Updated May 2018
In case you’re not familiar with the term “busking,” I’ll address that first: “Busking” refers to the act of street performance; whether it be with instruments, magic tricks, or anything else involving a special talent.
I have busked for many years in The United States, especially before I started getting bar and restaurant gigs. I still like busking when I’m in random cities, just for the experience. I’ve always found it to be a fun way to make a little bit of money and play for a small audience. It wasn’t until I got to Europe that I was keeping myself fed with my guitar.
During the “Artists Abroad Trip” of 2013, we kind of got stranded for a whole month in Italy when we weren’t able to change a flight. We were draining money fast, and we still had 9 months of travel left to fund. We decided we would find somewhere to “pirate camp”–otherwise known as illegal camping–for the next month and try to save and make as much money as possible. Our search led us to Lido, Ostia, Roma Province Italy. It’s a small beach town about 45 minutes west of Rome. There we had located a nature preserve which we deemed to be camp-able via satellite images. It turned out to be a great spot, and we were only spotted once or twice during our three-week stay there.
Our point-of-interest for busking was Ostia itself, which was two bus rides north of the nature preserve. It took us a couple days of mindless wandering upon buses to locate what looked like a decent spot. This was not the first time we had busked in Europe, but it was without a doubt where our craft was drastically improved, if not perfected. Allow me to elaborate:
Tips for Busking in Europe:
• Pick a High-Traffic Area- This one is important. No one can give you money if there’s no one listening. Our favorite spots were ones in which people were almost forced to hear us: Narrower sidewalk, places next to intersections where pedestrians wait for traffic lights, piers where people walk around, anything like this. Get creative.
• Smile- Don’t just smile. Smile at people. Directly look at the passers-by and act like you’re the happiest person on earth. If you’re a guy, give women a seductive smile. Ladies: do the same; albeit reversed. I know that probably sounds a little weird, possibly creepy; but you can’t argue with results. We had a lot of girls walking directly past us, we’d shoot them a smile and then they’d smile, walk a little further and then walk back and drop some money in the case. You may get some phone numbers as well! Although, we should mention that our fraternization with the local donne usually ended abruptly with the sentence: “Yeah, we live in a nature preserve down by the beach.” Back on subject: Smile, smile, smile. This is probably the most important part of busking.
• Get Into It- This may fall under the same category as the paragraph above, but I will mention it separately for clarification: Dance around, tap your feet, walk up to people and at the risk of sounding redundant: Smile.
• Put Money In Your “Tip Collector” before you start- This is done to “inspire” people to throw some money in. I’m not sure why it works that way, but it does. When people see that others have donated, they may feel obligated to do so as well, or maybe it has something to do with the human nature to fit-in. Who knows. We had a system: Exactly €5.00 was placed in our guitar case before starting–one 2-euro coin, one 1-euro coin, a half-euro coin, and some assorted change. We kept it an exact number every day so we knew how much money we made at the end of our busking session.
• Thank People, but Not at the Risk of Screwing Up Your Performance- You should always thank people, but if you’re in the middle of singing, a simple smile and head-nod gets the point across without botching your performance. Thank everyone who tips. Sometimes I felt like people saw our gratification for other people’s tips and sought out a thank-you as well. This shouldn’t be a problem at all, considering you should be grateful to these people for enjoying your music and helping you out.
• Kids Are Your New Best Friend- Kids will love you. My drummer Corey was like some kind of demigod to them in Europe. The cajon drum fascinated them and they would stop dead in their tracks and stare, or start dancing. This is your cue: Start smiling! Laugh, and smile at the parents and at the kid; which usually comes very naturally because it’s incredibly cute to watch. Nine times out of ten, you’ll see one of the parents start reaching for their money pouch and hand some coins to the child to throw in your case. Feel good knowing you made some money and made a little kid’s day at the same time!
• Don’t Fret if You Don’t Make Tips at First- This is harder than it sounds, even more so if you’re relying on busk-income to put food on your plate. One important thing to keep in mind is that you will have good days and bad days. The good news is that on the bad days your overall income shouldn’t be much lower than your average if you’re busking consistently. Consistently as in, playing in the same area, and following the basic guide of practices listed here. In Italy, we made an average of €25 per day. It would sometimes be a few euro higher or lower, but not by much. Just keep portraying an image of happiness; don’t even portray, but be happy. We discovered that people tended to feed off of our “good vibes,” so to speak. We learned not to take the money seriously while we were playing, even though it most definitely was. Learn to laugh at your situation, and by all means do it out loud. People tip happy musicians!
• Using Signs: A Debatable Method- This is something I never quite decided on. I would base your decision on this: Are you busking specifically to make money, or are you more focused on gaining more fans? If it’s the latter, make a creative and/or funny sign and lay out some business cards or free demo CDs. We tended to make more money with no sign, although in my opinion this is based on a myriad of variables; mostly location. This could take some experimentation within your area to find which method is better for money-making. If you’re more focused on gaining some extra income however, I would go without a sign. In Europe, my general feeling was that people looked down upon those in need and tended to give more money to someone who was just out there happily performing a talent. Again, this may take some experimentation.
• Your Music Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect- This applies only to busking specifically for extra income. We learned many songs and perfected them while we were busking, and we were astonished that many times we would make more money during these shoddy-sounding imperfect tunes than our fine-tuned ones. Keep in mind, we were also laughing at ourselves when we messed something up, and continued playing the song, which is a no-brainer for any experienced musician. Many people don’t even notice when you screw up, so don’t make it obvious by stopping the song. If you’re playing for money then by all means try your best, but don’t be afraid to work on some new songs. If you’re doing this all day every day then trust me, playing some different songs will be a big relief from the monotony. This is coming from someone who already had a solid five to six hours of material before this experience. If you’re doing this for hours and hours each day, your set list will get old!
• Average Hourly Income in Europe as a whole: €6.00 – €17.00
• Average Hourly Income in Italy: €8.00 – €20.00
• Average Hourly Income in Germany: €10 – €20.00
• Average Hourly Income in Travel Locations (Train Stations, etc.): €5.00 – €12.00
These statistics were gathered from my tedious recording of locations and profit of each time we busked. Bear in mind, there are variables which affect these numbers: Time of day, specific locale and luck. For example: We found that in touristy areas such as the pier in Ostia, almost 80% of our profit for the day was made during sunset; about one hour. The better mood people are in, the better tips you’ll get. People getting on trains and such are generally not in a tipping mood, while people taking a walk along the pier at sunset are usually laid-back and feeling happy. Keep that in mind when you select a location.
Busking in Europe is a wonderful experience. You will meet all kinds of awesome people, have many fun and hilarious moments, and hopefully make some extra travel-cash. Not to mention, it’s consistent practice. We learned almost 10 new songs during our three weeks in Ostia. Get out there and have a great time!
If you’re looking for a little more reliable income source with your music, be sure to check out my guide on booking shows while traveling.
Do you have any other tips for readers looking to make a little extra cash with their instruments? Have you had any cool experiences with a street-performer while traveling or otherwise? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter or Facebook.
If you’d like more busking tips and a LOT more tips for traveling musicians, making money while you travel, getting places to stay for free, and stuff like that, please consider grabbing a copy of my book Two Bucks to Timbuktu on Amazon.
Or, if you’d like to read the hilarious journey of my friends and I attempting to vagabond our way around the world, check out my book Planes, Trains, & Broken Strings!