprise you.
Oh dear, there are so many factors that affect this. Not all pitches are created equal.
- Foot Traffic – You can’t busk without an audience. Too few people and there’s no point. Too many people and something akin to ‘diffusion of responsibility’ kicks in.
- Money Availability – It used to be that busking in train stations was the supreme but now we live in a world of cashless travel cards. Your audience needs to have jingly pockets; no one is going to ask if you take EFTPOS (although that would be seriously cool!)
- The Weather – Consider every variable that makes people less likely to slow down: rain (duh), sweltering heat, or impending death tornado. Shady spots out of direct sunlight give people a reason to chill for a moment.
- Competition – When I was in Queenstown there were four buskers with Hang drums… hanging around (heh). Most street musicians switched shifts down on the waterfront with three playing concurrently at any given time. Sometimes, the ‘ultimate busking destinations’ are not nearly as enjoyable as the country town supermarkets.
- Sound Acoustics – This is insanely important; ambient noise is going to drown you out and wind is going to shit on your day. Having your back against something like a wall will give you a helpful boost.
- Time of Day – Pitching outside a packed grocery store during the after-school rush sounds like a fantastic idea for busking, right? Except, imagine how mum or dad feel when they come barrelling out after 20 minutes in the queue with two gremlins tugging at their elbows. The ambient mood at any time of day is a real important factor.
My Favourite Pitch
Places will subvert expectations. Sometimes dumb pitches will work well and awesome pitches will suck; it’s about experimentation. But I have found one relatively consistent type of pitch: supermarkets.
When you park yourself outside a supermarket people will see you on their way in, listen from the queue while they fumble with their wallets, and then see you on their way out. It’s the golden ratio. As an added bonus, you don’t have to go far for toilet and snack breaks.
The important thing is to ask for permission from the supermarket. Sometimes they’ll say no, sometimes they’ll look at you like “Why did you even ask?”, and sometimes they’ll even have a booking system for buskers. Generally, though, grocery shoppers are pretty damn chuffed to have their shopping day brightened up.
Types of Street Performance
This busking guide is more set up for those starting out. Chances are that means walk-by acts: you set up station, do your thang, and maybe people stop and throw money. That’s what I like; it’s chill, fun, and only one step above sitting in a tree in a park jamming.
However, if how much you make as a busker is something you really want to maximise you’re going to need to up your game. There is good money to be made in gathering audiences for circle shows and stoplight performances but they require more than just sweet skills.
These types of performances mean you need to work a crowd: engaging people, pulling them into your show, and going around with the hat afterwards. Yup, this is where the ‘No Asking’ rule gets broken but people don’t tend to separate from a mob if you don’t.
This is top-level stuff and where busking has really evolved into full-scale professional street performance. If you’re interested in progressing to this point then it’s about practising and meeting other professionals in the field: learn from the best!
Busking Tips and Secrets
Alright, so it’s not like a magician giving away insider secrets or anything but I can still give you tips to help with greasing some palms.
Busking Tips for Making Tips
- Smile and make eye contact – Do not underestimate the importance of this. On many, many occasions I’ve picked someone out of a crowd and given them my cheesiest grin only to them walk past, change their mind, double back and drop some money. Remember to look like you’re having fun.
- Sitting vs. Standing – After much experimentation, I found that there’s no clear winner. Standing certainly makes you a more engaging performer but something interesting I’ve found is that in countries where I’m a blatant oddity and outsider (eg. Myanmar) sitting seems more beneficial, presumably because I look more approachable.
- Start the pot off – This is classic busker trick. At the start of the session, put some of your own money in the receptacle to get the ball rolling. This looks better than an empty stack of nothing and ensures there is no confusion as to how the busking system works.
- Clearing the pot – This is something beggars do; empty their cup periodically to look like they’ve earned less (and to protect the money). I tend to believe this is counterintuitive for buskers; people seem to be more willing to pay out to a healthy pile of cash. It’s still good to pull out large denominations to protect them though.
- Be good to kids – I’m not saying bust out singing The Wiggles every time you see a kid walk past but when you do see one smile, be friendly, and let them play with your gear. Kids (well, their parents) are an excellent source of money; they love giving their kid money to drop in the receptacle. But more importantly, making a kid smile and laugh has got to be the absolute highlight of a day busking… for me, anyway.
- Piss beforehand – And sip your water intermittently – no guzzling!
- Get chummy with other buskers – On the whole, I’ve never found other buskers to be dicks; we’re a generally a pretty friendly crowd. Talk with other buskers, swap info on pitches and team up if you’re feeling it. Don’t be competitive; it’s a pretty solid community we have going.
- Pitching to picnickers – Sometimes setting up pitch near where people chill and eat (parks, cafes etc.) can work out well in your favour. You’ll get less overall audience but people tend to drop a larger tip if they’ve just had 30 minutes of entertainment with their meal. If you find a pitch that gets pedestrians and picnickers, you’ll be killing it.
