My busking was a bust. Advice, suggestions, tales or tips?

Times being what they’ve been recently, I decided I’d try to raise some scratch by the ancient and honorable practice of busking – entertaining an unsuspecting public by unsolicited performance. Now, the only musical instrument I can play is a stereo; I sing like a hog with a headcold; I 'm too brittle to breakdance and far too fidgetty for the human statue routines; I also ain’t an acrobat or a juggler, and as for ventriloquism, I’m a real dummy.

What I am pretty good at, though, is reading and reciting poetry. Back around the turn of the century, when that open-mic spoken-word performance thang was real big here in San Fran, I was actually pretty hot stuff for a while, reading my own works in places like Cafe Babar and the Chameleon and the Paradise Lounge. So yesterday, I got all decked out in a dress shirt, headscarf and leather vest (all black, natch), loaded my backpack with anthologies and printouts of poems both popular and high-toned (I figured I’d stick with stand-bys and standards, classics and chestnuts – rhyme and meter out the ying-yang and maybe a sparse spattering of the more playful, less radical side of the beatnik bard-bop), and set out in search of an audience. If nothing else, I reasoned, this could help me get my chops back in operation in case I start reading my own shit publically again…

So I started out down by the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market – turista central.I grabbed a slab of sidewalk and a piece of wall to lean on, dropped my big black cowboy hat to catch whatever coins might come my way, and started right in with Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, followed by Tyger! Tyger! and Yeats’ The Second Coming. All stuff I’ve loved forever, which sounds real good read out loud. Then I brought it back into the modern era with a couple Mark Strand shorties and that spooky-ass, beautiful Anne Sexton piece The Moss Of His Skin.

Y’wanna know what kind of response I got? Doodly fuckin’ doo, was what.

After a half hour (during which my entire audience consisted of 1} a bored acquaintance of mine who saw me in action and decided to stop for a minute; 2} an older gent, threadbare and head-bare too, who in a regular situation I’d have probably been the one giving him a spot of sparechange; and 3} a photography student from the San Francisco Acaah-demy of Aahht, who asked if he could snap some shots of me reading, and then gave me naught but a bizness card for my picturesque and personable pains), I shifted locations by about a quarter-block. There, I gave 'em Kublai Khan, and The Raven – breaking out the heavy artillery, as it were – and eventually, Christina. Rossetti’s Goblin Market (I never quite realized, until yesterday, just how long Goblin Market is – or how goddamned corny it is, either!) .

Nada. Not even golf claps or a razzberry! So I switched to Plan B.

Plan B was to go read in the Civic Center BART station, which has long corridors where folks often play music for loose coins and stray singles…and of course, there was someone doing just that already in all the likely spots. So I gave up show biz for the day and went home.

What the hell, I had fun anyway, and I know I did some decent reading of some first-rate poems, whether anyone else paid me any mind or not. I’ll probably try again Saturday or Sunday, when there’s more of a crowd.

So, if anyone in Doperopolis has street performance experience, and is reading my little lament, I’m guess I’m asking for some tips here, a bit of advice maybe, perhaps even a jot of encouragement…like, can you think of anything I should’ve done different? Am I barking up the wrong alley here, or just plunging, lung and tongue, into the dungheap?

Well, at least you’re not a mime. :slight_smile:

Seriously, you might get a confederate or 3 to draw attention to you. I think people will stop and give a listen, (however briefly) if there are already 2 or 3 people standing there. Maybe even have your confederates drop some coin into your hat before they wander away.

Just a thought, once people listen to a whole poem, they might stay for the next and/or contribute to the hat.

I think the moral of the story is that “Cafe Babar and the Chameleon and the Paradise Lounge” are a self-selected audience. People walking down the street are a random sample who probably couldn’t care less about poetry.

And, as a passerby, I can’t particularly see how the ability to memorize one or two poems is all that noteworthy that I should give you a buck. Everyone knows how to read, but only a few have learned to play the violin.

