A Busker’s Life
By all accounts the US isn’t the best place in the world to busk. Home of the shortest attentions span in the world (this is a country where adults regularly dose themselves on Ritalin), they’re so glued to their televisions as a nation that real life just doesn’t give them much of a thrill – there are no commercials, after all.
A busker (an unknown word in the US, call yourself a street musician instead) may do okay in smaller towns if the local sheriff doesn’t take a disliking. Otherwise you’ll definitely want to go down the novelty busking route and draw the kind of crowd that likes to take photographs. Playing the bagpipes in a kilt would probably be profitable.
The days of blues musicians in the Delta playing at opposite street corners to see who could draw the biggest crowd are long gone. But you might be able to talk yourself into a gig at small bars who don’t see traveling musicians much, especially if you’re from outside the US.
Not much hope if you’re French, though.
Still the best place to busk in the world, from England to Germany to France to Norway – the moneyed countries of North Europe support street acts well, provided you look the part. A classical musician in cultured parts like Switzerland can make a killing if they look and sound good, especially on the trams.
London has a scheme of reserved spots for buskers on the Underground, thanks to the reelection of Ken Livingstone and so though you have to go through a bit of paperwork to get a pitch, you’ll be left alone by the police and can enjoy the great acoustics.
France, Belgium and Austria are full of large plazas with plenty of continental café culture. People who dine here have cash and are well worth hitting up.
Spain and Greece can be good if you play on the beaches where all the tourists go.
Japan can be good money on the metro if you play Beatles songs. Again, if one person gives then the rest will tend to follow suit, otherwise they might just stare at you in terrified silence. If you play on the street the Yakuza will want their cut.
Tai Wan has made busking illegal in Tai Pei at least but the rest of the island offers some good opportunities. Anywhere that you play in Asia, if you learn some songs in the local language they’ll adore you and cover you with gold.
Don’t even think about Singapore. Police states and buskers don’t go hand in hand.
Clarinet players might do okay in Thailand as their beloved king plays the clarinet himself. Don’t forget to remind them of that.
With the influx of Russian Jews in the 90’s came masses of professional classical musicians. Many of them today stand in Diezengoff centre in Tel Aviv to play amid the deafening roar of the traffic. Israelis aren’t too impressed by live music but if you play along the promenade in the summer and do something original you might do okay.
The Rest of the World
Through Latin America it’s common practice for musicians to hop on a bus and play to the passengers. But if you play in the street the police might see an angle to arrest you and extract baksheesh to let you go.
In many poorer countries like India you’ll likely draw a crowd with your performance but they’ll be completely nonplussed at why a foreigner is asking them for money afterwards.
Even if you can’t make any cash busking in many countries, a musician is rarely unwelcome and you may get many invites to eat or hospitality. Playing music then becomes a way to give something back for all the kindness that you receive.