Tell me about your life, buskers
January 14, 2017 2:11 AM   Subscribe

I'm working on a creative project (primarily a game) about magical buskers and would love to learn more about the day to day lives of buskers of various kinds.

A friend who has experience with circus/sideshow-style busking once gave me this really thorough lecture around how his kind of busking works - how to hat, the different kind of shows and pitches (walk-by, alcove, circle, traffic light), busking etiquette, dealing with bureaucrats, all kinds of information about his subculture. I was so fascinated by it all that I started writing a story about a world of magical buskers, and am now expanding this into a game.

As part of world-building I'm currently researching and talking to buskers of all stripes - mostly learning about their life as buskers and the practical & social things they deal with as a busker. Some questions I have in mind are:

- How does one learn the ins & outs of busking? Are there classes? Are other buskers willing to teach you? Do you just try things out? Do you observe other buskers?

- How friendly/social/welcoming is the local busker community? Is it silo'd by act type (circus vs musicians vs fortune-tellers etc) or is it more of a hodgepodge? Is there significant overlap between a busker community/sub-community and other subcultures? (The friend who inspired all this has talked about some crossover with people involved in circus, steampunk, and Goth circles.)

- What is the buskers' relationship to local law enforcement or council bureaucracy? Are permits accessible? Are certain kinds of busking more OK than others? Do folks tend to busk surreptitiously?

- The circus busking world my friend told me about seems to have some very specific lingo (walk-by/alcove/circle shows, hatting, 'bureaucrats', pitches, etc). Do other kinds of busking have their own lingo? Is it region-specific?

- Are there very specific structures for how acts should run? (e.g. a 3-act structure with specific ways to ask for hat money between acts) Any rules of thumb specific to certain styles or kinds of busking? How do these rules of thumb get communicated?

- Is it possible or likely to get talent-scouted from busking? Are there turf wars? Certain people in the local community who wield more influence than others? Secret clubs?

- A lot of the busking world seems to be very White Male centric. Are there significant differences or challenges to the experience of buskers of marginalised genders, sexualities, races, abilities? Are there different expectations about the kind of acts, patter, etc one can perform based on their identity?

- Would buskers hire each other (or just other people in general) to run errands for them (e.g. hey be my sound guy)? Or do buskers tend to be pretty self-sufficient?

Direct answers from buskers would be awesome (bonus points if you mention a superpower or magical skill that you think would make your busking life easier), though I'm also interested in recommendations for literature, media, websites, places, etc to learn more about the world of busking.
posted by divabat to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
You should look up Abby The Spoon Lady who is in Asheville, NC. She's done a ton of videos and recordings (and even articles) about the lifestyle/ what it is like to be a busker.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 3:44 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]


You'll find some good stuff here

Also at least in the UK on the circus side of things people call themselves "street performers" not "buskers".

If you watch UK street performers there's a lot of commonality in the hat lines they use. For example, there's more than one act out there that uses a very cute child as a volunteer in the act and then gives the kid a fiver for their trouble (that's anchoring the "five pounds" amount with the audience as well as priming them to give away money, anchoring is super important or people will just give you their spare coppers). There's a lot of talk about how terrible it is to rip off someone's act or someone's lines but soooo much of the stuff you see is remixed and reused from other acts out there.

I've heard people say that the first third of an act is circle building, the second third is the actual act and the last third is hat. Of course that varies according to the pitch you have, and then some street performers get paid a flat fee to run their act at an event and are asked not to hat.

All the street performers I know are super super self sufficient. They know a lot of the other people on the circuit and they've seen everyone else's act, but their own act can often be packed up and taken on a plane and performed straight away in a random spot in a new city.

Also because a lot of street performers will travel far afield, to go and work at big events (Edinburgh Festival for example, Glastonbury, Winchester Hat Fair), the culture and the lingo spread around quite a bit.

Useful superpowers would be around shutting up persistent hecklers maybe, or just keeping people's focus for long enough to get to the hat bit and not have them all wandering off because there's a fire engine up the road or something. Some of the hat lines and heckler lines are pretty magical already.
posted by emilyw at 5:07 AM on January 14 [5 favorites]


I dated a street performer for a while. He had to audition and was then scheduled for certain times at Boston's Faneuil Hall and could make up to $500/performance. He would be scheduled up to three times daily and during the winter, he performed at festivals in Japan.

There were a few street performers who were friendly and trusted each other to guard their money and possessions while they were performing.

