Stretching from ancient history right up to the present time, performing on the street, commonly referred to as “busking”, is a popular method for artists in all disciplines to not only display their craft, but hone their skills and reach new audiences. If you're looking to make a few coins to keep travelling or you want to hone your skills as a musician or an entertainer, then busking might just be your thing.
Starting out with a basic idea of what you want to do, you need to build a show around your talent. Many performers make it look as if they've already had donations by placing a few coins or bills in their performance case in front of their “pitch”. For musicians, learning a few of the standard songs is a good idea. Guns N' Roses' Patience or Sweet Child O'Mine, the Beatles' Hey Jude, U2's Elevation or With Or Without You, and The Eagles' Hotel California while learning a few other songs will help immensely in securing those hard to find customers' coins. Classical music is always in fashion and will garner some attention. Some folks prefer the karaoke route, either singing or playing over top of a bed track. The djembe is also a popular percussion instrument though they can be cumbersome to carry around. Other than that, just about instrument can be brought out and played in public.
Some cities require busking permits, those are usually the bigger “pitches” and are not only highly sought after, but also have time limits on your performance. London, Paris, Sydney, New York, all require permits in some parts of the city. Other cities have yet to be regulated; Bangkok, Adelaide, Seoul, Kiev. Some places hardly ever see musicians so most people would probably be confused by your presence. Busking and backpacking seem to go well together so it's in those well travelled areas that you will most likely find the necessary flow of people to support your way of life.
Costumes are a good idea and will help you stand out from the crowd. There is a huge difference between performer dressed in cargo pants, unshaven, and generally looking as if he just woke up compared to a well groomed, neatly dressed performer. Those performing magic or optical illusions enhance their performance by utilizing costumes. Then again, some folks do something so unique that a costume might just get in the way, check out this drummer!
Bucket Drumming Busker
If you're looking to make money from your craft, have something to sell. Cds are probably the easiet product to offer while travelling. Further, CD ripping and burning technology has gotten to the point where most home made Cds can be played by anybody. Although a professionally produced disc looks better, if you're just starting out you might just need to get your work out there and see if it gains any traction before committing to the larger cost of a professionally produced disc. And with the availablity of the internet, offering extras by way of free downloads or blog posts about your travelling can be a great way to entice people to purchase your work. Last but not least, if you do make it, those first albums you made will become rareties and collectors items in their own right.
Finally, if you're just starting out as a busker you migh tbe intimidated. Don't worry and don't be afraid to make mistakes, it's all a part of the learning process. Many famous musicians got their start on the streets. The worst mistake is not to have tried in the first place!
If you're looking for some idea of what it's like to busk around the world, check out The Busking Project. They travelled the world and interviewed hundreds of performers. Their Vimeo page is chalk full of clips of performers. Soon they will be releasing a DVD and a book about their journey.
I hope that gets you started in your musical busking career. If you have any suggestions on how to perform on the streets, please post below!