An Introduction to Busking

Kobzar in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Kobzar in Kyiv, Ukraine.

As a follow up to my post about Some Uncommon Jobs Abroad in which I mention busking, I thought I’d elaborate on the subject. Stretching from ancient history right up to the present time, “busking” or, more commonly known as “street performance,” is a popular and cheap method for artists in all disciplines to display their craft while honing their skills and reaching new audiences at the same time. By putting on a good show or, maybe, simply playing a few songs, you can earn a few coins to keep your travels going.

Starting out with a basic idea of what you want to do, you need to build a show around your talent. Many performers make it look as if they’ve already had donations by placing a few coins or bills in their performance case in front of their “pitch”. For musicians, learn a few songs beyond the regular ones (which include the Beatles, Bob Marley, U2 or The Eagles) will help immensely in securing those hard to earn coins. Classical music is always in fashion and will garner some attention, although there is a picture of some famous guy playing some famous piece and no one pays him anything. Tough crowd, I guess. Some folks prefer the karaoke route, either singing or playing over top of a bed track. The djembe is also a popular percussion instrument though they can be cumbersome to carry around and, really, if you’re just going to play one instrument and not put on a show your results will vary greatly.

If you’re just going to play one instrument and not put on a show your results will vary greatly.

Street Performer 001
By Pastern (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Some cities require busking permits since they are highly sought after. “Pitches” that require a permit typically also have a time limit to allow for multiple performers throughout the day. London, Paris, Sydney, New York, all require permits in some parts of the city. Other cities have yet to be regulated: Bangkok, Seoul, Kiev. Some places hardly ever see musicians so most people would probably be confused by your presence. Musical busking and backpacking go well together since all you really need is a guitar or a drum and a few good songs. Maybe even painters can carry their stuff easily enough.

Costumes are a good idea and will help you stand out from the crowd. There is a huge difference between performer who looks as if he just woke up after a night out drinking and a well groomed, neatly dressed performer. (Though, that’s not to say that the well-dressed folk didn’t imbibe a few or more the night before.) Those performing magic or optical illusions enhance their performance with costumes. Then again, for some a costume would just get in the way. Check out this drummer…

What about money? I’ve talked to a few people about their experiences busking and the general consensus is that some days are good, others aren’t. Having a product, such as a CD or a painting, might help, though it comes with added security problems. CD ripping and burning technology has gotten to the point where most home made CDs can be played by anybody, although a professionally produced disc looks better. However, if you’re just starting out you might just need to get your work out there and see if it gains any traction before committing to the larger cost of a professionally produced disc. And with the availablity of the internet, offering extras by way of free downloads or blog posts about your travelling can be a great way to entice people to purchase your work. Last but not least, if you do make it, those first albums you made will become rareties and collectors items in their own right.

The general consensus is that some days are good, others aren’t.

Finally, if you’re just starting out as a busker you might be intimidated. I’ve been advised that all you need to busk is good weather and a good attitude. Don’t worry and don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it’s all a part of the learning process. Many famous musicians got their start on the streets, one of the most famous examples is Cirque Du Soliel based out of Montreal, Canada. The worst mistake is not to have tried in the first place!

Many famous musicians got their start on the streets, one of the most famous examples is Cirque Du Soliel based out of Montreal, Canada.

If you’re looking for some idea of what it’s like to busk around the world, check out The Busking Project. They travelled the world and interviewed hundreds of performers. Their Vimeo page hosts a bunch of clips of performers. Soon they will be releasing a DVD and a book about their journey.

All this is well and good so you might be wondering, Steve, why don’t you busk?

Well, I have. In Poland I tried my hand at it and made all of 3.50PLN (about a dollar) and a lollipop. I wasn’t really expecting to make much since it wasn’t a busy day and it was cold. I simply wanted to see if I could do it. I found that after 30 minutes of playing my djembe, I got bored. Sure, it was neat to be playing on the street but I felt I needed to do more than just play one drum. The quest continues to figure out what that is.

If you’re interested in busking around the world you can read my post about Some Uncommon Jobs Abroad.