I think you just need to get a new act.

How did you manage to compete acoustically with the guy who tap-dances on plywood? That dude is seriously noisy.

Always seems to be a 50-50 shot of him being there, at least at lunchtime.

From what I’ve casually seen of the lunchtime crowd of tourists and people somewhere on the realm between buskers and hustlers, only the hustlers seem to be getting anything - mostly the guys with ratty old maps who tackle anyone who looks lost. Otherwise, lots of empty hats and guitar cases on the sidewalk.

Hate to say it, but right now, I think people are looking at buskers and wondering if they have any marketable skills of their own to scrape up some grocery money, and they look at the panhandlers and think “If I don’t find a job soon, that’ll be me in a couple of months.”

Also, don’t forget to put some seed money in the hat.


I’ve tried busking a few times in Philly. My first attempt was as part of the Fringe Festival. I had a whole group of acts (songs, puppet shows, etc) based around the Cthulhu mythos. Unfortunately, nobody got the reference and thus missed the joke, People thought I was a genuine lunatic preaching genuine madness. If I had it to do over again, I would have done the act as a priest of Sauron. The LOTR movies were big then and people would have seen the joke.

My second series of attempts have been street clowning. I have a clown outift that clearly marks me as a street performer. I have some simple magic tricks I can do. I can make balloon animals. Still, most of my efforts have been failures. Most adults would rather give money to a panhandler than buy a balloon animal. Kids are hard to find. All the really good busking spots are off limits due to local law.

I can pass along some tips

#1 Look like a busker. If people don’t realize you’re doing an act, they’ll likely think that you are a crazy person talking to himself. Any city dweller knows to avoid such mentally ill people.

#2 I agree that you need a new act. Unless your reading is truly sensational, I can’t see people giving you money for it. If they are interested in poetry (and the average person is not) they can read the classics themselves. You said you hadn’t even memorized the poems and were just reading from a book.

#3 You need to try harder. You stayed for half an hour plus whatever it took to read Goblin Market? When I busk, I put in eight hours on weekends and two two hour shifts on weekdays (to catch rush hour traffic).

Here I am in clown costume with the Flying Spaghetti Monster

The heart-shaped button on my jacket reads “Tip$”. This helps people understand that I am not clowning for free.

Can you maybe work in a bit of juggling?

[ETA] Never mind, you said not. So, it’s just you, sitting there reciting poetry. Yeesh. Maybe if you had a sign saying “For 0.50 I will shut up with the poetry for five minutes.” That’s potentially six bucks an hour.

I think you weren’t aggressive enough. When my brother once tried to take a picture of one of those guys in silver who pretend to be a robot, the robot-guy made it clear that my brother had to contribute something before he could take a picture.

Okay – for one thing, I don’t have anything memorized. I was reading, from books, which bit of information you might have noticed, if *you’*had actually read the OP.

Furthermore, maybe “everyone knows how to read”, but I’m here to tell you that there’s a little more involved in reading a poem out loud, properly so that it sounds righteously alive, than just saying lines you see on a page. What, do you think I was out there going “BY duh SHORES uh GITchee-GOOmee”, like some zit-smeared lout in a high school English class?

Maybe you were too close to the old dude with the giant anti-sex, AIDS is for sinners sign. He gets a lot of attention.

Let’s see. You’re dressed in all black, leaning up against a wall and talking continuously to no one in particular.

DocCathode got it in one. My first thought would be “crazy person talking to himself.”

Former TTC subway musician checking in.

Poetry is going to be hard - at least with a musician playing with a hat in front of him, people are used to that situation. A poet reading for change on the street is unusual, so here are some suggestions to get the point across.

You need to find somewhere where you get a lot of passersby, but not a lot of noise, so you can be heard. That’s going to be tricky. You may be reading for hours at a time in order to get any payback - you might want to look into a microphone and a battery powered amp, such as a Crate Taxi or a Fender AmpCan. If they can’t hear you from what they consider a socially ‘safe’ distance, you’re not going to get any coin.

