Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Earning a Living With Your Music

Busking at Seattle’s Pike Place Market
If you’re not familiar with the terms “busker” and “busking”, well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the word busk is an English verb dating to a 17th century French word meaning “to sell” that came to mean “to play music in the street or other public place for voluntary donations” in 19th century Britain.  So a busker plays music in the street. . . you get the idea.  And busking can be a profitable business for many street performers, at times the musician’s only source of income.

One place in this country with a strong busking tradition is New Orleans where musicians, often world-class players, set up in the streets of the French Quarter with a hat on the sidewalk for tips - usually seeded by the busker with a few one and five dollar bills to suggest an appropriate donation.  Over one three week period I watched a succession of wonderful musicians busking in front of the world-famous Cafe' Du Monde'.  Always a drummer with a basic trap kit, often a stand-up bass plus various brass and woodwind players knocking out the perfect accompaniment for coffee and beignets in the morning.   Listeners would call out almost any rock, blues or jazz tune and the buskers would agree to a key and then perform wonders with the request.

From Athens, Greece, to Yokohama, Japan, you’re likely to buskers working, with a hat or instrument case holding bills and change and often self-produced DVD’s for sale and even flyers for their upcoming appearances in more formal venues.  (Busking is a way of “giving away” free samples to potential customers, a proven marketing tactic.)

One beautiful early fall day in Seattle – about a week ago, a day filled with bright sun on busy downtown streets . . .  the perfect day for a busker hunt.   Arriving at the city’s Westlake Plaza, armed with camera, voice recorder and netbook, I spent four hours randomly wandering, listening for music.

$30.00 an hour
just to practice?

Across the street from Westlake, Martin,  a young man in his late teens or early twenties, played his instrument to the passing crowd, generating a steady stream of donations.  Playing a small bagpipe I think are called “kitchen pipes”, Martin comes daily from his home in a middle-class suburb  to an unoccupied corner and as he told me, and “gets paid to practice.”  To my untrained and tone-deaf  ear he sounded pretty skilled.  Passersby must agree as Martin claims to generate about $30 an hour for “practicing”.  Not a bad after school gig.

Wandering west from Westlake I entered Seattle’s Pike Place Market, hectic with locals and tourists visiting stalls for hand-made goods and of course, the fresh fish that is the core of the Market’s business. 
Seven years busking with
no plans to change.

Gregory was the first “licensed” busker I met in the Market, a rhythm and blues guitarist and singer who has worked here for the past seven years since his discharge from the Army at Fort Lewis.  Originally from New Jersey, is now a confirmed Seattleite who is doing exactly what he wants to do, earn a living by busking.  According to him, he has no plans to join band or seek a more traditional job.  Why?  Well, for one thing, he says he averages about $20 per hour in one hour shifts rotating through the 13 approved busker locations in the Market.

Self-employed entertainer
and teacher building a
business by busking. 
A block to the west in the heart of the Market I came across Amanda, a  music teacher and harpist playing to the passing shoppers.  At one point, a girl of maybe eight or nine stopped , to watch with her mother, captivated by sweet music.  While Amanda continued to play with one hand, she motioned the girl over and asked to pluck a certain string each time Amanda cued her.  And right on cue, the girl plucked the correct string as her mother snapped photos – and when the duet was over, she rewarded Amanda with a very nice tip of folding money.

At the end of her hour at this location, I followed Amanda to another location about 100 yards away.  Here Amanda played on autopilot while answering my questions.  Harp is just one instrument she plays along with guitar and piano; busking at the market provides her with many local leads for formal paying jobs such as parties, anniversaries and weddings as well as students.  Her Uncle is also self-employed as a free-lance “advertising type” serving a range of small clients in West Seattle, a gentrified older neighbor about ten minutes from downtown.  This is one family with a tradition of independence and self-sufficiency earning a living doing something they are both good at and enjoy doing.
Around the corner at what must be the prime busking location at the Market, three members of a well-established Seattle blue grass band, The Tallboys, performed a series of numbers from their DVD’s on-sale next to the requisite instrument case partially filled with coins and bills.  Very professional down to folksy costumes and on-stage accents, The Tallboys drew a sizable crowd, especially when the rhythm guitarist clog-danced to the tune.  It was obvious at least to me, these people worked hard to provide a quality product with no guarantee as to how much they might earn.  A cold-rainy day with sparse crowds?  Not so good.  A warm, sunny day with crowds?  Much better.

Other musicians performed throughout the afternoon at the set locations spaced out among the many other independent vendors, artists and craftsmen.  To busk at the Market a prospect pays a modest thirty dollar annual fee at the Pike Place Market office.  Licenses are issued annually in April, and other than the license, there is no need to audition.  No city or state business license is required to busk at Pike Place Market.

Simply put, a busker’s performance determines income, and weeds out those lacking in either talent or work-ethic.  For one thing, the thirteen performance spots at the market are first come, first served, meaning arriving early to post “reservations” on the posts or sides of buildings.  Have a late night gig?  You still have to show up early in the morning to line up your schedule.

You might think that street musicians would automatically qualify as members of the Fringe Economy, but not necessarily so.  In Seattle, and in many cities, buskers are required to have permits to play in certain locations such as a city park or in a tourist attraction such as Seattle’s Pike Place Market.  On the other hand, no license or permit is required to just set up and play on the sidewalk.  A Fringe Business is any business that sells legal products and or services without the benefit or often the burden of licenses or permits and whose owner may or may not pay taxes on income earned by the business.  
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The Entrepreneur's Bookshelf ~
The more you know about small business management and financing before you start, the more likely you are to succeed.  That's why I urge anyone thinking of starting a business to contact their local Small Business Development Center or Community College.  I have also organized this bookshelf for you at Powell's Books, the world's largest single site new and used bookstore, featuring the latest books on small business start-ups, marketing, and small business money management.   
A Selection Related to this Post:

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