How I Became A Professional Beatbusker
Have you ever been walking leisurely down the sidewalk in a large metropolitan city, turned a corner, and suddenly found yourself assaulted by the wrong end if a slide trombone spewing out wretched low brass versions of Harder To Breathe (Maroon Five), Can’t Stop The Feeling (Justin Timberlake), or Eat It (not the Michael Jackson original of “Beat It” – but the “Weird Al” Yankovic version… on trombone… in your face.)? Well, then you have had the pleasure of experiencing a “busker.”
The term busking arrived in its English form sometime during the 1860’s. To “busk” is rooted in the Spanish language. Buscar means “to seek”….cash. But we can trace the full history of busking all the way back to minstrels of the 12th and 13th century. Busking in the middle ages was much more difficult than it is now. With the infusion of different coins from China and Japan introduced into the international economy, people (especially buskers), never knew what was being thrown into their cases or buckets by passers-by. Infusion confusion, if you will. Buskers often stopped performing when a coin was thrown their way, just to check out which kind of coin it was. In an ironic twist, many buskers found that people gave more coins when they stopped performing as opposed to when they were performing! I’m pretty sure this is how street mimes got their start. By the latter half of the 16th century, everybody was so damn confused about what counted as money and what didn’t, buskers were often handed a bag of rice or a chicken rather than money.
But many people today don’t realize that buskers are not just musicians! The acceptable mediums for any street performer have expanded greatly! These days, if you have a plastic bucket and a cute puppy, you’re good to go! For those of us who have lived in large cities and walked the streets seeing the same buskers day after day, it’s also noted that expectation for a complete repertoire of a busker is one. One song. One magic trick. One juggling act. Some actually get by with less than one! It didn’t take long for some buskers to realize that people in the city walk pretty darn fast! By the time they were out of earshot or sight, there really was no need to finish any performance. For those buskers who gathered a crowd, there was usually an attempt to take a break in the middle of the performance so as not to reveal their lack of a full performance. In fact, engaging with the crowd reaped its own reward! Buskers found if they were funny or interesting or carried an exposed weapon, crowds gave money anyway! That’s what I call a win-win!
Of course, some people started to catch on, so buskers began to muster up more sophisticated techniques; like placing the hula-hoop around the “over-stayer” and giving them the spotlight for a short time. As with every sub-group of people, there is usually a criminal hidden among the honorable. History notes that “some” buskers used the hula-hoop trick to take the money rather than earn it. Hold your purse while you shimmy your hips? No problem! Take a picture with me and my plastic bucket? Sure! Click – that will be$5 ma’am.
Buskers, in general, though, are adored by most around the world. There were and are exceptions. According to “Busking For Dummies,” Charles Dickens, the beloved author of A Christmas Carol and other Hallmark-Channel sponsored works, was not a fan of buskers. Dickens once wrote, that he was “daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, and driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Notice he singled out musician buskers… just sayin’. Well excuuuuse me Mr. Dickens, but maybe you could’ve taken your “Pickwick Papers” and “David Copperfield’s” and Oliver-twisted your butt to another city! You missed your opportunity, buddy! “A Tale of Two Cities?” Ha! That COULD have been “A Tale of Three Cities!” Can’t win em’ all writer-boy! Now fetch me my trombone slide grease!
The truth is, Dickens had a good point. In the 19th century, there were more than 1,000 organ-grinders busking in London. That’s just criminal. And eventually, it was. Busking in London is still forbidden under the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839. But There’s a documentary explaining a conspiracy theory that it was Dicken’s who was behind all of that. Check Netflix. I’m not so sure of that. Laws against buskers making it a crime to sing about or make parodies of the government in public date back to Rome in 462BC. Also, Henry VIII ordered buskers to pay to get a license before they could perform and not get paid. The punishment for non-compliance was 30 consecutive days of listening to 4th-grade french horn players practice. Harsh. Actually, they were given the option between that or being whipped. Most offenders chose to be whipped.
Now I know most of you who are reading this are thinking why is this story titled “How I Became A Beatbusker.” Your endless interest and thirst for details about my personal life are appreciated, so let me quench that thirst.
Years ago I was poor. Let me rephrase that. Years ago I was poorer. I hadn’t yet reaped the monetary rewards for becoming a music teacher. I knew the day would eventually come where I would be a teacher and attain my long-sought-after status of “just under middle class.” So I did what any half-drunk entrepreneurial trombone player would do in the interim. I BECAME A BUSKER!
