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?