Busking

Struggling with an effect? Any tips (without giving too much away!) you'd like to share?

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Busking

Postby Jean » Mon Aug 06, 2012 12:53 am



Busking can be the most brutal, unfair, soul destroying performance outlet there is. I have spent the last three years busking and failing and changing my act and failing and changing my act and getting some success and refining what works until I finally had a halfway decent act and was making money. Then my act got banned for being 'too dangerous' (it wasn't it just looked dangerous) and now have to start at square one again.

Foreign countries can be quite different from England in regards to what works and what doesn't so everything I tell you now has to be taken with a grain of salt as the rules both legal and social may be wildly different.

1. Finding a place to work.
The best thing to do is look in your area where other performers are busking, even if you can't perform where they are they can usually tell you good places to start out. Google searches can help but often they don't have the information you really need. You can also check out http://www.performers.net/. Other than that, try to find public places with room to perform, chances are if there's no buskers there you will get moved on, but even then as long as your not confrontational it won't get you in any real legal trouble. Make sure you're not blocking street traffic or creating a 'public disturbance' (a term so vague the council can use it to slap down any performer they want) but just try to use common sense. The more you perform the better your instincts about what makes a good pitch and what doesn't will develop.

2. You share the pitch.
Some areas require you getting a license and booking your time from the local council, other places you can just show up and perform. It's worth finding a place where you can just show up, as licensed areas usually require an audition and you won't be good enough yet to get it. Once you found a free area you join the queue and wait your turn to perform. Since most acts last between half an hour to an hour if the area is a popular one this can sometimes mean only getting one show a day. If you want to find your own small space check with the surrounding performers make sure you're not encroaching on their pitch.

3. Allies are better than enemies.
Try to be friendly and non confrontational with everyone, but don't be a pushover. Some people may seem aggressive, rude or downright mean. This can either mean they're jerks or they could just be having a bad day, either way often once you've proved your worth they will become more friendly and can even help you with advise or support. Plus it's no good performing all day and being surrounded by people who hate you. Keep a cool head and remember you're new. It's better to back off from people and try again than get into a fight with anyone. If someone tells you to f*** off, leave them alone and find someone else to talk to, they may turn out to be a good friend later on.

4. Dress the part.
If your just wearing normal cloths, then you're just some dude standing on the street shouting at people to pay attention to you. You will have a very hard time getting people to stop, and if you take too long you could * off the other buskers waiting to perform. Generally the bare minimum for a magic busker is a waistcoat and bowler hat, some people wear a full suit and tie but whatever you choose must not look scruffy, you want to avoid the 'begging tramp' feel of busking.

5. People will lie to you.
It's always best if you can befriend the other performers and learn from them what works and what doesn't, but sometimes other performers will flat out lie to you because they don't want you there, remember the more buskers sharing a pitch the less money for everyone. Double check everything people tell you make sure they're not just trying to sabotage you. Also some public places have local security and they might move you on or tell you you can't perform there, not because you can't but because some people like to abuse what very little power they're given. Always check with the actual police and multiple buskers about what's what.

6. Equipment
An amplifier is a must, if you don't want to loose your voice and if you want to be heard clearly while loud music and general street noise surrounds you. I can recommend a Behringer EPA40 it's small, cheap, lightweight, sturdy and loud. You can attach both a mic and an MP3 devise to play music. However you must check regarding the local rules on both voice amplification and playing music. When you get a headset mic make sure it's battery operated, 'portable' doesn't mean s*** because a mic has two components, the microphone and the receiver. The first portable headset mic I brought had a receiver that needed to be plugged into a socket. Buy your headset mic at a shop with your amp and make sure everything works like you want it to. Make sure it has wind protection, you want your voice to be heard clearly through the amp.

A large rope will allow you to set up a performance space. This will encourage passers by not to walk right through your show and will tell the people watching where to stand. Make sure you urge anyone watching you to come right up to the rope, you don't want people milling around in little groups watching you from a distance, you want them all to become part of the same audience.

Playing music before the show while your setting up your equipment is a good way to inform people that something is happening, however some places will have rules against playing music so while it's good to have it's worth learning how to do without.