Best Busking Songs
How long is a piece of string?
If I could give you a ‘10 Best Songs for Busking’ list without bullshitting you I would. The truth is that your setlist is going to be your own beast. Its success is going to vary on your tastes, how you arrange your covers, and even where you are in the world.
So instead, here are some of the best busking songs for travellers. Songs that go off most places in the world based on what I’ve experienced. Please don’t go thinking you need a one-hour setlist for busking though; even ten songs is overkill.
- Ed Sheeran (any songs, I don’t know what songs, I don’t care) – I’ve been asked to play Ed Sheeran in places I never would have expected to hear his name uttered. Like it or not, the dude is a modern-day legend.
- ‘I’m Yours’ by Jason Mraz – This song is ridiculously widespread too.
- ‘Banana Pancakes’ by Jack Johnson
- ‘The Show’ by Lenka – Either my experience is atypical or this song is way more popular than I realised.
- The Beatles – Hey Jude/Yesterday/Let It Be/Come Together are all excellent starts.
- ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King
- ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ by many, many people.
- TV theme songs – They are as universal as the show is. Do not underestimate how many people in the world can sing along to the Spongebob Squarepants or original Pokemon theme.
As an added bonus, if you have the time and capability to learn a song (even something super simple) in the native language of a country you’re in… this will absolutely slay.
Busking the Night Shift, Assholes, and Staying Safe
I have busked at night a whole twice in my life. I hated it.
Night busking changes the game. It’s no longer about wholesome and hilarious moments with people; it’s about targeting drunk people because they’re looser with their inhibitions and their money.
The thing about busking to drunk people is that it isn’t fun. They’re sloppy, loud, have a low sense of personal space, and are usually pretty poor at reading the ‘get lost, dude’ social cues. But, if you know how to work them, they do pay well.
You’re also taking a greater risk and that is the other point I’d like to touch on. Anytime you busk (and especially at night) you draw attention to yourself. This can, inevitably, draw the attention of assholes.
At some point in your busking career, you will get heckled. At some point, security guards will have a go at you. And, though it’s never happened to me, twats do steal money from the hat.
The only productive response as a street performer is to let it go. Don’t bite back and don’t chase down. As hippy-dippy-bo-bippy as it sounds, just be a peace with it. Let busking teach you to be one zen-ass motherfucker.
All this is the outlier though and in no way should turn you off busking. This is the 1% to the other 99% and it’s character building.
Get yourself a security belt and stash yo cash! Hide this under your shirt while your jamming in the street and you’ll be golden.
And get yourself some damn travel insurance! I can’t think of anyone other than World Nomads who would cover me while I do all the stupid shit I do – busking included!
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How to Handle the Nerves
Maybe you won’t get nervous busking but most people do. It’s a fairly normal response standing in a busy street performing. Standard rules apply: avoid caffeine, control your breathing, and take the right mindset.
Here’s a fun fact: I’ve busked and sung and jammed in places all over the world. I’ve been surrounded by mobs of people as I played, stared at, complimented, heckled, asked to perform… But as soon as I’m sitting with my oldest and closest friends back home, I get the mother of all stage fright.
That’s because when I’m out on the road I don’t give a shit. Not giving a shit is the bulletproof busker mindset. And rightly, who cares?
Busking isn’t a paid gig to an expecting crowd; it’s sitting in a park playing to the pigeons. You won’t ever see your audience again and they’ll tip you or they won’t: that’s not your problem.
The fun thing about busking is that none of it matters. You’re getting paid to practice and chances are you’ll brighten some people’s day. Once you’re ten minutes into your session I hope you’ll have this realisation: I’m already here doing this so fuck it who gives a shit… I’m gonna have fun!
Busking – Mate, Just Go Do It
There you go, that’s everything I can teach you and it’s more than enough to get you started. At some point, you’re just going to have to jump the nest.
That first busk can be nerve-wracking – I still get nervous – but it’s also easy and so much fun. Put the outfit on and when you do take the right mindset. I am here to perform! I care not for what you think for I am a busker!
That’s why I say have an outfit: because when that outfit goes on you’re no longer you. You’re an artist. And historically, artists are the eccentrics doing weird shit and expressing themselves freely. That’s a pretty fun role to play.
And that’s also why I love busking – you’re an artist di strada. You are ‘of the street’. That means you will meet everyone.
Homeless people will come and chill with you, kids will wander over just to say hi, musicians will come to join in, and people from all walks of life will stop to watch. It’s art, not hanging in a fancy museum or hiding behind a $150 ticket, but in the street, for everyone to enjoy. To me, that’s the best part of travelling and busking: meeting all the kinds of people in this world.
What’s my point? It’s fun being a dirtbag busker. Go try it.
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