Busk A Move: The Street-Performing Guide

Can you shred an acoustic while belting out a Bob Dylan medley? Can you cover yourself in gold paint and stand still for two hours? This one’s a little difficult – can you blow giant bubbles? If so, you might have what it takes to join the motley crew of buskers that liven up streets around the world while making some much-needed petty cash. Now, most people are probably thinking, “this girl did not proofread this article. She’s out here making up words. What even is a busker?” Let me enlighten you – here is the dictionary definition of busking:

Busk [buhsk] verb

The activity of playing music [or showcasing talent] in the street or another public place for voluntary donations.

This charming vocation only requires three things: a good pitch (location), a decent command of local law, and a smidge of courage. Let me give you an example – a thirteen year-old girl wanted money to buy a surfboard, so she took out her ridiculously small guitar, set up her pitch by an ice cream shop on the Jersey shore, and sang Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” on repeat until someone paid her $20 to make it stop. That little girl was *shocker* me. Although it may seem like my street-performing career had a rocky start, I was officially a busker! I found an instrument to showcase my talent and set up a legal pitch on a public sidewalk without obstructing traffic. I did not use an amplifier and was aware of the noise regulations in the area. C’mon guys, it was the Jersey Shore. There aren’t any noise regulations.

As I grew older, I ventured out into Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, a park in the city filled with locals and tourists alike, all of them people-watching, reading, or playing four square. I plopped down on the grass, opened my guitar case, and ‘salted the tip jar’, so as to let people know that I was totally down to accept their spare change, coupons, and even a gift card on one occasion. On my first day, I made one dollar. Business can be slow at times, so it’s important to stay motivated. I was still doing what I loved, right? My sets lasted about an hour and were filled with the melodic tunes of Adele, Hozier, and any other artist that had released an acoustic song lately.

My pitch. Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.

All around the world, people street-perform to make a living. Walking through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona gave me a chance to witness some buskers perforate the air with acoustic guitar riffs and call-and-response violin. Las Ramblas was covered with stoically silent artists dressed in metallic costumes, assuming poses that seemed impossible to stay in for more than a few minutes without getting a serious cramp. Using the metro at five in the morning did not afford us weary travellers a peaceful journey; a bearded man had set up a rock concert in the station’s maze-like tunnels.

Photo Credit: Abi Ismail
Poet for hire. You can literally do anything.

In Italy, I saw even more unique performances. Ponte Sant’Angelo had art vendors of every kind, even the ones that painted the masterpiece right before your eyes (usually with spray paint). Orange robe-cladded “monks” practiced levitation – I still haven’t figured that one out yet. In a city where art covers everything except the toilets, it’s hard to stand out, yet these incredible performers made an impression on everyone who passed by.

I sat down with another street-performer recently to get the scoop on what affects his profession as a street-performer. His top complaint? Weather. As a busker in Montreal, he understands that street-performing is a seasonal activity. No one is gonna come out to give you change when it’s 4 degrees outside. A tourist might hand you a cup of coffee when your fingers inevitably turn blue. Another key element of street-performing is knowing when it’s time to move along. If you are armed with a permit and the law, then you can try to talk down a police officer if they come knocking. However, in a New York City subway station recently, a man was arrested even though he clearly knew his rights as a busker. Sometimes, it’s better to fight the good fight from outside of a jail cell.

Photo Credits: Carlo Natale
Those levitating monks. Could've fooled me.

When you see a busker, you must make a decision. Will you ignore the strange sight, or bask in the wonderful sounds? Will you give a gratuity to the artist? Do you even have any cash on you? As a street-performer, I understand what it’s like to watch feebly as people move on, unfettered by your talents. You must move someone enough so they stay to watch you. Watching these artists make it look easy on the streets reminds me of how hard it truly is to muster up the courage to put yourself out there.

You must move someone enough so they stay to watch you.

However, I recommend that if you have a talent worth sharing, like jumping over a row of tourists, snake charming, or blowing insane balloon animals, you should pursue street-performing as a hobby or a lifestyle. As long as you know what the rules are in your area, which can be found out through a little Google search or trip to your City Hall, you are in the clear! I am hesitant to encourage street-performing while on a tourist trip, as locals who need gratuities as a part of their living may be negatively impacted by a tourist street-performer. We ain’t no beg-packers, right? But it never hurts to look up your local laws and make some dough in your city! The streets are ours to share, so get out there and busk a move.

Photo Credit: Alexandre Castro
Don't try this at home. Take it to the streets.

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