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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Busker's Delight

The seven people who read my novel from last November will know that I, Generalissimo Fando, have on a few rare occasions taken up the noble art of busking.

Those who have not read the novel are, of course, awaiting the obligatory explanation that "busking" does not, in fact, involve acts of a gratuitously "adult" nature. At least outside of Soho, that is...so, I've heard.

Rather, busking is the art of street performance. Most buskers are musical performers. There is a practical reason for that, as most busking takes place near underground train queues and passageways, on busy city street corners, and in town squares. For example, there are few, if any, acrobatic dance buskers for the reason that it's difficult to encourage people to offer you tips if you're constantly knocking them down.

That is the other thing you should understand about busking: There is money involved. Indeed, in busy cities, many buskers are competing for choice spots from which to ply their trade, knowing that the proper selection of the spot will often greatly improve the cash flow. A busy entryway or a well-traveled street corner, with room for passers-by to stop and perchance listen, might bring a fair amount of coinage and notes over an hour or two. On the other hand, a quiet, shadowed spot behind a dumpster in an alley will bring little more than mice and the smell of rotted meat to your instrument case.

I live in a moderate-sized, college town in the States with a square. Normally, this square would not be the optimal place to earn a few bucks playing music, as there's fairly little traffic, the main shops and attractions being at the local mall. However, as is the custom in many parts of the States, on certain days there is a "Farmers' Market," where local farmers set up round the square and sell their goods to interested passerby. These goods consist of a variety of produce, a wide assortment of seasonal flowers, several different kinds of hand-made crafts, and the occasional bit of artisanal cheese. Depending on the town and circumstance, the market will also attract a fair amount of advocates for one cause or another. As I live in a college town, our Farmers' Market generally sees three kinds of these messages: "George W. Bush is the devil" (usually with several exclamation points), "Stop mankind from destroying the environment with easy living," and "Legalize pot! Weed is good for you." The last of these is occasionally shrouded in a heavy, pungent, mysterious cloud of smoke.

My preference is for a corner of the square just across the street from a couple of food kiosks. The idea is that people will buy food, wander across the street to look at the vegetable stands, decide to sit down on one of the benches to consume their goodies, and then fall entranced at the subtle spell of my enchanted music, hypnotically emptying the contents of their wallets into my open guitar case. So far, it's been a crap strategy.

I have made a bit of money. The first time I went up, I made next to nothing. All right, I suppose the accurate amount is "absolutely nothing." Someone then explained to me that an empty case says to passers-by, "No one thought he was good enough to part with loose change." Actually, I think the idea was more along the lines of "An empty case tells people you suck." So, I quickly learnt the art of seeding the case with a bit of my own money, just to encourage people to part with a small bit of their own. This has been better, culminating in a grand haul of 10 dollars and 25 cents over the last two visits. Of course, that's 4 hours playing time, so I've not given up the day job just yet. Also, a friend of mine who busks playing banjo pointed out that he has had days where he would finish with less money than he seeded the case with. As he's a good player, that must've been a really hard town.

I always keep my case with the open lid right by my foot. That way, if I see anyone reaching for money in the case, I can slam it shut and take a few fingers with me. One thing you should know about the hard-boiled world of busking: You don't try to make change in a busker's guitar case.

I play guitar and sing, which means I'm limited in the kind of music I can perform. (Please skip the jokes, as I'm insecure enough about my performing.) Solo buskers must be ever mindful of this, or they'll be in over their heads trying to play something that would normally require, say, the New York Philharmonic. Plus, popular, beloved tunes frequently inspire people to pry open the changepurse. A good guide for making the proper choice for solo guitar and voice music is below:

Some Good Choices:

  • Folk songs
  • Simon and Garfunkel songs
  • Jim Croce/Harry Chapin songs
  • Don McLean songs (American Pie is solid gold in the States)
  • Bob Dylan songs (College towns only)
  • Rock band tunes that allow for a simple chordal arrangement on the guitar - REM is especially good for this, although I've found a few Radiohead songs that work
  • Church choruses
  • Original compositions

Some Bad Choices:
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Good Vibrations
  • The Hallelujah Chorus
  • ABBA tunes
  • Disco
  • The Mickey Mouse Club Song (especially in a college town or during a biker festival)
  • Anything by Michael Bolton

Of course, there are little things like copyright law that come into play. Should I ever make enough money for this to be a consideration, I'll let you know what I find out about that. Right now, they should be paying me for the free adverts.

On occasion, there will be the occasional passerby who has little to no sense of personal space. the other day I was visited by a middle-aged gentleman who stood and stared for a few moments at me and my gear. After a moment I determined that he wasn't a member of the "weed is good for you" brigade and waited to see what he was up to. He asked what kind of songs I played and if I sang (I had just played an instrumental, something I do periodically to keep the voice from wearing thin). I said "many different ones" and "yes," and switched from the unfamiliar Don McLean song I was going to do to a Simon and Garfunkel tune I'm quite adept at, if I do say so myself. As I played and sang, he stood about 18 inches from me and stared. At one point, during an instrumental bridge, he spoke again, but, as I was concentrating on the music, I didn't catch a bleedin' word. For some reason, people love to talk to people whilst their playing the guitar. You'd never talk to a clarinet player, for example, because their mouths are occupied trying to get the stupid reed to work. However, get someone next to a guitarist/singer and the moment you hit the blank spot between verse and chorus they're asking you how often you play or if you like reggae music whilst you're trying to breathe enough to hit the high A in the next line.

Anyway, despite my sudden reticence, he was kind enough to dig through his pockets and contribute 25 cents in loose change.

Much sweeter are the families with small children. The kids adorably stare in wonder at the tall bloke with the frazzled hair making unfamiliar sounds. The parents smile in love at the kids, and are appreciative that the tall bloke with the frazzled hair isn't playing something by 2LiveCrew.

After I finished up for the day, I put my gear in the car and walked about, just to see who else was on the square that day. A couple of guitarists sat in one corner, obviously sizing up the audience and working out their strategy. Another guitarist had already grabbed the spot I occupied, resonator guitar in hand, and a couple of songsheets loosely scattered in the case. Two more guitarists, a male and a female, occupied another corner. Midway between corners on that side was a guitar and tuba duet. I noticed their case was fairly well stocked with ones. Either they'd well seeded the case or tuba melodies backed by guitar are all the rage these days. Ruddy novelty acts.

I shall have to remember that spot though.

However, all of the musicians were being easily outdrawn by a juggler, well situated between corners on a large stairwell, juggling flaming torches. I didn't get a chance to see their tip jar, but I suspected it was bulging with singed loot. Musicians just can't compete with that sort of act. It's next to impossible to play engaging folk rock with your Fender acoustic on fire.

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