Monday, 18 May 2015

Is it Busking?... or Begging?

Type that question into Google and you'll find endless articles, blogs and news reports all wondering the same thing - if you're on the street and people give you money, is that not begging? Well, in a word, no. There is a big, and fundamental difference between begging and busking....
Now, I'm not going to talk about the ethics of begging, but lets be honest for a second about what it is. - Beggars are essentially pleading for money because they are desperate, and without offering anything in return to the person giving them money other than their thanks.
- Buskers are musicians, either professionals, semi-professionals, or sometimes just youngsters or people who are out to improve their skills by playing in public. The main purpose of busking is not to make money, it is to perform. I am a professional musician, and I don't go out busking solely to make money - I do it because I enjoy it.

Let me give you a run down of what busking is like where I live in Guernsey.

Music in the Market Square: myself and Chris Taylor, St Peter Port Guernsey
Busking is permitted in the town centre of St Peter Port in designated areas, the most popular of which being outside Boots (the shop), the Market Square and the Liberation Monument. Performers can only play for an hour at a time in any spot (but that doesn't stop you going round all of them in a day!) - In order to busk you need to apply for a permit, which is provided by the constables of St Peter Port and regulated by the Guernsey Arts Commission. Guernsey has a heavy tradition of music and a lot of local talent, so busking is actively encouraged, especially when cruise ships come in. That being said, as a regular busker myself I've never had to fight for a spot. There's also opportunities for 'paid busking': the Market Square often book and pay people to play outside on the weekends, but if you put a hat/case out you still get busking money to keep. Similarly, in order to raise money for the Town Centre, the Town Partnership run a 'Town Carnival' at the end of July, where local and visiting asks play live on the street. All the acts are paid, so all the 'busking money' they receive is collected in order to pay for the upkeep of the town and the carnival itself. In terms of a busking town, St Peter Port is pretty safe. I've only had one incident of abuse in 3 years I've been busking, and when the cruise ships are in it does appear to be greatly appreciated by the tourists (given the amount of random currencies I have in a jar at home!) I've come to know the best places to busk, both in terms of profit and atmosphere, but I do think it's a shame it's not being utilized quite as much as it could be by locals. Like I said, I rarely see another busker when I'm out and about. Quite possibly it still has this taboo 'busking is begging' mentality.... which is weird, because I've never seen a beggar either!

Busking is not all perks and joys, there certainly are upsides and downsides to it, as there is with everything in life. And as with everything you have to weigh it up and decide whether it's something you can or cannot do:
  • Money: Bit of an obvious one, but that is a big check in the plus column. You're not guaranteed big bucks, but depending on where you set up you can make a really decent chunk of money (upwards of £50 an hour on good day)
  • Free Publicity: In essence it is a way to market yourself to the public. If someone really likes you they will come up to ask you for your card, or a CD, or even when your next 'proper gig' is so they can see your full set. And sometimes someone will come up to book you for their venue or their next event.
  • It mixes things up: Playing outdoors in the sunshine is completely different to playing in the corner of a dimly-lit bar. It also puts a completely different spin on all your material. You might realise that some of your songs that work in the bar setting just don't translate well in the daytime. And vice versa! 
  • You can try new repertoire in an informal setting: If you've got a song you've been learning or writing but aren't sure about it yet, you can try it when busking. If it goes wrong you know it's not ready, but it won't matter because most people will have only heard a little bit of it as they walk passed. Or maybe someone will give you money while you play it (which means they've enjoyed it).
  • It teaches you important things about yourself as a performer: Which of your songs are actually your best, and how to perform to a crowd (especially an ever evolving crowd who probably aren't really listening)
  • Abuse: I'm not going to lie, there are some people who just really hate buskers, no matter how good you are. These people are not beyond shouting derogatory things at you, or even threatening you. I had one such incident last summer where a guy came right up behind me to whisper in my ear that I was a talentless bitch and I better shut up and f-off. It really, really scared me. Thankfully on that occasion I had another performer with me, so that calmed me down, but still, it was a stark reminder that you need a thick skin to busk (and to alert the police should you get abuse)
    "When I play I play for me! I don't need your charity!"

