Make Money as a Street Musician

By Eric Hammer

Street MusicianMusicians are unfortunately a dime a dozen. That’s why so many musicians, when facing hard times decide to earn some extra money as a street musician. Street performing is usually well accepted by society, especially in tourist areas where there are long lines of people waiting to get into an attraction (New York City street musicians for example tend to work at the entrance to the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island tour because the line to get in is so long).

(Flicker photo by Tony the Misfit)

The catch with being a street musician is that some cities have made it illegal to do it while others allow a limited number of licensed "buskers," (aka street performers) and require that they obtain a license as well as permission from the owner of the buildings they will be performing in front of.

However, even where street performances are considered completely illegal, the crime is considered a misdemeanor, not a felony meaning that you will likely be slapped with a fine and a warning but will not be sent to jail for your performance.

How Much Can You Make?

Most buskers don’t make a great deal of money from their art. In good locations, you could take home a few hundred dollars a day, however many street musicians report playing for an entire 8 hours and walking away with no more than about $20 to $30 for their trouble.

One of the best ideas for making money as a street musician is to get licensed by a specific location with a lot of tourists and passerby. Not only will you have exclusive rights to a location with a license, but you will also be able to bring in more equipment and potentially earn more money. For example, New York City’s subway system licenses a limited number of street performers to work in the system and allow them to set up with all their equipment, including a complete band rather than just one guy with a guitar.

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If you are able to stay in a location for some time, consider bringing along CDs to sell of your music (if you’re constantly getting hassled by police, it can be a problem since people may be holding your CD when you need pack out in a hurry). You can easily make the CDs yourself after recording your songs in a studio and then sell them on the street. Consider also working as an opening act at various fares and shows. Some music halls for example will allow you to set up outside, serenading the crowd as they enter and selling CDs of your performance.

No matter what you do to earn your money as a street musician however, remember that you are there to give people a show. You need to perform in a way that makes people enjoy themselves and relax. Therefore, if you have a terrible singing voice, don’t try to sing. Just play the guitar or whatever instrument you play. But be animated and make sure the crowd enjoys your performance.

At this point, we want to share with you some of what not to do. Some of the worst advice we’ve seen for street performers was on a video on YouTube about how to make money as a street performer. They recommended having a friend be a lookout for the police without mentioning that many localities allow you to legally perform on the street and recommend being obnoxious, throwing your hat or whatever you are collecting with in people’s faces and jiggling it loudly.

While it’s appropriate to walk around and jiggle your hat to ask for donations, making a point of getting in people’s faces, especially because they happen to look wealthy is more likely to turn people off and cause the police to be summoned after they complain about you. Keep in mind, you are in a service business and you are offering your skills without guarantee of payment. No one likes to be hassled by street musicians when they are standing in the street watching a performance.

Yet another bit of advice we saw on that video that seems ridiculous (to us at least) is to stop the show and demand a certain amount of money be collected before you’ll continue. While a handful of people may be so enamored of you that they’ll want to pay whatever it takes, you’ll also turn off a lot of people who will think you are being greedy and obnoxious.

Qualifications / Requirements

Needless to say, you need to know how to play an instrument in order to be a street musician. It also helps to have a good singing voice (ask impartial strangers and not close friends for their opinions of your singing voice – just because your mother and your girlfriend want to be encouraging doesn’t mean you have a good singing voice).

Beyond that, you need to have confidence in your art so that you can stand around on street corners to earn money. It takes a certain amount of guts to do this work and you need to have nerves of steel in order to succeed.

You should also find out about licensing requirements in your city before going out to perform just in case.

First Steps

Start by scoping out likely locations for your performance. Check with city hall to find out if you need a license and what the requirements are for obtaining said license. Then, practice your act. Make sure you have it down perfectly before you go out and perform in front of crowds.

Resources

Busker Central – A good resource on how to be a street musician, this offers some excellent tips.

BBC News: My Busking Tips for Badly Drawn Boy – This was actually a part news item, part bit of advice. Badly Drawn Boy, a professional musician who regularly sings to large crowds in London theaters decided to secretly try being a street musician for a day. He didn’t do very well in his earnings (a little less than 5 British pounds or around $7.50) and so BBC News found a professional busker who offered tips on how to do it right.

Street Arts and Buskers Advocates – This web site is designed more to advocate for street performers, however it does have some useful information for your career as a street musician.


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