Freelance work is by nature unreliable. Music work tends to be particularly fickle because most of the contracts are small (one gig!) and you can’t build up cash by taking on two at once.
As you might have realised from previous posts, I had a good and at times excellent stream of gigs over this summer. However, as fluke would have it and as if to highlight the fragility of the situation, I then found myself with no confirmed bookings for four weeks straight – something which certainly hasn’t happened for at least six months, and I think rather longer. And as I always live fairly near the financial edge, something constituting a legitimate cause for concern (though not for immediate panic).
So this week I tried going busking. I’ve only done that in the usual sense a couple of times before, but it seemed to deserve thought as a top-up income when gigs are scarce. The thought had never really struck me, but busking is the only truly flexible musical income – the only paying work you can do when you want to, on more or less your own terms (except financially obviously, where you take what the public gives you).
Since weekends are still quite busy, I wanted to look into better and worse time slots for busking around my day job (that I can’t psychologically stand to do for any more hours than at present, but doesn’t pay a living wage at those hours). Oxford being so tourist- and student-filled almost all the year round, it wasn’t obvious when would be better for getting more (hopefully) listeners and cash. The results need to be taken in context of Oxford, with less people and a lower average income than central London even if cost of living can be not dissimilar, but for the first chilly week of mid-September I was quite impressed. One hour mid-morning: £15 odd. One hour after I finish work (about 4:30 – 5:30): just over £20, despite having to settle for a less good spot (more buskers were out).
I’ll be repeating the exercise – not with desperate intent to try and bring in what I might get from two well-paid gigs a week, but as a compensation measure and because I equally don’t have to be prepared for an ordinary gig for three weeks, so I might as well busk and get money as practise with no very specific goal and not. Some things that have struck my attention:
- Perseverance is the most important quality of the busker. Ideally, I would keep it up for more like an hour and a half at a time, with only enough time to stretch (maybe put more rosin on my bow once mid-set) between numbers.
- An hour of completely solo with minimal breaks (no point talking between pieces!) is hard work, and surprisingly warm work even in an English autumn.
- It’s very hard to predict what styles / songs will attract people’s attention (though The Wild Rover is the only guaranteed hit out of what I know or have tried so far). What gets people’s toes tapping oddly doesn’t necessarily correlate to what gets more coins in the fiddle case.
- In general, foreign tourists and under-25s are more or less a financial dead loss for busking. The former just take photographs and the latter behave as if they had headphones on even when they don’t – closed in their own world as long as they’re on the street. I thought at first the elderly / retired were particularly likely to pay buskers, but now think it’s a pretty even spread among most other demographics.
- In this age of non-interaction with strangers, it’s interesting how many people make eye contact with a busker and smile or nod to them. Of course, I’m trying to smile and make eye contact as that should up the number of people that feel moved to fork out some cash (stagecraft is always important, like it or not).
- Amplification is surprisingly little necessary, though pedestrianised streets and the acoustics of high stone / concrete buildings fairly close together do make for unusually good conditions as present-day outdoor performance goes.
See you out the front sometime if you’re local …