Busking 101: How to Be a (Successful) Street Musician

Carytown in Richmond, VA. A popular place in Richmond for street musicians. Source: https://www.carytownrva.com/images/carytown-panorama.jpg

Carytown in Richmond, VA. A popular place in Richmond for street musicians. Source: https://www.carytownrva.com/images/carytown-panorama.jpg

Street musicians are something we come across all the time when walking through a city. Whether ragged and homeless looking or polished and professional, or anything in between, Richmond has its own slew of street musicians, or buskers. But playing music on the street with a bucket or guitar case open doesn’t guarantee success. What then goes into a successful street artist?

It starts by picking the right spot. The more people around, obviously the greater chances of someone hearing you and pitching in a couple dollars of support. But sometimes this means going to a new city entirely to be more profitable. As Samantha Pearl views street performing as a business, and structures her time and energy as such. Pearl says she regularly commutes to Washington, D.C. where she makes more money outside the White House, enough to offset her travel expenses there as well. Some cities have restrictions though. While it is legal in Richmond to play on the street, so long as you do not block walkways or businesses, in LA and New York City there are specific areas for street musicians to play to control loitering, but this has sometimes killed the music scene, Pearl says.

The musical sub-culture is another thing to consider. Every city has a different vibe and level of respect for musicians and every city has different neighborhoods that create other layers of culture. Pearl says that New Orleans is a favorite of hers because the culture is to tip artists and respect musicians, even in the streets. She says this is different from here in Richmond where usually poor folk take advantage of Cary Street, Richmond’s popular neighborhood full of local restaurants where people are always walking about on weekends. When asked about street musicians and their dispersal throughout Carytown, the Richmond City Police Department declined to provide an opinion comment.

One must also keep in mind where other musicians are located, as this could signal where people are willing to pay, but it also means you can’t get too close out of respect for them and so that your music doesn’t clash with theirs. Pearl says that it’s all about respect and communication among other musicians. For example, if someone is playing too close to her, she asks them to move down a block or two. She says that their sounds will clash otherwise and then no one, neither street artist nor passerby, will benefit.

Another important factor is the time of day. A San Francisco-based band, The Dirty Little Blondes, says they play almost exclusively from Friday to Sunday, usually in the evening. On their worst Monday afternoon, they made only $3 in two hours whereas they could make $98 in two hours on a “bad” Friday night, if money made is an indicator of success. They say their favorite spot is a crosswalk which grants at least 20 seconds of a captive audience”.

Pearl aims to be efficient in her time spent performing, even though she loves it. She finds venues and spots where she could make the most money after trial and error, getting to know owners and police officers in the process. She also combines her other passions of cooking and modeling to make money when not performing to ensure a steady income. The Dirty Little Blondes say they can’t work 40 hours per week and expect to have a steady income stream, but rather have to take advantage of peak hours, especially because their voices, hands, and energy levels can’t last more than a couple hours without compromising the quality of their performance.

So what does this mean for office workers who want to ditch their 9-5 schedule and live a carefree life of a street musician? It means that their life won’t exactly be carefree if they want to keep a steady income. Street musicians must have as much strategy as office workers off the streets.