A table is not entirely necessary but I have seen few busking magicians without one. Most magic shops will sell a portable of collapsible table however they can be quite expensive. A cheaper option would be to look for camping tables, once again if you can examine it in the shop all the better.

You will need something to carry your equipment in, the size scale and weight of your props and tools will be the factor here. I use a large camping rucksack, some people use a hand trolly with their equipment strapped in and some use a utility trunk which are sturdy and can be stood on while you're trying to build a crowd and sat on while you're waiting to perform.

7. Insurance
Some places will require it some won't, but either way it's worthwhile to get both public liability insurance and make sure your equipment is insured for theft and damage as eventually no matter how hard you try, s*** will go bad for you. In England you can get good cheap cover from equity or tower gate


8. Break dancers, the natural enemy of the busker.
This will once again depend on the performer, I've actually met and befriended many nice break dancers who will happily share a pitch with you, and this may also be completely different abroad, but what I'm about to tell you is a rule of thumb that holds true more often than not.
They will not share a pitch because they don't need to. All they have to do is play loud music and dance, they have the easiest time drawing a large crowd. I actually saw a group of teenage break dancers and they were terrible, they literally couldn't dance they just walked back and fourth around their pitch doing a few synchronized moves and handstands. They had a massive crowd but got virtually no money, but they didn't care because they just started again straight away blasting music over my performance.
Try to talk to the break dancers first, some can be decent, but if they decide they're going to screw you over and you don't have support from the council or other buskers, then the only thing you can do is set up somewhere else far away, don't talk to them about fairness, they don't care.

9. Musicians and statues
Musicians and statues will not share a pitch because they can't. While a street performer makes money by building a crowd and getting as many of them to pay at the end of a show, a musician / statue makes money by passers by dropping it in their hat in dribs and drabs. So as a necessity they have to just perform non stop all day, this is fair enough. If they have a space it's theirs and you can't encroach on it, if you have a space it's yours and they can't do the same.

10. Performance structure.
This is going to have to be very general as it will all eventually come down to what you can and what you want to perform but when you're designing your act you need to structure it into these three parts.

The crowd pull
This is what you perform to get people to approach you, and build a crowd. You can either get a small number of people to approach your table with a few simple and visual card tricks, ask them to step back and then move on to something a bit bigger (like rope magic, torn and restored newspaper, the balloon swallow) get them to step back again and repeat until you have a large enough crowd. Or you can perform something big and dangerous looking such as juggling, setting up some strange piece of apparatus or climbing a high ladder and looking like you're going to dive off. Or you can just t*** around for half an hour to music. Either way the purpose of the beginning of your act is to attract as large a crowd as possible before moving on to the second part.

The promise
Here you're going to perform something good, but more importantly you're going to tell everyone about the finale of your act. You're going to promise them something amazing, something impossible or something that will be really funny, throughout your show you'll notice whole groups of people who will watch you perform one trick and then move on, you need to encourage as many people as you can to stay till the end of your show.

The Hat line
Right before you perform the finale of your act you need to inform people about paying you, it's no good assuming they will pay, people look at a street show as free entertainment. You need to make it very clear to people that if they watched the show, paying nothing or only paying a few pennies is NOT okay and they should not do it. There are plenty of stock lines to choose from and in the end you'll say what works for you but I'll show you what I use to give you an idea of what you need to say.


'Ladies and gentlemen before I do this I just wanted to say that this is my job, this is how I make a living, you've all stayed and watched and I've entertained you for half an hour, and now all I want from each of you is five pounds. Five pounds for half an hour of entrainment is a great deal. Over there you can get a coffee for £3.99! I like to think I'm worth more than a latte. If you enjoyed the show and you had a good time you pay! If you didn't enjoy the show, you still pay! If you give me £5 I will thank you, if you give me £10 I will follow you home. If you can't afford £5 then two or three pounds is fine but please no copper of silver I am not a beggar. If you enjoyed the show then be honest with yourself, be honest with me come forward and pay, if you really have no money then at least do the right thing and come forward at the end and say thank you.'

I then do the finale and finish with.

