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  • Nick Drozdoff

To Busk or Not To Busk: That Is The Question

Recently I chimed in on a thread in a FB forum on the relative merits of busking. I followed along with the other comments and ideas started popping into my head about the whole business of busking or street performing.

So, as with many of my blog posts, I need to emphasize these are my OPINIONS - MY ideas. I offer them in my blogs primarily to get folks thinking a bit. I only hope thsat my ides can simply help you form your own, even if you end up taking a position diametrically opposed to mine!

My Limited Experience With Busking:

I have never actually busked as a stand alone performer. I have sat in with busking groups. Usually, I'd be walking from my parked car to a gig and stumble onto a street performance and once the performers spotted that I was carrying a horn, they asked me to sit in. One time, on a subway platform in NYC, I ran into a full jazz quartet ad was asked to sit in for a full blown jam session.

In every case, I had a LOT of fun. However, most of my interaction was with the MUSICIANS. The crowd of innocent bystanders seemed only marginally interested, or totally indifferent as they were dashing between trains, etc.

You often see videos of street groups playing to big audiences rapt with attention on the performance, applauding enthusiastically with support. While I have no reason to doubt the veracity of those videos, I do have to wonder how often that actually happens. Around Chicago, the street musicians I see are playing to people milling around going about their business who are utterly indifferent to the musicians. This is true even for some of the really good groups I've seen.

As a bystander, I ALWAYS stop and listen to musicians, everywhere! We're "comrades in arms," so to speak, in the effort to make the world just a little more beautiful. I always toss a couple of bucks into whatever case is sitting open for that purpose. However, I have yet to PERSONALLY witness many street musicians rolling in dough.

I have a friend - a BRILLIANT tenor sax player - whose daughter has had considerable experience busking. Apparently she has made between $50 and $100 in a day busking. Here's the catch. That is for LITERALLY the WHOLE DAY! She played for eight to ten hours to pull that off. And this is not typical. More often than not, she's in the ranks with everyone else - lucky to make much of anything.

Location, Location Location!

The success here seems to depend on location. In NYC, Times Square might seem like a good spot. Subways, too. In Chicago, you seem to need to be near Navy Pier access or around the Art Institute, thought Water Tower Place seems a good spot. I can't comment on NYC, but in Chicago, you have to get a busking permit and your are specifically limited to where you can play or risk ticketing and arrest.

The point is, where you are trying to do this will determine how likely you are to make any money.

Busking versus Panhandling:

In discussing the blog with a friend he expressed his feelings thusly: busking is just a bit more proactive form of panhandling. In his opinion, musicians who busk cheapen themselves by going out on the street to be for money while playing.

I'm not sure I feel the same way. As mentioned above, when I've sat in with buskers, it was a lot fo fun. The few people who listened got a kick out of the ad hoc thing. Also, musicians are actually DOING something for the money. Nevertheless, if one person has thought of the parallel between busking and panhandling, so have others.

The Joshua Bell Experiment:

There was a famous "experiment" initiated by the Washington Post and Joshua Bell. He agreed to stand in the entrance to mass transit and play a $3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin for busy commuters during rush hour!!! The idea was to see if one of the world's greatest violinists playing a stunning instrument could draw any significant interest as a busker.

Here is a link to a video of the event. It is quite striking!

Here is a link to the original Washington Post article written by Gene Weingarten.

If you are curious about busking and the whole art in the air thing, the Post article is a MUST READ!! It is fascinating.

Bell played for around 43 minutes and cleared $32.17. Think about the 17 cents for a minute!

Assuming a linear progression, Bell could have made a decent nut for the whole day. However, you have to wonder how he would do during off peak hours.

In reading the article I was struck by one point that obviously stuck in Bell's craw. Most, though certainly not all, people totally ignored him. He'd finish a piece and there was no applause or even acknowledgment that he was even there!

Could There Be a Better Way in the Digital World?

I have considered busking myself - going to the City of Chicago and getting a license and setting up at one of the acceptable locations. My wife is dead set against my doing this, but for her own reasons. ;-) I'm ambivalent.

It is a given that most folks will be oblivious to me, though as a trumpeter I can demand more attention simply by being loud! That might not be GOOD attention, though. However, it might be worth the time for those precious few who appreciate ones music and show that appreciation in some way. All performing artists cherish that.

The fact of the matter, however, is that most people walking along the street are just minding their own business and are trying to get to work or home, given the time of day. They may have a lot on their minds and might not welcome the intrusion of an unexpected musical interlude demanding they focus their thoughts elsewhere. I have to question how much real validation of our performances we might get from doing this. A street musician is at least equally likely to be considered obnoxious as he or she is likely to be considered a welcome distraction.

In the end I decided I was not willing to risk that my performances would be rejected because the audience was involuntary.

