How To Make a Living From Busking

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Photo credit: Faith D

Playing music on the street is a grind. It can take a lot of trial and error and days with little pay. On the other hand, you can have very good days where you pull in hundreds. So the question is, does it end up being enough in the end? Can you make a living from busking?

How Much Do Busking Musicians Make?

Here’s the thing with making money as a busking musician: it fluctuates aggressively.

For example, this relatively unknown busking duo made $3 in two hours, but they also made $98 in two hours. This renowned violinist made $32 in 43 minutes. And based on the responses in this Reddit thread of busking performers, the hourly wage for a busker ranges from about $30 an hour up to $100+ an hour.

So it’s all over the place, even if you’re a really skilled musician. Yes, you can make a living playing music on the street. But it seems to require long hours, a knack for entertaining, and many days where you only make a little bit of money. So you have to love performing, even if no one’s listening.

Successful Busking Musicians

Let’s look at some good examples of how to perform on the street. I know there are plenty of busking musicians in the United States, and many of them are very talented and make decent money. But a few musicians that come to mind include Marc Rebillet, Ed Sheeran, and Allie Sherlock.

Rebillet makes up music on the spot, using a looper, a MIDI controller, and a laptop. All of this sits on top of a fold-out table that he sets up around New York City. His performance energy is electric. His positive vibe is infectious. He’s funny. And he’s very musically talented.

Then there’s Sheeran. He started out busking, playing anywhere he could, catching as many ears as possible. He started out with a loop pedal, his guitar, a decent talent at beatboxing, and a library of cover songs. He kept at it, and he’s doing just fine. I’m not saying his level of success will happen to you, but good things can happen from busking.

Lastly, we have Sherlock. According to her YouTube uploads, she’s been busking for at least 7 years. She was a kid when she started, playing music for people who mostly weren’t listening. And now, her recent videos show a large crowd gathering as she performs with her band.

Tips To Help You Do Well Busking

If you’re looking to give busking a try, I’ve crowd-sourced some tips from this thread and expounded on each.

Pick a good location

For busking to work, people need to hear you for long enough to decide if they like you or not. And they need to have money on them, so places like outside a mall, near small businesses, or at/near a farmer’s market are good spots to try.

Pay attention to the time

Before you set up and start playing, scout your location at different times of the day. Try first thing in the morning, at lunchtime, and as people are getting off work. Pay attention to when there’s the most foot traffic at different locations and take notes. You could then hit a different location each day depending on when they’re each busiest.

Have a unique hook

If you have some way to get people to stop walking out of interest, you’ve got a hook. It could be your look, your looping pedal, your unique cover of a pop song, or playing an uncommon instrument. You need something to grab people’s attention so they stop and listen.

Play famous songs in your style

People love hearing songs they know but played in a new way. So find some pop songs that everyone knows and play them in your style. You’ll enjoy it and so will others. Playing covers is the way to succeed as a busker.

Charisma and confidence

Part of busking is engaging with people. Yes, you need to be talented. But something as simple as making eye contact with people can make a difference. If you can talk and laugh and joke with people in between songs, even better. If you can make someone’s day better with an interaction, that will increase your chances of making an impact and getting more tips.

Live stream your performance

On top of performing on the street, you should consider streaming your performance on your social media channels. Places like Twitch and TikTok Live give viewers the opportunity to tip, so it’s another way to engage with fans and make extra money.

Get people in their emotions

Your performance needs to make audience members feel something. It needs to make them smile or tear up or feel seen. This will make the performance more memorable.