February 27, 2003

Amusing Little Participator...

Amusing Little Participatory Story About Busking: Oh, n October or November of 1994. We had been playing originals & friends' songs now and then on the streets of Prague, trying to re-ignite an ancient songwriting/performing bond, but the magic feeling was rarely there. Thought we'd road-trip for one day to see how the rich Austrians reacted ... and it was fantastic. Unseasonably warm weather on the Graben, huge crowds, and people just vomiting up money (I think our take was more than a thousand shillings). No hassles from cops, and even an Austrian record company executive -- named Peter Pany, no less -- approached us afterward, talking about how maybe he could package us as the New Wham or something. Sure!

This fantastic experience became the basis of our bright idea to live in Bratislava the following March and commute the 66 minutes every day to soak the rich and sell our tapes, then catch the last train back & drink Slovak beer at terrible nightclubs and fake Mexican restaurants. The huge "profit" would then fund amplifiers and guitars for the electric band.

There wasn't a single day half as good as the balmy Graben the fall before. Cops hassled us nonstop -- the city's permitting process became newly rigid the day we got there, parceling out single two-hour chunks every day, often in places with no pedestrians, or at times after our last train left. An evil Teutonic border guard developed the habit of kicking us off the train in the middle of nowhere, because he did not like us. And the cruel Trans-Danubian wind pelted ice and snow at our faces and fingers, usually coinciding precisely with our two-hour time-slots. Even Peter Pany turned out to disappoint. It was dreadful ... though vaguely heroic. At least in our eyes.

Best places to busk in Europe: Charles Bridge in Prague, and anywhere in old town Luxembourg. Also, you can't go wrong with a guitar & an arsenal of Beatles songs in any tourist village on a Greek island. Worst place to busk: Amsterdam. Most audacious busking act I've ever seen: Comic strip genius Drew Martin, sitting like a swami snake-charmer on a rug, hacking on a two-note flute with an obvious string attached to a cloth snake, which he would sort of slowly lift up every five minutes or so. I once saw a Czech babicka watch Drew, slack-jawed, for a good long while, and then walk off, shaking her head and muttering "To je neni pravda" (rough translation: "That shit ain't right!).

Matt's tips for busking (which, as I've mentioned before, has many similarities to blogging):

1) Don't do it for money. In other words, play music because you're having fun, rather than depending on the money to eat. We had a terrific busking band (named "Whalen," because we played a lot of Jeff Whalen songs even though he wasn't there) in the summer of 1991, and it was all about the fun of performing, singing, hanging out with the wine-swilling kids, jumping around in the sun. Used the money as icing on the cake (or more literally, beer & pizza). Desperation-buskers bum people out, though they can be pretty arresting if they play Billy Bragg-esque originals.

2) Incorporate visuals, sight gags, physicality, stupid jokes. There was a remarkable Russian band that used to come to Prague for a few months every year ... anyone remember their name? Crazy-looking dudes with the weirdest triangle-shaped instruments (and faces) you ever saw ... and every set was a show-stopping bit of performance art, with sketches, violence, running around. Every busker in town would sit in their crowd, and learn tricks.

3) Harmonies, harmonies, harmonies. Every time you sing a pretty harmony, little baby Jesus smiles. Nail some three- and four-part stuff, with counter-melody buddies and huge choruses ... and not only will you tickle your harmony bone, but you'll be confronting the busker's main enemy: acoustics. This is why it's also a good idea to find battery-powered amplifiers for the bass and lead guitar.

4) Sell tapes or CDs. With Van Diamond (the two-part acoustic deal with Jeff Whalen) we recorded 14 songs at an eight-track studio in two days, and printed up something like 600 cassettes for $1,000 in total cost. Sold 'em for $10 a pop. I think on our best day in Vienna we sold 26, which earned me more in a single day than my monthly salary at Prognosis. People who never toss coins into guitar cases will buy a tape of music they enjoy.

5) Prime the pump. There is a science to it, and you'll never get the levels just right, but make sure there is cash in the case with the kinds of denominations and currencies you'd like to see. You'll feel like a bastard the first time or two, and then you'll wonder what took you so long.

6) Get a cute hippie to make sure a hat is passed around the crowd every once in a while. Most people wouldn't mind sitting around and listening to the nice music, and if the crowd is at all large, it becomes awkward to stand up, dodge the drunks, and drop a bill. Do it about once an hour, and let people pass it around themselves, so they don't feel pressured.

7) Play originals. If you don't have originals, then either A) play unexpected covers, in an unexpected way, or B) play the usual songs, and do everything in your power to make everyone sing along. Ise Severo, who may be the best busker in the world despite having a hoarse singing voice, always understood that it wasn't about him, it was about people wanting to hang out in a beautiful place and sing Beatles songs together. I have a tape of his originals -- which he never played -- and they are some of the darkest songs you'll ever hear. But seeing him lead a dodeca-lingual singalong of "All You Need is Love" -- priceless!

