What are the best songs to play?

I get asked this question quite a lot, and the truth is that it’s very difficult to say. Different songs work better in different cities and countries and I still haven’t quite got to grips with the formula of what will work well and what won’t.

Ultimately, the goal for me is to play songs that I enjoy playing. I’m more likely to make money from them anyway, because you can easily tell whether or not a busker is enjoying themselves. But of course, there are those that will always make you more money. I find that a general rule is to find those songs that people don’t necessarily expect to hear; to elicit that feeling of ‘I haven’t heard that one in ages!’ Most people assume that the best known songs earn the most money but it’s not always the case. I, for example, would never give money to a busker playing Wonderwall, not because I dislike the song but because it’s such an overplayed cliché. Many members of the public feel the same way. The only time I’ve made good money from it (and I generally avoid playing it) was on a Saturday night in Krakow when the town was filled with drunk British stag parties. This fits into my rule of not expecting to hear it: I’ve no doubt that I would not have earned so much from this song had I been playing it in a busy English city. It was the fact that they were hearing it in Poland that got them interested.

The same goes for Irish folk. It goes down fantastically in England, particularly the West Midlands (where many of the inhabitants are of Irish descent), but playing Galway Girl in Dublin is never going to be particularly successful as it’s probably the seventeenth time they’ve heard it that day (and yes, I know Galway Girl isn’t an Irish folk song, but the same rule of thumb applies to Tell Me Ma, Wild Rover etc). In England, my biggest earner by a huge margin is Fields of Athenry. I’m not sure why this one, more than any other Irish song, is so profitable, but I suspect it’s got something to do with the way it can tug on the heartstrings. I feel rather callous pointing this out, but the fact that it’s a popular song to play at funerals really does help. It’s incredibly common for people to come up to me when I’m playing Fields of Athenry, put some money in the case and thank me for reminding them of a relative at whose funeral this song was played. Or even just the fact that it was ‘their song’. The same also goes for the song The Parting Glass, although not to the same extent.

While I’m travelling, it’s a bit more difficult to gauge. The Irish folk is nowhere near as successful (except in Germany, where they can’t get enough of Whiskey in the Jar), but given that I go to quite a lot of touristy areas, songs such as Take Me Home, Country Roads and Wagon Wheel tend to be good because of the high concentration of American tourists. These songs were not as successful when I tried them out in New York and San Francisco – once again, I suspect, because of my mantra of aiming for songs that one would not expect to hear.

It’s very useful for me when tourists wear clothing that identifies their nationality: if I see someone in a Spanish football shirt approaching I’ll play La Bamba, for example. If I see someone wearing a South African rugby kit I’ll play the hauntingly beautiful song Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika (their national anthem) and then reply with a blank look and ‘No, why?’ when they ask me if I’m South African. Which confuses them and amuses me in equal measure.

Australians are great for this, as they’re more likely than most to wear their national garb (by this, I mean Australia-related shirts rather than those hats with the corks hanging off). They will also always give money to you if you play the song Down Under. The most I’ve ever earned from one song was while I was in Cardiff and I saw an Australian sports team approaching in the distance. I played Down Under and made around £45 from them. Good bunch, the Aussies. At the time of writing, we’re also thrashing them in the cricket so I’m playing it a lot just to ‘flush them out’; whenever I’m playing this song, Australians tend to stay until the end so they can tell me that they are from the very land I’m singing about. I then taunt them mercilessly and sing the Mitchell Johnson song. This is why I should never seek employment in the diplomatic sector.

There are some strange anomalies in terms of targeting songs towards people. Japanese tourists love The Boxer and nothing else. I cannot get money from Japanese tourists for any other song, but start up a bit of Simon and Garfunkel and I’ll make a killing. I’ve no idea why. In Maastricht, Solsbury Hill is a sure-fire hit and in Belgium everyone loves Amy McDonald. It’s difficult to predict these things, so it’s best just to try out a few different genres and see what works best.

Having said this, some of my favourite moments in busking are when you play the much more obscure ones and people join in. I was in San Sebastian recently playing Richard Thompson’s Beeswing, which rarely makes anything outside of England (and even there it’s not that widely known) and a young couple from Liverpool excitedly told me it was one of their favourite songs. Or bumping into a Geordie while playing Fog on the Tyne in Vienna.

Here is my completely unscientific breakdown of songs that make me the most money – I’ve made one for England and one as an aggregation of the ‘Rest of the World’:

England:

  1. Fields of Athenry
  2. Father and Son
  3. The Boxer
  4. Take Me Home, Country Roads
  5. Galway Girl
  6. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
  7. Whiskey in the Jar
  8. Wild Rover
  9. Let it Be
  10. Wild Mountain Thyme

Rest of the World

  1. The Boxer
  2. Let it Be
  3. Take Me Home, Country Roads
  4. You Can Call Me Al
  5. Heart of Gold
  6. Ring of Fire
  7. Galway Girl
  8. Down Under
  9. Wagon Wheel
  10. Cecilia

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