STYLES POSSIBLE WITH NOVELTY ENTERTAINMENT BUSKING (The Walk By…)
Most styles of busking can be performed both on public or private property. The most common style of street performing is known as, “Walk by busking”. This is where the entertainer stays in one place and performs for people walking by hoping that they will stop and throw something in their tip jar or guitar case. Many musicians choose to perform in the walk by style because it’s easy, versatile, laid back, non-agressive and you can stay in the same place all day if you want to. Hopefully, people will stop for a song or two, give you some money and move on. Generally the artists set up far away from each other so they are not competing noise wise, playing for the same demographic group or block around a particular store or attraction.
It is definitely possible to set up and do caricatures or other forms of entertainment artwork (balloon twisting, face painting, hair wraps, henna, etc…), also known as “novelty entertainment” busking in the walk by style. You want to be sure that you have the means to move or pack up quickly if asked. (Personally, I use a cart -which I will describe later) It is very similar to doing retail caricatures at a fair where you have to be there all day every day and there are only a few busy times during the day with the rest of the business coming in trickles throughout the day. It is more or less steady business, depending on your expectations.
There are several advantages to busking in the street rather than paying for a retail spot at a fair. For the most part, you will have the freedom to busk virtually wherever you like, any time you like without having to pay a fee to anyone for the spot, worrying about bringing a bunch of stuff to set up like a tent, signs, etc… You will not be forced by your obligations to stay in a poor location, nor will you be stuck outside in bad weather or the hot sun, etc… You will not have to worry about “breaking even” or even make much of an investment at all in your business. You will not need any insurance, fire extinguisher, employees, etc.. you will not need a vendor’s license or pay sales tax either. Chances are if you are on private property you will need insurance and they will want to keep track of your success in some way, maybe requiring you to become a retail vendor in which case- you are not a busker. The freedom, availability of your location, hours of operation and even specifics about your general appearance may also be up to the management but you will have added security and possibly a place to store your belongings. Maybe even a stipend if you are lucky.
About sales tax… Technically, this is where I should tell you that the federal government and many state and city laws will require you to report and pay taxes on any tips you receive. Some state and city laws may require you to collect, report and pay a sales tax as well, even on ‘entertainment services’. (I don’t believe the IRS gives a damn about sales tax-but you can ask your accountant.) I think it is safe to say however that there are not many buskers (if any at all) who have ever reported any cash transactions whatsoever since there does not seem to be any standard that deals with freely given “gratuities” for those who are self employed. I have asked many, many organizations many, many times and have never ever gotten the same answer twice. In short, do what you gotta do. I’m not your lawyer or your CPA. If you keep receipts for tax purposes though, you will have to report something for sure.
Certain times and locations will definitely be more worthwhile than others and sitting around waiting for somebody to come to you to get a drawing definitely sucks no matter what… Doing novelty entertainment this way leaves you having to hustle more than you are likely to be comfortable with and you will certainly have to “bark” at people- or yell out to people as they pass by and try to talk them into stopping to get a drawing if you are not already drawing someone. People will stop to look for a moment and then move on. If there is nothing to look at they will probably not stop. When people are moving by you quickly, it is very difficult to get their attention, much more difficult to get them to stop and give you a moment of their time, even if they are expecting entertainment.
You will realize after a few short hours that barking gets repetitive and is a PITA (Pain In The Ass)… So you will want to switch up your methods to make it interesting! An experienced barker will often make funny comments or try to yell out a one liner that might prompt the passersby to laugh or come back and start up a conversation or at least stand around and watch other people get barked at. There’s a fine line between barking and heckling. You don’t want to be too harsh. As a caricature artist, part of your job is to determine how much hilarity somebody can take. Push it to be funny, but if it’s not funny to them, you’re just wasting your time… If you do choose to bust somebody’s chops a little, be prepared to be heckled right back. Try to keep it friendly. (What’s funny about being cruel to someone?) This is good practice for when you get heckled while performing. Once you get the hang of it you will have learned a few zingers to keep you in control of the conversation and keep it upbeat. Heckling happens a lot with busking and sometimes it can be fun, as long as it’s good natured. Don’t get too personal. Keep it clean and family friendly if you want to have a good experience. A smile and a friendly laugh will help you make friends rather than enemies. Most of the time when somebody heckles you and you zing them right back they will laugh and you will have gained their respect. (Though admittedly, it will try your nerves after a while…) I can only assume it works the same for females, though clearly they may have different opinions on this matter than men. If you are on private property, remember every thing you do or say will likely come back to you in one way or another. It might even be recorded.
No matter how awesome your act is, take into consideration what all goes into barking at passersby one at a time all day to perform your service for them… You will have to convince people to 1. Slow down or stop, 2. Watch and listen, 3. Justify carrying out a financial transaction with you, 4. Commission your services for a period of time, 5. Compensate you handsomely of their own free will because your handiwork was the best they’ve ever seen and 6. (Very important)- stick around long enough to help you attract other passersby so you don’t have to stand around and bark someone else in. The best advertisement is a group of people standing around watching you work. They will already be convinced and the only barking you’ll need to do then is yell, “NEXT!!”
