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Busking With a Guitar - Got Any Advice?

 
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So, I have played at firepits and weddings and churches. I know a few hundred songs, and pick up new ones quickly.

So if I plunk down outside a local farmer's market for a couple of hours, with my old six string and gravelly voice, and a guitar case "salted" with generous tips (the float), is it worthwhile?

Thing is, I've noticed that live music makes anything an event. Canned music, on the other hand, makes it a mall. Or an elevator. Everybody and their cat has Spotify at their fingertips - yawn.

Is this only for students and starving musicians? Or can anyone take a strum at it? And if you play the game, how do you win?

You may say that getting there costs more than the tips you make. And yet, if you can time this with your weekly run into town for food, gas, beer, garbage, recycling and deck screws, then the transportation cost has been paid by the "never drive empty" trapline.

It would be fun to try anyway. Any advice?
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Just came across this -- pretty cool.

https://priceonomics.com/the-economics-of-busking/

Curiously, it's saved in my downloads with "How to Skin and Gut a Squirrel in Less than a Minute." Could be an unique schtick?
 
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have you talked to the farmer's market folks? around here the organizers usually have different musicians as part of the market weekly.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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There's nothing that organized for the small local markets here. I have yet to see a live player at all. So it's wide open.
 
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Douglas said You may say that getting there costs more than the tips you make. And yet, if you can time this with your weekly run into town for food, gas, beer, garbage, recycling and deck screws, then the transportation cost has been paid by the "never drive empty" trapline.



We had a friend that had a band that we followed for many years.

At some point, a musician can ask for part of the cover charge if playing where there is one. This is especially appropriate if you have enough of a following to bring in more customers.

 
greg mosser
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might still be worth talking to organizers. you'll probably get better tips if you're seen to be part of the event rather than sitting out front trying to horn in. they may even find a good central spot for you.
 
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Back before The Current Bad Times there used to be a busker in a place we used to go out to for day trips. He was an impersonator and was a great hoot. What I think worked the best for him (besides sounding EXACTLY like the guy he impersonates and knowing all his work- the best equivalent to the musician in the US might be Frank Zappa, sort of wacky but always fun) was having lots of signs and snarky things around, and he is very responsive to the audience. (he has an old boot to throw money into, with a little sign that says something to the tune of "could be a coin, could be a bill, but for pete's sake put something in here"; he drives an old hippie van, he is super distinctive. Anyone who puts something in the boot gets to pick a song or... gets integrated into the song!! It's great fun. We occasionally see his van somewhere and really enjoy seeing him (rather than tiring of seeing him every single time).
 
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Hi Douglas,

Try it and find out.  You should know within the first hour.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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John F Dean wrote:Try it and find out.  You should know within the first hour.


My thinking exactly. I play just about every day to stay in shape, so whatever happens it's not wasted time.

Local produce is in season now, so the local farmer's markets seem quite busy.

And Greg is right --  it would good manners to chat up the folks who run the market. I would have to be outside anyway, because I can't help singing moistly.
 
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in my teens I used to play on the busy streets carried my six string everywhere, not for money never even thought of that at the time, I would play at the movie theatre Friday nights before the show started again not for money, just what I did what I enjoyed doing, theres nothing quite like a crowds approval of your art, worth much more than any gold or silver, that was forty something years ago. more recently ive been thinking of trying out my newest songs on the streets of Nashville . if it wasn't for this covid virus I probably would have a report about it to share.
go for it. anywhere theres a crowd they will Let you know very quickly if they like what your doing but I wouldn't go at it looking to make any money if its what's in your heart and the masses like it there will be financial opportunities you can find, Anne spelled it out quite nicely.
 
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As a vendor at a farmers market for 4 years now,  I will say that the musicians coming in make all the difference in the atmosphere of the market. I hope you do it! I also know that as long as the tip-container is readily visible and you help plant the idea by laying a couple of dollars and some change in to start, you should be able to make a nice little chunk while doing something that you clearly greatly enjoy. I once helped a rather shy musician and set up the tip container for him by bringing over a basket and laying a dollar into it to get things started, only to have him leave at the end of the market without the basket! So I quickly emptied it, counted it (I was curious), and brought it to him while he was walking to his car. He got about $80 in just 2 1/2 hours time. It adds up quickly! Like others have stated, I would try to be in the market and be more a part of it, rather than in front of it somewhere. It's a wonderful little community - be a part of it!
 
