Busking Defined: Street Musicians, Public Performance Art, and When Busking Is Begging

a young man playing the bassoon on the sidewalk with cash in his instrument case
Reading Time: 5 minutes

What Is Busking?

A word not commonly used in day-to-day language, busking is when a person publicly performs or entertains, usually in hopes of soliciting public donations. That can include musicians or singers, dancers busting some moves, or a magician making things disappear. Any type of talent on public display (as opposed to in/on an entertainment or performance venue) in hopes of getting donations qualifies as busking.

Is Busking Different from Begging or Panhandling?

Busking differs from begging or panhandling, both in legality and social acceptance. Most forms of busking are legal, depending on local and state laws, while panhandling is much more restricted. People are also much more accepting of busking, willing to donate a few dollars to somebody who is performing a service (or providing entertainment) for the money instead of begging for it.

Busking vs Panhandling

The biggest difference between busking and panhandling is that buskers are working to provide the general public with a service. They might be strumming a guitar, or bending their bodies in unnatural positions, but it provides a source of entertainment. Panhandling, on the other hand, relies on sympathy or direct solicitation, whether the request for money is verbal or written on a sign. Often, homeless people turn to panhandling, lacking the resources to perform on the street. Similarly, buskers may elect to do street performances for artistic reasons, but may not necessarily be homeless. For instance, “street magic” is a whole subcategory of illusionist performance, and professional musicians will occasionally perform at bus stops or in the subway as a form of public outreach for the arts.

Laws on Solicitation and Exhibition

Legality plays a role in the difference, too. Busking often requires a permit from the government to legally to do, while panhandling doesn’t require one, but is usually more restricted. Panhandlers are often left to the whims of the local law enforcement, but buskers with a permit can push back, as long as they are following the rules. They have the right to perform where they are as long as they aren’t breaking any rules or laws.

While homeless people could busk, most stick to panhandling. Many buskers and street performers aren’t homeless, and use the donations they receive as a main or supplementary source of income. Many have homes, families, and other jobs.

Professional Busking: How Street Performers Making a Living

If you’ve got the skills and a large supply of people in a single area, it’s possible to make good money busking. A key part to being a successful busker is developing a unique talent that people want to watch and in turn, donate money afterwards. That could include mastering a unique instrument, creating enjoyable music, putting on a magic show, or dancing. If you don’t do something that will provide entertainment, you likely won’t make any money. In many ways, it isn’t so different from freelancing, only in the arts rather than in a technical sector.

Just like any other job though, busking takes hard work and planning. It doesn’t matter how cool your act is if nobody is around. Picking the right places, times, and understanding the busking laws are all essential parts to becoming a great street performer.

The Best Times For Busking

Busking is very much local area dependent. What might work in one city won’t necessarily work for another. In general though, the best times for busking are when people are around and have spare time to watch you for a few minutes. If you find a time that matches those two criterias, you’ll likely make some money.

Prime times could include lunch breaks and after work hours on weekdays, and most of the day on weekends. If weather is a factor to people working around, pick a time that people are likely to be outside. In the summer, people aren’t likely going to be out in the middle of the day, but hitting the town in the late evening and night time.

Another prime time is in the evenings, especially in large cities either on the weekends or special celebrations, when people might be intoxicated or looking for a good time. Their judgement and standards might be impaired, meaning more cash in the bucket for you.

The Best Places For Busking

Just like any other business, location plays a key role. If people aren’t around to see you, you won’t make any money. On the flip side, if other street performers are much more flashy or their are just too many, you might have a hard time drawing an audience.

The first requirement should be a place where people are located and you are legally allowed to perform. For some places, this is public squares or street corners. Check local laws and scout out locations. If you don’t see any other street performers, it’s quite likely busking isn’t allowed in that area.

Consider working near public festivals/fairs or farmers markets for daytime work, and near popular party areas in the evening. These are great places to get attention from people, and typically people have both the time and money to listen and drop a few dollars your way.

How Much Do Buskers Earn?

There is no real hard data for how much buskers earn, but many street performers have gone public with their earnings. One particular musical busker, part of a duo, walks away with around $532 a day, which after performing for twelve and a half hours, equals around $21.22 per hour.

Now, not every person is going to make that type of cash. Different factors will affect each day’s income, including the economy in the area, how busy the day is, the weather, and what else is happening around you. But if you hone your skills and your showmanship, it is possible to earn a decent wage performing.

Before you quit your day job to become a street performer, consider how much money it will cost to do, and how much you’ll need to earn to survive. While yes, you could earn hundreds of dollars a day, will you be able to keep performing year round? If you have extremely hot summers or snowy winters, weigh those factors heavily. Also consider expenses that might occur while performing. Street performers playing guitar have said they replace all of their strings every day. Then consider taxes and insurance into your total expenses.

Police, Permitting, and Public Nuisance

Busking isn’t legal everywhere nor all of the time. Some cities limit where you can busk, what hours you can perform, how loud you can be, even what kind of acts you can perform. Be sure to thoroughly research busking laws in your area before trying your hand at it. Illegal busking can land you massive fines and court dates. If required, obtain a busking permit from the city.

Cooperate With Law Enforcement

Be aware that the police might be called in response to your busking, especially if you aren’t part of an organized event. Honor any requests law enforcement ask of you, including moving to a new area or being a little quieter. Common concerns and complaints they receive are typically from local businesses complaining about the noise, or concern about the size of crowd you are gathering.

At the same time, know the laws and record any police interactions you have. That way, if they do stick you with a fine you shouldn’t have received, you can fight it in court. Know the laws, keep yourself safe, and don’t stand up against cops in person, do it through the courts.

Plan Ahead and Get Permission

If you plan on busking as part of a public event, be sure to gain a permit or permission from the event’s organizers. Some events work directly with performers to provide entertainment and won’t allowed uninvited buskers. Avoid the nasty meeting with security and work with the event to be a part of it.

Busking can be a great way to earn extra cash, just be sure to do it right. Know the laws about it, plan out your strategy, and stay healthy while exposed to the elements all day.

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