8) Always have three packs of extra strings ready, and learn the skill of "tying" a broken string together in a pinch. If you are more than one person, develop a separate repertoire for playing without string-boy. Know the best & cheapest local string-brands and music stores.

I once thought it'd be a neat idea to write a "Busker's Guide to Europe" book, for those who like to play and listen to hippie-music in exotic locales. Still think it's a good business idea ... but not for me. Probably won't ever busk again; it's been nearly eight years, after all, and I have lost nearly all desire to inflict my emotional problems on other people. But for a while it was so damned fun that I swore up and down that if I ever moved back to the States I would make a point of playing street music as often as possible. Oh well!

Posted by at February 27, 2003 01:00 PM


When you were in Bp. --- had the Bolivian?/Peruvian?/Ecuadorian?/ (I guess Andean) musicians appeared in the metro yet? They are actually quite good and sell CDs as well.

Posted by: vlad at February 27, 2003 01:51 PM

Hey did you check out the

Calpundit post http://www.calpundit.blogspot.com/2003_02_23_calpundit_archive.html#89803561

on busking?

Posted by: wrharper at February 27, 2003 01:57 PM

The best way to go busking is to grab some kid from out of school, take him/jer down to the Third Street Promenade, make the child play the fiddle while you stand behind a synth and beat the child mercilessly like a good stage parent would. No need for all that hippie crap.

Posted by: Mack Seven at February 27, 2003 03:24 PM

Did anyone notice that Luke Ford has an interview with RiShawn Biddle and a nasty letter from DAvid Poland on his site?

Posted by: Mack Seven at February 27, 2003 03:25 PM

I remember that crazy Russian band. Somehow, they were so complete and outrageous I never really thought of what they were doing as "busking." I guess it was sort of a "busking circus."

My one and only successful busking day in Prague was when that wickedly good violinist from the Prague Symphony or something happened along as I was making stupid noise in Old Town, and she whipped out the fiddle and just tore the place to pieces. There were about 150 people gathered around within 10 minutes, hurling Deutschmarks at her, and she kept yelling at me to play YOUR songs..."Play ze one in A minor! Play ze one in E! You know this one?" I had that crappy old black guitar...sheeesh.

Posted by: max at February 27, 2003 04:25 PM

Great pointers for eight years ago, but I believe you might be a wee bit out of touch with the streets of America today.
Just google 'busker regulations' or 'street artist regulations' for an update.
It would be easier and more fun to swim with sharks than to have to learn the ins and outs of dealing with all of the selectively enforced, illegally enacted, protectionist laws on the books of cities all over America that presently crush freedom on the public forum.
This form of bootstrap capitalism on the public ways is on its last legs in America.
What really sucks is that all of this represents a massive loss of First amendment rights that most folks are unaware of and it has also created tremendous hardships for a lot of talented folks.
Florida -- third world nation -- is particularly onerous. Guitars, easels and sketch books are 'profile' items for cops here.
Saint Augustine, Florida [page link below] use to have a fantastic street arts community with great acts rolling through town all the time.
The city is now a freakin Republican privatized 'Tourist Factory' mall.
Sterile, boring, McDonaldized and no soul.
Corporate America is fast eradicating the free spirit of our culture.
I don't mean to sound too depressed but its effing 'code red' here all the time.
Be glad you didn't write the guide book.


Posted by: Warren Celli at February 27, 2003 05:53 PM

I believe the crazy Russian dudes were called "The Last Chance Band," in English. I spent a few days with them once, for a Prognosis story. They're actually insane, but very organized.

Posted by: Ken Layne at February 27, 2003 10:15 PM

Come to think of it(not that I ever did before now), I don't remember much busking in Amsterdam at all. There were the guys with the big machine playing annoying music and the mime painted in silver. The panhandler problem was far less severe than San Francisco as well, although, there was one guy who always hit me up.

Posted by: Bob at February 27, 2003 10:24 PM

A couple of months ago I descended the steps to the subway platform, lured by the sound of claw hammer banjo. From a distance I saw a man, clearly of Irish heritage, nattly attired in dress shirt and vest, topped off with a fedora. I slowly walked over to him, leaned in is face and shouted "Get a job!" My fellow commuters were clearly startled. "Fuck off, cog!," he responded. Sean Condron and I performed the very same bit to the horror/delight of a pair of tourists in Prospect Park the previous summer. A very fruitful gambit and a great way to help out a friend.

Posted by: Scott Ross at February 28, 2003 07:36 AM

"We are Last Chance Band from Russia!"

Posted by: greg at February 28, 2003 09:01 AM
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