Whether you’re just starting out as a performer or you have spent years honing your skills, becoming a street musician is a great way to gain attention for your art, practice your performance and audience interaction skills, and engage in something you are passionate about.
Becoming a street musician can be a hobby, but it can also become a steady source of income for you, as long as you follow local rules and understand the craft of street performance. In this article, we’ll discuss the most important steps to follow and what to remember when trying to become a street musician. If you’re successful, you’ll be among good company. Both Joshua Bell and B.B. King had stints performing outdoors.
Why Is Being a Street Musician Worth It?
For many aspiring musical artists, street performance is an incredibly productive undertaking. It can serve as a way to boost your recognition with the public, allow you to build relationships with your audience, and give you a real-life performance setting in which to practice your skills.
Street performing can also be a source of income, and depending on the area and your lifestyle, this income may be quite a significant amount. Most successful street performers, however, when starting out understand that their focus is not solely on money, but also on gaining experience and performing music for the fun of it. Those who find street music most rewarding financially and otherwise enjoy it first and get monetary rewards second.
Getting Started As a Street Musician
Once you decide to play as a street musician, there are several steps you need to take before going outside and starting to perform.
Deciding What to Play
One of the most important parts of street performance is the music. Your song choices should be either popular, recognizable, o this is what will cause people to stop and listen to your setlist. You should memorize the songs for easy performance and ensure that they are all family-friendly. As you will be playing in a public place, there is no faster way to earn the scorn of a crowd than by performing songs laced with swear words and innuendos.
Your setlist should be fairly full, preferably giving you an hour’s worth of material, as this will make sure you don’t play the same few songs over and over again. You can put some of your own music into the setlist, but you should consider mixing self-composed songs with popular ones so you can grab the audience’s attention.
Make sure that you are playing the instrument you have the most skill with, whether that be a guitar, the drums, or your voice. The audience will recognize if you are not confident with the instrument you are performing on, so be sure to practice often and build up your expertise before hitting the streets.
You don’t need much to be a street performer, but you will need a small amount of essential equipment that can enhance your performance and overall image.
For instance, if your instrument is not loud enough to be heard over a crowd, you should consider investing in a portable mic and amp. This will help the sound of your performance break over a crowd and make you more noticeable; with louder instruments like saxophones or trumpets, this may not be necessary.
If you plan on collecting money, you will need something to do this with. You can choose any type of item, from the classic empty hat to an old guitar case or a suitcase. Use whatever you have accessible to you that fits your street performance image. You may choose to put up a sign that says “tips welcome” or something along those lines; funny signs that speak to your image as a performer are also typically appreciated.
You should also be wearing clothing that fits your image and is sure not to take away the attention from your performance. This means you can’t simply hit the streets in your old shorts and yesterday’s t-shirt. Choose an outfit that makes you look nice, is weather appropriate, and fits your brand is important. Make sure your outfit suits your style, and that you’re comfortable playing in it.
Permits and Licensing
Most cities and towns across the United States are going to require some type of permit or licensing that allows you to perform. Run a web search for your specific city to see what is required and what you need for an application. Keep in mind that these permits will come with a unique set of rules and standards that you need to follow, restricting everything from noise levels to busking location.
It is important to read and understand the laws and regulations that dictate where you are allowed to play and at what times. This will keep you out of trouble with any type of law enforcement or regulatory agencies and let your performance go smoothly. You may also want to look up which types of street performing are regulated in your jurisdiction to understand how you may have to modify your performance.
Choose a Time and Location to Perform
Your performance date and time is just as important when it comes to crowd exposure and how much money you make. For instance, picking a residential area at 8 in the morning will likely get you glares and general discontent, while a town square at 7 PM on a Friday night will gain you a larger crowd, more exposure, and more tips.
You should focus on performing in areas that are populated by tourists or those who head out relaxing in your city, as they are most likely to stop and enjoy your performance as part of their vacation experience. Evening times before it gets dark after 4 or 5 PM, are generally better for performing, as there are more people freely out and about at this time.
Also keep an eye out for local events or shows that may be happening in your city. You can usually capitalize on the increased foot traffic around these events by setting up a short way away from the event. Just be sure that your presence there performing is allowed by your particular permit or street performing license.
Speak to Locals
When deciding on an area to perform in, you may want to speak to local businesses and other performers who frequent those areas. This can help you build better relationships with the public and can help you score prime performing locations.
Be sure to ask business owners for permission when setting up in front of their store, and be courteous if they decline your presence there. Nothing can hurt the impression people have of you as a performer more than not showing respect for the wishes of locals in the area.