'Thank you ladies and gentlemen that was my show, Here is my hat, here is my heart please come forward and support the arts'.

That's the basic gist of what I say, there were other bits to it but they were conditional on my performance throughout, so I dropped them. The point was that I hammered two facts into the audience. 1) It's not okay to walk off without paying. 2) Pennies is not an appropriate payment. This is the message that you HAVE to get across.

11. It's all about you.
Most buskers do not do magic that is considered that impressive, because they're limited to doing things that are easily recognized and easy to follow. The real trick to busking is getting a large crowd to watch you and then getting them to like you as a person or a character. So it's not so much about what you're performing it's about how your performing it and what you're saying in between bits. If you find yourself struggling to get a crowd it could be that you're focusing too much on what you're performing and not enough on how you're performing it. A lot of people have an idea about buskers doing nothing for ages and then finally doing just one trick. The fact is they're not doing nothing, they're developing a rapport with their audience.

12. Managing your audience
This falls into two parts, getting the crowd to stand where you want them to and getting them to clap and cheer when you want them to.
If your act is funny they will laugh, if it's scary they will gasp, but no matter how impressive your show is, an audience will rarely clap without encouragement from you. Mainly because before you work on them to be part of a single group they are all individuals standing in the street, they don't want to risk being the only person who claps, they don't want to look silly or draw attention to themselves. It's up to you to get them to loosen up, by having them clap and cheer for no reason they're are then more likely to clap and cheer when there is a reason.

Getting them to clap and cheer is easy, you just tell them to. Start this early, do it in a funny way but instruct them that when you raise your arms up they are to respond by either clapping or yelling 'Oohhh' or whatever. This can be useful to teach them a non verbal cue to cheer. Think of them as a T.V audience, you want them to laugh and cheer to raise the energy, get other people interested and people will actually have a better time if they act like they're having a better time. At certain times throughout the show (not every time) when they applaud tell them, in a funny manner, that the applause wasn't good enough and they have to be louder. Get everyone to join in and give as much energy as they can. Unite the crowd into a group being lead by you.

As for getting them to stand where you want, this is generally easy, you point out were the front of the stage is and instruct large groups to step forward as one, this will pressure those who are less eager to step forward to do it so they blend in. Sometimes you get stubborn people who refuse to come any closer, believing there to be an invisible barrier that if they step over they will have to pay (which is kind of true) be aggressive, not violent or threatening just tenacious. Go right up to them, tell them you'll wait for them, embarrass them into complying. If that doesn't work tell them to move on, they won't pay anyway. Inform them that they are blocking a public walkway and if they stand that far away and you could get in trouble with the council. You don't want gaps or people keeping a distance when you get to the middle of your act, you want your audience to be as one.

13. Kids
Getting a child to join you on stage can make or break your act, usually they are all smiles and energy and are happy to play along with anything you do, but sometimes your very presence intimidates them, sometimes they don't like being the center of attention or they've had a bad experience with another street show. The fact is no matter what you do if you include children (which is highly recommended) at some point you'll get a child who will start crying, when that happens your *****d, you've lost all the good will of your crowd, the energy's been deflated and your takings will suffer. Here are a few things to help avoid a child getting upset, and mitigate the damage to your show when they do.

Ask for a child volunteer, if any immediately raise their hands then you've got a happy willing child who will enjoy themselves. When giving them instructions crouch down to their eye level, don't forget to them you're a towering giant stranger, and even if they volunteered, a child can end up feeling quite intimidated by the whole affair.

If your going to do anything dangerous or threatening with the child inform them quietly first what your going to do and insure them that it's just a joke, that nothing is actually going to happen, make sure they're okay with this before going on.

Keep your eye on the child, you can see when a child is about to start crying. If they seem like they're about to, stop what your doing, crouch down, and ask them gently if they want to go back to their parents. Tell the audience that the child is going back to their parents and ask ask for an applause for the child, but don't keep the child there to receive the applause. It's likely crying will start regardless once the signs are seen and you want them off stage and hopefully have the audience focused back on you.

