Are you a singer or musician looking to fill some time and earn a bit of cash in between gigs? Trying to actively connect with new fans? Or maybe you just want to try something new and exciting? Then busking is for you!
Buskers have travelled all over England for centuries, to varying degrees of success, and have been adopted as part of the British way of life. You’d be hard pressed to walk around any given city centre in this country and not hear the singing, strumming or mouth-organing of a passing troubadour.
You may well ask: where can busking get me that indoor gigs, open mics and functions can’t? Well, you might want to ask Ed Sheeran, Passenger or Tracy Chapman, all of whom started out as buskers and went on to achieve global fame – you never know who’s going to walk past you!
So let’s get you ready to take your singing to the mean streets! But first of all…
What is busking?
Busking is a popular form of street performance where one or more musicians play music for passers by, usually with a view to receiving tips. The word ‘busker’ has its origins in Spain – the Spanish word ‘buscar’ translates to ‘look for’ or ‘seek’, and carries with it the notion of a traveller who’ll be here today and gone tomorrow, hopefully leaving behind a lasting musical impression and taking with them a pocketful of earnings.
Busking is in itself an entirely legal act for performers aged 14 and over, but there are some places where busking is either inadvisable, impossible, or even illegal.
Top 10 Busking Tips
To help you pick your best busking spot, or ‘pitch’, and to ensure you have the best busking experience possible, we’ve arranged our best advice into these 10 top tips.
1. Expand your repertoire
We’ll start by stating the obvious: if you only know how to play a couple of songs, you’re not yet ready to busk.
You don’t want to sound like a broken record to your audiences – make sure you have at least an hour’s worth of material prepared before you hit the street corner. This is particularly important if your pitch is near a shop, office or other place of work – the employees aren’t going to appreciate being serenaded with the same three songs ten times in a row!
If you get to the stage where you’re having to repeat yourself, it’s probably time to call it a day – it’s much better to leave on a high note!
2. Pack your gig bags
If you’ve brought your guitar with you, chances are you packed it in a gig bag or carry case to make it easier to transport. Before you head out, make sure you’ve assembled your guitar ‘first aid kit’ of spare picks, new strings, string cutter, tuner, guitar neck oil and anything else you think you might need to keep your axe up to scratch.
The same goes for street saxophonists – if you’re tooting away on your saxophone, oboe or clarinet for an hour, make sure you have a cleaning cloth and an emergency replacement reed handy so you can deal with the excess moisture.
Think carefully about whether you’ll need a stand for your instrument, and remember to bring a music stand if you need to read from a lyric sheet (though we think memorising your lyrics is always the way forward – you’ll come across as much more engaging if you haven’t got your nose in a book – plus there’s much less to carry!).
3. Bring supplies
Aside from supplies of the musical variety, you’ll want to bring a few more items with you to ensure your comfort. Think about bringing a coat in case the sun goes in, and consider bringing along your own stool or chair too – it can get awfully cold and painful sitting on concrete for any longer than necessary, believe us!
And now for the other kind of supplies – edible supplies! If you’re gearing up for a hard day’s busk, you’re going to need to refuel your tank, so make sure you’ve got a bottle of water and an apple or similar snack. Take it from us: if you want to sing well for a sustained period, lay off the dairy – it won’t do your voice any favours!
4. Pick the right location
There are 3 main things to take into account when choosing the perfect pitch: visibility, security and proximity.
- Visibility: pick a site where you can be seen and heard clearly by the maximum amount of punters – aim for pedestrian areas. If members of the public can see and hear you from a distance (providing they like what they see and hear!), this will give them more opportunity to rummage for change in their pockets as they approach.
- Security: make sure that you’ll be safe for the duration of your set. Take a look at the weather forecast to determine whether you’d be better off shaded from sunburn or sheltered from a shower. You also need to be careful to pick a very public place for your pitch – not only so your music reaches more ears, but also to keep you out of harm’s way.
- Proximity: position yourself far enough away from the next busker. You’ll both benefit from this arrangement – you won’t drown each other’s performances out, people won’t have to hear a weird hybrid of your cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ and your neighbour’s cover of George Ezra’s ‘Budapest’, and you won’t have saturated the market – namely, people won’t think that they don’t have to pay you because they’ve already done their bit by paying the previous busker.
Furthermore, you don’t want to outstay your welcome, particularly if you’ve happened upon a particularly sweet spot. It’s only fair for you to give up your spot after an amount of time to give another busker a shot.
You should also think about places where you’re not actually allowed to busk. Many cities have ‘no busk zones’ and other restrictions in place, both for your own safety and to keep the public happy.
5. Pick the right time
Timing is, as they say, everything, and this is also true of busking.