What to Do While Performing
Once you’ve gotten the technical side of street performing completely established and have found the perfect time and place to play, you’re ready to go! Follow these tips on what to do while performing to enhance your showmanship.
Engage the Crowd
While you are street performing, you want to show off the most confident, energetic, and friendly side of yourself. This will help build your reputation among the audience, making them want to stay to watch you perform and increases the possibility of tips.
Make sure to smile and wave at people whenever possible. Keep your eyes up and facing the crowd and don’t be shy. Remember, street performing is about sharing your music with the audience and providing entertainment; you can’t do this if your eyes are fixed to the ground in front of you. It may seem nerve-wracking at first, but the more you perform, the more confident and at ease you will become.
Diversify Your Set List
As we discussed above, your setlist should be fairly full and preferably contain around an hour’s worth of material. This will help you show your audience your range as a performer and ensure that onlookers don’t listen to the same three songs over and over. Additionally, many people in a certain area will have left within the hour mark, which gives you a whole new audience of people to play to once you complete the setlist.
It can be helpful to start with an old crowd-favorite or a current popular chart-topper to bring attention to yourself. After one or two songs like this, you can start interspersing your own music or other popular songs that may have less of a recognizable reaction into your performance list.
Keep your setlist diverse, alternating between song types. Once you’ve played all of the material you know, you can call it a day, or you can go ahead and start from the top, playing it all over again.
Consider Taking Requests
If you know a large variety of different songs and can confidently play them all, you can consider starting to take requests from the audience. This can be done once you have gathered somewhat of a crowd in order to keep them engaged.
One way to do this is to simply announce between songs that you’re taking requests, and that audience members should shout out their favorite tunes. Listen to the suggestions, and when you hear one you know you can play, acknowledge the choice and start performing.
Taking requests is a great way to keep your audience engaged and entertained and to keep you on your toes, as you never know exactly what song you’ll be playing next. It will greatly increase the chance of a contribution from that particular audience member.
No matter what happens during your performance or how many people stop to watch, you should always end your show with a thank you. This builds your reputation among any who might be casually listening or watching from a distance and makes a good impression on the people around you.
Additionally, any time someone leaves a contribution for you, you should consider giving a quick thanks or a nod of appreciation, just to let them know that you saw their contribution and that it means something to you.
What to Avoid When Playing As a Street Musician
As a street musician, there are a few things you want to avoid doing in order to keep your reputation positive and avoid any unpleasant situations.
Asking for Money
It is incredibly important to remember that you shouldn’t be asking people directly for money. You are performing for free and the audience has no obligation to provide you with tips or donations, regardless of your intentions in street performing. Don’t badger audiences constantly asking for tips or money, and don’t become aggressive or rude if people watch your performance and move on without interacting with you.
Of course, there are some exceptions to this. Occasionally, if you are finishing your setlist or are at a mid-way in your performance, it may be acceptable to ask the audience if they are enjoying themselves and indicate that you have a place for tips or donations. This is a gentle reminder to your audience that can inspire some of them to tip you, but don’t be frustrated if no one does. Many buskers spend many years working on their lines.
Asking for money can be a situationally dependent activity, so if you feel the vibe is right with your audience, you can gently and casually bring up your tip jar, but most of the time, you probably won’t need to.
When street performing, you may be asked to move locations or pack up and go home by any number of people, including local business owners and police. Even if you have a permit to be in a certain area at a designated time, many law enforcement agencies or private business owners still have the right to ask you to move or leave.
If this happens to you, there is no point arguing about your permit or whether or not you are allowed to be in the area; this will only cause a scene and you may end up being perceived in a negative light or find yourself in a viral video. The best solution is simply to pack up your things and move to a different permitted area to carry on your performance, or head home and try again the next day. When street performers have a good relationship with municipalities and business owners, they do well. When they don’t they find themselves kicked out.
Not Preparing Enough
While street performing doesn’t have to be a completely polished, professional performance, you do need to have a good mastery of your instrument and setlist, and an idea of proper performance etiquette.
Not practicing your set list enough, or simply setting up your equipment and getting to work without ever acknowledging the audience, takes away from the overall enjoyment of your performance and can lead to a bad reputation and a lack of tips from any onlookers. Remember, the audience pays for enjoyment. Give them what they like and they’ll give you what you deserve.
Play Music and Have Fun
No matter whether you’re becoming a street musician to build your recognition as an artist, practice your craft, or make money, remember to have fun. After all, street performing, at its core, is a way to provide the music you are passionate about to others solely for their enjoyment. Let things flow, work on your craft, remember that you’re not doing this just for money, and everything else will fall into place.