Busking With a Harp! How not to annoy people.
N.B. This is quite specific to my experiences in Cardiff, Wales.
I’ve been busking regularly for four years in February and this week I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt over the years for those wanting to try it!
For Perfect Busking you will need
- Instrument/talent (kind of important)
- Stool (if you plan on sitting down)
- Amplification (If you are using it, in Cardiff you don’t need to but if you’re going to be competing with cars and traffic then it is recommended)
- Box or ‘Hat’ (not a real ‘hat’, use an instrument case as it won’t blow away in strong winds)
- Water (important)
- Umbrella (because this is the UK and rain can sneak up on you)
- Gloves and Warm Clothes in the winter
- Sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat in summer!
Finding a Pitch
A ‘Pitch’ is a spot to busk… easy!
You want to look for somewhere quiet with the suitable amount of foot traffic to suit your style, if you are using a lot of amplification and are standing up and moving around a lot then choose somewhere with a lot of foot traffic, if you are taking it easy and not using amplification then pick a location with ample but calm foot traffic. In Cardiff, I choose to busk around the Hayes area as it is usually a lot quieter and the acoustic is nicer as well the demographic being different to Queen Street. On the main high street (Queen Street) there is a lot more foot traffic, because of all the ‘necessities’ shops, Primark, Banks, Boots etc, which means most people are going down the street for specific things and so it has a faster pace. Whereas, in the other streets, (Working Street, The Hayes, St Mary’s Street) there are more cafés and a less hurried attitude. There are also fewer Charity Muggers.
You should aim to match the style of street to your style of performance. If you’re a quiet instrument, don’t go down the main street because you won’t be heard and people won’t notice you. If you are a loud performer and you go down a very quiet street then you will be too overpowering and the general public will find it irritating. A lot of people have come up to me to tell me how nice it is that I’m not amplified. It’s Something to bear in mind!
The official ‘Buskers Code of Conduct’ states that you should perform for one hour then change spots. Buskers in Cardiff do not do this because half of us are very lazy and the other half don’t know this is the guideline. The accordion players sit and play random notes from 9am till 4pm in the same spot, which is doing no one any favours. The rest of us do what feels comfortable some do 1 hour some do 4 and change location after the first two hours. I tend to stick to 2 hours because that is what I’m comfortable with, I don’t have to repeat any material and I don’t get bored. Also if it’s a bad day it was ‘only two hours’ instead of having a bad day for 4 hours!
When deciding how long to play for use these simple phrases: ‘Am I bored yet?’ or ‘Could I do more?’. Some days I’m game for another hour; or a latte, new pitch and another hour, but most wintery days I get to 2 hours and can’t imagine struggling through another freezing set! Do how long you have good material for and feel comfortable doing.
The main factor that keeps me at the 2 hour mark is Repetitive Strain, Vocal health and general effects of cold temperatures on my health in general. I don’t perform more than feels comfortable because if I develop strain from not playing properly or in the freezing cold then my career is finished. If I strain my voice and exhaust myself then I can’t sing for while after and that effects my work and earnings. If I stay out in the cold temperatures for too long it can lead to arthritic joints when I’m older, Coughs and colds and other sniffles! Remember that you are going to be sat or stood still for a long period of time in wintery temperatures!
In Summer you can be more relaxed about timings but remember sunscreen! Don’t burn yourself!
have the pieces you like ready and if it’s your first time it’s ok to take music with you! you will probably panic and realise you have no music memorised!
For about a year I had a 1 hour playlist I would work through and then I would get to the end and do it all in reverse going back to the beginning of the list in the second hour!
The first time I ever went busking I got set up and realised I only knew about 3 songs from memory! So make sure you have an hour’s worth of material you really like doing and then pad it out with some pieces that you like but maybe are still working on, it’s good practice time!
The most important thing is that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do! You can do only the good bits!
Advertising and Business Opportunities
If you are going to busk a lot get business cards! They are very cheap on vistaprint! Especially if you are a classical musician or play a wedding/event appropriate instrument because you will get gigs from busking because you are performing for the public! People will book you on your ability because they can see you and your instrument right in front of them! Busking is basically advertising you get paid for!
If you’re going to do it regularly and want a sign so people can find you online etc. the most important thing is make sure it is weather resistant. Make your sign wind, rain and sun proof! so it doesn’t blow away or fall apart!
For Bookings it is easy to give people your card and wait for them to email you but if it’s a nice day and you have time try and finalise a booking in person, it simplifies the whole process for the person booking you and it means you just have to send follow up emails to confirm bookings and deposits and turns 10 emails into about 3!
Try not to annoy other buskers! Don’t stay in one spot for more than 4 hours, don’t occupy an entire street, make sure you are out of ear shot of the other busker and don’t set up right next to them. All of these things have happened to me.
Benches and Cafés are your friends
try and find a place where people can sit and listen to your music. easy! If it’s nice weather people will come and sit outside so they can hear you. Best way to get an audience is give them somewhere to sit.
If you are busking on a Sunday, don’t play right next to a church while they are having a service. If you are busking near an office block don’t hang around too long or play the same song over and over again! very simple but make sure you are aware of your surroundings!
Charity muggers are usually on a Thursday in Cardiff and can effect your earnings by about 1/3 because people are going to be more concerned about being harassed in public by a stranger than listening to some nice music. It’s a real issue so make sure you address it when you find your pitch! I like to yell ‘Go Away no one likes you!’ Just kidding, I ask nicely because I’m a good person!
Most importantly be nice to other people and have fun! If you don’t want to be there you don’t have to!
Here’s some glamour shots of my busking harp!