I was surfing the net and came across an article about a fellow whose accordion was stolen while he was busking. The thief then tried to sell it on an internet website. That thief was pretty low-down. I’ve done some busking and I can tell you it’s tough work. Your instrument is your money-maker and if somebody steals it, you’re out of luck. Accordions are complex machines and they’re expensive, and if you’re out busking regularly, your instrument has to be reliable.
I enjoyed busking. I met all kinds of interesting people and I learned a lot too. The first thing a busker learns is that it isn’t just about playing the music. You have to find ways to engage the folks who are otherwise just going about their business. It means knowing when to make eye contact, when to smile, when to say hello and when to mind your own business. You also learn to pace yourself. I found if I played too hard, especially in the heat, my fingers would swell some a not be as responsive to my brain as they normally would be. I sometimes saved the more complex or difficult pieces for when I had some people stop to listen who were really enjoying the music. When I was busking, I usually did a three or four hour session with a half hour lunch break included in the middle. The break was really important. If I took half an hour to relax and enjoy lunch, I could return to it refreshed and ready to play my best.
The other thing I learned was some of the psychology around tipping. If you start busking with no money in your accordion case, don’t expect many tips. If you start with nickels and dimes in your case, expect nickels and dimes. If you start with loonies and toonies, expect loonies and toonies. Seeding your accordion case offers a random audience permission to tip. Other people are obviously tipping you for your good music, so they do too. How much to tip? Well, look in the case. What are other people tipping? I usually had a float of $30 or $40, mostly loonies and toonies, with a few nickels and dimes and two fives. The fives sent the message, “if you want to be a really generous tipper, a fiver does the trick.”
A lot of buskers, especially guys with guitars, play classic rock hits and Neil Young songs, and I bet they do really well when people recognize the tunes they’re playing. My repetoire was primarily folk music from a number of countries. Occasionally, I had people recognize Portuguese tunes that I played. The most recognized song I played though was Star of Logy Bay, a tune from Newfoundland. I had several people come up to me and thank me for playing that, saying it reminded them of back home – and they usually gave me a generous tip. I had one fellow recognize what I thought was an obscure Swedish Schottische. He then turned to his wife and said, “he’s playing Swedish music, honey.” It was the only Swedish tune I knew.
Here’s a version of Star of Logy Bay I found up on YouTube.
I have never really considered all those aspects to successful busking, but I do agree that one is more likely to donate if the case is seeded. My motto is always pay the busker.