Over the past few days I’ve found myself missing busking.
I never really expected to miss it, because when you’re trying to make rent on a London flat by busking in the snow in February it loses most of its glamour and excitement. But it can be a lot of fun, and although you’re unlikely to make all your necessary money that way, it can provide a little bit of extra income.
However, it can also be confusing to work out whether you’re allowed to busk in a certain spot, and whether it’s safe to do so. Finding a place that’ll give you the right level of amplification is also important, especially if like me you’re either singing a cappella or playing the ukulele with no amp. So here are my tips for buskers; I’ve put ‘solo female buskers’ in the title, because we have some extra things to think about, especially when busking late at night, but plenty of these will be relevant to anyone who’s busking. It’s also quite London-skewed: I’ve only ever busked in London and Brighton, so I know a thing or two about busking in cities, but there may be other rules in the countryside, I dunno.
What To Wear
This is an important one because you ideally want to (a) stand out and (b) feel confident. Whatever outfit you have that fulfils those two roles is going to be your sweet spot clothes-wise. Also bear in mind that if you’re busking in England, chances are you’re going to get rained on at some point, or at least feel a cold breeze, so wear some layers.
Personally I go for long flowy skirts with warm leggings underneath, plus a warm top. I wear my hair down because I have long tumbly hair that whips around in the wind and draws added attention, and I also wear a shitload of eye make-up. People are going to be looking at you, so you might as well make it worth their while.
Even if you don’t want to look completely outlandish, it helps if you have at least one ‘statement’ item so that people can recognise you again. There are so many buskers in London, especially if you’re busking with a guitar (the most popular busking instrument), that you need to have some way of being recognised. This could be a top hat, a flouncy skirt, a bright red bandana… whatever you want. Just make sure you stand out from the crowd of guitar-toting, Wonderwall-singing other humans who’ll be your competition.
Where To Stand
First of all, check the laws of your city or area before you decide to start busking. Although it’s technically not illegal to busk in any public space, lots of places don’t allow it, and lots of spaces are privately owned even if that’s not immediately obvious.
Places you’ll need to look out for include the areas outside shopping centres, which are often owned by the corporation who owns the centre; and spaces outside pubs, bars and restaurants.
In London the only borough which is officially 100% cool with busking is Camden. Even here, however, you may be moved on by the police if you’re busking within the borough but outside of the Camden / Mornington Crescent area. The challenge of busking within that area is that that’s what everyone does, so the competition is huge. Also it’s noisy and crowded, two things which don’t help the busking experience at all.
Anywhere that’s really busy is a place you’re likely to get moved on from. If the police do come and ask you to move, be polite and do so. Sure, what you’re doing isn’t technically illegal, and there are all sorts of websites that will advise you of your rights and give you little printable sheets to demonstrate that you’re allowed to do what you’re doing, but ultimately it probably isn’t worth the pain. Just smile and move on.
The biggest secret I found to scouting out an excellent busking location is to look for somewhere no one else would think of. Busking is a very counter-intuitive art; while you might think the busier a place is, the better it is for making money, I found this not to be the case. If you stand in a place that’s less busy, people feel more of a connection to you when they walk past; and if they’re not being swept along in a huge crowd they’re more likely to have time to stand and listen to you for a minute while they dig around in their wallet.
If you don’t have an amp, look for somewhere with excellent acoustics. Good examples include under bridges and outside train stations that have large cavernous interiors you can sing directly into (looking at you, Crystal Palace); anything that will make your voice echo around the space and make people want to actually seek you out.
My final piece of advice on finding a spot: don’t be an asshole. Busking’s competitive, we all get that, but there are few things more irritating than another busker setting up within a couple of feet of your spot and drowning you out.
Also if there are homeless people begging in the area, consider whether you’re comfortable with potentially taking money away from them. When I busked outside Waterloo station I discovered that the homeless people there had a rota going on: they’d each take it in turns to sit outside the station begging, then they’d split the money between them later and try to book a hostel room and find something to eat. Unbeknownst to me, I’d set up my busking bag right on their spot. One of them approached me and explained this, and we came to an agreement: he realised I’d probably make more money from busking than they did from begging, so he agreed to let me stay if I gave some cash to their pool before I left. I thought this was perfectly reasonable, so I did it.
How To Stand
It’s not just where you busk, but how you busk, that will make the difference (and by ‘difference’ I mean ‘money’).
The absolute ideal spot for a cappella busking in London is directly outside Crystal Palace station. I’m telling you this because I doubt I’m ever going to busk there again, so I don’t mind sharing my biggest busking secret. There are several reasons for this:
- The area directly outside the station is covered, so you don’t get rained on.
- The station staff are friendly and won’t send you away, as long as you don’t busk inside the actual station.