If a child does start crying while on stage, it's best to just drop the act and your character and let them go back to their parents, approach them while they're with their parents and sincerely apologize. If you can make them laugh then great but don't try too hard, I always offer to let the child punch me on the chin (while still crouching down) if they do a then I perform a back roll and splay myself out spreadeagled, make some sort of comment about how strong they are and then go back to performing.

Despite all I've said, a child getting upset is a rare occurrence. Usually they're game for anything and a lot of fun, not only that but having a child in your show ensures at least one family will stay till the end. People will tell you not to make physical contact with the child, I for one used to pick a child up over my shoulder run from the crowd while screaming 'I'm kidnapping the child I'm kidnapping the child' and I never had any problems with either the child or the parents, but I did have to stop as it made the other buskers nervous and they discussed kicking me out over it.

A few common busking tricks with children.
Firstly they can be used to generate more applause, ask the audience for a big cheer for the child, then turn to the child and ask 'was that applause good enough?' While shaking your head. The child will usually say no, if they say 'yes' you just say 'I don't think it was, once again people!'

They can be used to stall and allow more time for new audience members to show up. Give them a task that's impossible, repeatedly drop things and have them pick it up, describe in great detail to the audience the dangerous task the child is going to do and mock them if they refuse.

If you pay a child, this can generate more money for you. If you pay them money make it a fiver, and make it a point to the audience. 'Does this child deserve five pounds?' 'Do you think anyone who comes up here and entertains you deserves to be payed?' If your not making enough money to give away a fiver every show then make them a balloon animal, but it's always a good idea to give them something.

14. Good material

Busking is not like close up or stage magic the majority of your act is going to be focused on getting people to stop and watch and convincing them to stay. What you end up performing will be a mix of what you want to perform and what you have to perform. Mentalism and bizarre is not considered by most, including me, to be good for street shows as it requires too much concentration from the audience, you will be performing to people who show up and leave at any point during your act and it isn't visual enough. But I've met a very nice busker who wanted to do a street mentalism show and is apparently doing quite well now, so I guess that shuts me up.

Here are a few tricks that do well in a busking scenario, you can use some of these all of them or none of them, but they have all stood the test of time and appear regularly in street magic acts which is both a reason to do them and a reason not to do them.

The balloon swallow
Performance
Can be learned from Tomas Medina's Geek magic

This packs small and plays big. It can be used as both a crowd pull and a finale, if you do learn this you will find it difficult to ever remove from your show because of how powerful it can be.

Cut and restored rope
Perfromance
Can be learned from Mark Wilson's complete course in magic

Light and very portable this is for the middle of the performance once you've got a small to decent size crowd, it's mostly a time filler.

Cups and Balls
Perfromance
Can be learned from Mark Wilson's complete course in magic

Depending how new you are to magic will affect your opinion of the cups and balls. Many new magicians forget just how powerful it is. If you think the cups and balls are too old fashioned or naff you may be shocked to find out the performance is over 3000 * years old. It was an old effect when your grandad was a child it was an old effect when Jesus was a child and yet it survives, because when done well it is the purest form of magic there is. Impossible, elegant and surprising. This is a finale piece.

Straight jacket escape
Performance
A version of which can be brought Here

I've never learned the straight jacket so I don't know about the best resource for learning it, but it's used a lot mainly because it you can spend a lot of time building it up. However it is expensive and fairly heavy to carry around, it's worth considering how much you're going to spend and how much it will all weigh. It's a finale piece.

Contortion body through tennis racket
Performance

This is a rarer one but once again it packs small and plays big, it's a finale piece and good for getting screams. I actually know very little about this and I'm afraid I don't know where you would learn it.

Gazzo
Most magic acts in England just do Gazzos act, I don't and I'm one of the few not making good money. Even if you don't want to just do his show you will undoubtedly find good advice and material on his Books and D.V.D.'s I can't recommend any personally because I only brought tossed out deck and I thought it was awful, but every other magic busker I've met will recommend most of his material to you so I'm including it here. Funny side story to this, the day after Gazzo appeared on 'Penn and Tellers Fool Us' none of the magic acts in Covent garden showed up, because their act had just been performed on T.V.

