17 Things to Know Before Busking

17 Things to Know Before Busking
Photo by Maaria Lohiya / Unsplash

Have you been considering busking? Well I’m here to help.

Busking is a great way to make a quick buck if you’re willing to put yourself out there. Singers not only use busking to help supplement their income, but they also use it as practice. The casual environment will help you to relax, but you still have the opportunity to perform in front of a live audience.

It can be very daunting going into the busking scene, and you’re not alone. Everyone has their anxieties about hitting the streets. But don’t let that stop you! If you consider these 17 things before you start, you should be well-prepared for your busking experience.

1. Start With Where You Will Busk

Location, location, location. You will want to find somewhere that maximised your exposure so that people can appreciate your singing.

You don’t necessarily want the busiest part of town where it’s so loud that people can’t hear you or won’t pay you any attention. But you do still want a fair amount of foot traffic so that you can get a decent audience.

Things like street corners, malls, parks, subways, ferry terminals, markets and festivals are all places you could consider. If you’re looking at something like a festival, just make sure you’re actually allowed in. If not, you can set yourself up somewhere close by the perimeter so you’re not technically inside, but taking advantage of all that exposure.

Keep in mind other buskers as well. You’ll want to be at least 100 metres from each other so that you don’t drown each other out. We don’t want to start any busking wars.

2. You May Need a Busking License

The need for a busking license varies from state to state and also depending on where you are going to set yourself up. Some cities require a license for busking, regardless of where you are and what you’re doing. Others will allow you to perform license-free in some public places but not others.

The fees are also vary state-to-state and country-to-country, but most licenses/permits are free. Where I’m from, a busking license is free, but you you cannot perform anywhere without one. Somewhere like New York City will provide a free permit if you play acoustically, but will charge you if you want to play with an amp (currently $45).

Basically, you just need to remember to check your city’s permit situation. I would apply for this at least 1 week before your gig as sometimes they take a few days to go through.

3. There are Several Rules to Busking

As with any permit, there are also a number of rules you must abide by in order to busk in a public place. These, again, vary for city-to-city, but there are some that are pretty standard.

Here is an example some of the rules in my hometown:

  • Busking permit must be valid
  • Cannot use the same spot (within 50 metres) more than once per day
  • Cannot perform for more than 30 minutes in one spot
  • Cannot be within 50 metres of another busker
  • Volume must only be heard within 50 metres
  • Groups can have a maximum of 6 performers
  • Maximum performance area of 4m2
  • Amplification can only be performed in certain areas
  • Busking must not impede pedestrian flow
  • You cannot perform in front of prominent buildings eg. Government House
  • If busking on a footpath, it must have a minimum 5 metre width
  • Anyone under 16 years old cannot busk during school hours or after dark
  • Children under 12 must be supervised by an adult at all times

These are some of the major rules, but there may be more, so it’s important to look into your own city’s rules for busking. But don’t be overwhelmed, if you’re there for the right reasons, you shouldn’t have a problem with any of them.

4. Other Buskers Can Help You

While you prepare for your own busking experience, it’s a great idea to watch other buskers. This way you can see how they do things and whether you would want to do the same.

When you do this, make sure to observe the crowd around them to see what works and what doesn’t work. You may even be bold enough to ask them afterwards if they have any tips for you.

Don’t forget to give them a little tip for their time.

5. You Will Need to Plan How Long You Will Busk

Before you get out there, you need to prepare. First is working out how long you will be singing. This is determined by two deciding factors:

  • How long you are allowed to sing
  • How long you are able to sing

As I mentioned above, there are rules surrounding busking that may affect how long you can busk. My city allows 30 minutes. But this is specifically in one spot. So if you would like to sing for 2 hours, all you have to do is sing in 30 minute slots, moving around each time.

Assuming your songs are around 3 minutes each, you just need 10 songs to make up that time. I would recommend having at least 1 hour of music ready (20 songs) so that people who want to stay and listen for a while don’t hear the same songs over and over. If you can build 2 hours of music, that would be even better – someone sitting at a nearby cafe could be enjoying their lunch for that time.

That brings us to the second factor. If you plan to sing for 2 hours but have never sung for that long before, maybe start with a smaller stint. You don’t want to burn out and sound terrible. There’s no point being out there if you’re not at the top of your game.

6. Accompaniment Will Help You Shine

Can you play any other instruments? If so, you can play your own music to sing along to. The most common accompanying instruments for a singer are piano and guitar. Guitars are the most portable, so usually a good choice, but some keyboards can be quite light-weight.

If you can’t play either pf those, but still want to play your own music, the ukelele is a great option. It is smaller with fewer string, and therefore easier to learn and play while singing.

If you can’t sing and play, there’s always backing tracks. There’s something authentic about playing your own backing music, but there certainly nothing wrong with having a backing track instead. The easiest way to source backing tracks is finding a karaoke provider, such as KaraFun (link to website).

Take note of what others are using when they sing in public and you might find some good ideas that work well for you.

7. Every Busker Needs Equipment

If you’re standing on a street corner singing A Capella, you don’t have to worry about equipment. That does have it’s own charm, but most singers will at least have a microphone.

As well as a microphone, you will need equipment for your backing music and for volume. You might also consider bringing a stool so that you don’t have to be standing the whole time. If you are sitting, you will be able to sing for a lot longer.

Another thing that you will need for longevity is water! If you have a big bottle of water with you at all times, you won’t risk becoming dehydrated and getting a dry throat.

