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Monday, April 09, 2007

Joshua Bell the busker

Pearls Before Breakfast: Joshua Bell tries his hand as a street musician - with a fucking Strad - and earns about $30 in 45 minutes.

I used to do a lot of busking in Brisbane and Sydney, back when I was eighteen and not really earning enough in regular employment to live by myself in inner-city Sydney. I usually made $35 an hour. If I wasn't making $20 an hour, I'd go home. On good days, I made $50 to $60 an hour. Every now and then I'd have an awesome day and earn even more.

Having busked frequently, I worked out a few rules and guidelines which Joshua Bell might have figured out on his own if he hadn't done it only once, and only for three-quarters of an hour.

  1. Always start with money in your case. Always. Sadly, sympathy is nowhere near as effective as the sheep mentality, which I guess is why more money gets thrown at Paris Hilton than at cancer victims. An interesting trend I noticed while busking is that if I started with larger denomination coins (in Australia, we have gold one-dollar and two-dollar coins) and small bills in my case, I would receive generally the same kind of denominations from passersby - like attracts like, if you like. That's not to say that I would earn overall more money, but at the end of the day, I would have a conveniently small bag full of gold coins and notes, as opposed to a large heavy bag full of five-cent pieces that the bank doesn't want to count.

  2. Location, location, location. If you play somewhere where buskers set up every day, people will take you for granted. Set up somewhere slightly unexpected, and more people will notice you and appreciate you.

  3. The audience doesn't want to hear art, it wants to hear crap. It is a rare beast who will give money to someone playing a gorgeous concerto or sonata. Stick to classical music that everyone knows, like Pachelbel's canon and Eine Kleine, or popular songs from musicals and the like. People want to hear the kind of stuff they will recognize and wander off humming. This is the cruelest truth of being a classically trained street musician. Your audience is made up of Philistines. This is also the number one reason why I can't busk too many days in a row - I become the worst kind of contemptuous misanthropist.

  4. How you dress really matters, especially if you're a girl. Some of this obviously doesn't apply to Mr. Bell, but I'll say it anyway. Wearing a skirt will get you more money than wearing pants. Wearing contacts will get you more money than wearing glasses. Wearing lipstick will, oddly enough, get you less money than going without - you look somehow less approachable, I figure. Wear a short skirt, and you'll see the results in your case. Especially if you wear a green microskirt on St Patrick's Day and play nothing but jigs and reels. Smile. A lot. People will give you money if you can make them smile too.

  5. Make friends with people around you. If you busk near shops, go in and buy something in the shop, and chat to the proprietors. If they become your friend, they'll probably pop out every now and then to give you money.

  6. Make friends with other buskers. This is how I hooked up with a South American folk band and played the Newtown Festival in front of tens of thousands of people.

  7. Play outside pubs or gambling establishments. Once, a guy stepped out of a pub while I was playing some crap and dumped a fifty-dollar note in my case. It was about ten in the morning. I assume he won some money on the poker machines.

Anyway, I haven't busked in years, and I've never done it in the USA, but I assume busking is the same pretty much anywhere. Joshua should have asked me for tips beforehand.
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