It’s cold in Minneapolis in January, but I had more determination than brains. I set up shop on the corner of Nicolette Avenue and Hennepin, where I could use my binoculars to get a good view of all the experienced buskers cashing in on the crowds leaving the Metrodome after a game. That was the first of many lessons learned. The next day I confidently marched right up to the Metrodome, trombone in hand, and strategically arrived early and set up at the main entrance. But is was Monday and there was no game. Lesson two learned – check.
I decided if I were going to have any success at all at this, I needed some experienced advice. So I tracked down some of the most experienced buskers I knew, and sure enough, they all graciously gave me the exact same advice – PLAY IN THE SUBWAY TUNNEL! Yes! Of course, why didn’t I think of that?! After three days of walking the city from end to end, I came to the realization that Minneapolis doesn’t have a subway tunnel. “Bastards!” I thought (and yelled). But the more I thought about it, the worse I felt. They might have been bastards, who knows for sure? But a busker who’s a bastard is still a brother busker. So I quickly forgave my fellow busker brother bastards and assumed I must have misunderstood.
I thought and I thought and I thought some more. What was I missing? And then it hit me. I did misunderstand! They meant Subway, not subway! You know – the restaurant with the spokesperson who, well …nevermind. Of course! The perfect demographic for the budding busker I was! “Eat Fresh, Listen Loud!”
The employees tolerated my playing for about 20 minutes before sending me on my way with a complimentary Cold Cut Combo and a Coke. Cool, I thought, I just got paid for being a busker!
After that, I dedicated my life to traveling everywhere and learning everything I possibly could about busking. I went to cities that actually had subway tunnels and those guys were right! Awesome acoustics! I wasn’t raking it in like I thought I would, though, and sometimes busking in a subway tunnel can be lonely… and dangerous.
I tried everything I could to improve revenue. I learned two songs (the whole songs!) and once even convinced some volunteer background singers to “Vegasize” my act! They were awesome and man could they dance! They seemed to be worse off than I was because they wore even less clothing than I did! But they sure drew in the crowds. Men mostly. And it wasn’t long before each of them had abandoned me by leaving with some of those men. I never saw them again.
I learned that trombone busking is very competitive, as is any kind of busking. I also learned that when you’re down and out you start to recognize talents that you never knew you had! Even talents that aren’t actually, well…talents! Once, I borrowed a buddy’s dog that was trained to sleep on his back upside down on command. (I think the dog actually had narcolepsy in an advanced stage), but the dog ended up making more money than I ever did! I was on to something, though. Talent is directly proportionate to how poor you are. The more talent you have, the poorer you are.
Busking, I came to realize, is more about being in the right place at the right time. For instance, I learned that Small-Town USA offers little profit, but many photo opportunities. I’m literally talking about Small-Town USA, which was used in the filming of the then popular TV program, The Muppets Show. Small-Town USA was a back lot at Warner Bros. in Burbank, California; a fictional town which represented an image of a “Norman Rockwell-ish” ideal of classic small-town Midwest America. Believe me, small towns in Midwest America don’t have near the security as the back lot at Warner Bros. The risk of getting by security alone was enough to make a guy consider un-busking forever! But the real problem was that, as a busker, you fit in! Everybody walking around looks as “interesting” as every busker I’ve ever known! I made zero dollars. They all thought I was a union musician or an actor of some kind and figured my check was in the mail!
I’m proud, I think, to share as a former high school band director that throughout my travels I’ve met many of my former band students who became buskers. Many tried to recruit me to help them out, but I knew better. Buskers I knew took their 90% cut straight off the top and promised you your 10% next week. Besides, most of them haven’t improved much beyond high school and I often suggested that they paint themselves in gold or silver and try mannequin poses, where I thought they’d have better luck. For those that I swindled, err…helped, I ended up getting some great deals purchasing their instrument!
I’ve had many buskers find out that I actually knew how to play and ask for advice. M y advice has been pretty consistent over the years, and I’m happy to share them here if you are itching for a career in busking:
1 – Walk around the city for a day and find out where the Andean Pan Pipe and Pipe Flute buskers are set up. If they have a canopy complete with a cash register and are selling their instruments and CDs. Watch them carefully. Notice how most of them are really good looking people who never sleep (that’s what living in an Andean coffee-producing comfort will do to you). If they include Elton John’s “The One,” Simon & Garfunkel’s version of “El condor Pasa,” or Tina Turner’s “Look Me in the Heart” in their set list, you’ve got a problem, especially if they are using an amplification system. If all of those things exist, or even if one of them exists, head directly to the other side of the city. Nobody can compete with beautiful women and handsome men loaded with coffee with cash registers and amplification systems. First, their speakers drown out all other buskers in a 3-mile radius. Second, their caffeine induced stamina means they never stop playing. Third, they probably aren’t real buskers and most likely actually paid for a permit or were hired by the city or a business. Believe me, on the other side of town, you’re more of a novelty.