These things in mind, here is an example of the things you should consider bringing with you:

  • Microphone (and XLR cable)
  • Microphone stand
  • Guitar/keyboard/laptop for backing music with appropriate stand
  • Amplifier
  • Spare batteries (if battery-operated)
  • Stool
  • Water
  • Money pot/tin/hat

Just be careful that you don’t have too much expensive equipment lying around when you’re singing. As sad as it is, there are people out there who will not hesitate to rob you if you are occupied with your performance. Always keep your belongings within sight and secured as best you can.

8. You Might Not Have a Power Supply

Speaking of all this equipment, keep in mind that you may not always have a power supply. If that is the case, you can either go acoustic (generally singing with an acoustic guitar to back you up), or with battery-powered equipment.

This is something that you can check with your local council.

9. Your Song Choices Can Make or Break You

Your songs can be a mixture of covers and originals, or can be entirely one or the other. This is really personal preference and both have proven to still draw onlookers. People generally just enjoy listening to the music.

But which songs you sing does make a big difference. Firstly, there shouldn’t be any songs that are offensive, contain expletives or have adult themes. They should be family-friendly. This doesn’t mean children’s songs, but they should be songs that children can be exposed to. You have no control over who walks past while you perform, and you could get into trouble.

Another choice you have is whether you give yourself a certain ‘sound’ or whether you throw in a big mix of musical styles and genres. The wider the variety, the more people you will draw in. But you don’t want to take away from what songs suit your voice and make changes to your unique sound to please others.

10. The Songs Should be Ordered Strategically

Once you have your set-list, you should consider the structure of your performance. Assume that at least one person will be staying to listen to your whole set. You might not have anyone stay for that long, but it is a possibility.

To make the perofrmance more interesting, try to mix your songs up so that you don’t have a string of similar songs oin a row. I can imagine the audience would get a little bit over the sad love songs if you sing them one after another.

Another benefit of this is that you pace yourself. If you have a string of high-energy songs, you will risk burning out quickly. Adding a slow or easier song in-between can help you last the distance.

11. Add You Own Flavor to Cover Songs

If you’re adding some cover songs to your set, it’s nice to make sing it in your own style. This makes the song something unique for the audience, while they’re still enjoying the familiar lyrics and general melody.

This can include changing the speed, rhythm, tone or style. We have our favorites, but i can think of at least three songs that I prefer the cover version. You can also add your own little improvised vocals within the song.

12. Practice Makes Perfect

Once you have your set-list, you will need to practice. Practice at home, in front of family and in an open space if you can.

Practicing in an open space will allow you to test your volume and give you a feel for the difference in the sound. Not everyone will have access to open space like this, but if you do have access to a large country property or open unused land you should try it.

But you still need to practice in front of an audience, so family and friends can be a great way to ease a bit of performance anxiety.

You definitely should learn your lyrics (and music if you’re playing guitar/piano as well). You want your music to be second nature to you so that you can focus more on engaging with your audience. Having paper lying around is also a pain when the wind picks up.

13. Saying Something Small Can Make a Big Difference

You also need to think about what’s happening between songs. Singing 20 songs means you will have 9 dead spaces to fill as you prepare for each new song.

If you have the skills and endurance, you could merge the songs together with transition chords so that it seems like one song flows perfectly into the other. This is a technique used by many buskers and makes your music a great background sound.

If you’re not able to do this then there will be that dead space. There’s nothing saying you need to fill these spaces, but it can feel a little bit awkward if you don’t say anything. People are watching you.

Here are some examples of what you could say:

  • “Thankyou”
  • “Next up I’ll be singing <song title>”
  • “This next one is a favorite of mine”
  • “Here’s one for all those lovebirds out there”
  • “That was a bit of fun. Let’s bring it down now”
  • “You’re listening to <your name>”

The possibilities are endless, but just do what comes naturally to you. This is something you should definitely include in your practice, otherwise you may come across as nervous and unsure.

14. You Should Consider the Day You are Busking

Each day holds it’s own benefits. You might be restricted with which days you can perform for each city, but if you have a choice, consider what kind of crowd you’re wanting.

Singing on a weekday when most people are at work will attract mostly retirees and mothers with their children. But if you’re there around lunchtime, you’ll get all the workers coming out for their break. They definitely appreciate some good music while they sit down to eat and forget about work

Singing on a weekend, however, generally gives you a lot more traffic. Everyone comes out to enjoy their days off and is happy (and hopefully in a generous mood). They will also have more time of their hands to stop and listen to you sing.

But the more popular the time slot, the more competition you will have with other buskers.

Once you have a day in mind, check the weather.

There’s nothing worse than making all these plans only to be drowned out or blown away. If you don’t mind competing with the wind or singing under shelter in the rain then go for it. As long as you know the forecast, you can come prepared.

15. But What Will I Wear?

What you wear is entirely up to you. Most people go for a more casual look to match the relaxed atmosphere of the gig. But if you’re wanting to stand out, you can choose something a little bit more bold like wearing bright colors or adding a top hat.

This is where you can have a play to work out what your signature ‘look’ is. You can always change it later, but you can experiment a little with your outfit to see what feels comfortable and what entices the crowd.

16. Make Use of Free Advertising

Most areas will allow you to advertise, as long as it relates to your performance. Here are some ways you could advertise:

  • Signs: social media name, website, YouTube channel, etc.
  • Business cards
  • Recordings for sale
  • Details of your upcoming performances

If they hear you singing, you may as well point them to where they can hear more!

17. Don’t Forget the Toilet!

This is such a tiny detail, but so important. Make sure you go to the toilet just before you set up. You don’t want to get halfway through your set, only to find you need to stop for a bathroom break. You can’t leave all your equipment by itself, so you’ll have to pack everything away. This wastes valuable performing time.

You should also scout out where the nearest toilet is so you can make a bee-line for it when you’re finished.

I hope this has helped you prepare for your upcoming busking gig. It really is a unique opportunity, so go for it if you can!


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