Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Back to Busk (tales of a street performer)

Hello friends,

So busking (street performing) is a strange way to try and make money. There are lots and lots of musicians in the world, some are good, and some are very bad and can give us all a bad name. I think I fall somewhere in the middle, I am not a technical wizz capable of playing three hundred notes a second on the guitar, but I do know a bit, enough that I don't look like a total lemon when I play. My special skill is my voice, I have a pretty nice voice when I sing (I got compared to Rufus Wainwright while busking last week!). So I try to make the most of it.

In Amsterdam I had been having trouble making money in the streets, mainly because there are only certain good spots for street performing and they require some kind of amplification and a permit to play at (I had neither). I did okay in a couple of the free spots, but I would spend so long walking around trying to find a good place to play that I was usually tired before I even started playing. For a day of hard playing (interspersed with huge walks between spots) I could make about €15. You may think this isn't that bad, but for a hard days work, it really should be more. This was disheartening for me, so I tended to find excuses not to go and try. It rained a lot this summer so it wasn't hard to be persuaded to not go and play in the wet streets.

The Fongster100 playing in the streets of Utrecht
When I moved to Utrecht I got a new wind in my sails regarding performing in the streets. This mainly came about thanks to Rob Wilfong, aka The Fongster100. I don't think he was quite aware of the impact he had on me, the encouragement to hit the streets again and play for my supper. We went out busking together (playing separately) and we got good responses, in some spots at least. We tried out several spots on different days at different times to find which worked best. There were times when it was excruciatingly slow, playing for twenty minutes without even the sniff of a euro or cent, but there were other times when the cash flow was pretty nice.

Rob has an amazing little street performance amp, small enough that it can be dragged around in a little trolly bag, but powerful enough that you can make quite a noise in the streets. He also has a little mic that plugs in (see picture), and with this set up it is quite easy to make a big impression.

This was the first time I had ever used amplification in the streets, and it made a big difference to the kinds of songs I could perform. My catalogue is made up of both slow plucky songs and loud strummy songs (very technical language there!). When busking the only songs I could get away with playing before were the strummy ones, but with amplification I had to switch to my plucky ones and pull my voice back rather then belting the vocals out. This was fun for a while, but I quickly found I preferred to belt my tunes out without amplification, the main reason for this was my voice. Having to restrain my vocals to not blow the microphone was quite a challenge, and not being able to strum the guitar with a plectrum made me feel a little restrained. The amp and mic set up was perfect for Rob, for he is a blues man (an awesome one at that!) and he worked the amplification well, using it to round his songs out and make them richer sounding. It didn't seem to do that for my songs.

So, after a couple of weeks of playing in the streets with Rob, I really started to enjoy it again. Just like performance of any kind, the nerves kick in prior to beginning. When I was trying to get into it on my own, I had no one with me to encourage me, so I would have trouble starting, picking good spots etc. Going with another performer helped me to get the confidence and spirit to be able to entertain people in the streets (and take the unimpressed sighs from some of the passers by).

I now have found a favourite spot (I hope to find more) in Utrecht, it's very near the station, and just across the market square by a little bank of cash machines. I have done well there, earning about €25 for an hour (although my permit only permits 15 minutes, I tend to push this to half hour before I move).

The biggest competition here in Utrecht are Accordion players, there are loads and loads of them. When I am walking around looking for a spot, most of the good ones are always taken by an accordion player. Saturdays is the best day to make good money, but this last Saturday I was doing well until I had competition just round the corner from where I was. There was a whole flipping classical band, with 3 accordion players! 3 of them! How was I meant to compete with that. I didn't try, I gave up and let them play (knowing that as there was 5 of them they would have to split the earning so I probably made more then them individually). They were selling a CD, which is common practice for street performers. So I am now in the process of putting together my buskers CD.

Here is me performing 'Not a Job' by Elbow (one of my busking songs).

I'll write again when my CD is finished :)

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