- The station itself is shaped kind of like a chapel: a huge arching cavern swallows you up when you enter the main door. This means that if you position yourself outside it and slightly to the right of it, you can sing into the cavern and your voice will echo around enticingly, being naturally amplified by the acoustically excellent architecture and tempting people to come outside to see where the singing’s coming from.
- When people leave the station, they will be walking directly towards you.
This last point is the busking ideal: most buskers find spots where people are walking past them, and I don’t understand why more people haven’t come to the realisation that actually what you want is people who are walking towards you instead. If they’re coming at you head-on, it’s hard for them to ignore you. Plus if you’re making eye contact and smiling, it feels like you’re singing at them, or giving them a personal gift, rather than just randomly cycling through a list of songs in your head.
What To Perform
The first thing to remember is that no one wants to hear the same song twenty times. The second thing to remember is that people may have walked past several buskers that day, and it’s likely that a lot of them are singing the same songs. Need I say “fucking Wonderwall”?
Come up with a list of songs you already know, which suit your style and which you feel like you can busk adequately. Then try extending your list a bit; I use Spotify’s ‘suggested tracks’ feature at the bottom of playlists to do this.
When I was busking I had about ten songs which I sang almost every time, and they were so popular that people would sometimes complain if I didn’t sing them. I can’t remember all of them, but some were:
- (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin
- Angel by Sarah McLachlan
- Sweet Child O’Mine by Guns N’ Roses
- After The Gold Rush by Neil Young
- Eyesore by Maria Mena
Some of these worked because they’re really popular (Natural Woman, Sweet Child); others because they really suit my voice (Angel, Eyesore). Find out what works for you and stick with it, but don’t be afraid to experiment a bit. Also, at some point you will fuck some songs up. It doesn’t matter. No one really gives a shit except you. Dust your voice off and carry on.
Once I’d done my usual ten, I’d then throw in a few others. Sometimes people would request a song (the most frequent requests being Mull of Kintyre, Happy Birthday and various things by Adele) and I’d give it a go if I knew it, or I’d find out when they’d be back in that spot, then learn the song at home and perform it for them next time. This made them happy, which made me happy.
When To Stop
Knowing when to stop busking for the day (or at least move to a new location) is a really important point too. You don’t want people to sigh internally when they see you setting up, especially if you’re planning to busk in the same spot repeatedly.
Personally I found that busking for about an hour worked quite well. It took roughly ten minutes for my voice and my courage to warm up, and after that I’d work through my cycle of songs. Sometimes I’d only stay half an hour, especially if I was standing directly opposite someone’s home or business. Train stations are fair game because there’s a lot going on and you’re unlikely to be making so much noise that you drown out the announcements, especially if you’re not using amplification. But if you’re standing directly opposite a greengrocer’s shop, the proprietor may not want to hear you caterwauling for hours and hours on end.
Basically this boils down to having some consideration for other people. Also remember that even if you’re absolutely amazing, there’s going to be someone who doesn’t like your style, and that person might live or work right next to your spot. Don’t take up too much of anyone’s day, retain a measure of humility, and keep an eye out for signs that you might be irritating someone, and hopefully you’ll be fine.
This is a big one, especially in a city like London. I found that one of the best times and places to busk was in Piccadilly Circus when people were leaving the theatres. If you can sing hits from whatever show they’ve been to see, so much the better.
But when you’re busking people seem to feel like they’re entitled to interact with you in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be socially acceptable. Lots of people will want to take a picture or video of you: different buskers have different policies about this, so work out what you’re comfortable with and stick to that.
Many more people will talk to you than usual. Londoners don’t generally talk to each other in public spaces, and sometimes when people see a busker it’s like their brain goes “OMG I COULD MAKE A FRIEND” and they start chatting like they know you. Again, you might like this or hate it; or more likely, it might depend on who’s talking and what they’re saying.
And of course you will encounter creepy men. My friend and I have a half-joking theory that if you’re female and you stand still in London for a short period of time, a creepy man will come up and start creeping on you. Busking involves a lot of standing still. My best advice for men approaching you when you’re busking is just to keep going from song to song without a break until they give up and go away. Don’t look them in the eye (I know this goes against my advice from earlier; creepy men are the exception). To paraphrase my favourite cartoon fish, Just keep singing.
I only had two encounters where I felt fully scared in the three years I was busking regularly.