John F Dean
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Hi Douglas

Please keep us updated as to the outcomes.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Stopped in and talked to the head honcho. They had a guitar guy last year but he stopped coming (bad tips? lousy player? crunchy playlist? who knows). It's a small venue but it's handy for me. He said to be in place half an hour before opening -- people line up. Next Thursday, if the stars align. Guess I'd better get to work on this so's I don't stink up the joint. It'll be fun.
 
Annie Collins
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:Stopped in and talked to the head honcho. They had a guitar guy last year but he stopped coming (bad tips? lousy player? crunchy playlist? who knows). It's a small venue but it's handy for me. He said to be in place half an hour before opening -- people line up. Next Thursday, if the stars align. Guess I'd better get to work on this so's I don't stink up the joint. It'll be fun.



Good for you! Let us know how your first session goes! Hey, maybe a little video even? Would be fun to hear you play and sing!
 
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Seconding what Tereza said. When I was thinking about busking, I asked a circus friend who had done some street performances and he said the same thing; you need a hook - something to get them to stop and actually listen - whether that’s an attention grabbing outfit or a whacky personality/act. Then your art will speak for itself. Though this was more geared towards being out in the street and not at an event where people will already be gathering, so you may not have as much need to stand out and be interesting.

I’m also looking forward to hearing how it goes!
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Mission delayed due to a sore throat. Singing in a public venue would be  irresponsible in these times. Dammit, I was all fired up.
 
bruce Fine
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I have to disagree with cam about or gag or whatever
like Joe Perry/aerosmith said, let the music do the talking. the hook is in the music that you play
play your music. if people like it they will listen
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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I think it's true that many types of street performers use a dramatic hook to draw people in from the passing stream and hold them. Especially at large events and festivals.

Musicians perhaps don't need to go to such lengths, but it's still good mojo to engage with your audience. I think my choice of a playlist is pretty important. Not too crunchy, more fun than gloom, that sort of thing.
 
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for me it can be hit and miss but usually a hit. I have busked my way across most of canada with great results. farmers markets are great, as are busy downtown corners and liqour stores on a weekend or holiday. I'd say on average it would work out to 40-60 dollars an hour. that said sometimes you make near nothing and sometimes 400-500 dollars (downtown on a friday near some bars).
the other great thing about busking is that it gets your foot in the door. while travelling when people see you have an instrument they want to talk to you, invite you in, give you a ride , feed you ect.

anyways i think go for it!
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Jordy, that's amazing. What sort of material gets the best response?
 
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hey, sorry wqs out data. I play mostly banjo and play lots of oldtimey folk bluegrass,but pretty anything gets a response. people do like songs they know, I just dont know very many of those.
 
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so, how's the busking going? its getting that time of year, leaves will be falling before you know it and farmers markets will be gone for the season.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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I had to cancel last week due to a sore throat (which requires the covid isolation protocol). But I'm on the mend and planning on this Thursday. It's late in the season, but it's high season for local produce -- and a good way to test the waters.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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So, I did it! First time busking, ever, at a small town farmer's market. Forget the tender throat and plugged ears, the show must go on!

Results: I earned $10 and a nice fruit basket from one of the vendors.

Lessons learned:

1. Location, location, location. Mine was the worst possible.

2. Markets have a rhythm. The early line was for the outdoor fruit vendors (far away from me). The later line was to go indoors.

3. Small town: Some dig it, others are weirded out and avert their eyes. Apparently only homeless drug addicts busk in small towns, hahah. And seniors pinch every penny.

4. Amplification may be worth the hassle.

5. It was fun, and an opportunity to learn. I'll do it again. However, I will delay giving up the day job. :-)
Guitar-Busking-1.png
[Thumbnail for Guitar-Busking-1.png]
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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This was the playlist for my first busking adventure. It's a challenge to hit a broad audience, so I chose material that crosses over well -- a little folk, a little country, a little blues, a little rock-and-roll. Any suggestions/requests?

Proud Mary
Hit the Road Jack
Call Me the Breeze
King of the Road
Five Days in May
Give Me the Beat Boys/Drift Away
Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
I've Got a Dog
City of New Orleans
The Gambler
End of the Line
Sixteen Tons
Six Days on the Road
Stray Cat Strut
Down and Out
My Maria
Old '55
Tulsa Time
Folsom Prison Blues
Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay
Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head
Horse with no Name
Heart of Gold

There was also some subtler stuff I wanted to do, but nobody would have heard it without amplification, unless they stopped in the middle of a busy walkway to listen (the location issue again).

Superman Song
Desperado
Harvest Moon
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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I was short on time but stopped in at the market anyway.

Changed my location, so people could stand and dance a little. Catchy beat seems to  appeal. (Doesn't help that my voice is still not in great shape.) Market was pretty quiet overall; I guess that's a fall thing.