Consider what you can do for your appearance - black is good for somewhere where you already are the feature. You want to be seen to attract attention so they come in range where they hear you. Then they can be impressed and they throw change.

I found reading (music, in my case) from the page to be a waste of time. I made eye contact, smiled while I sang and played. Singing directly to people as they passed made them want to give me some coin. Not making that personal contact made me part of the background, like all the subway ads they were ignoring.

If you persist, you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t. You’re looking for the overlap in the Venn diagram that represents your tastes and abilities and what the average person wants to hear randomly on the street. Explore - that’s one of the huge advantages of busking. Your audience changes every 15 seconds or less - your clunkers vanish, and your successes are rewarded with a clink of coin. Consider some Robert Service, some story-telling, some local history of the spot where you’re standing. Ghost stories, limericks, whatever works.

Here’s an idea for you - get a chair and a folding puppet booth. Get a decent hand puppet, read from the other side of a black cloth. (There’s a lot more to puppetry than this, but the booth and the puppet give people the idea that something artistic is going on…) Interact with the passersby; improvise poetry on a suggested theme.

TALE ALERT!! Above all, don’t get discouraged! You just found out what we all find out on the first day - it’s hard work, and it’s different from any other kind of performing. I remember thinking I was going to sing some jazz, play some classical guitar and it was all going to be like getting paid to practice in public. My first day, I was at Yonge/Bloor station in Toronto. The busker spot is at track level for the Yonge/University/Spadina line, and the station is busy, even in the early afternoon. I have my good classical guitar with me, and a cigar box for people to throw coins in. No pickup on the guitar, no amp, no microphone. I don’t want them to throw coins in the case, because it might scratch my good guitar if I miss one when I take them out, so the case is closed and behind me. Let’s see, when the train comes in or leaves, no one can hear me, but that’s when the crowd is the biggest. Even when there are no trains, it’s a huge space, and I’m noticing that some of the people are actually startled when they get about 10 - 15 feet away from me, because that’s the first they hear of my singing and playing. Then, after about half an hour, I’m out of repertoire, so I have to start repeating, except I haven’t really found even one piece that’s bringing any significant money in.

After two and a half hours, I was discouraged and beat. I head home, count my take and discover I’ve made about fifteen bucks, all in small change.

The next day, I had my (louder) steel string guitar, the classical rep was gone, and I was strumming with a pick, singing Stan Rogers and Neil Young. $40. in a little over an hour. Lesson learned.

I’d have thrown you a couple of bucks for a lively recital of The Cremation of Sam McGee.

I agree with those saying that it might help to turn it into more of an “act”.
I think a simple way to perhaps get more attention from people would be to draw a face on your hand with a pen or make a sock puppet - and then have the puppet recite poems and make silly banter with passerbys. It sounds goofy, but that might make it amusing enough to some people that they would give you some money for it.

You’re coming across as aggressive and hostile here. If that’s showing on the street as well, that’s going to keep people away. You’re the equivalent of a salesman cold-calling people; you need a certain level of warmth and charm to keep them from hanging up on you.

That almost sounds downright sneaky, and I think it’s an excellent suggestion!

Kinda like the stranger who walks up to the guy with the three-card game set up and wins a c-note in the first minute, huh?

I didn’t forget; I put my whole fortune in there – all seventeen cents of it.

Hey, thanks for the input, Doc. I did get bored and bail awful quick, you’re right. About my look, though, I wastrying to look like I was giving a show; I thought I looked very dashing and bardic in my dress shirt and leathers. And as for the books…well, I’m used to doing readings, and I take the term literal; besides that, if I don’t have a page between me and the audience I get all self-aware and nervous and shit.

PS: when I’m righteously “on it”, then, yes, my readng style is pretty damned sensational!

You stated your goal was entertaining an unsuspecting public, but then you went out and read poetry at them.