The first one: a man had been watching me busk for a while, and I’d been studiously ignoring him, and I thought he’d gone away so I’d relaxed a bit and carried on singing. I packed up probably about twenty minutes later and started walking home. About halfway down the street he suddenly appeared next to me pushing his bike (I don’t know if he’d been watching the whole time or if this was pure rotten luck on my part). He spoke to me and I ignored him. He got a bit pushy, so I decided to get on a bus so that I’d be around other people in case I needed help. I walked to the nearest bus stop; no one else was waiting but the bus was only a minute away, so I thought it’d probably be OK. When he realised I was trying to get away from him, he shoved me up against the side of the bus stop, with his bike in between us so I couldn’t get away, and groped my boobs. Luckily I managed to manoeuvre the bike’s handlebars so that they poked him in a particularly tender spot, and he backed away, and fortuitously the bus arrived at that moment and I stepped on and he didn’t follow.
The second one was similar but I wasn’t actually busking at the time. I’d become known around my local area as ‘that singing busker in the long turquoise skirt’ so people would sometimes talk to me in the street. One of these people was a man called Paul. I’d say hi to him when he said hi to me, but I tried to make it obvious that we weren’t going to be besties. Then one day he fell into step next to me while I was walking to the train station. I was on my way to start busking, although he didn’t know that. He asked me out; I said no; he asked more insistently; I still said no; he asked who’d treated me badly enough to make me never want to be in a relationship again; I thought are you serious, I just don’t like you but said nothing; he shoved me up against a railing, held me in a very tight grip and started kissing and biting my neck. In case you’re completely dense and unsure about this story, it was not sexy AT ALL. I let him do it because I could tell that struggling might make him violent; then I said “I have a train to catch” and thankfully he let me go. I didn’t have a train to catch, and I also didn’t have the money to get on a train, but luckily the nice (non-creepy) man who ran the station knew me so I asked him to let me through the barriers to get me away from the creep and he did. He then went outside to check when Paul The Creep had left, came back in, made me a cup of tea and made sure I was OK before I went home.
I tell you these stories not to put you off busking – they were only two shortish experiences among many other more positive ones – but to reiterate that you will have these sorts of things happen if you busk (or indeed, stand still) for long enough in a space that has men in it. That’s sad and annoying and shouldn’t be true, and it’s 100% not your fault if a man decides to creep on you, but you do need to be aware that it’s a possibility before you go out.
To stay as safe as possible:
- Busk near-ish a police station if you can. Not directly outside, they’ll hate that. But close enough that you can probably run to it if necessary.
- Try not to end up in an area where the visible population consists entirely of you plus one or more creepy men.
- If you need help, ask for it. People don’t like stepping in of their own accord, but lots of them will help if you ask them to. Especially if you make eye contact while you’re doing it.
- If you’re walking down a street and a man’s creeping at you, try to get yourself onto some kind of public transportation: a bus, a train, a taxi (and hope the taxi driver’s not a creep. This will be helped by getting into a licensed black cab in London rather than fucking Uber or another unlicensed cab firm, as black cab drivers have full criminal records checks so are slightly less likely to be creepy.)
- If something does happen, even if it doesn’t feel like much at the time, report it. You never know who else the guy’s creeped at, and at some point he might do something worse to someone else. Reporting each incident will help the police to build an information file and make a stronger case should the creep ever be taken to court.
Enjoy The Lovely Stuff
This post has gone a bit dark, so I’m going to end on a brighter note. Lots of lovely things will happen to you when you’re busking. Some of my favourites included the following.
When I was busking in Herne Hill, a lady came up to me and requested Someone Like You by Adele. I didn’t know it, but I said I’d learn it and come back the following week. She worked in the area so she agreed to this plan. Sometimes people show up when you say this, sometimes they don’t. She did. I returned the following week and sang the song for her; she thanked me profusely and explained she’d wanted me to sing it because it was her sister’s favourite song. Her sister had died a couple of weeks earlier, and hearing the song made her feel close to her again.
When I was busking outside Holborn station, singing Angel by Sarah McLachlan, a woman stood opposite me openly crying throughout the whole song. When I finished she came up to me and told me how much it’d moved her. She thanked me for singing it and said it’d made her day. She didn’t have any cash on her, but she did take a beautiful pair of leather gloves off her own hands and insisted on giving them to me, because she could see I wasn’t wearing any and she thought my hands might be cold.
Speaking of being given things: you will be gifted all sorts of strange stuff, and some of it will be wonderful. Often people might not have money on them, or might prefer to give you something else. Things I’ve been given include a crystal wine glass; a hunk of amethyst; a hat; a pack of sausages; half a chicken; some weed; and once a train journey. When I went into a station to get the train home after my shift, the guy at the gate stopped me from tapping my Oyster card. He then radioed the guy at my destination station and told him to let me through for free.
Also, you’ll end up with a foreign currency collection. Or just an old currency collection: one time an old lady paid me in shillings.
In summary: when busking you’ll see the best and the worst of your local area. Personally I loved it, although it got really tiring when I was trying to make rent by doing it; you might enjoy it or you might not. But in my opinion, it’s definitely worth giving it a go.