Performance ArtSkepticism

Busking Skeptically Part 2 – Demographics

As a busker, I’m in the entertainment business and part of that business is targeting your audience. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been making an effort to observe my paying customers and determine if there is a group that I should be focusing on. It proved challenging, and the results surprised me.

The first challenge is, of course, that I am juggling and tap dancing while I am attempting to gather data. This makes it somewhat challenging to get a reliable data-set. Not only will I suffer from the full host of perceptual biases, sometimes I just don’t see people because I’m facing away.

The next challenge was to try to discern what demographics were observable. Given that I couldn’t exactly give every donor an exit interview, I had to go with what was superficially visible. Sex and age were the easiest, followed by race. Religion was harder to tease out, but there were some markers that I was able to pick up on. Nationality was nearly impossible because most people don’t talk to me so I can’t tell the difference between a fifth generation Canadian and a tourist.

So with all that, who is my target audience? Everybody. Seriously. There was no demographic that I could pick out that did not donate. Men and women of every age gave me money. At least one person from every visibly different race has tossed a coin in my hat. Practicing Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians (identified by their Hijabs, Turbans, and Crosses respectively) all gave. Children, parents, teenagers, groups, individuals, seniors, farmers, programmers… whenever I thought of some group that I hadn’t noticed tossing my a dollar, a representative would appear to prove me wrong. It was kind of lovely, really.

Even people without money to give sometimes donate. I received two interesting gifts last week. The first was a pouch of broccoli seeds. It was given with honest enthusiasm for the broccoli that I would grow. This was lovely and kind but not nearly so much as my second unusual gift. A young man, perhaps seven or eight years old, entirely on his own stopped to watch my performance. Having no cash, he instead gave me something precious to him. He dug out a small bag of gumballs, earnestly selected one and placed in carefully in my hat. It was utterly heart-warming.

Warm fuzzies aside, what have I really learned? We all know that within every group, there will be someone generous, or appreciative of performance, or just with more money than sense. What we really want to know is what group has the highest proportion of givers. Well, for the most part it was hard to work out. I couldn’t take a solid survey, but broadly speaking, it was pretty even. There were only three groups that stood out at all.

The group that gave the least were probably high school students. This doesn’t really surprise me. When I was in high school, admitting that I was impressed or entertained was a sign of weakness, and also money was more precious.

Parents with children are probably the most reliable audience members. This is unsurprising, but they are also the group most likely to stop and watch and then leave without giving, which is an odd balance. Although, I do not mind this them as children are expensive things to have already without giving money to strangers on the street. Also, just by being an audience, they attract a larger audience.

Finally, the demographic that gives the most, from my observations, are middle-aged men wearing dresses and vibrant eye-shadow. It is hard to determine if they are transvestites, or transsexuals, or just in a play somewhere, but it would appear as though they donate at a rate of 100%. This may be something of a sampling error, though, as I’m working from a sample size of 1.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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One Comment

  1. I should probably try to boil down the following copy/paste about my time spent working in public repairing the bicycles of disadvantaged folk. But it’s late and I’m tired so I’ll just apologise for the teal deer and hope that there is In fact a point in there that’s relevant to what you wrote. 🙂

    I bear witness. It’s not my job, I’m there to fix bicycles. It’s not my choice, but somehow the community has decided that it’s my role. I’m comfortable with this, I’ve played the interested outsider often enough in the past.

    They tell me the details, mundane and fantastic. Non-sequiturs abound and stream of consciousness rants are less art and more necessity. They go out of their way to keep me informed. He came back a week later to tell me his bike was still fine and that “It was all lies and bull-shit.” His girlfriend, then only 3 days into their relationship, hadn’t slept with anyone else.

    He laid out one of the rules: advice isn’t wanted. On first hearing that “I haven’t slept since Monday, if this keeps on I’m going to go back to my bad old ways and end up dead or in jail.” I suggested that a 3 day relationship wasn’t worth this kind of angst. His silence as I said this was exactly the same as the one when the 3 Harley’s roared by, proudly mufflerless and deafening. He politely waited till the noise stopped and continued on with his thought.

    Questions are ok, sometimes. When I asked another client, as I tried for the fifth time to make incompatible parts play nice together, if panhandling was hard work he laughed. It was the only sincere laugh I heard that day, and said “I’m totally lazy, I just sit there.”

    “Yah, sure.” I said, “But don’t you get lots of abuse.”

    “Well, I sit with my head down like this.”

    He hunched over and put his hands up over his face, covering his eyes. I’ve seen people begging like this before, perhaps even him. Huddled in a posture of abject misery, feigned or real, it always seemed like a silent plea. But it also is an insulation, a defense. If you can’t see the person verbally treating you like you’re sub-human you can pretend their not there. If they can’t see you react, you win. A paltry victory perhaps, but the only one that that situation affords.

    So I’m learning. I’m learning what the people who have the least in our society do to get by. I’m also learning how they treat each other. Anger is common. No surprise. But so is affection, sometimes fierce, sometimes tender. I never noticed this before because it’s mostly quiet, unlike the anger which can often be heard blocks away. Really, it shouldn’t surprise, the only people these folks really have is each other.

    I’m learning. Generosity is as common here as it is anywhere. On my first day they we’re serving pastries donated by a local bakery. They looked fantastic. A guy who’d been watching me work suggested that I should snag one. I demurred, saying that I’d wait till the end. He looked up at me smiled without guile or irony and said “You know, it’s ok to have a home.” I was so taken aback by his kindness that I’m not sure if I thanked him. I did have a slice of cake though. It was fantastic.

    My second day I was outside. Everyone was lining up for food bank handouts. At the end of the day I found a packet of apple chips in my helmet, deposited when I wasn’t watching. They could have just as easily made off with my lid and gloves.

    I’m learning. These people are often damaged: drugs, injury, genetics, you name it. They’re rough around the edges and sometime right through the middle. Their humour isn’t subtle or sophisticated. Their anger in barely restrained and often self directed. And yet…and yet they still can laugh. They still forgive. They still love. They look on their children with wonder and joy. They rally around the ones who are hurting the most and search for those gone missing.

    I’m learning the most important secret of all.

    Come closer and I’ll whisper it to you, don’t be afraid, it won’t be a surprise:

    They aren’t really “they” at all.

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