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Busking Skeptically

I have recently begun busking as a part-time job. I have performed in parks and such for fun and good practice, but never for money before now. The experience has me thinking about the whole enterprise in terms of science and society.

To start, I’m not sure how to view busking. In my idealist mind, it is the most honest form of professional performance art; I dance and juggle for you, you pay me what you think I deserve for the entertainment you receive from my act. If that were actually how the exchange occurred, I think it would be unambiguously brilliant.

From my observations, though, that isn’t at all how it works.

This is a bit speculative because I can’t really ask my patrons about their motivations, but from my observations there seem to be four reasons for adding money to my hat: guilt, charity, morality lessons, and genuine appreciation.

Guilt seems to be a major contributor to my profits. Some people notice me tap-dancing – it’s hard not to, it’s kind of noisy – and then accidentally make eye contact. They didn’t choose to watch me. They didn’t want me to be there. But by me noticing them noticing me, they suddenly feel obligated to pay for the service that they inadvertently partook in. This, though, is a pretty small proportion of donors.

Many more of the guilt driven givers are parents. Their children run up and watch and excitedly ask to put money in my hat within earshot of me. It is clear from the look on their face that they wish I’d have just been another cellist so their kids wouldn’t have noticed me. But no, I’m a juggler and now they’re digging in their pockets for what they hope will be a socially acceptable denomination of coinage.

Charity also seems to play a sizable role in my profits and I have very mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it is a genuine act of kindness. I think that those are, as a rule, good things. I think the world would be a better place in general if people did more things because they were nice rather than profitable. The note below was tossed into my hat because the donor genuinely believed that it would bless my work and increase my earnings. While it demonstrably did not, it was an act of kindness and appreciated it none the less.


However, I am not panhandling. I am not begging for donations. I am working. Charitable donations are somewhat patronizing. They are subtly implying that the donor feels sorry for me, and that I won’t earn enough to live without their generosity.

The third source of coins is one I did not expect. It is parents teaching their children about charity and kindness and paying people for their services. In this case, I am not so much of an entertainer, but a tap-dancing fable; I’m a tool for teaching a moral lesson. I don’t mind this, but it feels a bit odd. I am providing a service, but not the one I intended. Also, I’m only peripherally involved in the process.

The final group are those that are genuinely impressed and entertained by my performance. I love these people. I just wish there were more of them. In a way, it drives me to be better, to have a more impressive act and to make it impossible not to watch. It is very rewarding to actually draw a crowd. Once or twice I have had to force a crowd to disperse because they were blocking aisles or stop juggling and pretend to pack up so that parents could coax their children away without a tantrum.

So I’m not sure where I stand. I don’t like taking money from people who just feel obligated to give. However I’m in no position to tell people to take it back or to question their intentions. I don’t like getting charity from good Samaritans because I would like to actually earn the money I get. On the other hand, perhaps the warm fuzzies they get from giving might outweigh any entertainment value they might get if they stopped to watch. Also, I feel weird being a tool for teaching children, but I can’t say that it’s wrong.

What do you all think? Do you give to buskers? When and why?


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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  1. When someone commits a racist or misogynist act without intending to we say “Intent is not magic.” and hold them accountable for the harm that they’ve done.

    Why should it be different with positive acts? Their intention, be it educating the yooffths, or assuaging a personal guilt, or whatever, is irrelevant unless you want to start policing other people’s thought process. And at the end of that road most travelled one finds marvellous edifices full of folks with bad epistemological skills and empty pockets. The world does not need more of those, though I must say one based on juggling would at least be entertaining.

    Good luck with the busking. And I hope you’re using that time honoured joke for when someone walks in front of your audience to get past the road block: “Don’t worry, it’s just a stage you’re going through.” Twas always my favourite.

  2. All this time, when you said “busking,” I thought you were out there with an instrument, perhaps violin, playing for the public. Just goes to show my musician-centric outlook on the world.

    I haven’t busked in a very long time. The last time was at age 17 with my best friend. We’d cut class, bring along a book of jazz standards, and she’d play trombone and I’d play sax behind a sign that said we needed money for whatever food or beverage we felt like at the time. Needless to say, there wasn’t much of an existential conundrum over why we were playing or what it all meant.

    And since then, I haven’t done it at all, mostly because 1) Chicago charges $100 for a busker’s license and 2) I need someone to do it with me, lest I be a girl alone on the street with a $6,000 instrument. But I do have thoughts on the performance aspect.

