Realities of Busking

By Elisabeth Flett

Artwork yet unknown


If you’ve just finished studying music and are also now officially a millennial graduate trying to make a career in the creative arts, congratulations! This article is for you. If you’re not a music university graduate, still, read this article and then take your music uni graduate friends out for lunch. Or brunch. (Or really just anywhere as long as they don’t have to pay for the meal, they really won’t care.)

Music graduates have a variety of questionable career options waiting for them after they finish studying, and one that inevitably pops up into the mind of most is a seemingly obvious way for a musician to generate income: busking. If you haven’t thought of this option yourself, many will think of it for you.

It’s the easiest way to make money!” they cry. “Forget teaching – this way you get to do what you love and get paid, it’s a win-win!” …Sure, if what you love to do is slowly feel all your muscles go numb from the cold, your brain flat-line from suppurating boredom and feel your dreams slowly die as endless people walk past completely ignoring you.

One of the most frustrating myths is that, as an Up And Coming Artist™, you will get the crucial exposure for your art that you’ve been searching for during the past 6-10 years simply by playing your instrument on a street corner at 2:37pm on a Tuesday afternoon. The image of crowds of hundreds clustered around you, clapping wildly, filming and throwing notes at you with wild abandon is one that we all love to hold dear, but the sad reality is that unless you’re a break-dancer, a flame thrower, a bagpiper or cute and under the age of twelve you’re more likely to get the audience of one security guard who is there to tell you that you’re disturbing the inhabitants of the office above you and that he’s been told to escort you off the street. (True story.)
If – even after all my warnings - you still feel like giving busking a go, please see below for a game that I think might be useful; The People You See Whilst Busking Drinking Game. Whenever you spot one of these characters, down that vodka and feel warm for 0.5 seconds!

Busking is, above all, deeply boring and this is an excellent way of passing the time.*

People You See Whilst Busking

THE IRISH DANCER

This character knows just enough about the style of music that I’m playing (Scottish Folk) and is just confident or drunk enough to do a wildly vague approximation of River Dance as he walks by, looking so proud you suspect he thinks he’s the first person to do this, ever. Extra shot if he – and it is always a he – also mimes playing the fiddle whilst jumping up and down.

The “AYYYYYY” guy

Generally can be seen next to the Irish Dancer. As the name suggests, his sole role is to encourage the dancer by yelling “AYYYYYYYY”, probably whilst clapping. Extra shot if he also mimes playing the violin.

THE DOWN & UP

This person looks first at how much change is in your open case, then looks at you with deep judgement in their eyes, generally whilst also walking past at high speed. They make you feel like you have failed at life to an extent you had previously never truly understood.

THE TEASE

The Tease is one of the cruellest passers-by that the busker can spot. They stop directly in front of you, open their bag – sometimes even inspecting their purse – then find what they’re looking for, straighten up, march off and leave you in the cheering knowledge that to them you are so inconsequential that they hadn’t even realised that you were even there.

THE CHEAPSKATE

The Cheapskate empties out their pockets, inspects the available coins with careful calculation, then carefully singles out all of their change under 10p and drops it into your case with the air of someone proudly supporting the struggling artist. Double shot if they only give you a single 1p coin. (YES THIS HAPPENS.)

THE DUMPER

The Dumper initially elicits great excitement in the busker: a passer-by has just dumped so much change into your violin case that it seems too good to be true! It is, sadly, too good to be true. They have seen their chance to get rid of those random coins from their holiday in Crete last month, their outdated £1 coins and that button they’ve been carrying around for ages, and have chucked all of the above into your case to become your problem instead. Yay.

THE DRAGGER

The Dragger has a child that is looking far too interested in you and your instrument and they are anxious to drag their offspring far away before you infect them with a desire to become creative, artistic and therefore poor. You can’t blame them, really.

THE FLICKER

Flickers don’t slow their pace to listen to what you’re playing, and will very often not deign to look at you whatsoever. They simply take whatever spare coin is in their pocket, and, like a Victorian lord might toss a farthing at a freezing street urchin, they flick their 5p in your general direction, not bothering to actually check if it’s landed anywhere useful. Extra shot if the 5p rolls away and you have to chase it. Two extra shots if the 5p hits you first.

BONUS ROUND: Rare People You See Whilst Busking

This guy has been trying to convert people to radical Evangelical Christianity all day with very little success, but now he’s spotted you – a sitting target. As you stand, violin in hand, trying to decide if he would just follow you if you cut him off mid-warning about the rapture and make a run for it, you wonder just how exactly you went so quickly from the high of graduating with a first from a prestigious music conservatoire to the low of being hounded by a born-again preacher in an Underground station tunnel next to a violin case holding 73p and a button.

THE PHILANTROPIST

Once every few months, when the moon is full, the crops have ripened and a black cat has walked anti-clockwise under a ladder thirty-eight times, you come across the Philanthropist.

Sometimes a £5, sometimes a £10, once even a £20, this God-sent golden ticket of the busking life slips a note into your case with a smile and a, “Keep up the good work” and makes your day if not your week. Thank you, Philanthropists. Thank you.

Well, I hope you have fun spotting all these quirky characters and standing on street corners!

(Alternatively, give up and get a teaching job. It’s a heck of a lot warmer.)

*If getting trashed isn’t your idea of fun, substitute shots of hard alcohol for chocolate. Or really anything that makes your life marginally happier.

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