The best times of year to busk are the times when the most people are off work – which are invariably the school holidays, particularly the summer holiday. Think about it – both the pupils and the teachers will be out of school, plus the sun will be shining, so there’ll be a major increase in footfall for a full 6 weeks.
The best time of the week is, as you can imagine, the weekend. Busy Saturdays will see more members of the public walking past your pitch as they rush around the shops, and although lazy Sundays will likely see less traffic, everyone will have more time on their hands – which they’ll hopefully spend listening to you!
The best times of day to busk are usually lunchtimes, as workers often visit the city centre to buy their lunches – you never know, that loose change they’ve got leftover from buying their Pret baguette might end up in your cap!
6. Self promote before, during and after
In the music industry, nothing beats a shameless self-plug every now and then – after all, who’s better qualified to sing your praises than you are?
At the very least, you should set up a Facebook page, a Twitter account and an Instagram account dedicated to your music. These are all free to sign up to, and the exposure they’ll give you as an artist is priceless – for every like, follow and share you receive as a result of winning one person over with your busking abilities, you’ll automatically be exposed to all their friends and followers too. Learn more about how to promote your music online.
You should also consider printing out business cards to hand out to people when you’re out busking – these can feature your artist name, your social media handles and your email address. This is a good way to start or build your mailing list, which is still the preferred way to keep your loyal fans updated on your upcoming shows as well as offer them exclusive rewards and giveaways.
7. Don’t ‘ask’ for money
Technically, you’re not allowed to ask for money while you’re busking, as this would be seen by the authorities as a form of begging. But, as we’re sure you’ve seen, people still do give buskers cash – but this is possible because that transaction is in fact a ‘voluntary donation’.
It’s a common loophole you can easily slip through as long as you make it clear that voluntary donations are welcome, but you’re not actively asking bystanders to contribute. The easiest way to achieve this is to make a sign which says something along the lines of ‘any contributions are voluntary and made at your discretion.’
A common money-spinning tactic employed by buskers is to pre-line their hat or case with money, a practice known as ‘salting’. The thinking behind this is: they’ll will be more likely to drop a few coins into your hat or case if they think everyone else has already been doing it.
8. Keep your volume levels in check
It’s easy, especially if your performance is going well, to give into temptation and amp things up – literally. But out on the streets, this decision isn’t really yours to make.
Firstly, there’s a mutual respect between fellow buskers – you don’t want to make enemies out of potential allies. As we mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to position yourself some distance away from the next busker so you’re not competing for the public’s attention.
If you’re respectful of your neighbouring busker, they’re more likely to give you useful tips to bring you greater success next time you go out. One such tip may be: louder doesn’t necessarily equal better.
Secondly, you don’t want your music to disrupt other people who are working nearby – there could be meetings, sales pitches, seminars and all sorts going on in the building you’re sat in front of while you sing your heart out.
Several councils advise that a busker’s music should not be possible to hear from a distance of fifty metres – and for some, this is actually an enforceable rule. Get yourself informed and make sure you follow the local loudness regulations, but also spare a thought for all the employees cooped up in their offices who don’t have the option of politely walking away!
9. Put on a brave face
There’s no use beating around the bush here – if you go out busking, it’s entirely possible you’ll get heckled, abused, or even robbed.
Do not – we repeat, DO NOT – attempt to confront someone who is acting towards you in an aggressive manner, or chase down the person who swiped your change or stole your equipment. This puts you in unnecessary danger and should instead be reported to the police.
It’s understandable that if, heaven forbid, something like this happened to you, it would be enough to put you off busking for good.
We say – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! If you keep practising something you find difficult or uncomfortable, you’re far more likely to overcome it than you would be by avoiding it.
Particularly if you want to pursue a career in musical performance, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with hecklers eventually, and you’ll feel so much more empowered once you’ve done this successfully.
If you know you’ve got a quality act which you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into, you deserve to showcase it, and most people will enjoy it if you perform with confidence. The majority are far more likely to side with you, an innocent entertainer who’s just come to do their job, than a random nay-sayer with nothing better to do – so your best bet is to follow the old British motto: keep calm and carry on.
10. Grow as a musician
There’s not much that busking can’t teach you about being a good performer. Consider it a crash course in music performance!
Here are some of the best skills singers and musicians develop whilst busking:
- Stamina – if you’re not used to performing for an extended period of time, or have grown too accustomed to the standard 3 song limit at open mic nights, then busking for an hour may be challenging at first. However, after a few goes, you’ll know exactly what to expect – and a headline slot at your local live music venue will be a breeze by comparison.