I wish I remembered more but two things that stuck with me:

1. he got a lot of foreign money which was basically useless until he collected enough to exchange and deposit it at the bank. Like, at least 1/4 of his $$ would be unusable foreign currency, and

2. there weren't "turf wars" per se because people auditioned and had scheduled spots, BUT there were a few well-known and despised crews of young men who did that particular performance of playing music, hyping the crowd while flexing and stretching, and not really doing much of a performance although it appeared they were going to do some type of dance. He said when those guys came close, performers knew to vacate their spots because otherwise these guys threatened them.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:46 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Hey divabat,

Sorry, I'm not a busker, but I've lived with a few so I'll give you some limited answers:

1) Just get out there and do it.
3) Same as 1 but now, locally, there are permit laws, so my info is out-of-date.
6) There's the classic story of Violent Femmes, who got their break when Chrissie Hynde asked them to open for The Pretenders.
posted by pompomtom at 5:47 AM on January 14


Why not try busking yourself? That's the easiest way.

I used to run a busking festival, and I used to busk a bit.
To answer your questions (some answers really depend on region/country/etc tho):

1) Didn't learn from any "busking classes" - do those exist? I think most people just.. do it. You try things out. Occasionally some veterans give you pointers. You should observe other buskers too.

2) I think this really depends on location. From my personal experience, the community was relatively amicable. You had to respect things like certain buskers' turfs and times though (but this seems like a basic courtesy, and naturally someone would be annoyed if you didn't respect stuff like that). There is some overlap between the people in the busking community and the communities for the artforms they represent/practice.

3) This also really, really depends on location/country/town. From my personal experience - I did everything legally (which included filing an application with the government and getting a proper government license to busk), and when I ran the busking festival I made sure all buskers under the festival were legally approved to busk as well. Filed group permits for the buskers under the festival. Permits were accessible in my experience, but maybe that was also because I was persistent about it, constantly updated/communicated with authorities, and had the authority of applying under my organization that represented a lot of buskers. Certain kinds of busking are more ok, definitely... I think authorities have certain stipulations about noise/traffic in certain areas, so they also took that into consideration when approving permits for different types of acts. Occasionally the authorities would tell me if I (or a busking group under the festival I was running) was kinda cutting it close wrt the guidelines/laws (e.g. taking up too much space and blocking human traffic, or making too much noise, or soliciting too overtly), and then I'd make adjustments.
Some people do busk surreptitiously.

4) I think the lingos overlap. Maybe it's region-specific. Not sure.

5) hm I think even if there aren't specific structures, there should be... lol. Over time you develop strategies/approaches to structure the act so that it garners the most attention/money.

6) Yeah. It's possible to get talent-scouted. Turf wars... I guess this might vary depending on country/region/etc (because sometimes the authorities issue licenses based on specific locations anyway - thus kinda preventing or reducing the likelihood of turf wars) but like I said it seems reasonable to respect someone's space or time if he/she has been there for awhile. And if you really want that space or time for whatever reason, it's better to actually approach that person and try to negotiate nicely with them, instead of being needlessly hostile. Or you could even work something out where you combine acts.

7) mm definitely there are different expectations about the kinds of acts you can or "should" be performing based on your identity (or seeming identity) but this seems to apply to the entertainment/performance industry in general, right? Also sometimes... it's not so much people's expressed opinions or outright statements about what you "should" or "shouldn't" be doing; it's more of the money speaking - some types of acts that cater or pander to certain stereotypes or idealized mainstream identities just get more $.

8) depends on the act. Some people are self-sufficient, others probably would welcome an extra pair of hands to help.
posted by aielen at 6:42 AM on January 14


You might ask the guy. http://www.metafilter.com/user/64941 who developed this site https://busk.co
Also Motty--http://www.metafilter.com/user/47942
posted by Ideefixe at 8:38 AM on January 14


In this episode of The Comedian's Comedian podcast, Stuart Goldsmith and Sam Will talk about being a street performer: The Boy With Tape On His Face (Live).
posted by Lexica at 10:02 AM on January 14


Direct answers from buskers would be awesome

Hopefully one step removed can help - I have a friend/occasional co-worker who makes most of his living as a busking musician in Cleveland, Ohio, and I've asked him a lot of questions about how he does it . . .

He is an African-American who plays guitar and sings, does both his own original music and other people's songs.

- How does one learn the ins & outs of busking? Are there classes? Are other buskers willing to teach you? Do you just try things out? Do you observe other buskers?

Well, in his case, it's just "play guitar and sing songs", so it was just go out and give it a try, no classes or anything. He pays a LOT of attention to when and where he plays and the material he plays, he's constantly tweaking his approach to improve his income. For example, he does a lot of his busking on street corners near venues just before & after major concerts, and he discovered that if he learned some of the artist's songs the people on their way to and from the concert are just tickled pink and willing to toss money his way.

