Busking 101

Erika Eichelberger Jul 22, 2011

In late May, five people were arrested for dancing at the Jefferson Memorial in protest of an appeals court ruling upholding the prohibition of dancing at national monuments. Ironically, Jefferson’s fellow founding father Benjamin Franklin was a big fan of public performance, having been a street performer himself as a youngster, exercising what would later become First Amendment rights.

Art in public spaces is important, not only as political expression, but as an act in and of itself. It can be a reminder of our humanity as we walk down city streets engineered for commerce — a reminder that we are part of a community, not just consumers. Re-imagining the use of public space has the potential to ruffle feathers, but here in the city this summer, public performance is alive and (mostly) well. As temperatures rise and bank accounts run low, musicians and dancers are hitting the streets to try their luck busking — performing on the street for donations, a trade that has been practiced across the world since antiquity.

The word “busk” comes from the Spanish word buscar, to seek, as in for fame or fortune. Whether you’re seeking fortune, or just want to play, buskers veteran and rookie alike offer their advice on how to get started.

Morgan, who plays banjo at the Bedford Ave. L stop, says don’t fight the police: “When the cops tell you to move, move! Then you can come back later. Just don’t argue with them.” There is no law against playing in the subway, but buskers often report being harassed anyway. Performers must simply follow the same rules of conduct as any other commuter — namely not blocking traffic and not using amplifiers.

Outside the MTA system, permits are only required if you are using an amplifier or are playing in or near a park.
Morgan plays gigs all over the city and uses busking to rehearse. “It’s nice to be able to play in front of people,” he says. “I play anywhere I can — parks, subways, bars, people’s houses. Everywhere.”

Jesse, a blues guitarist in a band called Deep Intent, recently started busking again because “times are hard — I am broke right now.”

He used to play on the street in the ’70s and ’80s, then played professionally while working as a chef until he got degenerative arthritis and went on disability.

He recommends the 7th Ave F/G train station in Park Slope because it’s an open space and the cops don’t bother him. “I’m not restricting or constricting the traffic. I’m out of the way but people can hear me,” he says.

Cora, a singer-songwriter, performs throughout the city, but has always wanted to try her hand at busking. The Indypendent spoke to Cora, performing in the 14th St. underground pathway, on her first day as a busker. She had already experimented with five different stations that night, and noted the importance of choosing stations with adequate time between trains. She says the Jay St./Metrotech station in downtown Brooklyn has five minutes of silent time “so that you can actually sing.”

Cora couldn’t find a job this summer, but hopes that she can use busking to scrape by  and have more time to record her music.

Alex, a film student and writer, started playing the guitar and busking a year ago to overcome performance anxiety. “I had to beat that out of myself,” he says.

Alex recommends that new buskers learn lots of covers, “because people will just walk over to you and ask you to play something.” “Slip your own songs in there, too,” he says. “It’s nice because you get to field test them.” He was busking in Union Square to make toll money to visit his parents when The Indypendent spoke with him.

A man who simply goes by C says his favorite spot is the 14th St. underground pathway between the L train and the 1/2/3 trains because of the acoustics and heavy pedestrian traffic. C is a super and construction worker who busks whenever he is out of work. “This is what I love to do,” he says. “Been playing all my life.”

He also recommends the 7th Ave. stop on the B/Q line for its acoustics, and favors the West 4th St. stop in the West Village because “you get to meet people from all over the world.”

Luis, a Chilean violinist, makes an unheard of $100-$300 a day playing Bach on the Bedford Ave. L train platform. While he doesn’t know anyone else who makes that much (other buskers reported making around $20 in a few hours), he says that training is key if you’re aiming to rake in that kind of money. “You really need a good solid technical base in order to play properly,” Luis says.

He started playing classical guitar at age 13, but says that when he first saw a violin it was “first sight love.” “It wasn’t like I was being unloyal to the guitar,” he jokes. “All I can say is that I’m glad the guitar wasn’t around, because I would have been in trouble.” Luis moved to the United States to continue training with his mentor, Joakin Bello.

Photos by Erika Eichelberger.

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