why i think busking is cool
every now and then, i play on the street. it's pretty fun thing to do.
one of the cool things about it, if you do a fair amount of regular gigs in a year, and record your own music and stuff and practice and take lessons and all that, usually when you open the instrument case, there's a reason for it. so, to just take a banjo and go stand down on the corner and pick for God is really cool. it's not really a money thing, sometimes i don't even put a hat or box or whatever out there, and just play and in the middle of a song when someone is trying to put a dollar somewhere i just shake my head no. sometimes i do put a box out or receptacle of some kind. depends on the mood.
if you have an acoustic instrument, being able to do this is a real blessing. mostly to yourself rather than the public, they don't really care and just walk by or avoid you. mark graham told me about playing the harmonica on the street corner right outside the ferry terminal where i was to pick him up, he said that folks were crossing the street to get away from him. he could be the greatest harmonica player alive right now and one of the best acoustic music songwriters on the planet. but he got in the truck laughing about the whole thing.
i think it's a good idea to dish out some grace to folks. "here's some free art that i've devoted my life to developing, have some with your coffee as you go off to work." i think if you can play a guitar or something [especially the banjo!] pretty good and you stand there and smile, you can bless quite a few people. the blessing may at first seem like a troubling. sometimes you can see it in their eyes, "why is this grown man standing here in the middle of the day playing the #$%^% banjo?! and enjoying it on top of that! he should be killing himself on a dead end job for an ungrateful family like me." or something. not always but you can get that hostile vibe. maybe you would want to pick a better location. the mobility is one of the benefits. but i can't help thinking that i have planted the seed of beauty in someone's mind. sometimes the seed falls on rocks and sometimes it falls on fertile soil. but our job is to cast the seed about.
what i'm trying to suggest to folks via the busking, is to not forget to put your investment in the eternal things, not just the worldly stuff that will surely pass away. so i stand there and play the banjo and laugh.
here are some various observations on the subject of playing in the street:
this doesn't really happen where i personally live [in an area so remote there really isn't a music scene], but in some of the towns i visit, especially ...ahem..."music" towns, there can exist a bit of a collective wail from the folks trying to make a living via the musical arts. what has been revealed to me, is that we get the grace we give out. so, if you want folks to come to your shows or appreciate your art, why not make their day better and just give it away and bless them for it. if we sit around and stew on what we don't get, guess what, we get even less. i would suggest grace, give it away for free and smile and have fun. if your music doesn't bless folks or make them laugh or feel something or otherwise enjoy life more, maybe you need to go back to the drawing board. maybe what you are offering up doesn't taste that good. instead of working on the promo kit, lining up the gig, doing the press release, calling all your friends and all the other hundreds of tasks we can do for a single show, why not just go out on the main drag and start whomping it and see what the reaction is? that way you're just focusing on the music itself rather than the packaging. if you get the music where you want it, you win.
in busking, the hassle factor is zero and if things get weird you quit. there is no club owner to tell you "hey you are supposed to play till so and so time."
recently a friend sent an email about a new acoustic venue that opened up in a town about forty miles from me. so i thought, better investigate this, i'm always on the lookout for a good room to work in. so i read on the venue website in big letters "we don't pay the musicians, the audience's tips are how they get paid." as if this were some kind of philosophy to brag about. and i'm thinking....wow, why would i want to make an appointment to busk? if i want to draw a crowd with my banjo and songs, i can do that out of the back of my truck anytime i want to. and so can you, dear reader. i was just in nashville working some shows and i walked down there on broadway where all those bands play non-stop [they don't even stop to go the restroom, they just keep playing the whole time] working for tips. you can luck out and see some really great players down there sometimes....but man the parking hassle, the indifferent public, the requests for devil went down to georgia, the drunks, the bossy club owners....why bother with this? why not just play in the street! the terms are way better. and the sound is better.
and probably the money is better.
i guess folks think that if you play in the street you are a loser or something. that's what's so cool about the whole thing. you can do whatever you want. there are no expectations.
the reality is if you don't do this you are losing out.
it's one more instance of how conventional wisdom will leave you in the dark.
if a person can throw it down in the street, they will be able to do it in a venue. it will make you much stronger to be able to do a good busk. things to watch out for:
a. singing too loudly.
b. playing too hard, with no technique.
even though these things can be cool, if you get locked into these modalities, you might be sorry later. i just work at the volume at which i prefer to work and let the passerby deal with it or not.
one suggestion, there are some really great street performer amps available, battery powered, really loud, mic inputs, FX all kinds of stuff. and they are cheap. if you don't sing very loud, maybe get one of those. don't wreck your voice. unless you want to. that can sound cool too.
busking is also kind of like skateboarding in that sometimes there are laws against it. best to check on that.
i recall an instance traveling with the bad livers. we arrived at a venue and found the owner quite grumpy and unworkable. we refused to play in the venue and just played on the sidewalk. it was really funny to look inside through the big plate glass window into an empty venue, we had a crowd out front that was buying cds and enjoying the band and tossing money in a violin case. we just played and had fun and it was great. chalk one up for the musicians. we started when we wanted, we stopped when we wanted and the sound was excellent. another time, we were doing a showcase for a label in boston and the power went out. so we just played anyways. it was great. they had candles on the tables and we just picked church picnic style. everybody wins.
i recall being on the road as a sideman for a different band. they were great musicians and had won some awards and had great resumes and stuff. this job we were supposed to do got weird. i suggested "hey why don't we just go and play on the sidewalk!" they looked at me like i was insane haha! instead we went ahead and played a situation where the venue had us nailed financially and the context was all messed up. dude, pack up and take it to the street, it'll be fun. throw the musical knuckleball!
here is an interesting link:
in the story a great violinist takes a great violin into the metro in dc and plays some of his most challenging pieces. incognito. what happens?
the article is worth reading if this subject interests you.
here is a quote:
"Actually," Bell said with a laugh, "that's not so bad, considering. That's 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn't have to pay an agent."
i think it would be a better idea to busk than to play in an inhospitable venue. or to do any gig that you don't feel really good about. hey why not do your own concert series at your house? on in some place that you discover?
i've seen some really cool stuff out there in my years of moving around, guys doing some far out stuff.
go play where you are wanted or where there is a good context for it. or just play in the street. no need to keep doing something that isn't working out. maybe God is trying to tell you something.
musicians are creative people, get creative.
i take great solace in knowing that if things get really bad for me, i can stand there and play the banjo and make enough to get something to eat on. or actual foodstuffs, i have been given lots of homemade bread, pies, jams, all kinds of stuff for just standing there playing random banjo stuff. singing my weird songs. man this is a good deal. every musician can partake of this.