    We all have idealist views about how people will receive our art. When I leave a stage and someone approaches me to tell me what they think, I usually hope it’s something like “I never liked jazz before, but you made me discover how great it is!” or “I never danced so hard in my life!” or “You sound just like Dexter Gordon!” More often, though, I get the well-meaning but condescending, “It’s great to see a girl on stage!” or the clueless, “I loooooove flute. Oh, that’s a saxophone?” No matter the venue, people aren’t necessarily going to take your performance the way you want them to. And that’s okay. Because in the end, it’s all for you, isn’t it?

  3. I made my living busking for a few months in the 90s, playing bagpipes. The two most important things I learned were 1) you make (literally) twice as much when you wear a kilt, and 2) by pointing and glaring, make sure people know that taking a picture without donating is *totally* not okay.

    Like you, I find the psychology of busking fascinating. Ultimately I don’t think there is a clear line between it and begging, which is (perhaps) one reason it is so… complicated.

  4. The joke:
    “Oh come now Smashley, you can’t be too hard on someone for mixing up a flute and a saxaphone, After all the fingerings are the same…”
    The reality:
    Not so much.
    Damn you internets! With your easy access to humour killing information, and like I needed to know that another bit of wisdom revealed to me in my youth was bullshit. 🙁
    On the up side, it’s been years since I really looked at a saxophone, man they’re complicated machines, cool.

  5. This is one of the best posts I’ve read about the financial side of street performance. I believe there is another type of giver, too: those who appreciate street performance, are aware of its role in their lives, and donate to street performers not out of charity in the “you’re pitiful” sense, but in the “supporting the arts” sense. I’ve met a large number of people who donate to buskers to keep their streets lively — of course, still discriminating based on their personal tastes.

    I’d love to see you make a profile on http://www.thebuskingproject.com. I’ve been running it for a few years. It’s another “supporting street performers” site, but on a global scale. Thanks Ryan for this great post!

  6. I had a friend and flatmate who regularly busked, including a cappella singing. I once bribed her to sing “The Red Flag” in a shopping mall just before Christmas.

    (For those unfamiliar with it: “The Red Flag” is a Socialist anthem, to the tune of “O Tannenbaum”/”Oh Christmas Tree”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_Flag)

  7. When I give to buskers, it’s a fair mix of charity and appreciation. I like what they do and they make me smile, and if they’re out there playing for money, I think they probably need my pocket change more than I. I only wish I had more time and attention to give them on my way to and from places. I have a group of friends–a circus troupe–who busk for the joy of performing; it’s good stuff, and I’d like to see more of it in more places in more cities.

  8. I have been busking for many years now and i have had the same questions myself…i think it all leads to this more or less, if someone gives money or supports something in ANY way, i guess it means he or she likes it and “wants” it to exist, thats why more buskers are out there every day and it has become an actual profession over the years..everytime someone gives me a bad look when i m performing i just think about people that work in phone company and what they go through everytime they try to sell something over the phone…that makes me feel better :p

  9. I busked internationally for decades in part as a sociological exercise to determine what was pan-culturally funny. I was also lucky enough to be trained at a clown school that focused on street theatre. I focused on my performance and the range of interactions acceptable moreso than the various strategies that can be implemented to increase your hat. There are essentially two basic methods of busking, the trickle and the flush. The trickle involves passers-by making their own choices as individuals regarding your work and either rewarding you for your efforts or passing you by. Your focus is more on your skillset, you are a display rather than primarily an interactive performance. Your skillset is your gig. The flush requires creating an audience, doing a show with a beginning a middle and an end and receiving payment at the end. This uses many more dynamics than the more passive display type performance and the audience are drawn further into your world as you create a shared experience for them. It’s not so much about you, it’s more you engineer a shared experience and then give your audience the opportunity to support you at its conclusion. There are also hybrids that both trickle and flush. People pay you for various reasons, the best being gratitude for the experience you have created for them and the more cynical being because you have socially engineered them to do so. If you mention a specific amount ,on a sign or repeated during your show if it’s vocal you will increase instances where you receive that amount for example. I didn’t do this, I didn’t speak. People paid me because it made them feel good. I have even been paid by a dead person who left money to proxies after their death in their will to give to ‘street performers of quality’. I was honored. Some cultures have preknowledge of what busking is. Others do not. Steet performance IMO is a very pure commerce. It celebrates a collective bias towards celebration. Again essentially I believe their are two schools, the ‘look at me’s’ and the ‘look at us’s’ I was one of the latter.

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