23 Oct 2019

How To: Make Money Busking

Is it your dream to play a gig in front of thousands of people? You wouldn’t be alone, at some point almost everyone’s had a vision of themselves belting out a hit or shredding a solo in front of adoring fans. The problem is that it’s really, really hard to get to that point. Even the best musicians sometimes work their whole lives without performing in front of crowds the size they deserve…

But what if there was a shortcut? A way of playing to the masses where you didn’t need an agent or a record deal. It sounds a bit too good to be true doesn’t it? But it does exist, though it comes with some caveats. The money isn’t great, the crowds won’t stay for long and you won’t exactly be on a stage, maybe a pavement or a tube station. That’s right. Busking.

While there may be some people who put their nose up at the idea, they’d be pretending they were better than a whole host of famous musicians who got their start busking. A lot of people won’t know the name John Mellor, but they do know of Joe Strummer. The infamous frontman of seminal punk band The Clash busked before he was famous. In fact, that’s where his stage name came from, ‘strumming’ his guitar as a busker.

Various ACM alumni who have gone to have incredible commercial success played some of their first gigs as buskers. Before he released his double-platinum chart-topping debut album Hand Built by Robots, Newton Faulkner was well known on the busking scene, particularly around Covent Garden. Ed Sheeran’s another, it’s well documented that before his meteoric rise to fame, Sheeran would play anywhere and everywhere he could, including countless hours busking.

While you may never make the big bucks on the back of busking alone, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its benefits. For a start, it lets you hone your live act. The best way to get used to performing before a crowd is practice. When you’re getting started, instead of looking for open mic nights or getting on the bill at a local venue, busking lets you play in front of the public without the hassle. Depending where you set up, you could be playing in front of tens, hundreds or thousands of people – and you never know whether one of them is going to be the one to get your career going.

So let’s have a look at the ways you can best go about making money from busking.

Busking Law

Once upon a time you could go out onto the street anywhere in the country, put your hat down in front of you and start playing. But the times have changed, there are regulations put down by each local council regarding the legality of busking. This could mean certain times or places aren’t viable, but most importantly, you will almost always need a license. Check out this government website, input your postcode and it will tell you who you need to contact to apply.

One common point between all councils is that performers need to be at least fourteen to apply for a license, but besides that, each council will likely have different bylaws regarding busking. For example, Camden Council lets mimes and magicians to perform in the street without a license, but if you’re going to play music, you need a license. Another is in the City of London which allows street performers, but steer clear if you’re looking to make money as it’s illegal to collect any in public areas.

Collecting Money

Busking is a great way to earn a bit of spare cash while you’re chasing your dreams of bigger, more official gigs. The most common way to collect money was always placing down your hat or guitar case in front of you while you play for people would flick money into. However, cash has become less common, so buskers have upgraded.

Priced at under £30, iZettle have created affordable contactless payment machines that have a pre-set amount. Passersby only have to tap their card on the machine, paying their donation straight into the performer’s account. You should bear in mind, however, that iZettle take 1.75% in Card Transaction Fees and 2.5% as E-Commerce Card Transaction Fees – though this is a small price to pay for the peace of mind of not having all your earnings lying on the street in front of you alone.

Busking Organisations

There are street performance organisations up and down the country that give advice to buskers, the biggest of which is Busk In London. Busk In London work with a roster of artists, organising shows with private land-owners with the backing of ambassadors like KT Tunstall and Nile Rodgers to help buskers put their street hustle in front of bigger audiences.

They have also co-written, alongside street performers, landowners and the Metropolitan Police,  The Buskers’ Code, a set of rules designed to ‘promote good relations and create a vibrant street culture’. It sets out how to approach getting started, the best way to find a good spot and how to resolve any conflicts that may arise with the public, other performers and local businesses.

There are also certain areas that are geared towards the more seasoned busker. The Southbank Centre and The London Underground hold auditions, organised by Busk In London. Auditions happen annually, so keep an eye on their website for the next ones.

The busking community may be quite competitive – it’s only natural to want the best spot or to outshine the guy playing just down the road from you, but they’re the best people to talk to for advice. Some buskers have been on the scene for years, they’ll have tips for you you didn’t even know you needed. ACM also hosts events with alumnae experienced in busking, head down to The Electric Theatre on the 12th and 13th November to catch former student and top busker Hannah Dorman giving a masterclass on how to be a successful busker.

So get out there, get your license and get playing!

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ACM Alumna Hannah Dorman

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