2 – Do everything you possibly can to distract from your playing. Dress up in wild colorful outfits, paint your face like a clown, pretend you know another language or no language at all. This is all sensible advice that every experience busker knows. For the majority of buskers, busking is 90% illusion and 10% salesmanship.
3 – Number three is a big one! Never forget to put out your case or bucket to collect cash and coins from passers-by. One hot summer day in Boston I played for 12 hours in a row, and I started to develop a chip on my shoulder about Bostonians, thinking they were cheap stingy rats. When I finally had had enough, I started packing my stuff up and realized I hadn’t put anything out to collect money! Always put your container out!
4 – Don’t work in groups, unless it’s really late at night in a bad area of town. Safety first.
5 – When you’re working alone, always play the melody, not the harmonies unless you’re playing the didgeridoo. Then play both.
6 – The trombone, as cool as it is, is not the perfect instrument for music busking. Any experienced busker will tell you that you should never play anything larger than a piccolo. That means no alpine horns, string basses, or harps. Don’t get me wrong. Some people will throw you a buck on a hot day out of sympathy. But whatever cash you earn will never cover the medical costs of back surgery. *There is one exception to this rule, however. If you are homeless and you can play an instrument that doubles as a small one/room New-York-City-style efficiency apartment, by all means, use that! But don’t expect anybody who’s not driving a Hummer to give you a ride anywhere. It’s a trade-off. I know a really short skinny guy once played the tuba like a madman. At the end of the day, he simply tipped his tuba sideways and crawled right up inside the bell for a good nights rest, safe from the elements. That worked great for him for more than a year, until one night somebody stole his tuba with him inside. I haven’t seen him since.
7 – Engage in dialogue with people. It will give your chops a break and let’s face it, that’s just great marketing and good customer service. There is an exception. If the police come to remove or arrest you, exercise your right to remain silent. Unless you’re very cold and need a place to stay for the night – then talk away!
So there you go, friends. I was a busker! And now I’m a freelance writer (among other things). Being a “freelance” anything is a lot like busking. You put your talent out there and hope somebody throws you some money in return for a good performance! Where does “beat” come from in Beatbusker? “Beat” is always associated with rhythm. And I’ve always had a good sense of rhythm. There is a rhythm to each of our lives, a consistent pulse that may speed up or slow down at times, but as long as we know our rhythm and walk in the purpose of that rhythm, we can be anything we want and accomplish the impossible. That’s why I am a “BeatBbusker.”
Now, in closing, allow me to straighten out a few stereotypes about people who really are or were buskers because they are not very often what most people think. Many are not wealthy, but that doesn’t mean they are homeless. When you hear or see a busker doing their thing, try to stop and take it in if you can. Many buskers are pouring their heart and soul out to you and for you… for nickels. Some want to be discovered, but most just want to share and be appreciated. Did you know, thanks to YouTube and similar online platforms, that buskers now provide more than 100,000 hours of music, for free, online every year?
And talent? You better believe it! I have heard or watched buskers who are talented far beyond the popular performers or entertainers who are celebrities in their medium. If you doubt that, let me reassure you by offering you a short list of performers you may know who were once buskers:
I will leave you with this true story, my friends. In 2007, commuters on the Washington Metro Line went about their day as planned, which included, as usual, a busker or two performing in various locations. Little did anyone know, one of those buskers was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s great violin soloists. Bell was a plant for an experiment set up by the Washington Post. No tux, no fancy orchestra hall, just Bell in a baseball cap and a T-shirt. For about 45 minutes, he performed one of the most known and difficult pieces in violin repertoire – Bach’s D minor. Understand if you don’t know Joshua Bell or listen to classical music, that if this Bell was an Olympic athlete, he would be the gold standard, by far, in his event.
1,097 passers-by came and went (only one actually recognized him). Seven of those 1,097 stopped to listen. And the grand total of donations, other than the twenty dollars the guy who recognized gave, was $32.17. Bell was playing on his violin valued at about $2 million dollars.
~ Billy Soden
Writer, Musician, and Beatbusker