As performers we ALL need to share our work and we ALL need some validation that we are touching folks in some honest and sincere effort to make their world more beautiful. We need venues. OK, the usual theaters and clubs are challenging and the subject of an upcoming blog, but bucking as an alternative sharing process is the subject at hand. What can supplant it?

I would argue that the internet has MANY channels by which we can share our music with the entire world as opposed to just one or two people at an el stop who actually stop to pay attention for a few minutes. The internet sharing process has the added advantage that your listeners CHOSE to listen to you - it was not involuntary or accidental. That adds to the appreciation component. If the listener LIKES you music, that's an added bonus. If they TELL you they like it, that's an added bonus again.

I tend to share my music via Youtube, though SoundCloud and Vimeo and other platforms are out there, too. Even if I only get a few hundred hits, I can accept the idea that MOST of those were chosen hits, so I have an audience that wants to be there.

The only thing that is missing is the live feedback of appreciation - applause or expressions of gratitude for the performance. That may be something we have to adjust to.

Digital sharing is also independent of weather or on and off peak transit hours. There are many advantages of doing things this way as opposed to setting up your gear on the steps of the Chicago Art Institute and playing away for folks who may or may not even know or care of you're there.

Live Feedback Validation versus Inferred Feedback

It has been over 20 years since this happened, but I remember the experience like it was yesterday. I was playing a church gig. The crowd was there for the service. I was noisy icing on the cake. Folks were perfectly sweet (it was church, after all). For the postlude I played the Leopold Mozart concerto in its entirety. It was a good day and the performance came off beautifully.

At one point there was gentleman who had made the point of walking over to me and just stand there STARING at me during the second movement. He had a very sour look on his face. I thought "boy, I must have really bugged him! I don't think I missed any notes, but who knows?" There was a wrinkle. As he was standing there, giving me what I thought was the "evil eye" he had tears just streaming down his face.

After I finished the piece, he came over and told me that he was a recent emigre from the Czech Republic (he had a pronounced accent). He was a classical/orchestral music lover and apparently my performance reminded him of home. In any case he was profoundly moved - moved to tears. This really touched me. As a musician, I want people to feel a sense of the love that I feel playing and sharing it. We chatted for a few minutes. I thanked him for his kid words and went home walking on clouds!

I wish I got this sort of appreciation of my work on every gig. Alas, this isn[t the way it is. Once in a while, someone will decide they like what the trumpeter did and comment to me. I'm grateful for any little bit of support. I'll never forget that Czech gentlemen, though.

With the internet, we obviously can't get that hard direct feedback like that. We have to infer our feedback from comments, contacts, number of plays and, yes, the dubious 'like' button.

Yes, I need feedback, but one thing I am very leery of are the comments. On my Youtube page, I disable all comments. I have no doubt I'd get more hits if I didn't do that, but I am quite sensitive to trolling. I don't like the fact that folks can make anonymous attacks on your work, possibly without even listening to it. Trolls just like to inflict pain and start trouble and then watch the aftermath. I don't want to enable that, so no Youtube comments.

I tend to get my feedback by playback counts. I usually share my work in moderated FB forums. Comments are allowed here, but the moderators keep most folks in line and trolls are usually caught and ejected.

The big problem for me with this inferred feedback is the fact that many listeners might just no say anything. They are either too busy or they are doing their own thing and don't' want to support anyone they might perceive of as a competitor.

This is a tiny bit frustrating. The whole internet sharing this is very much a non zero sum game. I loose NOTHING by showing support for someone else's work. They loose nothing by supporting mine. Ok, I have to concede the possibility that I might produce something NOBODY likes! That is what every artist risks when they put something out there. Regardless, the business of inferred feedback is tricky.

It is spiritually rewarding to see your viewing/listening numbers going up, particularly when your motivation is to make the world a little more beautiful, support other artists or both.

Concluding Remarks:

Busking can be a fun way of sharing music with minimal expenses (you don't have to rent a hall, for example). If you can make a little money by leaving an open case somewhere, all the better. Just beware the possible parallel between busking and begging.

As a possible alternative, set up a web page (Wix and Squarespace are good resources), open a Youtube account, open a Soundcloud account, etc... Start recording your music by ANY MEANS POSSIBLE. You can get acceptable results with a smartphone and a Shure stereo mic. Start uploading your work online.

The whole monetization thing with online sharing is very tricky! People have to like your work enough to be willing to kick in a few bucks. I'm still sorting this out. More ideas along those lines to follow.

That's it for the blog post.

Respectfully submitted:

Nick Drozdoff

PS: Please, PLEASE support my podcast: "Duets From The Trenches: Musicians You Should Know." There are some wonderful stories and great music to be heard there from lesser know musicians of significant accomplishment.

Here is the Soundcloud link to the latest show as of this writing:

Please subscribe and share the pod around as much as possible. I really need your support.

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