Finally
I'm aware that hitting you with a wall of text about how expensive, complex and difficult busking is can be very off-putting. So I'm going to finish this by saying if you want to be good at this, you simply have to go out as much as you can and do it. Don't be afraid to look silly (you will look silly) don't be afraid that no one will stop (at first they won't eventually they will) and don't concern yourself to much with getting and learning everything I've written here. Learn by doing, go out and try materiel, try it again keep going until you know whether it's the material or the performance that does or doesn't work. Add and remove things from your act and costume until you're making decent money. Don't let other magicians and buskers tell you what will and won't work, only your audience will tell you that. Don't be discouraged, there will be bad weather, bad audiences and bad people trying to stop you. Push through and have confidence in yourself.

Last edited by Jean on Sun Dec 09, 2012 3:27 pm, edited 6 times in total.
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Re: Busking

Postby Mandrake » Mon Aug 06, 2012 12:33 pm

Thanks Jean, this is such an excellent post it's been copied and posted in here as a sticky. I suggest we all read, mark,learn and inwardly digest these words of wisdom!

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Re: Busking

Postby Jean » Mon Aug 06, 2012 1:04 pm

Oh Christ if you're going to make this a sticky could I at least get a chance to tidy it up a bit?

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Re: Busking

Postby Mandrake » Mon Aug 06, 2012 1:12 pm

No probs, you can still edit your post - but it's excellent stuff as it is!

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Re: Busking

Postby TonyB » Tue Aug 14, 2012 10:25 pm

Great post - thanks. I am going back on the streets next week, and will digest this the night before. Glad to see that you included the balloon swallow. It is my opening, and my favourite routine.

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Re: Busking

Postby BlaiseCarlisle » Wed Nov 28, 2012 8:06 pm

Thanks very much for this post! I've always wanted to try busking, although more for the practice than anything else.

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Re: Busking

Postby kevmundo » Fri Dec 07, 2012 8:39 pm

Jean,

Silly question but if you're busking where do you plug your audio equipment into?

Pip-pip

K :)

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Re: Busking

Postby Jean » Sat Dec 08, 2012 3:58 am

Do you mean where do I plug in the speaker and mic for power, or do you mean where do I plug in the device that plays music?

The speaker and headset mic are both battery powered. Any electronic equipment you use will have to be able to run on battery. For the Behringer the battery is internal and can be charged up overnight. For certain larger speakers you may also have buy and manually attach a large battery, which I don't know enough about to advise anyone on, except that they can be heavy and expensive.

The Behringer has enough plugs to be connected to both my headset mic and my MP3 player.

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Re: Busking

Postby kevmundo » Sat Dec 08, 2012 10:02 am

Thanks for that!

K :)

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Re: Busking

Postby mark lewis » Sun Dec 09, 2012 2:20 am

My good friend the wonderful street entertainer Peter Snow once told me that "busking is hell". He should know since he has performed all over the world for decades. After reading the above post I can see what he was getting at.

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Re: Busking

Postby devilstick Peat » Wed Jul 24, 2013 4:27 pm

I've been busking for over 26 years, and I agree with every thing thats been said here. Also, a little trick I use is this. Instead of using a rope, I mark my pitch with water (its a trick my dog tought me).
Lastly, busking is not only the hardest teacher in the world, it's also the best.
P.S. Cambridge is really bad for magicians and jugglers, you really dont want to even consider performing there (Honest)

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Re: Busking

Postby Jean » Fri Jul 26, 2013 1:56 pm

Dammit me and a mate plan to hitchhike to Cambridge because we heard good things, I guess we'll have to cancel... oh wait, I see what you did there, sod!
Btw, Your dog wouldn't be a German Shepard would it?

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Re: Busking

Postby mark lewis » Fri Jul 26, 2013 4:02 pm

Oddly enough I actually belong to a buskers forum even though I am not a busker myself. Mind you there are plenty of other non-buskers there too. Of course I have drawn thousands upon thousands of crowds over decades at trade shows and consumer shows. But busking is a whole different ball game.

It is a very tough ball game too. I wouldn't want to do it.

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