  • Assigning ££ to every song: It's hard not to think of every song as a 'money-spinner' - It can help you earn more if you know what songs tend to pull the money in, but you should play songs you like, and songs that suit you as a musician, and the area in which you are performing. It's also worth remembering that you can't please everybody: You're going to play the music you like, and not everyone is going to like it. This will effect what you could earn. Just accept that.
  • Weather: Sunshine is lovely, Rain sucks. And let's not forget the wind-chill factor in the winter! Busking at Christmas is really fun, but man do you need to wrap up warm and invest in several pairs of fingerless gloves! And in the summer you will definitely need suncream and a good hat if the spot has no shade. 
  • Misconceptions: People often think you're poor, hence your need to 'plead' for money. They seem to not be able to look past the open case with coins in it at your expensive equipment and general professional demeanor. But that's ok, if they ask, just politely say, "no, I'm a professional, I just do this because I enjoy it."
  • Permits: Some places, in order to discourage actual begging require you to apply for a busking license. I'm actually ok with that in essence, but only if it's FREE. In Guernsey you need a busking license, but you don't need to pay for it, you just apply for it with information about you and your act, and if the deciding body aren't sure of your material you 'audition' (which essentially is a live busking session where they watch you to see how you come across). In Jersey however, you have to pay for a license, which I think is wrong. Yes, I understand the want to differentiate between beggar and busking (it's what this whole blog is about!), and having a permit card clipped to your belt or in your case does give the message across clearly and helpfully, but you should never charge people to play.
It's not always all about the guitar! You can busk playing anything!
I like to think of the money people give buskers as a 'tip' like a restaurant. Unlike the USA, tipping in the UK is not expected, it's a welcome bonus that you give to your waiter or to barstaff or a taxi driver for doing a good job. As a musician I've had people come up to me when I'm playing background music in a restaurant or bar to tip me for adding to their night and providing 'good service'. Busking, in essence is providing free entertainment on the street, and if people like what you're providing they will tip you for doing a good job.

Another good way to look at busking is a 'retro' source of crowd funding. Online crowd funding is incredibly popular these days, and the benefits of it are clear when you look at how much money people generate for their businesses / projects. Busking as a musician is crowd-funding at the very basic level: live and in person on the street. If you're good at busking you can get a pretty good bank roll going. If you're really good, as some people are, you can actually make a living off busking. There are some 'professional buskers' out there who quite literally travel the world by busking their way round.

Busking in Alderney, Victoria Street
One thing I always get asked it, "Well, if you enjoy it, why put your case out? You're still asking for money!" - And there is a really simple answer to that. - I put my case out, because if I don't, people don't know where to put money. - That sounds contradictory, but let me explain. I mainly busk in St Peter Port highstreet, or the market square. I've also been paid to play in the market square by people who own restaurant businesses in the area (as I mentioned before, some places 'pay for buskers'). Now on those gigs I'm already being paid to play, so even though I'm outside on the 'street', I'm not really busking. But to the average person who walks past I look like I am busking. And if they like me, they're going to want to 'tip' me, but with no case out there will be nowhere to put the tip! A few years ago I used to do these gigs without putting my case out, and people would still come up to me mid songs and leave money at my feet, or scurry up after I finished a song to hand me money saying, "I didn't know where to put this!" - If you're being paid to play outside anywhere it just makes sense to leave your case out and open. If you get nothing, well who cares, you've already been paid. If you get money in the case, woo! Bonus! Go you!

If you wanna give busking a try, here's a few of my top tips:
  • Get yourself a good hour of music: If you think that most songs are around the 3-4minute mark, you're talking between 15-20 songs. And mix it up. Don't have all ballads, or all 12-bar blues
  • Don't be afraid to play your own music
    The Roland 'Street Cube' - designed for busking
  • If people clap you, say thank you - likewise, when people give you money, try and thank them (even a simple nod and smile gets the thanks across)
  • Consider investing in 'busking equipment' - a mic+stand and a busking amp can do a lot to upgrade your image from 'beggar' to 'musician'. Roland's Cube Amp range is fantastic, and they can run for up to 15 hours on just 6xAA batteries - the added bonus of amplification means you'll save your voice as well (make sure not to crank it up though!)
  • Do your research - make sure you know the designated spots, the rules and whether or not you need a permit
And finally, the key thing to remember about busking that is should always be about the joy of music, and having fun. If you approach it with a single-minded business ethic you can make a decent amount of cash, but you might not enjoy it as much as if you were just rocking up with your guitar to sing happy songs to cheer up the grumpy shoppers in the highstreet. If you're enjoying yourself people will soon realise that you're not begging for their money, you're just trying to spread the joy by doing something you love..... that's the kind of attitude that actually makes people throw money at you!

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