Busking can be a great way for musicians to earn money in their spare time. But what is busking, exactly? Busking is the act of a musician performing in a public space to earn tips from passersby. It can refer to other types of artists as well—dancers, caricature artists, mimes, and other types of street performers.
Busking can be lucrative and also a lot of fun, but you need to be wary of local and state laws to be sure you aren’t going to get in any trouble for doing it.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at busking in general. What is busking and what does it consist of? How much can it earn you? What are the laws on street performances, and how much trouble can you get in if you’re caught doing it illegally? What sort of gear do you need for this? We’ll look at all of this and more, so let’s get started!
What does ‘busking’ mean?
Okay, let’s start at the top: What does busking mean? Busking refers to any live performance in any public space with the goal of earning tips from the public. Whether you’re rocking an acoustic guitar in a subway station or putting on a flash mob dance in a city park, it’s all busking. Well, so long as you’re asking for money, of course.
Busking is often confused with begging, but they’re genuinely not the same thing. Performing and offering art to the public for free, where tips are encouraged but voluntary, is one thing. “Begging”, on the other hand, usually refers to simply asking others for money. There’s no performative element to begging, at least not in any artistic sense.
The word “busking” stems from a Spanish word, buscar, which translates as “to look for” or “to seek.” Buskers are “looking for” or “seeking” tips from those who enjoy their performances.
Street performances as we know them today have been around through pretty much all of recorded history, but the phrase “busking” in reference to street performers started popping up in the 1800’s in England.
How much can busking earn you?
It’s borderline impossible to tell you much much money you can take in when busking. Earnings will vary wildly depending on where you are, how busy the location is, how well you’re performing, and countless other factors. It’s going to be different for pretty much everyone, and there’s no safe answer to tell you how much you can earn over any given stretch of time.
If you’re playing great music that resonates with people and captures an audience, and if you’re performing in an area with a lot of foot traffic, busking can bring in some decent cash. It’s possible to earn upwards of $20 to $50 per hour, or even a whole lot more. Of course, you don’t want to confuse the word “possible” with “likely” here.
Busking isn’t a dependable source of income. You might luck out one day, and strike out completely the next. It’s not unheard of for some buskers to earn hundreds or even thousands of dollars in a single day, and barely make a few cents the next.
What is the law on busking? Is busking illegal?
Busking is legal in most of the United States, and it’s generally considered a protected act of free speech. But most cities have noise ordinances you’ll need to be wary of. Some areas, like New York City, prohibit street performers from using any form of amplification (you also can’t perform within 50 feet of monuments in the Big Apple). In Binghamton New York, busking is legal so long as you’re not violating noise ordinances.
Some cities make street performances even harder. Chicago requires you to have a permit for any form of street performing. And some areas in Boston are harsher with the rules—you need a permit, liability insurance, and a criminal background check, according to Guitar World. That’s bananas! There are towns and cities where busking is flatly illegal, too.
You’ll want to look at local laws and ordinances where you live to determine if street performing can be done legally, or how to get a permit if that’s a requirement where you live.
What gear will you need as a busker?
As a musical busker, the gear requirements are pretty low. You’ll need an acoustic instrument and something for passersby to drop their tips in. Guitar cases are synonymous with busking, but you can also use a hat, a jar, or what have you.
It’s generally a good idea to not bring too much with you when busking. Remember, you’ll be in a public space. People will be rushing around you and might not be wary of your instrument or other equipment, and you don’t want to put up trip hazards or interrupt the flow of foot traffic in any way. And as we mentioned earlier, noise ordinances are important to observe as well.
You shouldn’t bring out your fanciest gear when busking, either. Your Gibson Les Paul might be gorgeous, but you’re bringing it into an environment with a lot of unknowns. Your instruments and equipment will be exposed to the elements and other risks. Not that you’ll encounter many people busking with a $3,000 guitar, of course.
More to read: Are music store credit cards worth it?
How to go busking: some tips for success
Here are some general tips explaining how you can go busking successfully:
- Practice! The most successful buskers tend to play music others enjoy hearing, and that means practicing your material privately before sharing it with the world at large.
- Prepare a lengthy set. Busking requires some endurance. You’ll want to have lots of material on hand so someone passing you more than once isn’t likely to hear the same songs repeatedly.
- Know your local laws. Make sure you aren’t violating noise ordinances, and see if your city requires a permit or has other qualifiers for street performances.
- Scout your locations. Spend some time in potential busking areas. Understand foot traffic, learn when the busy and not-so-busy times are, and choose a location where you’re highly visible and audible.
- Know your audience. Busking outside of an office building won’t usually get the same positive reaction from crowds as doing it in a park. When someone is rushing to work, or they’re tired from a long day on the job, they’re less likely to engage with your music than someone just out having some leisure time.
- Be respectful. Avoid vulgar language and themes. Appealing to a broader market leads to bigger crowds, which usually translates into more tips. And keep in mind that your behavior reflects on other street performers as well … not just you!
Busking can be a lot of fun. It’s a great way to improve your live performances, gauge an audience’s reactions to original material, and help some musicians get over stage fright or on-stage jitters. It can also make you some decent cash, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We hope our brief little guide here adequately explains to you what busking is and helps you decide if busking is right for you or not!