Acoustic Mac

Street Performing as a Funding Model

Beverly Woods - 2001.08.16 - Tip Jar

I've seen several articles lately about how to keep websites afloat using a system of collecting tips. "The Street Performer Protocol," says one site. "Just like waiters and street performers," says Robert Cringely.

I've got some perspective to share on this, because I am a street performer. I have been busking (playing music on the streets) since 1980. I made almost my whole income from street performing for many years. I have sold many thousands of my recordings and been well tipped by people from around the world. I have been among the most successful street musicians in the region, and I expected that to remain my main gig for a long time.

Things have changed. I just got back from a slow day of busking. There have been many such in the last few years. My tips are now averaging less than half what they were in these same places five or six years ago. I have a better instrument, my playing is better, my repertoire keeps expanding, and I still enjoy street performing, but it doesn't pay like it used to. I have the feeling I have become just a blip in the long line of sound sources most people encounter during their day.

Many of my friends are also street performers, so I know I am not alone. If I were in any doubt, the lack of competition for spots that used to be booked solid would be indication enough. Many of us who have been making our living this way for years or even decades have gone to find new lines of work. My dulcimer-duet playing partner is now a software engineer and has little time left for music. And I'm sitting here writing this column on a day I would probably have been busking a few years ago, because the main source of my income has shifted to "indoor work."

Ironically, I have often suspected that the rise of the Internet has assisted the decline in street performing. And before the Internet, it was television and the increasing pace of life. So much music and content on tap 24 hours a day, the camera angle changing every 10 seconds or less, shaping the attention span of a generation of kids; as one magician said to me, "Used to be I did a dramatic presentation with different sections to it. Now they just want something really quick, the littlest, happiest thing you got; you do that over and over again, all day, and then you're done. I can make money, but I don't like doing it this way."

I can relate to this, because I had seen my longer sets become less frequent. There's a lot of pressure to make money by playing brief, happy little tunes, over and over.

The public that had once rewarded us with cash and attention for our most creative endeavors, encouraging us to take them on unexpected journeys, began encouraging us with their dollars to package ourselves as short sound-bites and photo-ops. Then they started wanting us to be larger (and louder) than life. Now the expectation of a performer is that you make yourself into a multimedia presentation.

Many performers who haven't quit playing the streets have gotten larger sound systems. They may be solo musicians, but they don't play solo any more; they play with backup CDs of the a symphony orchestra or a Broadway show, generating walls of sound. Other performers have suggested to me that I would make more money if I would just go out there and play along with my own CDs through large speakers. They are probably right, and I'm sure I would be able to do it - if I could ignore my feelings about this. But I'm just not ready to go that route.

I still believe in the beauty of a wonderful traditional tune without prerecorded backup, and it feels important to me to keep doing this. So now I do more of it in scheduled gigs and less of it on the street. I'm glad that I made that change, but I didn't expect to be nudged into it by a decline in street performing.

What are the implications of my experiences, if any, for website funding? My first advice would be: No matter how successful it looks like you are being with such an approach, no matter how wonderful and devoted your audience appears to be, always remember that this can be changed by circumstances beyond your control. For example, when I began performing in 1980, the courts upheld the rights of street performers to play in public places; now many of the remaining playable spots are under private ownership, which has changed things considerably.

Diversify however you can; have a Plan B and a Plan C if possible. Think long and hard about your vision and what you want to achieve before you subject yourself to the shaping influences of the public. The sanity you save may be your own. LEM

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