Just to give you an idea of what it’s like to be an extremely talented “walk by” street performer, consider this Washington Post article about famous violinist, Joshua Bell playing in the subway:
At the end of the article above, Mr. Bell says that the hardest part of the experience was not feeling any sense of accomplishment after he finished a piece. There was no applause, no fanfare …and virtually no money in his tip bucket. At the end of his time playing someone recognized him and put a $20 in his tip jar, bringing his total earnings up to $36.50. He had hoped to make a lot more money but said that he realized in the end that if he worked steadily throughout the day and collected an hourly wage equal to what he had made playing for that 45 minutes in the subway (counting quarters as well as $20 bills both), it would actually be worth his while to sit there all day and play. It is easy to lose that perspective however… I don’t foresee him playing his million dollar Stradivarius in the subway again any time soon.
If you have expectations of being busy, but have just a trickle of business throughout the day it’s easy to get bored and anxious. You may eventually sound desperate to the passersby and deter them rather than attract them. You may be barking to people because you are trying to get some work, but you will appear to be barking AT them in anger for not taking you up on your offer… Remember, your job is to entertain them, not the other way around. They’re just going about their regular business having a nice day… If you find yourself losing perspective, one of the most glorious things ever about busking is that you have low overhead and it is entirely possible to guiltlessly pack up, go home or go out to the pub and get a drink, chill out, take the rest of the day off or come back later when your spirits improve. Ain’t nobody got time for that crazy stuff!
This is a fun job. If you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong. I recommend approaching people in a way that sounds like you have a secret you want to tell them or a gift you want to give to them. Try it sometime and see how it sounds. One of the best words of advice I ever got came from a telemarketing scammer who dicked me over… He was an unscrupulous asshole but he was a hell of a salesman. He said, “If you get someone on the phone who clearly isn’t interested in the offer, just hang up on em. Don’t let them waste another second of your time. There are plenty of people out there who would LOVE to hear all about it. Why waste your time arguing with the people who have already made up their mind that they aren’t interested? The time you waste trying in vain to talk them into it could be better spent with one of the people who IS INTERESTED!” I have been much happier since I took it to heart.
Once you do attract people’s attention and convince someone to make a transaction with you, you will find that there are many different types of tippers. I will go into that in detail later. One type of tipper that you wan to avoid that the walk by busker is particularly vulnerable to are families with small children. Not all of them are bad of course but at certain times and in certain locations they can be devastating… Again, not always, but they MAY pay with change and take up your time asking you to do multiple tasks for the same very low reward. You can always say no and run the risk of upsetting them, you can choose to work at a time when the low tippers are less likely to be around or a location where they are not as prevalent. If you are in private place though you might be stuck with them though… (Once again, females may have a different experience with this group.) You can fool them by “sweetening” your tip bucket by putting higher value bills on the top of the money in your tip bucket so that when somebody looks in stealthily to determine what the average tip people give you is, it will appear that most people are giving you higher value bills rather than change that will usually weigh down the bills if it is dropped on top of them. I always bring along a couple of fins especially for this purpose. Something to consider is that a person is more likely to give you a bigger tip if they have to hand it to you and watch you put in into the tip jar (or your pocket-recommended) yourself. Small children with nickels however are the kiss of death if their parents aren’t within earshot. THEY HAVE NO SHAME! Lol!
The reason I am posting more information that usual is because I want to get your ready for St. Pats!! If you are thinking about trying busking, this weekend is a perfect time to start!! Saint Patrick’s day is the weekend after next and it is on Sunday, so the entire weekend will be a good time to be out and about. Right now is the best time to scout a location and get in a little practice so that you are ready for the crazy crowds full of green beer! I’d like to hear your stories of busking if I’ve inspired you to get out there so take notes for me! 🙂
Next post on busking I will cover SECURITY. (might come in handy with all the drunks you’ll see on St. Pats)
(COPYRIGHT- ADAM PATE, 2013)
Awesome advice – thanks for sharing so much useful info, Adam. When I busked for a few months here in San Diego, I discovered a GREAT answer to, “How much does it cost?” When they ask that question, I say, “Tip me whatever you like,” while simultaneously grabbing a $5 bill TAPED to the lip of my non-breakable tip can (shaped like a mini old fashioned milk can), swinging the bill and can in front of myself and then saying, “Oh look, a magic trick!” When I did this, I never got less than $5, and 10s and 20s were not rare, either…
You’re welcome Dave. Thanks for checking it out! Swinging it in front of you and saying, “Oh look, a magic trick” huh? Pretty subtle, lol! There are a lot of passive ‘gypsy tricks’ as I like to call them, that I will get into this later in the book. I do love to hear what other people do! I have a lot of busker friends that do other forms of entertainment and there is certainly no shortage of interesting stories and ways to subtly convince people to put more money in your jar, or hand, etc… I have only known a few caricature artists who did street busking, and I doubt if any of them knew anything about what it was called or that there were rules. I know I certainly didn’t when I started out! I think a lot of them started to doing it out of desperation and were far to passive to ‘work it’ and discover any new tricks. I started doing it when I had a full time job so I wasn’t as concerned with making ‘rent’ as I was with making beer money, luckily! Desperation has a way of leaving people to use more heavy handed techniques and it definitely turns passersby OFF. I know when I was starting out doing street busking I had some pretty rough days until I learned to have fun with it and make a game out of challenging myself to coax people into being more generous. Until about 8 years ago when I tried to make a go of it in a resort town and had to fight city hall, I didn’t even know there were rules. There are pretty loose ways to suggest a denomination while simultaneously saying, “I work for tips” The more aggressive entertainers even have helpers to do this for them, lol!