The take: $8.00 for 35 minutes work. Plus 2 peaches and a pear from the fruit vendor. So I'm making minimum wage anyway, plus bonus points from DW.

(I also did this as part of my "trapline" so the gas covered many errands. And on the way I sharpened kitchen knives for a lovely granny for $5.)
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Thanks everyone. I probably wouldn't have tried the experiment without this community's encouragement.
 
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Any plans for next year?
 
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Hard to say. That's six long months in the future. Normally there would be other indoor possibilities but Covid shut them down. However, I got very positive feedback from the service club that runs the market so the door is open if/when they can operate in 2021.
 
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I am curious as to what the take from a full season would look like.  Many years ago, I was in a cafe in the French Quarter of New Orleans. On the corner there was a girl playing a saxophone. She was truly horrible.  There are no words in the English language that can describe her skill level.  For reason I do not understand, people were dropping money in her bucket. It was 3/4 full of bills.  It shows what a little courage or ignorance can accomplish.
 
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Well I guess it's the free-est of free enterprise -- people are free to ignore you. Or tip heavily. Maybe an older guy doesn't look hungry enough, even though he plays rather well. Maybe the bad sax player was kinda cute and seemed wistfully helpless and had soulful eyes. You never exactly know what goes through people's heads, and maybe that's just as well.
 
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I'd like to bump the "song suggestions" post from earlier in the thread. What would you guys like to hear while you're shopping for carrots and carrot cake?
 
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:I'd like to bump the "song suggestions" post from earlier in the thread. What would you guys like to hear while you're shopping for carrots and carrot cake?



I enjoy discussing music.  Here are my favorites, and some thoughts from your playlist:


King of the Road (makes me think of my dad, he liked this one)
Drift Away (Good choice.  How about Montego Bay, or One Toke Over The Line?)
Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (Great song, but too bloody sad!  You don't want to depress the customers!)
City of New Orleans (Oooh!  How about Alice's Restaurant!  Arlo also did a silly song about his motor-sikkle, that may get some chuckles.)
End of the Line
My Maria (Nice.)
Folsom Prison Blues
Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay
Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head (Maybe Hooked On A Feeling too?  The original, not the one with all the ooga ooga gow gows)
Horse with no Name (GAWD!  Can you keep a straight face when you say 'The heat was hot'?  Or the worst: 'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain'.  
Heart of Gold


Wondering if you can get some audience participation?  The chorus to Montego Bay for example, wouldn't that be neat if the crowd did the 'whoa whoa' part with you?  

Penny Lane would be excellent, ya gotta include The Lads!

I'm thinking now of tunes that folks haven't heard in years, then they'll have the 'Oh yeah, I remember that one!' moment when you play it.  Like: Rock Me Gently.  Sweet City Woman.  Beautiful Sunday.  Oooh Child.  Oh Babe What Would You Say.  

Aaaah, the '70s!





 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Good ideas! I'm pretty sure I can fake my way through these:
- Hooked On A Feeling
- Penny Lane
- Here Comes the Sun
- Sweet City Woman

I'm not too worried about making the audience sad -- mostly they go roaring past "Sideshow Doug" with their overpriced brownies or whatever. If they even recognize the song in those few moments, it's a win. Actually, I have other nautical disasters I could add to the mix.

Gary Numan wrote: Horse with no Name (GAWD!  Can you keep a straight face when you say 'The heat was hot'?  Or the worst: 'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain'.


Haha, this one always provokes a love/hate response! The lyrics are atrociously clunky in places; and despite this, the song captures some essential part of the '70s zeitgeist like no other. Plus it's fun to strum with a simple Em and D2.
 
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As a market-goer, I find that my relationship with buskers is always a little weird.  The donation box always looms a little large in my mind to fully enjoy the music, whether before or after I've dropped money into it.  So is it possible to get rid of the donation box?  Here are some ideas:

1) Arrange to be paid for your time by the market; put a sign in your guitar case something like, "Enjoy the music, spend money on vegetables."  

2) Charge money to advertise for specific market stalls.  If you are engaging an audience with your music, there's a lot of time for them to be glancing at signs set up at your feet, or wherever.  It doesn't have to be just signs, either -- that fruit basket looks delicious, and just needs a little card with the vendor name on it to be valuable advertising.  

3) Charge vendors for the opportunity to bring you a bit of food from their stalls between every few songs as part of your performance.  This would be valuable advertising for baked goods vendors especially, and would be fun and engaging for the audience too.  Plus, yummy baked goods!  