- Stage presence – any performer will tell you there’s a huge difference between a performance and a recital. When you’re out there vying for the attention of passers by who are just trying to go about their own business, you’ll quickly learn that you can’t just play a song correctly – you have to put everything you’ve got into it to turn people’s heads.
- Audience reaction – if you’re onstage, you might not be able to gauge quite so well how the crowd’s responding, what with all the feedback from the amps and the blinding lights. If you’re on the street, you’ll be able to see exactly what your audiences think from the looks on their faces – so take note of which songs light them up, and which turn them sour!
Do I need a licence to busk?
Before we reply to your question, let us ask you another one: where are you planning to busk? Because our answer very much depends on your location!
The short answer is: in general, no, but in some places, yes. The best way to find out whether you need a busker’s licence to busk in your chosen area in the UK is to find your local council and either check their website or contact them.
If it turns out you do need a licence to busk in your chosen town or city, you’ll either need to contact the council to obtain one, or you may even be able to apply via their website. You’ll likely need to share your contact details and national insurance number, so make sure you have this information readily available when you fill in your application.
Once you’ve received your busking licence, make sure you remember to bring it with you and display it while you play.
Even if you don’t need a busking licence, it’s important that you read up on what the local laws and byelaws state regarding busking – you’re there to make music, not to break rules.
You can easily find your local council by typing your postcode into the government website (https://www.gov.uk/find-local-council), but here’s a quick round-up of some of the UK’s major busking destinations, plus links to their respective council webpages, to get you started:
Can I sell CDs while I’m busking?
The above applies to CDs as well – you can happily accept donations, but you can’t technically sell someone a CD without a street trading licence. You can apply for Street Trading Consent with your local council, although fees are often £10-£15 or more per day which is often not within budget for a first-time busker.
That aside, bringing along copies of your EP is a great way to gain more exposure and win over more fans – especially if you’ve written and recorded your own original material – so definitely give it a go.
Are all buskers acoustic?
It’s common and far easier to show up with nothing but a guitar or saxophone in hand – and, as you (and your long-suffering family) will know by now, those instruments are plenty loud enough without the aid of amplification!
There are, however, several amps on the market aimed specifically at buskers. These are often designed for keeping your acoustic guitar’s natural tone intact, and many also feature additional channels, meaning you can also plug in a microphone so you bring your vocals up to the necessary volume.
A word to the wise – amplified music, as well as drums, is a step beyond regular busking, and may even be a step too far in the eyes and ears of some councils. You don’t want to be accused of being a public nuisance!
Busking Guidelines in Your City
No licence necessary – as long as you’re respectful of those around you and aren’t causing any risk or obstruction, you can set up to busk wherever you like in Birmingham.
Busking in Bristol is no issue – providing that you follow their guidance. For example, buskers are asked to perform only within the hours of 10am and 11pm.
You won’t need a licence to busk in Cambridge, but if you’re asked to turn your volume down, you’d better do so – otherwise you might get reported to the council. Also, watch out for those bikes!
The city of Leeds welcomes performers in all shapes and forms, and you won’t need a licence to play there. They do however ask that you follow their code of conduct – which includes keeping 20 metres away from street vendors
You’re more than welcome to let your guitar gently weep – without a licence – when you visit the birthplace of the Beatles.
It’s a bit more complicated to busk in the UK capital – it’s the number one busking hotspot, so as well as requiring a licence, you may also be in for a bit of a wait to receive one, as the organisations who give them out will be inundated with applications. Here are the most sought after pitches for London buskers:
London Underground – over 3 million people use the tube daily, and the folks at Transport for London have permanently marked on the ground where buskers should situate themselves for maximum exposure.
Covent Garden – the home of England’s favourite street performers since the 1600’s. You need to audition to gain a spot in Covent Garden, but if you manage to get one, you’ll be living in a Busker’s Paradise.
Camden – London’s bustling culture hub. You need a licence to busk in Camden, but once you’ve got one, you’re free to perform pretty much anywhere that isn’t the entrance of the tube station.
Just like Oasis before you, tonight you could be a rock ‘n’ roll star in Manchester. You don’t need a licence if you want to busk, but you will be expected to follow the Code of Conduct – keep away from the tram tracks!
No licence is needed to go busking in Newcastle – the city actively encourages street performers. However, busking outside the hours of 9am and 6pm is actively discouraged – and drumming is discouraged, whatever time of day it is.
Norwich City Council don’t license busking – but they do ask that you keep it clean and at a reasonable volume out of respect for passers by and neighbouring street traders.
You will need to apply for a busker permit to perform in Swansea city centre – and you’ll also need to be 16 or over to obtain one.
We hope this information helps give you more of an idea of what to expect as you embark on your first busking adventure – now all that’s left for you to do is get yourself out there!