A Guy Walks Into a Bar (Continued)


Café busking is a little like walk by busking but on private property. Generally you set up in a corner of a bar, restaurant or outdoor mall type area after getting permission from the business/property owner and you wait for people to come up to you to get drawn. (musicians can play and hope that somebody comes up to tip them for a request, like an open mic night). This is a popular request also from the establishment owner so they may seek you out and actually offer you an hourly wage or stipend if you’re lucky- or rather if you INSIST on it…

Most of the birthday party type entertainers I know in my local area drum up about 60% of their business by cafe busking. The management pays them a low weekly rate (about a quarter of their hourly rate) plus whatever tips they can make and a free meal (free is good), to come into the establishment on a regular basis and go table to table to entertain kids. It is a commitment however. the establishment may advertise your appearances and you may leave promotional information laying around. It may be a problem if it would be difficult for you to do it every week on the same night and time. For one thing, you may be giving up some work you can charge full price for in order to honor your commitment. If that were the case, you may have to have another entertainer to cover you sometimes, and pay them what they want in order to keep the commitment to the establishment. Remember, the other entertainer does not have an agreement to work for 25% of their hourly rate for a set amount of time so after a few times of doing this it might be hard to find a make up entertainer.

The idea is to bring the walk-by busker into the establishment to add atmosphere to the room. While this certainly does add charm to the establishment, it often happens that it is at the expense of the busker as traditional barking to get people to come sit for you would be inappropriate in this situation, for what the management has in mind, so if you’re not busy then you’re stuck there in a corner of a boring bar doing nothing and you’d be stuck in that one location.

If it’s OK with the management, you might try going from table to table and asking people to come sit for you in the corner if you sit there for too long. This starts my next topic though… You might be able to dress up a little and have a drink or two and you will for sure make way better tips than you would have on the street and not have to worry about as many of the “hassles” that they go through, but it is still very difficult to keep busy and make money this way. You are at the mercy of the bar. If you haven’t played your hand right, the bar owner may also want you to give him a cut of your earnings and also require you to not go to any competing establishments which is the last thing you want. Most of the positives cross over into the next section- STROLLING!

I WANT TO TEACH YOU ABOUT STROLLING, aka, WALKAROUND BUSKING, specifically in bars and restaurants. Strolling busking is just what it sounds like. YOU ARE MOBILE. The “pitch” may be a bar, a restaurant, a mall, a cocktail party, a parking lot, an outdoor concert, a street, a boardwalk, an intersection, a crowd of people anywhere, etc… mosltly on private property, sometimes on public. Strolling artists can go pretty much anywhere and sometimes they get PAID FULL PRICE to work at a gig where they are very likely to get tipped well!!

(Copyright, Adam Pate 2013. All rights reserved)


A Guy Walks Into a Bar (Continued)


The most attention grabbing style of street performing is known as “Circle Busking”. In circle busking, the performer takes some time to gather a circle of people around himself on the pitch, performs a show and then tries to keep the audience around as long as possible to collect their money. Anytime people see other people standing around, they want to stand around with them too and see what’s going on. The ease of gathering a crowd, being able to gather a little bit of fame while doing it and more often than not, making a decent amount of money in a short time is what makes the circle such a popular style for variety performers. (Variety performers are the jugglers, magicians, break dancers, fire eaters, comedians, musical acts, etc… You know- variety!)

During the show, the performer has an opportunity to build up the audience further and convince them to tip him at the end of the show. At the end, he passes the hat (or somebody else does it for him) while he continues to entertain the audience with witty banter and takes up the collection. If done right, there is usually a bit of cheekyness to the passing of the hat too that is almost as fun to watch as the show. This is to keep the audience around to tip more instead of walking off after the show. If the “hat man”, “pitch man”, or “bottler” is any good he will continue to draw a crowd even as people are leaving and hopefully convince them to even leave a larger tip also. The more people that are attracted to your circle performance, the more money (and often other articles of interest end up there too, lol) will go into your hat.

I have seen artists get a good crowd while performing paintings or caricatures to music for a circle of people. While all are not buskers, some novelty entertainers that cross into the ‘variety’ realm that come to mind are Dan Dunn, Brad Blaze, Denny Dent and Paul Merklien of Great Big Faces Caricatures. I have also seen a few teams of artists working in tandem to create something abstract on a large canvas or a graffiti piece. A good crossover between walk by and circle performances are the airbrush artists who create small works of art while putting on a bit of a show (of which they give to the highest tipper or sell outright if they can get away with it.)

One of the more valuable lessons you can learn as a busker is to pick up your speed. The faster your production turnaround, the more tips you can make. Keeping this in mind, the circle performers also know they must paint pretty quickly. Generally a variety performer can work a popular pitch for about 20-45 minutes with an additional 10 minutes to collect tips while the next act sets up and you tear down. If there is time to do so, ideally a circle show can last up to 90 minutes with the entertainer taking the opportunity to plug the show as he is setting up and continuing to entertain and collect tips while he is taking down the operation. If people are giving you money you can milk it for a lonnnnnnnnngggg Time.

I would think that painting this way would have to be super neat and tidy also, so as not to get paint everywhere and screw up the pitch for everybody else who uses it. So be mindful of that. Circle buskers are vulnerable to some of the same kinds of pitfalls as the walk by buskers are, but they’re also limited by the popularity of the pitch and the possibility of props being stolen, tampered with or misused by an audience member. A positive point to bring up is that there would be other performers around and the hours would be sporadic. Lots of down time watching and mingling with your fellow performers might be fun once and a while too. You might not get along with everybody but there would be plenty of opportunities to see how other types of entertainers handle the challenges that come up and you’ll learn more than being alone.

Any time you put yourself out there to perform for the public, you stand the risk of being hassled in one way or another and it takes some serious chops and a butt load of confidence to perform for a circle of judgmental strangers, IMO. Sure, individual people are judgmental, but usually can be won over easily enough. A large crowd made up of people from all walks of life is a different story altogether. You will find that people are dumb animals who along with being easily entertained, are also easily scared, misled or angered. This makes large crowds of people scary for many reasons. Performing a show for a large group of people makes it easy for hecklers to try bug you and ruin your show. While this is great entertainment for the rest of the crowd, it can be aggravating if you lose control of the environment and can quickly make your show go full on FUBAR. A good busker has a billion one liners to shut these people down and do it quickly to maintain control of the situation. It is a must. God help you if you lose control of the show…

While the circle setup might be great for a variety performer, it might not necessarily translate all that well to a artistic novelty entertainer. There are elements of circle busking that you can incorporate into your one on one act however. I will discuss some later at length.



A Guy Walks Into a Bar (Continued…. MASSIVE INFO DUMP!)


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)