- How friendly/social/welcoming is the local busker community? Is it silo'd by act type (circus vs musicians vs fortune-tellers etc) or is it more of a hodgepodge?

There isn't really a "busking community" here, at least as far as he's described it, and the only buskers I've ever seen on public streets are musicians, we don't seem to really have a circus/sideshow busking element (although many arts/neighborhood/community festivals will hire "wandering entertainers" like magicians and jugglers and human statues and gymnast/acrobats/dancers, but in those cases they're not really busking, as they're paid a flat fee by the organizers rather than depending on passing the hat.)

There are other regular busking musicians that my friend will of course chat with, but I don't think he considers himself part of a busking community.

Is there significant overlap between a busker community/sub-community and other subcultures?

One thing I was surprised to learn from him is that a lot of local musicians I know from the more "regular" avenue of them playing gigs at bars and clubs and concerts will do an occasional turn as a busker. So there is an element of "musical busking" overlapping with the "regular gigging" musical community, and you can meet other musicians while busking that you might not otherwise because their "regular gig" sub-culture doesn't overlap with yours. (Example: Jazz trombonist meets Americana singer/songwriter.)

(The friend who inspired all this has talked about some crossover with people involved in circus, steampunk, and Goth circles.)

There's long been crossover between circus/sideshow/street theater circles and the steampunk, Goth, and industrial music circles regardless of busking. Jim Rose was a major act at the second Lollapalooza tour back in 92 and toured with Nine Inch Nails in '94, just for one example.

I have noticed that fire performers and hula-hoop performers are very common at "hippie" music events, although they usually seem to be performing for the fun of it, not for money.

- What is the buskers' relationship to local law enforcement or council bureaucracy?

So, up until a few years ago busking was a grey area in Cleveland law - nothing in the "street vendor" laws/permit requirements specifically mentioned street performers, so what kind of trouble you might get in depended on whether anyone complained or what kind of mood the cops were in. You could just be told to pack up and go away, you could be ignored, you could be ticketed for creating a public nuisance, or for not having a vendors license, and if you tried to fight a ticket in court you might get a judge that figured that no mention of street performers in the law meant you were not breaking any laws and dismiss the tickets, you might get a judge who didn't care about any of that and upheld the fine.

Then in 2013 one of the most well-known street performers, the "Sax Man" (who's been busking for 15+ years), got ticketed twice in one month for not having a license, which inspired the city councilman representing the downtown area to create the Street Performers Ordinance, making it legal to busk without a license. There are some limits set on when you can busk, but otherwise anyone can have at it.

- The circus busking world my friend told me about seems to have some very specific lingo (walk-by/alcove/circle shows, hatting, 'bureaucrats', pitches, etc). Do other kinds of busking have their own lingo? Is it region-specific?

- Are there very specific structures for how acts should run? (e.g. a 3-act structure with specific ways to ask for hat money between acts) Any rules of thumb specific to certain styles or kinds of busking? How do these rules of thumb get communicated?


This all seems derived from the more circus/theater-rooted type of busking, so I'm not aware that anything similar exists in music busking, except insofar as musicians in general have some lingo.

- Is it possible or likely to get talent-scouted from busking?

I don't think talent-scouting so much as my friend and other musical buskers are hoping to also get some CD or download sales of their original music, so they carry some CD's and cards with their website/iTunes/bandcamp links.

- A lot of the busking world seems to be very White Male centric. Are there significant differences or challenges to the experience of buskers of marginalised genders, sexualities, races, abilities? Are there different expectations about the kind of acts, patter, etc one can perform based on their identity?

One of the big draws for buskers in Cleveland is major sporting events, which often means interacting with drunk white people who are worked up to some degree. As mentioned, my friend is African-American, and he says he's learned techniques for diffusing hostility and aggression - he makes jokes, takes requests, knows a lot of "classic rock", can spiel off arrangements of well-known hip-hop tunes if people get hostile about a black man playing guitar. But he's also of course very much aware that sometimes it's better and safer to just move to another street corner or pack up entirely if the vibe starts to turn sour. I don't know that it's that much different from just generally being a POC in the US, but he's definitely aware that he's drawing public attention to himself, often in large crowds of white folks.

Or do buskers tend to be pretty self-sufficient?

Again, there doesn't seem to be much of a busking community here, so my friend is very self-sufficient - he's got his guitar and a small battery-powered amp for his guitar and microphone and the whole setup travels on his back and in a small wheeled piece of carry-on luggage. If he's gotta use the bathroom or get out of the cold for a minute or whatever he can pack up in seconds and doesn't really have much more stuff than any random downtown office worker.
posted by soundguy99 at 11:07 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


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