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It's Hard Out There For A Busker

On any given day, there's no shortage of street musicians performing just a few blocks from NPR. They all make for an interesting walk toward the Metro, and even a good story for another day.

There are countless musically gifted people jamming on an acoustic or electric guitar, accompanied by an equally gifted vocalist. I've even seen a ten-piece brass band just strike up a tune on the corner! And on game days for the Wizards and Capitals, at least two loud, but rhythmically skilled drummers bang their kits (made entirely of plastic paint drums, mind you) with cylindrical, wooden blocks.

As I watch in awe, hoping to be good enough to take the risk of performing on a street corner, a flurry of questions run through my mind. How long do you have to stand and watch them before you owe them money? Is pocket change or a dollar bill acceptable? What if you take a picture of them or record their jam session? Do they mind if you do?

More importantly, though, how do they make it all work, whether busking is a side gig or a necessity for them? What kind of planning is essential in order to make that money? Getting out there and simply performing is easier said than done.

Max Judelson can offer some advice.  He's been a street musician since 2006, playing his cello for the masses above (and below) ground in Boston, New York, and Paris, in order to feed his food habit.

In the Wall Street Journal's "Speakeasy" section, he provides "Ten Rules for Street Musicians". Nearly everything you can think of plays an important role when putting yourself out there in front of strangers:

3. What to wear – For a while, I wore a large Cat in the Hat kind of hat. It was tall and silly. I was thinking, “Everybody is going to think this is the coolest hat and will give lots of money.” That hat works well if I’m going out at night to play pop music with a singer at a club. But during the morning commute playing top 40 classical arias for cello, people were really weirded out by that hat. I didn’t wear that hat after I figured it out. I dress respectably but not too nice - somewhere between grungy and preppy. I wear brown leather suede shoes and dark pants. If it’s cold, I wear a sweater but tee shirts are fine. People don’t need to see a collar.

9. Customer / audience demographics – Race and gender make no difference if someone is going to stop, listen and/or give me money. But it is very clear that young children are my best customers. They are the most interested. They don’t have money but their parents consistently give. If you can mesmerize a kid for two minutes, their parents are really happy. Babies in strollers - they brighten up. Walking age toddlers through 10 or 12 notice me almost all the time. Once they get in college, they start to get that cold adult thing. Seniors and elders, they are responsive. Younger and older people are in less of a rush. And they don’t wear headphones as much.

If you've been a street musician, or currently are one, what works for you?

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John Asante