It’s now about 12 years since I started busking – it’s been my main job for 11 of these. That’s a fair stretch, though some way short of the decades racked up by some of the colleagues I’ve met over the years. I think a lot about what keeps me going. When asked how long I plan to continue doing it, I’ll often reply with ‘until I stop enjoying it’, but that is probably a little overly simplistic. There are times now that I don’t enjoy it, as is the case with any job; a more accurate statement would be that I’ll keep doing it until my own objective assessment of which profession will most effectively maintain maximum levels of happiness in terms of enabling my living standards and work-life balance determines that busking is longer the best option. But that’s a little wordy. At this point, that moment doesn’t feel close, so that’s all well and good.
It comes with its problems and stresses, of course. Busking is very unusual in that a bad day at the office means not making any money. My perception of whether I have had a good/enjoyable day of busking is always inextricably linked to how much money I’ve made – so a bad session is not just psychologically draining but also has a tangible material impact. There will always be those who say that musicians should to some extent play for the love of it, and for the joy it can bring to the audience; those who say this are seldom musicians themselves, or at least not professional ones. If there’s anyone out there who has a rather overly romanticised view of the typical buskers’ motivation, I am happy to shatter that view. Busking is a means to an end, and any joy I may bring to the public is a happy by-product of this rather than a goal in itself. And besides, in this context, joy is fairly heavily correlated with earning and as such quite unromantically quantifiable. The question of whether truly altruistic deeds can ever exist, apparently known in philosophical circles as the ‘Phoebe’s Bee Problem’ in a reference to an episode of Friends, applies to busking. The main reason we feel happy about a busking session that has clearly been widely enjoyed by the public is because we go home with much heavier pockets that we started with.
Having said this, there is, I think, satisfaction to be found in knowing that I have always earned every penny that I make. There are very few jobs with this direct a link. In some jobs, you might slack off a little for an hour or so in the afternoon (or, conversely, put in extra hours that you know you will not be directly compensated for). If a busker does this, they don’t get paid. Every bit of money we get is as a result of a service already provided, with the quantity of the donation determined freely by each individual. A pay rise does not mean that cuts need to be made elsewhere, while imposter syndrome is theoretically impossible as no one can ever be paid more than the performance is worth. There is a pleasing sense of purity in that.
The respective skills required to be a good busker and a good musician are very different. Of course, to be the former, it helps to be the latter (or magician, acrobat etc). But being good at your artistic craft is no guarantee of healthy profits on the street. Many of the skills required to be a good busker can only ever be picked up on the job, but when starting out it can be useful to know whose brains to pick for advice. Online articles about busking tend to be, at best, naively misguided, and at worst actively misleading (I say, while writing an online article about busking). You will be told, probably by someone who has tried it a couple of times and earned enough for a meal and a couple of beers, to head for busking hotspots like Covent Garden, the Sacre Coeur or Alexanderplatz. Ignore this entirely. The people who make good money here are experts in their craft. And it’s worth saying here that I know full well I’d barely cover expenses in these pitches. Not my crowd; not my style of busking. All power to the elbows of those who can make it work in these spots.
But much of what makes a good busker is in mentality. An almost obsessive compulsion to seek out the best undiscovered pitches in the area. The wisdom not to overbusk these pitches when you find them. The motivation to go out day after day, performing to a crowd who will overwhelmingly ignore you. A willingness to stand your ground when challenged by law enforcement officials with scant knowledge of the law. These are the qualities you will find in a good busker.
Perhaps the public perception of a full time busker is one of a free-loving hippy, living without a care for money. And this variety of busker certainly exists, though they tend not to stay in the game for very long. It’s the stubborn, driven and meticulously hard-working buskers who tend to end up doing this long-term, for better or worse.
I’m not quite sure I’m in the long-term category yet. Do I plan to be? I wouldn’t say so, no. But if it happens to work out like that, and it’s as a result of a positive choice rather than desperate necessity, then I’ll be happy. Right now, sitting on a terrace and drinking coffee in the beautiful old town of Gjirokaster in Albania, having just completed a very successful morning shift, it feels like the best job in the world. No doubt I’ll change my mind when ekeing pennies from the generous folk of Stourbridge come January time. Such is the changeable, unpredictable and varied life of a full time busker.