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. 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!
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 bus-wandering 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 honed.
Tips for Busking in Europe
Pick a High-Traffic Area
This one is more important than anything else. No one can give you money if there’s no one around. Our favorite spots were ones in which people were almost “forced” to hear us: Sidewalks, places next to intersections where pedestrians wait for traffic lights, piers where people walk around, anything like that.
Don’t just smile. Smile at people. Look at the passers-by and act like you’re the happiest person on earth. Maybe even smile a bit seductively. 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.
Get Into it; Feel the Music!
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 money in. I’m not sure why it works, but it does! 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 feel grateful towards 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 superhero 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 busking-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 Practice
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 could have been based on a myriad of variables; mostly location.
It could take some experimentation within your area to find which method works best.
Your Music Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect
This applies only to busking specifically for extra income. We learned plenty of songs and perfected them while we were busking. To our constant astonishment, we frequently made more money during these “practice sessions” than our rehearsed sets! 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 busking/gigging daily 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. 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, location, 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, create wonderful memories, and hopefully make some extra traveling 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.
Got any more questions about busking; or traveling as a musician in general? Leave a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter!
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!