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Busking 101: Making Cash On the Road


people playing music on street

[Jennifer Trenchard] / [iStock] / Thinkstock

There was a time when two friends and I found ourselves in the town of Escalante, Utah bordering the vast, void and canyon-riddled Escalante Wilderness, without much cash and no food. Escalante is one of those rare, delicious Utah towns that despite essentially only occupying a short stretch of a single road, still offers fine dining (home-style pizza) and plenty to drink – not just the infamous “3.2” that’s so chagrined many a beer drinker over the years. But what’s a group of broke and bedraggled men to do? Why, busk. That’s what. Put a few notes in our bankroll. Add some change to our poke. Fill our gullets with cheesy bread, by the end, hopefully.

The word “busk,” presumably, is derived from the more romantic and nectary “buscar” of Spanish – “to seek or search” as in for fortune and fame, however modest either will be. Busking is the age-old tradition of public performance. It’s art in action, music in the streets, curbside theater, dance right out in the urban wilds. Busking is re-imagining public space as an avenue for community, engagement and small time commerce. Sadly, it also ruffles feathers with the curmudgeonly and the ill willed, the law and the overly polite. All the more reason to participate imho.

So what does busking have to do with international travel? Everything. It can fund your escape to exotic locales; can make you friends; can fuel your alcoholism; can get you a warm place to crash; can provide entertainment on a boring day; can provide a unique perspective on a new city; will bring you in closer contact with both police and criminals, which translates to more adventure. And isn’t that what we’re after? Isn’t the primary reason we travel for new experience?

Tips for Successful Busking:

Choose your performance
The most obvious would be yammering on to a Dylan song on a shitty guitar, but why get stuck in clichés? Enthusiasm is the ingredient for street performance success. Fancy playing with words? Write poetry for those who pass by. Dig puppetry? Paint a face on an old sock and create a character. Dance your heart out. Whatever. For those who have zero creative talent, there’s a way around that, too. Buy some duct tape, threaded twine; scrounge a cardboard box and some yellow and red paint. With the box, cut out a beak and tie it over your nose with the twine. Next, cut the rest of the box into wings to then duct tape to your arms. Paint the beak yellow, the wings red and yellow and start cockadoodledo-ing. Think I’m kidding? I’m not. Saw this in Barcelona and the guy was raking it in.

Don’t step on toes
When you stake your location (ideally a place where people pass by regularly), be sure you’re not encroaching on someone’s territory. If another busker comes up and says you’re in his/her spot, don’t fight it; it’s not worth it. Just move along. Same goes for police. There’s no point in arguing and you can always go back later.

Kill your own performance anxiety
It’ll ruin your experience, your performance and your take. You’re already out there doing your thing in front of people – enjoy it.

Don’t limit yourself
When we were stranded out in the Utah desert, we had no cash but we did have instruments. Of course, there was no public square or frequented patch of asphalt, so instead we asked the pizza peddlers if we could play a couple sets in exchange for a meal and a cold drink and it wound up being an evening of high flying times with warm, full bellies, new pals and sloshy, happy brains.

By Bryan Schatz


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