The only people who can possibly not have seen or heard about Amanda Palmer‘s TED Talk from last week yet are those who resist words of wisdom on principle, or perhaps those poor bastards who restrict their internet time to “serious stuff”.
If you’re in one of those categories and you read this blog, a) I’d be surprised and b) get over to her site and have a look, go on. It firmly places AFP and her hubby as the goto motivators for creative people of the here and now – “Make Good Art …and… Let People Pay You For It!”
Anyhow, the first time I heard her talk about her experience as the eight-foot bride and how that informed her relationship to her “audience” now, what I said on twitter in response was “thank you for reminding me that being a street performer is more than OK, it’s a job”
It’s a job, it’s part of my work. It’s part of my overall contribution to the happiness of my community, and I’m rewarded in many more ways than the pile of coins in my uke case.
I’ve been meaning to write something for a long time (actually it occurs to me every time I go out to play) about what busking has taught me about my business. But I couldn’t find a decent frame for it – it kept coming out as a translation from what I knew to be true to the sort of language that “business people” understand (yikes!) and too much was being lost in translation.
So here’s what it’s really been like for me. You do your own translation.
My first sober, adult experience of busking was on the tube. It’s not the same as the street, but I had a licence for a year and it gave me a good grounding in just standing there with my ukulele, showing up, playing, singing, getting tipped, getting ignored, getting occasionally and very mildly abused. I also got to meet a few other buskers at the swap-over time, made some friends, was able to talk about the common nuisances of being a tube-busker. And I heard a story over and over that made me uncomfortable. It was that people are horrible, they hate buskers, they don’t want us there, they think we’re beggars, they’re mean and ungrateful and we give much more than they reward. Which wasn’t really my experience, I’d already clocked that the best way to get through a two-hour session playing at, say, Bond St, where you’re in a tunnel between the platform and the escalator hall, so everybody’s always zipping past, is to lock-on to people and smile and give your performance to them, give your all to that one person right now and when they’ve gone, let them go. And yeah, some of them are grumpy and embarrassed and ignore you or tell you to “Shut up!” or “Get a Job!” but then when I had a job and I was always on the way somewhere else and I saw someone spending their time doing what they love, I probably was a bit grumpy too. The other thing is, you’re in the middle of one of the busiest transport networks in the world – people don’t go there for entertainment, they go there to get somewhere else, quickly.
Still, the money was rubbish. And I kept trying to find some correlation between what I was doing and what ended up in the pot. And there wasn’t any really, one day certain songs would “work”, the next day the same songs would bomb. Some days I’d get an endless stream of 10p and coppers, others, nobody would give anything except for one guy who tossed in £5. I kept telling myself to give up trying to work it out, but then when I was there on the pitch and my stomach was rumbling and I’d already laid out for a tube ticket and I somehow had to fix it so that I could make them get that money out of their pocket and into my uke case. But that never worked. I gave up my tube licence mainly because of the way the scheme was managed, but also it was just too hit and miss as a means of income.
And so I left it. I stopped busking for a couple of years. And in the meantime I did other things, I put into practice lots of ideas I had about organising without organisations, I tried out crowdfunding for projects and I couchsurfed and I went coast-to-coast across the USA twice with the help of my online social network. And then I went completely homeless and hobo-style and spent a year on the road going where you and the digital world took me and paid me and fed me and gave me (some very nice) rooves over my head.
And while I was on the road that year, I picked up the busking habit again. I’d found in the USA that carrying my uke around everywhere was a great social opener, so why not put it to use when I was on my own?
And this time it was different. I was different. I had a different attitude. I can’t pretend that I instantly transformed, I still had a rumbling tum and empty pockets much of the time and I *was* doing it for the money, but I was less attached to making it happen, making them get their money out, making them put it in the pot. Something just clicked, on the street, in a way that I hadn’t felt in the tube, that the amount in the pot was none of my business until I got to the end of the set. And how it got there was none of my business either. My job was to entertain these people to the best of my ability and trust that I would be rewarded. It took some practice, I’d often drift off into control-mode again, but I kept pulling myself back, like a meditation, to remembering that my job there is to collect smiles – to get as much eye-contact and human connection as possible in the few moments from when they approached to when the passed. And I regularly make about twice as much as I ever did on the tube.
I also have way more fun and if there is any key factor that correlates with how much money is there at the end, it’s how much fun I had. I’ve learned too to just let people give. Some people want to give me food and drink – when I started out, I’d decline, politely, letting them know that I can’t eat cookies, for example. Now, I take it all with a smile and thanks and pass on the stuff my digestive system can’t cope with to the guys and gals who are sitting out on the street who don’t have a ukulele or a talent for singing.
So what I’m really grateful for, Amanda, is the reminder that my job is not what I think it is. My job isn’t to rake in the dosh. My job is to collect smiles, human connections, hugs, and to generate conversation, laughter at or laughter with and to ignore the hecklers. No matter what it is that I’m doing, those are the metrics that count.
I’ve become comfortable lately saying “I don’t do *anything* full-time”. And I certainly couldn’t busk full-time, my fingers and voice wouldn’t hack it. But I like to get out there from time to time and I’m looking at ways of doing street-like performance that gets the intimacy but doesn’t require me to freeze. And so I try also to carry the spirit of my street performance into all the work I do, give my best and let people give back what they want to.
Thanks, see you on the street.