4) This may not be your particular jam, but playing kids shows would be valuable to parents who want to browse and chat without their kids constantly whining or tugging on their sleeves.  

These things require a bit of trust on the part of the market and/or vendors, and a bit more prearranging, but you may find that they allow you to engage with more of your potential audience, and becomes more fun for everyone.  
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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I appreciate your thoughtful post. But respectfully, I'm not sure it's practicable, at least in small venues.

The whole thing is curious, isn't it? A seller who puts a price sticker on their product doesn't make people uncomfortable. But an entertainer who makes the price for their product completely voluntary, including free, causes people all sorts of conniptions. Does it perhaps hold up an uncomfortable mirror, or is there a social calculation in there somewhere? I don't know. Maybe I could put up a sign "tap the gong if you dig live music" alongside the open guitar case.

I don't feel bad about the open case. Not one bit. I've paid for a bunch of gear and put hundreds of hours into playing well, singing well, memorizing lyrics and driving to this venue. The volunteers who run the market certainly appreciate me coming out. It's hardly mercenary to give passers-by the opportunity to offset my costs -- provided that they dig the music, and it's my job to crack the code and make sure they do. If they don't, that's their choice and I respect it. No sweat.

There's no business like show business.
 
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:I appreciate your thoughtful post. But respectfully, I'm not sure it's practicable, at least in small venues.



Yeah, fair enough.  Please consider those ideas as suggestions, available for you to use, develop, or discard as appropriate for your situation.  

The whole thing is curious, isn't it? A seller who puts a price sticker on their product doesn't make people uncomfortable. But an entertainer who makes the price for their product completely voluntary, including free, causes people all sorts of conniptions. Does it perhaps hold up an uncomfortable mirror, or is there a social calculation in there somewhere? I don't know. Maybe I could put up a sign "tap the gong if you dig live music" alongside the open guitar case.



I could just be in a small minority of socially anxious people, but for me the hand wringing is largely because there isn't a price tag on the busker's product making it, yeah, a social calculation.  There's a notion that people should pay to the extent that they enjoy the music, but that's about as well defined as it gets.  How much is appropriate?  Is too little insulting?  If I've already allocated all my cash on hand to vegetables, is it still ok to enjoy the music?  How do I completely decline the transaction without seeming rude?  

I have no doubt that you can answer these questions for your own situation, but you can't speak for all buskers any more than I can speak for all passers-by.  And seasoned buskers tend to use techniques that pressure people into giving when they wouldn't have otherwise.  Not everyone, certainly, but enough that there are those of us who no longer wish to risk engaging with anyone standing behind an open guitar case.  You wondered why there were some people who were weirded out at your first performance -- my guess is it's this.  

I don't feel bad about the open case. Not one bit. I've paid for a bunch of gear and put hundreds of hours into playing well, singing well, memorizing lyrics and driving to this venue. The volunteers who run the market certainly appreciate me coming out. It's hardly mercenary to give passers-by the opportunity to offset my costs -- provided that they dig the music, and it's my job to crack the code and make sure they do. If they don't, that's their choice and I respect it. No sweat.



Totally.  I'm glad that people are enjoying your music, and I'm not saying that you shouldn't try to figure out how to make some money at it.  And it could well be that traditional busking is the best way to do that.  Regardless, I hope this helps a little as you work to crack the code.  

Good luck!

 
Annie Collins
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Colin Fletcher wrote:As a market-goer, I find that my relationship with buskers is always a little weird.  The donation box always looms a little large in my mind to fully enjoy the music, whether before or after I've dropped money into it.  So is it possible to get rid of the donation box?  



I've been a vendor at local markets for a few years. I try to get positioned close to the music player(s) because I enjoy the music, some more, some less, depending on the musicians and their choice of set-lists. I also thoroughly enjoy people-watching. I have found that most people really like showing their appreciation by leaving some coins or dollars in the basket in front of the music player. In fact, there was one musician who was shy about putting out a basket and one of the customers came over to me and asked how she could make a donation. I got a basket, she put in her dollar, and I put it in front of the player with a smile. By the end of the 4 hour market, he collected about $70 in that basket. Not bad for a teenage boy doing something he clearly loved. I think most people like having a way to show their appreciation.
 
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:I'd like to bump the "song suggestions" post from earlier in the thread. What would you guys like to hear while you're shopping for carrots and carrot cake?



I always find songs with a fun beat/rhythm are a hit with people. And hopefully ones they know, like songs by the Beatles, for example. Another one that was always a hit is Bob Marley's Don't Worry About a Thing. I think people appreciate being uplifted.
 
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